modernity and technology : a dialogue

I: Modernity and technology ... what are we even talking about?

R: That's a fair question. And perhaps it has a fairly straightforward answer: We are considering the relationship between two sets of conditions or phenomena, and simultaneously, two sets of ideas that describe and explain those phenomena. Modernity is the set of historical conditions, and modernity theory is how we talk about those conditions. In a similar way, technology studies is how we talk about a set of conditions we call technology.

I: Sounds like you're making a distinction between ideas and reality. Are you relying on some sort of historical materialism for this?

R: Perhaps. Let's consider a four-way relationship. The trick is separating out the ideas from the "real" stuff, at least momentarily. On a material level we have a condition of modernity, the autonomous subject let's say, that is affected by a technology such as the computer. Suppose the computer requires a login name giving him a unique identifier, thus reinforcing his sense of individuality.

I: Remember the editors of Modernity and Technology emphasize the mutual co-construction of these ...

R: Yes of course. So how does this autonomous self in turn affect the computer? Well it's not a social computer, or a cooperative computer, is it? It's a personal computer. So we can consider the way the computer was imagined and designed as a consequence of individuality. It has one mouse, one keyboard, and although the GUI can be seen by others, it is really an individual who has control over it. But here we're already slipping between the idea and the material phenomenon. Was it the actual person who made it a personal computer? Or was it particular contingent characteristics of self-hood that were projected onto the technology ... and if so, how were these characteristics made real?

I: Through discourse?

R: Exactly. So we begin to develop a model whereby, yes ideas drive material reality and reality drives the ideas. But they are linked through discourse, which isn't an abstract or rationalized mode of communication ... but an embodied one influenced by values and meaning. Not only do the historical conditions of what's modern influence material technology ... but they influence how we talk about technology.

I: Which in turn influences both how technology is re-designed, in a materialist sense, and therefore the material conditions ...

R: AND, how we talk about modernity. Modernity Theory.

I: Whoof. And visa-verse. This is complex. So this what the entanglement of these two is all about?

R: They are indeed very entangled. But unfortunately in an unbalanced way. If I may, allow me to introduce another concept to further complicate matters. Epistemology is a fancy word philosophers use to talk about how we justify our claims to knowledge. There are many ways to demonstrate that what we know is true, or at least probable (or even useful) to believe. One way of doing this is through making an appeal to a larger, more encompassing set of beliefs, from which we can logically infer that we are justified in believing our bit of knowledge.

I: A theory?

R: Indeed, often using what's called deductive reasoning. Another way is to go out and look for evidence from which to build a case that what we believe is true. This is called empiricism and uses inductive reasoning to make inferences. As the authors of our esteemed book point out, our discussions of modernity have easily tended toward theorising, or highly-abstracted talk. But our discussions about technology have been grounded more in the empirical methods ... much less abstract and much more specific.

I: But isn't it difficult to generalize from these specific accounts about technology?

R: Yes, and sometimes unfair to apply a highly-generalized theory to a specific instance with many distinct properties. This is the point of departure for our authors' discussion.
The difficulty in considering the relationship between these two is how we get the top-down approach to meet the bottom-up somewhere in the middle. How we get them to dialogue with one another.

I: Well ... we're off to a good start.


postmodern information age?

Professor Brey's chapter in Modernity and Technology (2003) provided a brief overview of the tenets of modernism and (to a limited extent) postmodernism. Let's consider postmodern theories that describe this new information age as some clean rupture from the industrial age of the modern world ... a new historical condition. Then let us consider the Secrets of Silicon Valley film wherein we see the glimmer and sexiness of Palo Alto's tech community resting squarely on the all-too-familiar, ugly, and very unsexy condition of exploited labor. Maybe we shouldn't cast out our theories of modernity quite yet? Or at least, as Lyotard does, consider both these conditions existing together?