Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Teaching Technological Determinism

In our course "Are machines making you stupid?" we just finished reading The Shallows -- Nicholas Carr's excellent rumination on the way digital technologies may be rewiring human intelligence (and not always for the better).  I'm struck, having now read the book twice, by how much the book refers to the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey-- and the way that movie, and Carr's references to it, help delineate the differences between instrumentalism and technological determinism. 

These isms are core frameworks for understanding how humans and technology relate and Carr summarizes the concepts nicely on p.46 of his text:

For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology's role in shaping civilization.  Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed 'technological determinism': they've argued that technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man's control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.....At the other end of the spectrum are the instrumentalists -- the people who....downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users.  Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.

As it turns out, these isms are also well represented in 2001 A Space Odyssey.  In the opening scenes a hominid is playing with a bone and gradually realizes that the bone can be used as a tool which (s)he uses in a later scene to attack another hominid.  After the attack the bone spins high into the air gradually dissolving into a spaceship.  This scene is one of the more familiar and classic transitions in Hollywood film making but what's nice about it in the context of technology studies is that it illustrates what instrumentalism is.  The bone is a tool or weapon that is inanimate.  While it empowers the hominid and makes him/her more violent, the tool has no agency of its own.  It isn't, in other words, an autonomous technology that operates independently of the hominid who wields it.  Here's some imagery to help you recall the scene:

In contrast, later in the movie, technology becomes more autonomous.  HAL -- the computer -- attempts to take over the spaceship and Dave (one of the astronauts) is compelled to remove HAL's memory banks as depicted in the following scenes:

Here, of course, technology is no longer depicted instrumentally.  If in the beginning of the film the hominid shapes his tools, by the middle, the tools are reshaping the hominids and are doing so in ways that aren't always in keeping with the hominid's best interests.  Here's how Carr summarizes the scene in the last paragraph of his book:

What makes it so poignant and so weird, is the computer's emotional response to the disassembly of it's mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut -- "I can feel it.  I can feel it.  I'm afraid" and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

For a variety of reasons, students are reluctant to admit that the relationship between our tools and ourselves can be anything but instrumental.  It's a constant challenge getting them to consider autonomous technology as anything but fantasy.  2001 A Space Odyssey is a nice venue for exploring the possibility of a more complex relationship between humans and machines.  And Carr takes it one step further by showing that these same challenging relationships exist between ourselves and our more earthbound digital devices.

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