Monthly Archives: March 2011

iPad in da House

A few posts back, I noted that new artifacts are always to some extent “underdetermined”; that is, different groups will often have conflicting opinions as to what the new artifact actually is, and what it is good for. One current example of this phenomenon is some recent discourse surrounding Apple’s sexy new tablet: the iPad.

Earlier this week, a colleague and good friend of mine from the UK sent me a news story about a member of Parliament reading her speech from an iPad instead of a printed piece of paper. At first I was perplexed, as I couldn’t imagine why this was newsworthy, but the article explained that this was indeed the first instance of an MP using the new tablet device (instead of the more traditional printed paper) during a speech. It also explained that electronic devices like laptop computers have always been banned from the chamber. But the iPad posed a bit of a quandary: is it just a portable computer in a different form-factor, or is it more akin to electronic paper? How you answer that question determines whether the MP’s use of the iPad was appropriate or not.

As it turns out, the iPad has recently made a few appearances in other political assemblies as well. In June of last year, a similar incident happened in the German Parliament, where the use of laptops is also banned. In December of last year, US Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) was questioned over his use of an iPad during his speech. In his defense, he wittily replied “I’m not using it to play Angry Birds!”

It seems that the US House of Representatives, like many parliamentary bodies, has traditionally banned the use of electronic devices, especially those that can receive and transmit information over communication networks. Interestingly, the reason is not based on a concern for security; rather, it is a concern for “decorum” and the need for representatives to avoid outside distractions while in session. Laptop computers and mobile phones fall into this category of “distracting devices,” but the US house does currently allow “unobtrusive handheld electronic devices” such as Blackberrys, and now it would seem, iPads.

Why are iPads allowed while laptop computers are not? If you try to answer this from a technical perspective, you would just become frustrated. After all, an iPad is really just a somewhat-simplified laptop computer in a different form factor, and it can offer up just as many distractions (if not more) as a full-fledged laptop. To answer this, we need to remove our engineering caps, and don our sociological ones instead.

The difference between the two really lies in the social meanings this culture attaches to the respective devices. At some point in the past, these politicians achieved some degree of “closure” on their meaning of the laptop computer, characterizing it as a device that is too distracting for use within the chamber (for the concept of closure, see the SCOT framework developed by Pinch and Bijker). When the iPad was introduced, the culture was faced with the task of constructing a meaning for the new device, and as is typical, different groups within the culture have tried to characterize it in terms of categories they already knew. Some have argued that it should be banned because it is just like a laptop computer, while others have advocated that it should be allowed, because it is just an electronic version of the paper and pens they already condone.

Those of us in education will also soon face this same quandary (if you haven’t already). The iPad is a perfect medium for interactive textbooks and could become a decent note-taking device if Apple devises an easier method for silent text input (perhaps a chording keyboard?) Should we resist it, arguing that it is too much of a temptation towards distraction? Or should we embrace it and actively try to shape it into something beneficial for students? I think the latter is possible, but only by conscious, active engagement at this most-critical stage of adoption.

Moog Documentary

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Here is a trailer for it:

(If you are interested in watching this documentary, it is currently available via instant-play on Netflix, or you can watch it in segments on YouTube.)

I have to admit that as a documentary film, it wasn’t the best it could be, but I love the subject matter. The synthesizer is another one of those artifacts that, when introduced, caused quite a lot of angst in the surrounding culture. Avant-garde musicians loved it, sound-effects engineers eagerly embraced it, but the wider culture didn’t really know what to make of this thing. It looked far more like a telephone switchboard than it did a musical instrument.

File:Bob Moog3.jpgThe original Moog synthesizers were complicated beasts, with dozens of dials, switches, and patch cords. They had keyboards as well, but the synthesizer could produce only one note a time, so the keyboard was really just a mechanism to set the initial pitch of the generated wave, which could then be bent and transformed by the various processing modules. Most avant-garde musicians actually had little use for the keyboard, preferring instead to generate new kinds of sounds and pitches that did not fit into the traditional tempered scale. Other synthesizer makers that were more influenced by these musicians (such as Don Buchla) omitted the keyboard entirely.

File:Minimoog.JPGSeveral progressive rock musicians also started using Moog’s synthesizers, most notably Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Because these groups toured, they asked for a more portable, self-contained version, and in 1970 Moog introduced what became his most iconic instrument, the Minimoog.

Sadly, critics accused Moog and his synthesizer performers of destroying music. For these critics, real musical sounds could originate only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. Electronically-produced sounds were simply not ‘natural’ and thus not music.

But is there anything really ‘natural’ about a violin, saxophone, or drum? Each one of these musical instruments is an artifact, something created by humans that does not exist apart form human agency. At some point in history, violins were invented, developed, adopted, and shaped into the instrument we know today. Violins are certainly old, and their sound can move the human heart, but they are hardly products of Nature.

We must be careful when we swing around that word ‘natural’; we too often use it as an unreflective synonym for ‘traditional’. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is a rather hard and unyielding one, but what is considered ‘traditional’ is maleable; it changes over time, adapting to new cultural developments.

Historical cases like the Moog synthesizer should teach us that the dire predictions of today’s cultural critics need to be taken with a large grain of salt. The synthesizer didn’t destroy music; quite the opposite occurred as musicians embraced the new sounds and techniques made possible by that new instrument. It would have been difficult in 1970 to foresee how the synthesizer would enable new approaches to music-making that we today take for granted.

So will mobile phone texting and Twitter be the death of writing? Will Facebook destroy ‘real’ community? It is unlikely that we can foresee now just what changes these systems will engender in our society. These systems will, no doubt, reshape our cultures in profound ways, but our cultures will also reshape these systems in return. The real question is which social groups will be the predominant shapers of these systems as they evolve?

When a Device Becomes an Instrument

In my last post, I hinted that Borgmann’s “device paradigm” can become a bit problematic when we consider some historical cases, and in this post, I want to explain what I meant by that.

Borgmann illustrates his concept of the device paradigm in a few different examples, but the one that caught my attention was his contrast between playing music on an instrument, such as a violin, and playing music via a stereo. In the former, the musician is participating in the creation of something new that exists only in that place and in that time. In the latter, the stereo recreates a commodified recording of music, something that has been divorced from place and time. The player of the violin must have some degree of skill and familiarity with the material aspects of the instrument, built up over many hours of practice. The player of the stereo needs only to have the sufficient amount of money required to purchase the stereo and some recorded music, and a basic understanding of which buttons to push to start the playback.

I found this example to be intriguing, for I too am a musician. I started playing clarinet at age nine, switched to saxophone about three years later and have played ever since. I have experienced that transcendent moment when the music produced by the ensemble achieves a quality that goes beyond the sum of the individual contributions of the players. It is a feeling that is fundamentally rooted in that time and place, and even if it is captured on a recording, the playback can never quite recapture that moment, especially if the listener was not there for the original performance.

As a musician, I am sympathetic to Borgmann’s example, but as a historian of technology, I find that it needs some clarification. The trouble with the example is that it seems to assume that a stereo has only one possible purpose or use. It assumes that the device has some kind of intrinsic meaning that is inherent in its design. But is the playback of commodified, pre-recorded music the only thing that one can do with a stereo? Can it, in fact, also be used as an instrument in its own right to create new music?

ScratchingConsider the technique of “scratching” that was popularized by hip-hop artists, but has now spread to a number of other genres. The artifacts are all the same–the turntable, vinyl record, amplifier, and speakers–but the meaning ascribed to them has changed. They are no longer simply devices for playing commodified pre-recorded music. They have been transformed, by the hands of the artist, into a new instrument, capable of creating new sounds and new kinds of music. The ‘device’ has been reclaimed (or should we say ‘redeemed’?) as a new tool for human creativity.

This example, I think, points towards a deeper and rather important dynamic in the interaction between technology and culture. We often assume that artifacts have singlar and stable social meanings that arise out of their very designs: a stereo is for playing pre-recorded music; a bicycle is for riding from one place to another; a plastic payment card is a vehicle for consumer credit. But when we look at the detailed historical contexts surrounding the development and adoption of these artifacts, we can see that what they were “good for” was not immediately obvious to everyone when they were first introduced. The social meanings we now attribute to those artifacts were the result of social negotiations between the inventors, producers, marketers, legislators, and consumers.

This process of “working out” the meaning and purpose of a new artifact or system is often referred to as the process of “domestication” (see the introduction of Oudshoorn and Pinch, How Users Matter). I love that word. It makes one think of new technologies as a kind of wild beast that eventually gets tamed by the culture that adopts it. It might ascribe a bit too much agency to artifacts, but it does make clear that the users of these new artifacts play an important role in deciding how these artifacts will be adopted and used. In some cases, they even play a significant role in (re)shaping the material aspects of artifact to better suit their desired use (for example, the bicycle fractured into racing, pleasure, commuting, and eventually mountain varieties, each driven by a different social group ascribing a different meaning to the bicycle).

Of course, we can’t ascribe any sort of meaning we wish to a given artifact. Artifacts are stubborn things; they are obdurate. Some artifacts have only a few possible uses, and others seem to have a certain political meaning inscribed into them by their designers (see Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?“). But this is not to say that the meaning of an artifact is deterministic; all artifacts, even the most stubborn, are still “underdetermined.” People can ascribe multiple different meanings to the object, and those meanings can change over time.

So where am I am going with all of this? The trouble I see with Bormann’s device paradigm is that it focuses our attention too much on the artifacts themselves, and not enough on our relationship with those artifacts. It tempts us to think that artifacts have intrinsic meanings and purposes, which further tempts us to brand some artifacts as inherently ‘bad’ and others as inherently ‘good’, regardless of the ways they might be reinterpreted by the adopting culture in the future. This leaves us no room to redeem these artifacts, to ascribe new meanings and purposes to them, and to relate to them in a different way. It robs us of our potential for “creative destruction,” the tearing down of that which we feel is unhealthy and oppressive in order to rebuild something more life-giving.

Ultimately, I agree with Borgmann about the evils of commodifying that which should remain sacred, but I think we need to be careful about where we place the blame for that activity. To play with a familiar phrase, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within our devices, but within ourselves.”

Do Re Mi

Last weekend I attended an engaging conference on technology, culture, and faith down at Laity Lodge in Texas. The primary speakers were Albert Borgmann and Eugene Peterson, but there were also several others who presented their research, or participated in panel discussions grouped around different perspectives (practitioners, pastors, and theologians). It was thoroughly enjoyable, but what struck me as particularly strange was that none of these presenters ever defined what they actually meant by the words ‘technology’ and ‘culture’, much less articulate their understanding of how the two interact.

This was even more surprising given that Borgmann’s definition of ‘technology’ is quite different from the way most people use the word in everyday speech. In his classic philosophical inquiry into technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann defines technology as “the characteristic way in which we today take up with the world” (Borgmann 1984, 35). For Borgmann, the word ‘technology’ does not refer to human-built things in general (artifacts), nor does it refer to the general practice of designing and building those artifacts (craft or engineering). For him, the word refers to a particular way of relating to the world, a way that is dominated by what he calls the “device paradigm” (40ff). This paradigm seeks to commodify all things, even those things which we once thought of as sacred, so they can be delivered via devices, about which we have little to no understanding.

One of his classic examples is the distinction between playing music yourself via an instrument like a violin, and playing music via a stereo set. In the former case, the music is something made through participation, and the product is unique and located in both place and time. In the latter case, the music has been commodified into a recording that can be mass-produced, bought and sold, recreated at any time and in any place at the whim of an owner who no longer needs to know anything about how to play an instrument, nor how the stereo set actually works. This example is provocative and appealing, but as I will argue in a later post, somewhat problematic when we consider a historical case that challenges where the distinction between these two cases actually lies.

I say all of this not because I want to critique the conference itself; after all, most of the people there knew the conference revolved around Borgmann’s work, had read him before, and probably knew how he was using the word. But there were some who were new to this conversation and were somewhat confused as to what he really meant. Eugene Peterson then confused these people even more by talking about “pre-technological societies,” a phrase that makes sense only if you use Borgmann’s definition of the term.

After talking with some of these folks, I realized that if we are going to have this discussion in such a way that the rest of the church, and especially technological practitioners, can follow along, we need to define our key terms up front. Only then can we think and communicate clearly about what technology is, how it relates to culture and Christian spirituality, and how we can reshape that relation into something more aligned with the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.

So as Julie Andrews once taught us, “let’s start at the beginning / a very good place to start.” When we sing we begin with “do-re-mi”, and when we talk about this subject, we must be begin with that slippery word ‘tech-nol-o-gy’! (yes, this is a bad joke, but anyone who knows my sense of humor should expect it!)

Alan Kay, the computer pioneer who developed object-oriented programming, once quipped that for most people, technology is “everything invented after you were born.” That is, most people use the term to refer only to the “stuff” of technological production, and usually restrict its scope to fairly recent innovations (often those involving electronics). Most people readily call an iPhone a piece of technology, but many will hesitate to apply that same term to paper, pencils, ink, or even manual typewriters.
But this colloquial definition clearly won’t do. It’s too subjective and far too limited. It doesn’t capture the rich array of techniques and artifacts that make up our human-built world. It doesn’t acknowledge the creative act of making things that every artisan and engineer tacitly understands. Ultimately, it leads us towards the unhelpful conclusion that everything that existed when we were born is ‘good’ or even ‘natural’, and everything that came later is ‘bad’ or at the very least suspect.

To form a better definition, we need to start with a little etymology. Although the literal meaning of the word bears only a faint resemblance to our anemic use of the word in practice, it does point to a deeper foundational meaning that can provide us with some insights. Those of you who remember your Language Arts classes probably recognize that it has a rather common suffix: ‘-ology’. ‘Biology’ is the study of life (bios), ‘theology’ is the study of God (theos), so it would follow that ‘technology’ in its literal sense means the study of something. But what?

The root of the word ‘technology’ is the Greek word technê, which is commonly translated into English as ‘art’ or ‘craft’. In its most literal sense, the word ‘technology’ simply means “the study of art or craft.” The artist who draws, paints, sculpts or plays a musical instrument employs technê, as does the carpenter, blacksmith, craftsperson, architect, and engineer. In English, we typically use the word ‘artist’ to refer to someone who makes decorative things, and ‘artisan’ for someone who makes practical things, but the line between these in practice is always blurry and permeable. The arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrated just how misleading this distinction can be, and inspired industrial design of recent times (a la Braun, Breville, Dualit, and Apple Computer) continues to blur the lines.

The word ‘technology’ first entered English in the seventeenth century, and it was used at that time in its literal sense: a systematic study of one of the arts (Nye 2007, 11). A book on glassmaking, for example, would be called a “technology of glassmaking.” Even as the English-speaking world began to industrialize in the eighteenth century, those developing the new steam engines were most commonly referred to as “mechanics” who practiced the “mechanical arts” and not “technologists” who built “technology.” It wasn’t until after World War I that English speakers began to borrow the German word technik (translated as ‘technics’) to refer to the entire compendium of the mechanical arts as well as their resulting products and social influences (see for example, Mumford’s 1934 book Technics and Civilization). In the subsequent decades, this capacious understanding of technics was poured into the English word ‘technology’ and ‘technics’ fell out of fashion.

This was all well and good, but in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans in particular began to narrow the term’s meaning to apply only to electronic and then digital devices. To “work in technology” came to be a simple pseudonym for working with computers or other forms of electronics, and with the adoption of the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, it narrowed even further, primarily referring to electronic media, communications, and social networking.

If we are to think more clearly about technology, culture, and Christian spirituality, we must recapture two elements that are revealed in this rather brief etymology: first, technology is fundamentally linked to human creativity; and second, technology encompasses not only human-built artifacts, but also the techniques, practices, and the cultural contexts that surround those artifacts.

Because this word is so slippery, historians of technology often avoid overusing the word itself, and instead rely on more specific terms. When we talk about the ‘stuff’ of technology, we tend to use the word ‘artifacts’ (in opposition to ‘naturafacts’ which exist apart from human intervention). When we talk about technology as knowledge, we use the term ‘technique’. When we talk about technology as a form of practice, we use terms like ‘artisanal’ or ‘engineering’. And when we talk about technology embedded in culture, we use terms such as ‘sociotechnical systems’ and ‘actor networks’.

In my thinking, the term ‘technology’ encompasses all of these more specific meanings, and points towards our basic human impulse for creativity, a desire that arises from being made in the image of our Creator. Technology is also fundamentally a part of what we call ‘culture’, and is in fact one of the key mechanisms we use to continually reestablish and propagate that culture across space and time…but that is a topic for another post.

References:

  • Albert Borgmann. 1984. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. University of Chicago Press.
  • David Nye. 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. MIT Press.

And so it begins…

This blog is a space to explore the intersection of technology, culture, and Christian spirituality. It is primarily a space for me to work out my own thoughts on this subject, but I hope my musings will ultimately be of benefit to others as well.

I discuss this intersection from two perspectives that I think have been absent from, or at least under-represented in, the current discusion. The first is the perspective of a technological practitioner. I have been a professional software developer, off and on, for about twenty years now, and my time in the so called “high-tech” industry has provided me a vantage point that few cultural critics seem to have. This perspective gives me not only deep insights into the nature of recent computerized technology, but also an appreciation of the joy one feels when creating new artifacts and systems. That joy is the result of our human capacity for creativity and artistic expression, given to us, and encouraged in us, by God, the ultimate artisan/engineer.

The second perspective I bring to this discussion is that of a historian and sociologist of technology. After working in the software industry, I returned to graduate school and earned a PhD in science and technology studies (STS, more commonly unpacked in North America as “science, technology and society”). This perspective draws upon a rich set of historical case studies to more closely examine the interaction of technology and culturein practice. These studies have led researchers to reexamine our assumptions about technology’s role in culture, leading to new theoretical models that are less pessimistic, and ultimately more helpful, than what one typically finds in the existing Christian examination of technology.

One of the advantages of working out my thoughts on a blog is the potential for interaction with my readers. I welcome your comments, critiques and suggestions. Through constructive dialogue, I hope we can develop a richer, more nuanced understanding of technology, culture, and Christian spirituality.