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 Pierre Beemans


Technology and Culture

This book by Allan Batteau (2010), which came up in background research for our next book club meeting, might more appropriately be titled ‘The Culture of Technology’. The author is a cultural anthropologist at Wayne State University, graduate of the renowned Case Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, with a background in aviation engineering. Coming from a classical humanities background, I found it a readable and informative look into the place that Technology (with a capital T) occupies in contemporary Western society, how it has shaped our culture in both the broad and narrow senses, and the risks it presents.

I learned early on that technology, for Batteau, is not to be confused with tools and clever devices. He uses the term is a much broader sense: an integrated complex of engineered devices, generalized standards and regulatory arrangements, linkages to related or supportive technologies, and associated social implications and applications. The first part of the book addresses the ‘technical’ factors and the second half focuses on the social-technical networks and societal implications of a technologized world.

Some of the observations and quotations that caught my eye:
• “every useful technology can neither function nor be understood outside (its) socio-technical network”
• “Science is about discovery, engineering is about making things work, and technology is about things that work.”
• “Cultures supply the framework for making sense out of the world and for understanding what to do about it.”
• Technology is defined by instrumentality, engineered effort and social circulation
• Technology is assumed to connote ‘progress’ and improvement in our lives (although this is coming to be increasingly questioned)
• In our society, technology is also associated with power - instrumental, intellectual, economic and political and, at the image level, with masculinity
• “by the end of WWII, technology had replaced Providence as an object of faith in American culture”

He also introduces and defines some engaging terms of his own:
• ‘techno-totemism’, meaning that technological symbols and artefacts become symbols of identity with force and meaning in our personal lives and relationships (e.g., the ways in which many people link their personal image to their cars, running shoes, guns, etc.)
• “techno-magical thinking”, the assumption that there are no problems that technology cannot solve (persecuted or poor people pouring over your border? - build a wall...)
• “technofix”, the application of a technological solution to an inherently non-technological problem (misbehaving child? - put him on a pill...)

There are no lack of examples of the ways in which technology and innovation have changed our modern culture globally and irreversibly. The same can be said of medical technologies, manufacturing technologies, entertainment technologies, reproductive (or rather, non-reproductive) technologies, etc. The automobile did not just change the range of personal transportation, it changed our family and household patterns, our cities, architecture, community dynamics, economics, politics and environment. The computer - and now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) - is doing the same. It is commonplace to note that our habits, values, beliefs and relationships have changed dramatically in the past 100 years and, by and large, we consider that this has been for the better - that we have made ‘progress’.

At this point, Batteau’s analysis sounds an alarm: he believes that we may be losing (or have lost) “the textures of connectedness that give ‘information’ meaning and individuals a social life”. I.e., we are surrounding ourselves with information that is not rooted in the culture that has given our society meaning and with technology that increasingly isolates or dehumanizes us. We are adapting our “values and habits of the heart” to technology, rather than the reverse.

This is, in part, because in contemporary western (and global) society, Science and Technology have acquired a social authority. Science is defined as empirical, quantifiable, methodical and equated with technology. Science is the pre-eminent way of knowing: if it is ‘scientific’, it is credible. If it isn’t, we tend to assume it is not. Because of its social, economic and political power and authority both science and technology are of vital concern to corporate interests and to the State.

Given the scope and cost of technological innovation, corporations (national and multinational) have a critical role in its research, development, manufacture and diffusion. Understandably, they also has an interest in owning and using technology for their own ends. So does the State. In fact, the State has a vital role in assuring the appropriate intellectual property and regulatory frameworks - and often in orienting, financing and instrumentalizing technologies (especially ones with military or security potential).

For a long time, the public generally assumed that “the experts know what they are doing”. But as the ‘experts’ and the other ‘custodians’ of technology in a technological society become increasingly separated from the ordinary members of that society, the power asymmetries become a matter of concern for Batteau and he worries that we may be on the brink of substantial technological or cultural regression (or both). What are the standards and limits regarding technology for a society, and who sets them? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

He believes that we need to re-establish a ‘rightful relationship’ of master and servant between humanity and technology. He warns to beware of techno-fixes that come with hidden costs (like complexity, surveillance, institutional inflexibility, marginalization, etc.). Technology and innovation need to be assessed not just in terms of their utility, efficiency and profit potential, but also in terms of their social value, their usefulness and efficiency for civic objectives. I.e., “a clear-eyed human-centred assessment of Technology’s opportunities, limitations and hidden costs and a mature integration between highly empirical implements and highly socialized objectives”. Without this, he has strong reservations about whether the world can continue with large-scale expansion and application of massive, complex, corporate-oriented, energy-hungry technologies.

I had some initial reservations about the broad definition Batteau gives to technology and about his view that the roots of technology - as distinct from tool-building and craftsmanship - lie in the 18th c. Enlightenment (like most of the major elements of our modern world, the roots can be traced back to intellectual and scientific origins in the medieval and classical periods). Those are minor quibbles, however, compared to the many thought-provoking insights in this book.


Tags: Pierre Beemans