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Versions of Cause and Effect in Technology and Society

As I was reading this week’s texts on labor in the cloud, I was struck, in particular, by the emphasis on the political motivations behind these tools (I’m using “politics” here in a very specific sense, in connection with Marxian discourses on political economy, etc.). I think this stood out to me in part because so many of the readings we’ve done for this class have been kind of post-Marxist – it’s not that infrastructure analysis and A Thousand Plateaus are anti-politics, merely that politic/political economy become decentralized in their critiques. This political emphasis brought to mind a text that I had sort of forgotten about, and which speaks to the themes of this course – “The Technology and the Society” by Raymond Williams, a Marxist critic, that was written in 1972.

One of the things that Williams analyzes is the notion of cause and effect in discussions of technology, specifically the effects of new technologies on social structures and society. He identifies eight ways of discussing this relationship, using television as an example:

(ii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
news and entertainment was then so great that it
altered all preceding media of news and
entertainment.

(iii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
social communication was then so great that it
altered many of our institutions and forms of social
relationships.

(iv) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its inherent properties as an
electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of
reality, and thence our relations with each other and
with the world.

(v) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. As a powerful medium of
communication and entertainment it took its place
with other factors- such as greatly increased physical
mobility, itself the result of other newly invented
technologies- in altering the scale and form of our
societies.

(vi) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research, and developed as a medium of
entertainment and news. It then had unforeseen
consequences, not only on other entertainment and
news media. which it reduced in viability and
importance, but on some of the central processes of
family, cultural and social life.

(vi) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and development to meet the needs of a new kind of
society,l especially in the provision of centralised
entertainment and in the centralised formation of
opinions and styles of behaviour.

(vii) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and promotion as a new and profitable phase of a
domestic consumer economy; it is then one of the
characteristic “machines for the home.”

(viii) Television became available as a result of
scientific and technical research, and in its character
and uses exploited and emphasised elements of a
passivity, a cultural and psychological inadequacy,
which had always been latent in people, but which
television now organised and came to represent.

(ix.) Television became available as a result of scientific
and technical research. and in its character and uses
both served and exploited the needs of a new kind of
large-scale and complex but atomised society.

As you can see, the emphasis progresses from one in which technology is produced through ideologically neutral mechanisms (research) and results in generally unintended consequences to one in which technological creation is itself an ideologically motivated process, aimed at reinforcing latent structures in the capitalist mode of production for the benefit of those in power. I think it’s interesting to consider how our class readings might be mapped onto this continuum, and to what extent something like ANT presents technological production as a quasi-accidental, haphazard, emergent process, as opposed to a politically motivated process that is deeply embedded within a certain ideological context. (I don’t think it actually does this in practice; I merely present this a kind of provocation.) Doing so raises important questions about the benefits and pitfalls of de-emphasizing politics – which strategy, for instance, has the most philosophical/theoretical utility? Which strategy is best suited to creating change? In reading some of the chapters from the Labor book, for instance, I couldn’t help thinking that the authors favored simplistic political reductions over real engagements with the complexity of these systems, and whether or not that reaction is accurate, I felt in some ways like it was conditioned by many of our earlier readings.

For instance, there is an artist, Aaron Koeblin, who uses Mechanical Turk to create artworks, and who uses that process to foreground complex issues surrounding distributed labor and value creation. In a way, his work points to many of the questions raised by our readings, but without landing in a conclusive political judgment. I don’t know if that’s a strength of the work or a weakness, but here are some links to what might be some relevant projects:

http://www.aaronkoblin.com/project/10000-cents/

http://www.aaronkoblin.com/project/bicycle-built-for-two-thousand/

 

 

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