Issue 4 - Summer/Fall 1996

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

The first step in any effort to comprehend or utilize what is collected under the term "technology" is to formulate some understanding of its meaning. Thinkers as diverse as Marx and Heidegger, among others, have realized that the essence of technology is far more complex than the utilitarian derived conception of technology-as-instrument will admit. Technology is not a neutral instrument of efficiency; it is socially and existentially transformative because it affects the way we interact with each other and the environment. In other words, technology is not merely an instrument of production, for it transforms the mode of our life at its core, there where the values and ideas by which we define ourselves and our human projects reside. The essence of technology resides not in machines and computers, or even in their output, but in something more profoundly human: language and forms of communication, the status of knowledge, leisure and entertainment, not to mention the structure and organization of the workplace.

Thus, any critical discussion of technology should be centered not around the latest "advance" or the newest "breakthrough." Instead the focus should be on the values and ideas of a technological society, and, ultimately, on the social structures and institutions through which such ideas find actuality and affect people's lives most significantly. We must stop believing that technology is the province of experts and technicians, and realize the technological component of our own personal values, civic institutions, and political sensibilities.

Secondly, we must re-assess the assumptions by which our civil society has functioned since industrialization. As we enter an age dominated more than ever by the influx of information and communication technology--the so-called "Third Wave"--the ideas and institutions constituting Western industrial capitalism have become increasingly problematic. Downsizing, insecurity, anxiety, and bitterness are the reality for most, while an elite few retain unprecedented, massive amounts of capital. Third Wave technology holds the promise of new opportunity on a large scale, but only if real power is accessible to non-corporate individuals.

New systems of socio-economic organization must be defined so that both human and material resources are best utilized in order to ensure the optimum level of participation and reward. To start, we must ensure that people at all levels of society have the skills, education, and services they need to flourish in a changing economy. More to the point, it has recently been argued by Stanley Aronowitz and Jeremy Rifkin, among others, that the status of work itself needs rethinking. As automation and communication technology improve efficiency in the workplace while eliminating many traditional jobs, we must ask what definition of work best serves the collective interest of society. Productivity and profits are empty abstractions if society as a whole does not benefit.

The final point of fundamental concern, as we embark on an uncertain journey toward the high-tech future, involves the redefinition of one of the key political concepts of modernity: universalism. In an age of increasing individualism and its accompanying ethics of personal choices, there seems to be little discussion about the common good or even much honest analysis about the bonds that bring us together as citizens and, more essentially, as human beings.

It is undeniable that in advanced societies like the United States more people than ever have the freedom to exercise their will in ways that they see fit. Yet the individual opportunity and well-being enjoyed by so many is itself made possible by a system of universal social and economic interconnection. A well-refined division of labor places migrant farm worker, temporary office assistant, doctor, and bank president all together on the same socio-economic matrix. In reality, of course, the matrix is skewed in favor of a small minority who take advantage of the fact that everyone is dependent on the present system. Traditionally, capital has used its power and position to exploit labor.

In itself, advanced information and communication technology does not change the current pattern of social relations; yet it does introduce new possibilities. Global communication through cyberspace has the potential to affect the socio-economic matrix in two ways. If access is limited to corporate and capitalist elites, it seems certain that relations within society will continue to deteriorate as the gap widens between haves and have nots: more downsizing and underemployment, more crime, increased racism, immigrant bashing, etc. However, if access to knowledge and information is held open and can be accessed by the majority, then a new universalism becomes possible.

Superficially, the social matrix has always been universal, since everyone is to some degree a "member" of society. Actual participation, however, has traditionally been limited to a narrow stratum of the population, a fact which has led to many corrupted forms of individualism at the heart of our society. The possibility of full (or fuller) participation in the determination of society means redefining the social, economic, and political concepts by which we understand ourselves.

The concept of freedom finds full expression only when it is defined in terms of the whole of society. After all, the rules and organization of the social body are what makes individual freedom possible in the first place. Thus, freedom must be understood not as an abstract expression of the individual will, but as a concrete expression of the interest of society. This means that genuine freedom must be determined not through the particular interest of the individual, but through the collective interest of the universal--society. Advanced technology does not change the terms of this analysis, but it certainly can and will affect the way people perceive the relation of individual to society, particular to universal. We must act to ensure that the culture of technology enriches rather than degrades the universal, and that service technology is linked to freedom rather than exploitation.


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