Progress, technology, and culture

Slack and Wise tell us “culture is a site of struggle and has a role in both reproducing inequality and challenging it” (2). So, how do we use technology—a part of our culture—to challenge, rather than reproduce, inequality?

As evidenced by the way we have used the power of naming (such as The Stone Age, The Bronze Age), technology is central to the narratives we use to define civilizations. But Slack and Wise posit that culture should occupy a more central location in terms of conceptualizing ourselves. Technologies are inherent parts of culture; they are not separate from it. This should mean, I think, that we can use technology to alter culture and make progress toward equality.

But that rhetoric is equally problematic. Slack and Wise say that we often conflate technology and progress. Progress is conceived as a going forward, which creates the metaphor of a linear relationship between time and progress . Slack and Wise ask whether progress delineates something new or something better. Either way, the linear model remains dominant, and I’d like to complicate this issue. If history repeats itself, as we know it does, then progress must have some sort of circular movement. (Unless we state that history repeating itself means we haven’t made progress; I resist that statement. We are constantly in motion and progress is always happening, be it good, bad, or neither.)

Rather than conceiving progress as a moving forward, I wonder if we can think of it as an eternal negotiation of human cultures. Under this metaphor, we can see that progress could mean both something new and/or something better (which are both relative terms anyway). This constant renegotiation also does away with the confusion over whether increased quantity could or should denote progress.

Slack and Wise address the fallacy of seeing progress as a chronologically based rise of culture through the example of the European “discovery” of Native Americans. Based on a set of premises that were particular to European culture, they determined that the Indians were simply “behind” (20). They also give us a narrative about a woman losing her job to a computer and resignedly calling it progress. It’s a cultural truth that “to stand in the way of progress and technology is heresy” (13). But what does this mean if progress results in a “deskilling” of the work force (56)? Can we ever recover from progress?

The idealistic “machine in the garden” of Leo Marx gave way to pollution, corporatization, urbanization. People—or at least Ralph Waldo Emerson—became disillusioned and, not for the first (or last) time, saw technology and nature as antagonistic opposites (14). Different kinds of progress were—and are—assigned value based on their perceived impact on nature. Electricity, in its invisibility, seemed to be a clean, nature-driven sort of technology. This was disproved and nuclear energy took its place and ran through the same cycle. There will always be a new, progressive technology to fill this role.

Slack and Wise say progress and evolution are often conflated, mostly because natural selection is metaphorically reduced to “survival of the fittest,” when, in fact, it’s something more like “survival of the fittest in relation to a particular environment” (17). Of course, this assumes that progress refers to betterment. If it is only chronological, if it is only a renegotiation of possibilities, then I see no issue with conflating the terms.

Progress can certainly be used to sell us something, especially something technological (19). And displays of progress sell us a cultural narrative. Like the Crystal Palace and its devaluation of native cultures in order to promote other cultures, modern demonstrations of progress like county fairs sell us ideas about the young women participating in pageants. In instances like this, I understand—although I didn’t at first—why the authors say that many people harbor negative feelings toward the term “development.”

So, are they right? Is “development” or “technological progress” necessarily a good thing? It’s led to the loss of a lot of jobs and the outsourcing of even more. In this case, progress can be metonymically reduced to convenience, although the key question is convenience for whom? And do we always recognize convenience as what it is, or do we spend more and more time using technology for technology’s sake, effectively driving to the mailbox every chance we get?

How inconvenient our bodies are, always exacting limits upon us! We rely on technology to overcome physical limitations, and we do this (Slack and Wise quote Tierney here) in order to transcend the limits of space and time. Death, for example, is massively inconvenient. And, lo and behold, we spend amazing amounts of time, money, and energy developing medical technologies to push the limiting specter of death as far away from ourselves as we can.

In the meantime (while we avoid death), we’re assaulted by all manner of machines to help us make better use of our time … even though they may actually mean more work (for mother). Technology can certainly drive culture, and More Work for Mother shows that it does. For example, the advent of the washing machine meant new standards for how often clothes should be washed.

Slack and Wise ask if we’re caught between cultural and technological determinism. But don’t people have free will? Or are we really under the control of “megatechnics,” a huge, integrated, societal machine? But this metaphor is incorrect on many levels. For one, the machine is far from efficient or well integrated when African women (and men) die for want of a chemical compound that is being sold as a hair remover to women in other parts of the world (154).

It was interesting to see the authors demonstrate how something as seemingly indiscriminating as a low bridge can actually present major problems for those who rely on high-clearance public transportation vehicles, and these people are predominantly non-white. Thus, the technology affects people differently based on class. We alter our daily routines depending on how technology affects us, which is determined by factors outside our control.

So between us and technology, who, really, is the Master and who is the Slave?

— From Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise’s “Culture+Technology”

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