How I think about culture and technology

Thinking with articulation helps us imagine how social, political, and economic relations might be differently arranged, and to resist more reductive understandings of the relation between technology and culture…

Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise

In my job as Emerging Technologies Librarian, I get to think a lot about two things: culture and technology. For some (technological determinists), technology represents a external force or thing outside of culture, the introduction of which may have good or ill effects—but always technology has a profound and controlling influence on, actively determines social structures. For some (cultural determinists), the reverse is true.

I suppose early on I must have inhabited first one then the other of these two poles. However, a profound shift in my thinking happened while as a graduate student at Michigan Technological University under Dr. Jennifer Slack. There I studied Birmingham cultural studies and the theoretical framework of Articulation. Through articulation I clued to the need to understand technology and culture as deeply imbricated, as co-constitutive, to think them together at the same time, and understand the way in which particular articulations of (or temporary, contingent connections between) these produce both ideological and material effects in the world—effects which can be resisted and reshaped. Like Stuart Hall, a personal hero of mine and one of the foundational voices of cultural studies, I try to walk a middle line between cultural and technological determinism.

I describe this more fully in my dissertation, in which, I explore the sweeping changes to information privacy which have produced a social crisis (or problematic) around privacy. Borrowing from Raymond Williams’ (another foundational voice) great analogy:

…I am not espousing a technological determinism in which networked computers have singularly produced a radical historical break which can be addressed with uni-lateral or uni-dimensional approaches. Thinking with articulation helps us imagine how social, political, and economic relations might be differently arranged, and to resist more reductive understandings of the relation between technology and culture, such as Nicholas Negroponte’s famous declaration in Being Digital (1995), “Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped” (p. 229). I reject any approach that ‘solves for privacy’ merely through proper technological safeguards, or through stricter legislative oversight. My use of articulation theory to map this conjuncture instead foregrounds the need, described by Slack and Wise in their book Culture and Technology (2005), to understand culture and technology together, to support and further their demand for “a model and a vocabulary that brings technology fully into the concept of culture” (p. 5). In their primer, they use the term “technological culture” to recognize that technology is and has always been cultural, culture always technological, and that neither technology nor culture stands as the sole causal agent in any social formation—both technology and culture, so imbricated, are inseparable for any theorist of social formations. This perspective lies at the heart of how cultural studies understands social formations. Cultural studies’ radical contextualism represents a rereading of the Marxist model of determination, accepting as it does the importance of a non-necessary and contingent correspondence between ideology, social/cultural structures, and material relations of production, including, of course, technology. It understands each of these levels as imbricated and mutually constitutive, mutually determinant. In The Long Revolution (1961), Raymond Williams describes it as follows. It is worth quoting at length:

We have got into the habit…of asking about these relationships in a standard form: “what is the relation of this art to this society?” But “society,” in this question, is a specious whole. If the art is part of society, there is no solid whole, outside it, to which…we concede priority. The art is there, as an activity, with the production, the trading, the politics, the raising of families. To study the relations adequately we must study them actively, seeing all the activities as particular and contemporary forms of human energy. It is then not a question of relating the art to the society, but of studying all the activities and their interrelations, without any concession of priority to any one of them we may choose to abstract….I would then define the theory of culture as the study of the relationships between elements in a whole way of life. The analysis of culture is the attempt to discover the nature of the organization which is the complex of these relationships. (1961/2001, p. 61-63)

There is no culture and art, argues Williams. There is no culture and technology, argue Slack and Wise. These ‘individual’ elements, frequently abstracted and separated either through ignorance or for the sake of convenience, must be thought in terms of articulations…

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