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What Might Explain the Timing of the Uptake of Technologies?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
16th November 2012


Amazing how presumably ‘neo-marxist’ authors, can totally evacuate the notion of social struggle from their evaluation of internet technologies and see it as a sole expression of the dominant system.

See this quote:

“The Web, we might say, is the pre-eminent technological construct of an increasingly sickly neoliberal capitalism. As such, it is a major factor in shaping the vectors of behaviour and experience that characterize this world. But it is also a product of these, and of the society in which they take place. It is hardly surprising that the technology of a hyper-flexibilized, insecure, turbulent world offers little security to the purposefully structured, meditative mind.”

The following is excerpted from Rob Lucas, discussing the works of Nicholas Carr such as “The Shallows”:

“But what might explain the timing of the uptake of technologies? Why, for example, did the water-wheel—already considered a potential source of power in the Roman Empire—only seriously catch on in Europe in the later feudal period? [33] The invention of a technology, that is to say, is not enough to explain its generalization, nor that of any resulting ‘intellectual ethic’. In more technicist, and especially McLuhan-influenced, readings the development of ‘technologies’ such as writing and the Gutenberg press often serves as the explanatory ground for a vast array of phenomena, from the creation of the modern nation-state to the development of an interiorized, reflective subjectivity. But what explains the perfection of the Gutenberg press itself around 1450, and why did its use catch on so rapidly? Many in Europe other than Johann Gutenberg were simultaneously straining at that time to develop a technical solution to the problem of the mechanical reproduction of text. From the end of the 12th century the commercially organized mass-production of manuscripts had advanced apace, fuelled by the development of a reading public around the new universities, and turning out works of literature and romance as well as treatises in law, politics and science, and editions of classical authors such as Aristotle. The Gutenberg press was, of course, invented to solve a specific problem: that of the economical reproduction of text. And this could only be a problem insofar as books were already in demand among a substantial social layer that wanted to read them and was able to pay for them—a demand which was evidently not met by the production of manuscripts. [34]

The Gutenberg press, as Carr is well aware, did not precede or produce the literate subject, but merely facilitated its generalization by making the production of books more economical. Along the way it undoubtedly—through some of its own formal characteristics—exerted an influence on the text it carried, through the standardization of typographical practices and styles, or the page lengths technically viable for printing and binding, for example. It would follow that the reading experience was thereby shaped in significant ways. But there is a tendency in the critique of technology to over-emphasize such factors at the expense of farther-reaching socio-historical explanations. If the history of technology may be read as a history of transformations in the human mind, we need also to remember that there will be many other determinants simultaneously shaping that mind: city life, war, procreation, to name but three. More generally, one would need to look at the extent to which the exchange relation mediates social reproduction; the structure and role of the family; the existence of larger-scale social and cultural formations such as classes, genders, castes or religions; the degree of linguistic uniformity; the formalization of acceptable behaviours as laws or ethical norms; patterns of work and education. Such things must, of course, have had some bearing on the historical generation of the literate individual associated in this tradition with the Gutenberg press. A similar array of factors would need to be taken into account in considering any analogous transformations that may be underway in the age of the Net.

Though his technological perspective has sometimes overreached itself—The Big Switch practically suggested that grid-based electricity could explain the whole shape of 20th-century American capitalism—Carr has not been naive to such matters. [35] Aware that arguments of this kind conventionally call forth accusations of technological determinism, he attempted in The Shallows to head these off with a distinction of levels. At the level of immediate experience—and even sometimes at a social level—humans could clearly choose which tools to use, and how to deploy them; but from a broader historical perspective, technological development must be viewed as having its own logic, for the human race did not volunteer en masse to adopt a technology like the clock, the map, the gun or the Internet, or choose in pristine, abstract freedom how to use it. This did not mean that technologies develop autonomously—the roles of social, economic and other factors also needed to be considered—but it was clear that a new technology, once it began to take hold, exerted a certain kind of compulsion. Whilst this is no doubt true, what is obscured in these qualifications is any sense of the proportional weight of these various factors. Can it be shown that the influence of technology on the structures of cognition is so great as to justify technological periodizations of the modalities of human thought per se? Might not other factors reverse or cancel whatever influence technology might be thought to have, or complicate it to the extent that we would be better served looking for another waymark? Does it make sense, for example, to see the invention of text in itself as marking the end of the era of orality, when epic poets persisted in many parts of the world for several thousand years after and alongside its invention?

Carr’s model for what we might call the ‘book-user’—the contemplative literate subject—is grounded particularly in visions from American Transcendentalism and Romantic poetry. It is Nathaniel Hawthorne sitting meditatively in Concord, Massachusetts, prior to having his concentration broken by the intruding sounds of modernity, or the Keats of Ode to Psyche. [38] This figure supplies the norm against which to measure our technological decline. But it surely faces many other challenges at present than the formal character of technology: the generalization of insecurity and economic precarity; the erosion of the separation between work and life; the decline of the home’s integrity as a space external to the bustle of capitalist existence. In this world it is for most of us, sadly, a rare thing to be able to carve out the psychological space that this figure requires, to sit at length with the tranquillity required for ‘deep’ reading. The computer and the Web may well be significant factors in bringing this situation about—not only through our direct interactions with them, but also through their social, economic and cultural implications, many of which are ably traced by Carr across his three books. But there are clearly other factors too, beyond technology. The Web, we might say, is the pre-eminent technological construct of an increasingly sickly neoliberal capitalism. As such, it is a major factor in shaping the vectors of behaviour and experience that characterize this world. But it is also a product of these, and of the society in which they take place. It is hardly surprising that the technology of a hyper-flexibilized, insecure, turbulent world offers little security to the purposefully structured, meditative mind.”

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