The Location of Technology, a Theory of the Present
July 10, 2008 § 3 Comments
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture
1. The Question of New Media
Since Martin Heidegger’s lecture, The Question Concerning Technology, 1954, we have struggled to understand our relationship to what Heidegger calls the essence of technology, what the “thing” is. Meanwhile technology has become ubiquitous. Digital media and the tools to create have far outpaced our understanding of our relationship to what Heidegger calls “human activity,” technology itself.
If we follow Vernor Vinge’s thesis in The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post Human Era (1993)—“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”—the humanities must engage the most profound feature of contemporary culture: the acceleration of technological progress that, because of its very nature, is redefining who we are and how we understand our material world and ourselves.
We have crossed a threshold into an age requiring new methods of collaboration—cooperation, collective action and complex interactions. This new narrative beginning to emerge is placing stress on the traditional university because it is a transdisciplinary approach to getting things done, to learning, to knowledge production.
What then is the role of the professor in this age? What is the role of writing?
We exist in a world dependent upon “the flexibility and vitality of our networks of knowledge production, transaction, and exchange,” Pierre Lévy tells us in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). We have entered “a new stage of hominization,” says Lévy, requiring that we create “some human attribute that is as essential as language but operates at a much higher level.” If we don’t, we will continue to “communicate through the media and think within the context of separate institutions, which contribute to the suffocation and division of intelligence.” The technical and communications sphere has changed, making it increasingly impossible to control our environment or to use customary means of decision-making in the face of the flood of information from which various pathologies associated with this new situation have emerged.
The digital computer is a new medium. But if we insist on privileging academia’s silo approach to knowledge production, we therefore contribute to the suffocation and division of intelligence that produces an illusory view of the world. The humanities study culture through languages and literatures; the language of new media must therefore be simultaneously a vital tool for inquiry and the subject of inquiry—the technique that facilitates reading, writing and learning and the object of our study as well, particularly its deviations. The digital computer is the cultural carrier—the avatar—requiring new methodologies for understanding states of being. Not doing so means we approach knowledge without fully realizing the means by which we come to define material reality. We are therefore only describing surface structures that, in turn, become our understanding of the truth—a “tenebrous sense of survival,” as Bhabha contends.
Today we are witnessing the emergence of a new medium—the meta-medium of the digital computer. In contrast to a hundred years ago, when cinema was coming into being, we are fully aware of the significance of this new media revolution. Yet … future theorists and historians of computer media will be left with not much more than the equivalents of the newspaper reports and film programs from cinema’s first decades. They will find that analytical texts from our era recognize the significance of the computer’s takeover of culture, yet, by and large, contain speculations about the future rather than a record and theory of the present. Future researchers will wonder why the theoreticians, who had plenty of experience analyzing older cultural forms, did not try to describe the computer media’s semiotic codes, modes of address, and audience reception patterns.
The varied forms of digital media attract and detract simultaneously, defying attempts to understand their codes, modes of address and reception; these always point to alternatives, to the beyond, to changes lurking in the not so distant future. Our experience with digital media is decentering. The allure is that we exist, in our media forms, at the center of the knowledge universe—all nodes, the many, lead to the one, me; we are our own gods; and the immediacy of the experience is extremely gratifying. But it’s a rather lonely experience, too, because it is based on falsehoods—that I am singularly important, beyond others. The digital I am is the Other I am looking for at all times. While digital computers give us a sense—if not a glimpse—of the future, the underlying truth is that there may not be one; the Other is something elusive, something that may never come though we live with the anticipation that it will present itself at some other point in time, tomorrow perhaps. Technology brings this anxiety-ridden duality to the forefront. Our cultural forms are always on edge and on the edges, focus blurred yet also seemingly clear at what may be the core, an axis pointing towards an interior though it may be some distance away. The heart and the circumference simultaneously attainable.
The cooperation, collective action, and the complex interactions of our new narrative are not necessarily motivated by altruism; rather, self-interest compels us—individuals, multinational corporations and governments—to interact in more open, collaborative fashions because we are learning that these forms lead to greater wealth and security. Open environments that enable others to learn from us while we, too, learn from others lead to a bolstering of the fundamental infrastructure of civilization—education and healthcare, business and politics. As one benefits, so do many. These new complexities are placing stress on higher education since we are being asked to reconsider how knowledge is distributed—and used—in open networks that at some level are out of our control and growing independently.
“Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means,” says Jacques Ellul; “in the reality of modern life,” he continues, “the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.” In a world working through a paradigm shift as we are, and where decentering is a prime characteristic because of the multiplicity and the complexity of means—technological, socio-economic, spiritual—idealism is privileged and its byproduct, reason, the sole method of navigation.
2. New Media and the University
Challenging academia—the humanities writ large—is idealism since it’s the responsibility of the academician to theorize and critique the falsehoods and ironies inherent in any pursuit of ideologies. The academic describes the cynicism of our age. She works against the center—and is ironically viewed as the representative of such. This is easier when engaging classical cultures; it’s much more difficult to create a narrative of a culture moving and changing at breakneck speed that renders any analysis null and void before it begins. This is the nature of technologies that are deconstructive, suggesting formidable stability yet experience tells us that they are always shifting, always in flux—not stable at all. A sense of urgency follows. Technology invites a comprehensive description of the totality—form and function—while also trying to account for genetic demands that are an ongoing search for origins and the foundation of any given structure. In response to Heidegger, this is human activity because it can never quite realize the plenitude of the present though it assumes that it can; the essence of technology suggests that there is nothing outside itself. It is all consuming; it invites us to consume. In our consumption, we experience our world cynically because we act against better knowledge.
“The twofold intervention of reason and consciousness in the technical world, which produces the technical phenomenon, can be described as the quest of the one best means in every field,” Ellul tells us. “And this ‘one best means,’ is, in fact, the technical means. It is the aggregate of these means that produces technical civilization.”
Technology is our new text questioning ideologies. Academia’s role is to enter this rather ironic construction that openly rejects any and all preconceived notions about its place in our culture and reconstruct itself within it knowing that this process should be ongoing, open ended, always incomplete. The single most important characteristic of our age and our work is that technology privileges our imperfect state: we are forever unfinished, deficient in some way, though we strive for completion with great longing and assume it is possible just beyond, there. Traditional academia has been responsible for our belief in completion because it emphasizes—teaches—closure, the illusionary act of coming to conclusions, something that doesn’t even happen in the sciences. The only conclusion we can reach now is that there isn’t one. We can however say that the rate of change—the multiplication of computing power—is evolving to the point where machines are now able to learn from each other and grow without our influence and beyond our scope. The new reality.
The responsibility of the professor in the age of digital media and its pathologies of cyberOtherness is to slow things down, to engage carefully and methodically in what happens in-between the nodes and the codes, defining instances where semiotic possibilities provide challenges and confusing demarcations from our neatly perceived moral order, fragile as it is.
Thus…pedagogy is pure process. The teacher does not transmit facts (which can be better learnt from books, the reading of which leaves more room for autonomous reflection) but rather does two things. First, the teacher narrativizes the search for knowledge, tells the story of the process of knowledge acquisition. Second, the teacher enacts the process, sets knowledge to work. What is thus taught is not facts but critique—the formal art of the use of mental powers, the process of judgment.
The professor’s role is to provide safe environments for trial and error, experimentation that, by design, is intimate. In other words, the professor and the classroom, whether brick and mortar, a cyberclassroom or both, engage students in critical investigations of process. The vastness of our technological phenomenon begs for this intimacy.
Writing is the means for introspection and inquiry; it is still the tool for meaningful dialog with the self and others, and the inherent instability of language. Writing is intimacy. Nothing is more important than intimacy in an age addicted to more—more acquisitions, more decay and pollution and global warming, more violence, more complex systems needing negotiating, more speed. In all the more, there is less though—less community, less understanding, less tolerance and less safe places for ideas. These are the common ideas of today. But are these ideas necessarily true because we assume so, because our media tells us?
Writing we experience our Being; we see the Other we long for, that state of (in)complete fulfillment, promised by technology, but attainable only by an Emersonian retreat into the self, away from the noise, away from the pixilated interpretation of ourselves in a plastic world of x’s and o’s. Writing is a method to move away from the fictions that color our lives—the destabilizing array of programs and images whose hallmark is distraction.
Writing, in its varied forms, is the tool for negotiating the complex interactions spread across a number of disciplines; it is the way to create the narrative of this age. And as we begin, we see that we have more methods by which to exchange ideas and programs, more ways to create and learn—yet we know less about ourselves in this nexus. This is the heart of the matter. This is where academia must enter—the center or focus where writing, learning and the complex interactions of transdisciplinary systems come together and produce a hybrid being interfacing with multitudes—cultures and machines—in comprehensive ways.
We may be a culture suffering from the illusions brought forth by the gods of more but we are also in a moment in time where we have more meaningful ways of addressing our confusion, the challenges that face us—the environment, socio-economic disparities that challenge education, healthcare and poverty, and ideological differences. The nexus of writing, knowledge production and learning, and technology is where we live today—and what we are challenged to describe.
In its digital forms, a culture is involved in its own deconstruction—deconstruction is always already ongoing. The future is already undergoing deconstruction. The being that is, in the digital sense, is a promise that is and that will not be; a future that in the instance it is imagined—its being—is unavailable because as we approach it, it becomes yet something else, an unknown that is perhaps both inhabitable and foreboding. To be is to perceive and what is perceived, by definition, is incomplete, an unknown and even the approximation of a composite that upon closer inspection begins to decompose as the pixels magnify. Being is therefore marked by the constant reminder of un-Being; that is to say, we are unable to recognize the immediate, the relentless making and unmaking of the world we inhabit and that inhabits us, the private and the public existing as one at all times. The classical duality of our state of being has been erased. This is the technological phenomenon.
Our experience with digital media is defined by the synthesis of being, time and the promises of digitization. We can say that a challenge to academia—and the humanities in general accustomed to deconstructing static cultures of old—is that the semiotic codes of new media are always in flux. Instability and unrest are constant in the present—doubled in the future. Only by slowing this process down—even in the moment of “the classroom”—can we begin to understand, describe and define our own states of deconstruction. Where is our time to contemplate? Without meaningful contemplation there is no sense of the Other, there is no future. The sole responsibility of the professor is to provide meaningful places for contemplation and writing to take place—and this too can be done with technology. Too often we rush to the promises of technology without really wondering why, seduced by the speed and accuracy of digitization, its forgiving nature when we create. We are unable to realize the promises of technology when we are distracted by the surface structures of speed and accuracy—the bells and whistles of what we can do.
But what is the meaning of what we do? Every thought, every action, even every click of the mouse has a consequence. How do we live with this realization? Can we move from departmentalization and face a world that requires we collaborate across disciplines since singularly we cannot solve the problems we face?
We gravitate towards the perceived effect of technology rather than realizing, through trial, error and criticism, how our affect is influenced, shaped, even distressed as a result of altering a specific sphere of interactivity—a result of the technological phenomenon. Our age is mired in the erratic but powerful glimmer of technology, falsely entertaining; in turn, this state endangers our need to conceive of alternatives that lay ahead. “Freedom,” says Heidegger, “is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts revealing upon its way.” This is the promise of technology—this and only this.
The essence of modern technology lies in Enframing…But when we consider theessence of technology, then we experience Enframing as a destining of revealing…Since destining at any given time starts man on a way of revealing, man, thus under way, is continually approaching the brink of the possibility of pursuing and pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering, and of deriving all his standards on this basis. Through this the other possibility is blocked, that man might be admitted more and sooner and ever more primarily to the essence of that which is unconcealed and to its unconcealment, in order that he might experience as his essence his needed belonging to revealing.
The purpose of writing—the reasons to write—has never been more critical. Writing is how we experience ourselves “belonging to revealing”; in the act of writing, we conceal and unconceal, moving closer to the essence of this duality. This is our primal need. Thus we need more writers, not less—more voices. Here less does not occupy any meaningful terrain, other than to signify that there are forces today that would enjoy the privileges afforded them by silencing others—a silent citizenry. We need writers that can explore the panoply digital computers offer, the impressive and meaningful display of learning that occurs in disparate places. This manner of thinking is only in its infancy. As writers and teachers, we are only in the early stages of the digital age. We are beginning to recognize that our sole task is to reveal ourselves, to begin our approach to “the brink of the possibility.”
The tragic irony is that the major challenge to this journey is that the promises of technology remain unrealized because they are in direct competition with the economics of education: the university as another corporation compelled to guarantee the future control of the transnational exchange of capital by the elite that demands the departmentalization of knowledge and learning. In other words, higher education is reluctant to address the open universe; any consideration of alternatives places into question the vitality of the current classical models of knowledge exchange, particularly as these have shifted from the promotion of the nation state to the adherence—and support—of “the process of economic globalization” where the degree granted is not a sign of knowledge gained but rather a ticket for the exchange of capital. We go to school for value, rather than to gain a deeper, richer understanding of others and ourselves.
4. Belonging to Revealing
Technology is pushing in many directions simultaneously but the academy’s postmodern allegiances are to the corporatization of the academic experience guided by a privileging of accounting principles rather than a meaningful inquiry about the intimate relationships existing between learning and being requiring that we examine process. The pursuit of “excellence,” as Readings develops the argument in The University in Ruins. Consequently an internal legitimation struggle is going on concerning the nature of knowledge production—and technology remains a misunderstood human activity too often marginalized in education. “It is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society,” Readings reminds us, “nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore.”
If we marginalize technology—if we don’t inquire as to its location in our culture—we marginalize human experience. Traditional learning—memorization, response papers to readings, writings asking student writers to mimic the teacher, standardized testing—pushes the intimacy of learning towards the boundaries rendering it irrelevant since most students today are involved in other forms of learning: trial and error; experience and collaboration; knowledge exchanges that are also social delivered through Facebook, MySpace, txting, and YouTube. We learn through assimilation, gathering in groups, face-to-face or online, and exchange and compare and build knowledge intimately. Technology begs for collaboration; this is clear—and essential. Technical tools are appendages. Students are cyborgs in every sense of the word. Technology and science are their experience. Multi-tasking is as common as apple pie—there is no other way, not yet.
Technology’s singular threat to the university involves more than how knowledge is produced in new and interesting ways; it threatens how culture is perceived, once the stronghold of education. The digitization of culture marginalizes the traditional modes of disciplined cultural production. It does so through disruptions and distractions that are manifestly tied to surface structures apprehended as deep, meaningful inquiry. “The multiplier of possibilities,” as Mark Edmundson describes it in “Dwelling in Possibilities,” that promotes “the stimulation of desire,” trumps a long sustained study of complex interactions. Academia has yet to figure out how to reconstruct itself amidst these disruptions and distractions, particularly when the aim of the student today is less self-knowledge and more consistent with socio-economic advancement coupled to the cultural constraint, the manifest importance of being cool.
Essentially technology is redefining the social and the political. Textuality, too, is undergoing a reconstruction; verbal and ideological expressions of the political begin deconstructing—deconstruction is always already part of their construction, always occurring—at the moment of delivery. The political subject is therefore a moving target; it defies classic models of inquiry that quantify formative influences. Rather, technology, promising a better world in the beyond, immediately places into question the present, thereby alienating one from discursive exchanges that, upon their utterance, are rendered almost impractical, unsustainable. Thus a reality that is always in-between becomes the only constant. This in effect threatens the traditional university; it threatens the brick and mortar—and elite—colleges and universities that promote the sage sitting on a tree trunk espousing knowledge to the young sitting at his feet. Life is not experienced like this—not now, perhaps it never was.
We have yet to understand how technology can fit our power-knowledge equation; how indeed it is changing—constructing and deconstructing—these equations. We are hooked in, touting the wonders of multi-tasking. But our understanding of technology’s influence on our knowledge production—our lives—remains on the boundaries. Convinced that more and faster and smaller technology is synonymous with success and power, our existence is forever on the verge of becoming, living, as Bhabha suggests, on the borderlines of the present.
But perhaps our quest for power has always required that we exist in a perpetual state of becoming on the borderlines of the present.
The Lyceum was a space for physical exercise and philosophical discussion, reflection, and study. From the sixth-century BC the Lyceum was a place where the polemarch (head of the army) had his offices; it was also used for military exercise; a place for meetings; a place of philosophical discussion and debate well before Aristotle founded his school there in 335 BC. The Lyceum also contained the cults of Hermes, the Muses, and Apollo, to whom the area was dedicated and belonged. Thus the Lyceum was a large area, including open spaces, buildings, and cult sites. And from the time of Aristotle until 86 BC there was a continuous succession of philosophers in charge of the school; it was a part of the military-educational complex for the city’s elite, the ephebia.
The many manifestations of the Lyceum could be the Internet—with a very distinct difference: as host to many—philosophers and pornographers, educators, salesmen and criminals—the Internet is the most democratic institution we have. It is a place for play and escape, and a place for serious reflection and exchange; a place for news and information, and a place for inquiry, creation, and emergence. It is a place for the perverse too. It is also a place of divisiveness and dispossession where “the contemporary compulsion to move beyond; to turn the present into the ‘post’; or…to touch the future on its hither side” gives us a sense of disembodiment. We encounter the plenitude of the world, but also its great silences. We are therefore in a constant state of spiritual and psychological migration—home is nowhere and everywhere at once. The physicality of the Lyceum is gone, displaced by the unhomeliness of the click, the metaphor for displacement that conceals the psychic displacement of history and memory.
Hooked in we find ourselves in a hyper state eager to transcend our material reality. The promises of an imagined Other are impossible to refuse. We are always looking forward and beyond. This can be a foreboding, lonely place.
For these reasons—its potential; its uses and abuses; its power over users—the technological divide exists along lines defined by those who are using technologies in creative, engaging ways and those that are not and are reliant on others to mandate personal technology. The latter are effectively left behind.
In the final paragraph of Writing at the End of the World, Richard E. Miller says that, “The practice of the humanities … is not about admiration or greatness or appreciation or depth of knowledge or scholarly achievement; it’s about the movement between worlds, arms out, balancing; it’s about making connections that count.” Our traditional forms of knowledge production will not work in the future. We have too many problems. From a totally different perspective, Jeffrey D. Sachs, in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, comes to similar conclusions about the relationship between our problems, orthodox and myopic ways of doing things, and the openness and collaboration needed to meet our challenges:
To solve the remaining dire problems of environmental degradation,
population growth, and extreme poverty, we will need to create a new model
of twenty-first-century cooperation, one that builds on past successes and
overcomes today’s widespread pessimism and lack of leadership…Such
multipolar cooperation is time-consuming and often contentious. Solutions
will be complicated; the problems of sustainable development inevitably cut
across several areas of professional expertise, making it hard for any
single ministry—or academic department, for that matter—to address the
It is therefore incumbent on institutions of learning to engage in the myriad ways technologies are enabling a closer look at how we educate and learn, how we become. This requires a focus on the process of learning as defined by a critical pedagogy that questions and articulates that relationships that exist between knowledge production, the teacher and the student, and technology and the ever shifting terrain of language. This also involves understanding the relationships between knowledge production, educational institutions and power.
Our age calls forth for more meaningful interactions, intimate in nature.
6. BitTorrent technology is a prime example: A popular file sharing service developed by Bram Cohen that prevents people from downloading constantly unless they are willing to share in the overall transmission load on the network. Instead of downloading an entire file, BitTorrent breaks a file into chunks and distributes them among several participating users. When you download a “torrent,” you are also uploading it to another user. BitTorrent balances the load because broadband download and upload speeds are not the same. Users download files faster than they can upload them, which makes them less interested in sharing bandwidth to upload to someone else. BitTorrent ensures every user participates in uploading.
8. The most thorough philosophical investigation on cynicism and our age is Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, translated by Michael Eldred (University of Minnesota Press, 1987). “…Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lesson in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered” (emphasis in original; p. 5). We can see how easily enlightened false consciousness feeds the paradoxical nature of the digital being—in search for happiness, and unhappy, too; the pursuit of consciousness, only to remain in a cyberconsciousness. “To act against better knowledge is today the global situation in the superstructure,” says Sloterdijk; “it knows itself to be without illusions and yet to have been dragged down by the ‘power of things’”(p. 6). This is the major challenge affecting higher education’s illusions about its place in society, already threatened by computing power and its promise of more and better.
12. Ibid, p. 25-26.
14. In most Universities, technology is relegated to the sidelines by existing as “ad-on” programs run by IT services—workshops on iMovie and Final Cut, Photoshop, Excel and PowerPoint, etc—and elite computer science programs that behave as any other department, showing no relationship between the computer as a genre, the academy’s pursuit of truth and meaningful, critical pedagogy. This is why there is an apparent split between how students use technology—and how they think about it—and how faculty use technology (overwhelming students with PowerPoint, spreadsheets, exhaustive email practices). There currently exists no synthesis, no critical examination of points of intersection between language and learning, technology and being.