Issue 4 - Summer/Fall 1996

Report on the DePaul Conference “From Microchip to Mass Media”:
Culture and the Technological Age
(page 1 of 2)
By Brodie Dollinger and Paul Schafer / DePaul Graduate Student Council

In the late Spring of 1995, graduate students from DePaul University's Liberal Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Council met to discuss the possibility of hosting a conference during the following academic year. Is there any single issue, it was asked, that crosses academic disciplines and unites us in common concern? Typically, academic departments at large Universities reflect the alarming tendency in American society to compartmentalize issues; each discipline operates within its own "discursive space," accessible only to those who know the code. Most Universities fail to embody any sense of shared ideas or a common spirit. How, then, could a handful of graduate students possibly organize a conference around a single, unifying theme? What matter of importance could we all talk about fruitfully?

After ten minutes of discussion the answer was clear, even obvious--Technology. Whether philosopher, historian, sociologist, or artist; whether working-class or middle-class, conservative or liberal; whether Luddite or computer geek--technology touches each of us and in ways we have not yet fully comprehended. More than ever, the time demands critical thinking about some basic questions concerning technology: What is the meaning of the new technology; how does it shape our society and its culture; and where is it leading?

The conference, entitled "From Microchip to Mass Media: Culture and the Technological Age" was held May 2-4, 1996 at DePaul University. Along with the GSC, the co-sponsors included Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Chicago Coalition for Information Access, and Networking for Democracy. About 250 people participated in one or more of the sessions over the three day period.

The conference's success was secured by a diverse group of organizers and participants. Students, teachers, and community activists worked together to plan a series of events intended both to educate and to provoke. The conference agenda was composed of individual paper presentations, plenary discussions, workshops, and small art exhibitions. Participants included scholars, graduate students, activists, artists, computer professionals, and journalists. Among those attending, in addition to those mentioned above, was a number of concerned citizens from various parts of the city, and a surprisingly large group of undergraduate students from Chicago area colleges, including an enthusiastic contingent from the Chicago DeVry Institute of Technology. The result was a truly stimulating "event," as one DePaul Faculty put it, not at all like most academic conferences. By the end of the gathering, one thing was clear: the issues at stake in a world increasingly affected by technology are recognized by all elements of the population.

The conference committee agreed from the outset to present a critical stance on technology. The banal virtues of new tools and devices are extolled every day on television, in print, and through our popular culture: technology is hip, entertaining, and it works for you. With the recent explosion of interest in the Internet and the proliferation of PCs and accompanying software, there is more than enough hype about the efficient powers of technology. What is needed today is a more active engagement with the emerging technologies, an engagement that cuts through the corporate hype and reaches beyond the narrow intersection of technology and the elite classes. This means, first of all, analyzing the role of technology in shaping the organization and character of our society as a whole. Such a fundamental investigation must address the status of technology from multiple perspectives, not the least of which is the philosophical question: what is the essence of technology? Secondly, we must assess our collective needs and resources as a technological society approaching the turn of the century. As our needs and resources change, the old industrial-based forms of organizing and administering civil society must change with them. Finally, it must be understood that these issues affect all people, regardless of their particular status or niche in society. It is our very culture, the way we interact and do business and the way we come together as citizens, that is undergoing rapid transformation. In this sense we are all equally involved, from programmer to business executive to bricklayer.

Taken together, these three broadly defined issues formed the heart of the conference agenda. There were no definitive answers delivered at the conference, though a clear sense of urgency and purpose was present. For many in attendance, including organizers, the conference provided a forum for the collection of information and ideas necessary for creating a vision of the future determined by participation, opportunity, and freedom. Finally, the meeting was not an isolated event, but was part of a pattern of similar gathering across the country. What follows is an initial reflection on the topic of "Culture and the Technological Age," organized around the aforementioned issues and inspired by the proceedings of the conference. More >>


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