2 comments on “Vannevar Bush, Digital Thinking, and A Terminator Reference (Oh Boy!)

  1. Have you read/heard of Michael Warner’s “The Letters of the Republic” (http://amzn.to/whcCTA)? We read the intro and part of the first chapter in my Book History class and it seems like a great book–I’d never heard of it before. (He makes the pretty cool argument that the specific kind of representational democracy America developed owed (owes?) its power to the way print discourse evolved as a public in early America.) I thought to mention it here because in the first chapter he takes up the problem of causation and technological development. Perhaps because he was writing into a Book Studies field that tended (tends?) to think the societal results of the printing press in a too-simple technologically determinant manner, he frames his argument as a kind of restoration of human agency, but I don’t know if it actually does that so much:

    “The assumption that technology is prior to culture results in a kind of retrodetermination whereby the political history of a technology is converted into the unfolding nature of that technology. Everything that has been ascribed to the agency of printing–from formal characteristics such as abstraction, uniformity, and visualization to broad social changes such as rationalization and democratization–has been retrodetermined in this way. What have historically become the characteristics of printing have been projected backward as its natural, essential logic. Meanwhile, its historical determinations have not been analyzed, for historians have learned to consider the realm of politics and culture only as the secondary field of technology’s presumed effects” (9).

    What I take from this is that when thinking about technological change we tend to think (whether the agent of change his human or technological) in a single direction, but we have to keep in mind that the direction technology takes–or the direction its shaping takes–is also steered: it moves within the established momentum of politics and society, and different groups or individuals or limitations push it various ways. So if we say that the printing press helped establish and promote individual freedom, this is also because it came on the scene in a situation in which this was possible, and people actively promoted it as a technology that could help in this direction, and some aspects of it as a technology called for more individualism the more it saw, etc. I think I would want to modify the idea that the ‘goals developed from new technology are posited for us’ to include the simultaneous idea that we posit the goals at the same time–maybe that these are sometimes separate and sometimes the same thing–AND that other goals are posited that could very well have come to fruition even though they didn’t.

    (I’ve strayed quite a bit from your post by now, and I just used the word “fruition,” so I’m going to make myself dinner).

  2. I haven’t read him, no, and I’m a little uncertain about commenting too far on it because of that. I would say, on first looking at it, that my concern with the portion at least that you posted is that it follows the same lines. I’m not trying to do the “anything you can do I can do meta” thing, but I read the Sartrean idea not in the sense of limiting the field of potentialities as such (Sartre actually has a fascinating discussion, in The Search for a Method of ways of looking at the potential for human actions based on possible horizons as interplays of situation and free will. What I suspect, though, is that even that isn’t necessarily the case. I don’t think it’s a matter of looking for degrees of interactions between the relative degree of reciprocal shaping by technological forces and free will. Rather, I think that we tend to look (as you note) as things from deterministic angle one way or the other: either technology underlies human society, or human society creates technologies (with the former, admittedly, as a much more dominant strain in most of what I see). What I’m curious about, though, is what the potential ways of envisioning the possible horizons and available paths if we look at them in a more totalized way, as neither necessarily taking precedence. In other words, if we look at technology as something not before, supplemental, or after human will (not even codetermining, necessarily) but part of human interaction. I suppose I’m thinking of this in somewhat the same way we currently think of people in different times as having major differences in, say, technology or knowledge that were determining but look at their different height as a difference of an indicator, not necessarily a difference of essential identity. That’s an admittedly imperfect example, but I really can’t think of a better one off the top of my head.

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