Thursday, June 4, 2009

Technologies R Us

The USA Today reports on The Dumbest Generation and presents a sort of counterargument. The basic concern is whether social networking sites like Facebook are making Generation Y students 'dumb', or whether such practices are simply (and complexly) retooling the ways of being 'smart'.

In many ways I find myself in a third position in relation to the two writers who are quoted in the article. This is a lively debate across the humanities, and it is almost too easy to take either side of this seeming divide: to be nostalgic for skills and habits that are allegedly locatable in some past moment in time, or to argue for different kinds of smartness across different times. Not only is it too easy to take one of these sides, but in fact these sides are incommensurable, and so they end up not really forming a debate at all, but more accurately exposing two different ways of understanding 'the world'—not to mention 'history'. The largest problem in this article, however, is the seemingly clear and distinct idea of 'technology'—which boils down to meaning either A) stuff that humans make that takes them away from some mythical pure origin, or B) something irreducibly bound up with humans and the world from the start, and therefore hardly a useful term at all.

For isn't a spider's web a 'technology' of sorts? The looping, grabbing tendrils on a vining plant are technologies too. And the ceramic bowl is a technology that likely changed eating patterns at some point in human history no less dramatically than text messaging is changing communication patterns now. The point is that the word 'technology' might not be helping this discussion: we would need to be much more precise about how specific things in the world affect specific acts of behavior (and not exclusively in relation to humans). Then we could at least agree on what we are talking about.

As it is, the idea of 'technology' functions as an inscrutable force, either to be wary of and resist, or to submit to and be absorbed by—either way, this word completely misses the point that there is no location from which humans could ever get a clear view of technology, for even the brain and the eyes are themselves always already little technologies for seeing and knowing, and here we are, enmeshed in the whole matrix from the start. We would need to talk about very specific things that bother us or interest us. How contemporary college students use personal devices that seem in friction with a book-based literature classroom—now that might be interesting. Or how contemporary students are engaged in ongoing, expanding communication networks that challenge linear narrative structures—that might be interesting, too. But these need not be antagonistic lines of inquiry, as the USA Today article seems to posit them.

In the American Studies course I am currently teaching called "The Ecology of Beauty," my students did a photography project in which they were required to grapple with how they understand themselves in relation to 'nature'. I think that one particular student's photo gets at some of the complexities of the technology question at hand: