Against the Pomo Dystopians:An alternative to the Postmodern view of Technology
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Cyberspace pundits Douglas Groothuis and Neil Postman can be viewed as having a basically "modernist" attitude towards technology. Philosopher James Ingram occupies a middle ground, and he has discussed the "postmodern" attitude towards technology. Here I will approach the three positions, and critique and affirm each in the light of my own conclusions.
Defining the terms
(Some references from notes I took while reading: The Tower of Babel: Modernity built the tower - now postmodernity must face the challenge of condemning the "unsafe structure." by Michael Horton. PREMISE / Volume II, Number 8 / September 27, 1995 / Page 6.- a seminal article, but I can't find a copy of the original- so please consider this credit where credit is due...)
Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen declared, "A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages." (quoted in Gene E. Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture .Wheaton: Crossway, 1994, p. 27.)
The convergence of my career as a visual artist with my activities in the international art scene and with a major University (as an Art Exhibition Designer for a major art collection) in the eighties and nineties led me to explorations of this phenomenon from an art historical and philosophical ground. Later reading from a sociological standpoint have further refined my thoughts on this issue. As my career took a decidedly more technological route, it became apparent to me that these issues are seminal to Christian thought today.
The collapse of the modern world-view and the triumph of its successor, postmodernism, cuts across every intellectual discipline in our culture , especially philosphy, art, economics and literary criticism. Theologian Thomas Oden argues that "modernity" began with the assault on the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 while art philosopher and historian Charles Jencks is even more specific: Modernism ended at 3:32 p.m. on July 15, 1972, "when the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development in St. Louis was dynamited as an uninhabitable environment for the low-income people it housed." The development had been a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier's 'machine for modern living'.
(Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture by Charles Jencks was published 1/3/87. Charles Jencks' internationally acclaimed study was re-issued with a new introduction to celebrate the centenary of Le Corbusier's birth by Penguin Books in the nineties but it is now out of print. I recommend the reading of Suzi Gablik's Has Modernism Failed? for anyone coming from a visual arts perspective.)
Oden refers to the storming of the Bastille as the beginning of modernism because the French Revolution was one of a number of revolutions that sought to reshape the world from the ashes of revolution. Utopian ideals would be advanced and universal reason, progress, and planning would rise like the Firebird in spite of the great costs in terms of human misery . The collapse of the soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin Wall have also been pointed to as markers on the timeline, but the spiritual and philosophical issues underlying the collapse of modernity are far more significant. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it marked the end of the naive optimism toward ideological movements.
Jencks viewpoint from the aesthetic wasteland of art historical criticism gives us another scenario from which to judge "modernity." Ideology, art, politics, religion, and education have failed in there promise to deliver solutions. Human beings have come to believe that they can control their own destiny, collectively and individually through the triumph of reason. This philosophy is flawed at its core as it failed to acknowledge a proper understanding of anthropology and the depravity of man. So Jencks sees Pruitt-Ingoe in St. Louis as a type of this failed endeavor. The "machine for living," this highly rationalized and carefully crafted environment actually ended up being uninhabitable. As Franscesco de Goya says in the title of one of his best known works, "the sleep of Reason produces monsters". This is a typically modern sentiment that had hailed the advent of modernism in art.
Many would argue that modernity has not really ended and that the postmodernist is actually a hypermodernist. I believe the point is moot. While postmodernists say that the metanarrative is dead, there is no ground for true knowledge, they are forced to live with rational constructs in daily life so that semantics and word games are about all they can muster on an intellectual ground. The idea of progress, one of modernity's cherished dogmas that has come under sharp fire by postmodern academics. In the end, the technological landscape that is descending upon us at this point in history portends of massive sociological and economic upheaval in our future. ( I will speak more of this in a discourse on community).
What is modernity and why is there such a reaction to it? I will give the sentiments of two authors and then will venture my own estimation.
Postman's Attitudes toward Technology
The modern world view speaks of organization, efficiency, and will to power based on the excellency of the human mind. In regard to technology, Neil Postman's Technopoly has explored this with fascinating detail. Postman says,
"First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost....It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy. (Technopoly, p xii)
So to Postman, the embracing of technology is a Faustian bargain- it giveth and it taketh away. He admits this at the beginning of the book before he begins to emphasize the bad part. Postman reveals a modernist attitude in that he sees the role of man is to impose a rational construct on technology, and to find ways to control its deleterious effects on society. The computer is a key element in what Postman calls a "totalitarian technocracy" (p. 48). My most serious disagreement with Postman is his contention that technology by its nature "fosters" or "tends" to elicit negative responses in humans. The issue here is the fundamental sin nature of man and his propensity for laziness and allowing the effects of entropy to hold sway. So while he may observe effects, he is off base when it comes to causes. In chapter 4, Postman asserts that information is "both the means and the end of human creativity."
"Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology." Technopoly, he argues, flourishes wherever people "believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind.... Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down" (Technopoly p. 71)
So Postman sees Technopoly as the enemy to the values of modernism. While he is correct in many of his observations, his analysis of the causes of social change and history is flawed.He sees religion as a powerless spectator which has been rendered impotent. This gives us cause to question the value of his prognostications as well. His main error, as I see it is that he divorces the concepts of the spiritual and the rational. He sees technology as emphasizing the rational because technologies work, and in his mind spirituality doesn't, therefore the replacement of true spirituality by faith in technology. A new religion, where faith is in human progress and technological innovation, takes over. While this is decried, Postman's solution seems to be to return to the rationale of modernity, which in my view has already played out. This reliance on a false hope may be the beginnings of a society that awakens from its sleep of reason.
Groothuis as CyberCritic
Douglas Groothuis (The Soul In Cyberspace) takes as his premise the effects of cyberspace technologies on the human soul. He has a vaguely modernist outlook on philosophy, sociology and theology in that I would characterize him as a rational presuppositionalist. I associate him with a modern outlook because of this emmphasis on rationalism. Groothuis is not a modernist in the true sense as he does not place his hope in modernist promises, but in the Lord of the historical Christian Faith. He characterizes himself as a cautious observer, so that is what we can expect in the final analysis- observations without solutions, some objective, and many subjective in nature. He does not stop at the pragmatic implications of technological change. His concern is with the dehumanizing effect of many actions which are manifestations of depravity that the new technologies enable in deleterious ways.
Groothuis is concerned that we face the temptations of acquiescing to the power of technologies to cater to these human weaknesses and sin with resolve, with a well equipped quiver. Discerning what is real and true in a virtual environment is not easy since it is indeed "virtual"- a representation of reality but not essentially real. The environment might display internal consistency but ultimately it fragments reality.
The effects of the misappropriation and abuse of technologies for surreptitious ends is a point well explored by Groothuis. He takes up the role of the watchman on the wall and restates in a cogent way concerns that Christians (and pagans) should all ponder.
I share in his concerns over the issues of embodiment. The stability and authority that is to be found in community and vital contact with other human beings is missing from cyberspace. Cyberspace in its present incarnation cannot foster a culture that values deep and prolonged attention to the narrative experiences of others. In fact intimacy is taboo as is evidenced by the recent live birth broadcast on the net and the controversial consummation of a marriage proposed as of this writing to occur soon on a website. The site advertising this event has seen the server crash several times due to the vast number of hits on the site.
Ingram's Appropriation and Assimilation of views
Jim Ingram, director of the Swiss L'Abri takes the approach that we should not view technology as the effect or application of scientific ideas so that we are left with a amoral product- we should view technology as the materialization of human action and human understanding. We are already embodied in technology by virtue of the fact that an artifact is what it is only because of the meanings and intentions we humans have invested in it. We meet ourselves in the artifact. The mind capable of imagining an early automobile was a mind already relating to physical materials, speed, conspicuous consumption, noise, pollution, mechanical artifacts, time, space, and the aesthetics of machines in a manner characteristic of the modern era. The conversation of culture and technology is an ongoing one, and we are now participating in it.
But if this is true, then it is crucial for us to attend to our own participation, rather than simply look for influences issuing from technologies.
This insight of Ingram's is not new, (his talk is so packed with referential material, in fact if you were to remove all the quotations from his talks, you are left wanting) but he is correct in ascertaining that the humans so embodied have been the causal factor not the technology. So much of the literature exhibits a tendency to substitute materially conceived causes for formal or final causes. It has a tendency to speak one-sidedly about how things -- artifacts, technologies -- determine our ideas or meanings or the qualities of our consciousness. But this is to forget that things are ideas -- embodied ideas. This idea which found fruition in modernism as a redemptive force has been appropriated by postmodern thought and now attempts to transform artifacts into "a nothing that can mean anything". The death of definitions means the death of meaning.
Ingram sees as a positive development the role of technology in postmodern offensive in dissolving the fundaments of modernity. He does not subscribe to a return to premodernism, however. There is a major paradox in how postmodernism questions all realities except technological ones, and appeals to the founders of modernism for its proposed solutions.
Ingram argues that the artifacts of human making are viewed by God as good or bad based on our creative intent. He rightly sees, in my opinion that technologies are a means by which the deconstruction of a failed modernist ethic can be accomplished. While postmoderns have NOTHING to offer up in its place, Christianity is still the only and best hope and with its relevance can be the construct that replaces modernism.
While the zeitgeist is deconstructing truth, we can and should be promoting the truth by our lives and vital involvement in our culture. Fixed objective meanings are not institutionalized by books- they are injected into society by institutions which embody the concepts. In this the Body of Christ is the ultimate example.
Manuel Castells is a proponent of a dialectical interaction between society and culture. Technology is not an artifact, but primarily a process that develops in a parallel fashion to other social processes and then it is appropriated by dominant social actors in service to their agendas. As the actors enter and exit the stage, the technology takes on new functions.
Perhaps more essential is the work of Martin Heidegger whose work has obviously influenced Ingram and more indirectly and by allusion, Postman. The idea of thechnology's role in "enframing" as an unwelcome mediation of truth is the subject of his essay "The Question Concerning Technology." In it he cogently expresses the true nature of the current debate:
"What is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious. The essence of technology as a destining of revealing, is the danger...The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth."
In the final analysis,the self indulgent excesses and denial of absolutes by modernists has ended in a kneejerk reaction by so called postmodern philosophers. In seeking to desecrate the grave of modern rationalism, they abandon logic altogether, or at least when it suits their purposes. While modernism was corrupt and ended in banality, postmodernism has nothing to offer but deconstruction of modernism's tenets. When their attention is turned toward technology, they are both seduced by it and disdain its possibilities- for it is the nature of postmoderns to suspect every idea that would purport to reveal truth just for the sake of suspicion. As a result, the pendulum of attitude has swung from the modernist credulity evident in this century and its concomitant elevation of technology to utopian messiahship to postmodernism's dystopian tenor. Neither extreme is based in the reality of how man relates to and affects technological change.
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The Hypertextualization of Literacy
Technology and Community