Ideas and Interpretation – Week 1


Ideas and interpretation

On technological determinism

This was the first time I ever came across this concept – it’s rather captivating. I read the paper by Daniel Chandler and learned new points of view on technology and human condition. As I read more and more into it, I could see resemblances and similitudes resonating with some sci-fi works and historical events.


Beginning with the definitions, namely the linguistic determinism «according to which our thinking is determined by language» – I could see why. Some words on some languages are untranslatable – like the Portuguese word ‘Saudade’ – and computer/technologies languages are no different – they can be limited and not interchangeable. This limits both human thinking and ‘technology thinking’ alike.


A possible good example for supporting the technological determinism theory is the moment in History when the Portuguese explorers first arrived in Japan and brought them firearms and typography, among other things. The reductionists may see this as isolated cause-effect events but I’m rather inclined for the holistic version, in which more factors contributed to coming advancements in the development of both civilizations.


The technological autonomy part was a fun read. Isaac Asimov’s «I, Robot» fits perfectly into this category and Jacques Ellul quote on human beings as slugs inserted into a slot machine immediately reminded me of «The Matrix» – the ultimate machine autonomy dystopian. Carroll Pursell statement on ‘invented modern needs’ is spot on. Not far back there was no need to check every five minutes what our friends, family and celebrities are up to as many do nowadays in social networks; sure the need to communicate was there, there just wasn’t the need to do it constantly – one could find better things to do. This is connected to yet another thing mentioned earlier in Chandler’s work: “in developing technologies, we shape ourselves” – Sir Pete Medawar. Thus, the question arises: are we letting ourselves be defined by our technology? I’d say yes.


When I read the theme of machines with personalities one thing pop-up in my mind: HAL 9000. Then my personal computer. And my smartphone. It’s perhaps a derivative of Murphy’s Law and there are lots of comics on this: when one wants or needs to show something or work on something, they break, they lag, they inexplicably fail. If and when machines evolve to have some sort of ‘conscience’, can they see us as the lags and the failures?


It is said further ahead in the document that «We are not free to accept or reject technological developments.» which interconnects with the ‘technological imperative’ and it’s inevitability – in my opinion it is not so, at least not done so blindly. Money and businesses drive the world and Tech is no different. There are technological developments that are purposely put on hold of shut down, patent wars, sabotages and others are just rejected by the users/consumers. They may promise to attend to the [modern] needs but if they lack that je ne sais quoi, they are discarded. Also, many ‘design’ pieces of tech are done just because they could be done yet some end up being just innocuous manifestations of creative minds. Chandler chose a great quote by Michael Shallis to confirm this point of view.


The neutrality – or not – of technology made me think. In the past I can say I’ve had the neutral view but not today. The neutral approach is somewhat utopian and not feasible due to human nature. The non-neutral is not necessarily dystopian but can pave the way to such scenarios. This might sound a bit farfetched but considering the social networks we currently have: people – generally speaking – fill in blank spaces because they are presented to them; I’m referring to forms. ‘Where are you right now?’, ‘What’s up, John Doe?’ are just tiny examples of things we see every day in those places. They are shaped to be that way and people answer that, fill the blank spaces, give away lots of data – some do it innocently. They give away more today than many secret polices had dreamed of forty years ago. This very issues have been discussed largely throughout the web and they’re often related to an Orwellian dystopian scenario, as you may have already come across. If the technology hadn’t required that information, if the tech hadn’t shaped biasedly the answers, would people have given them?


Techno-evolution, like the universalism mentioned in the document, fails at cultural relativisms and discards other social-cultural factors – generally speaking – that can be as important and also be seen as ‘progress’. Technological determinism feels moderately isolating or closed on itself – perhaps it could take a bit more holistic approach a see technology in different contexts and account for the numerous and various mentalities that populate the globe. No one can ever fully understand the world and mankind as a whole but at least be aware of the most prominent aspects so to understand the roles technology can have whether utopian or dystopian.

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