Evolution of Technology (TEC 154 2014S) : Readings

Readings from Teich, Group 1


Berry, Wendell (1990). Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer. (Also followup comments.) [Teich 10th, ch. 5, pp. 35-40]

Florman, Samuel C. (1981). Technology and the Tragic View. [Teich 10th, ch. 6, pp. 41-49]

Weinberg, Alvin M. (1996). Can Technology Replace Social Engineering? [Teich 10th, ch. 4, pp. 27-34]

General Questions

The tone of these essays reminds me of a famous lecture given by scientist and novelist C.P. Snow in 1959 called "The Two Cultures," wherein Snow argued that the intellectual life of Western society was deeply bifurcated into the culture of science and the culture of the humanities, and that that bifurcation--that inability to communicate across the divide--was the largest hindrance to solving the world's abiding problems. Where might each of these authors weigh in on Snow's argument? Weinberg may agree, but would Berry see the divide as so clear-cut? Florman inveighs against the short-sightedness of "antitechnologists," but at the same time argues for a fundamentally humanities-derived interpretation of the role of technology in the world. Is Snow's argument still valid in our increasingly computerized world? [Very good. Draws upon broader sources and explains those broader sources clearly. However, the last part of the question seems a bit simplistic.]

Questions on Berry

"Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer" really threw a curve-ball at most technology aficionados from back in the day. The article argued that a computer was not needed because it was a move that made use of a newer idea--not using a computer. Although the article is outdated, what parallels do you see with today's new forms of technology? Would you advocate for them or against them? [Good. I'm not sure about the use of slang, and I'm not sure that Berry really "threw a curve ball" at technology aficionados, since most probably ignored it, but I like the question about parallels.]

Are Berry's concerns applicable or do they seem primitive and backward? [Fair. Clearly judges Berry. And basically permits only one of two answers.]

In Wendell Berry's "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" he explains his standards for technological innovation. His ninth standard discusses the disruption of family relationships. Today's use of cell phones comes to mind when reading this standard due to the fact that a lot of people never put their phone down. This could reduce family interaction and thus hurt family relationships. However, as a college student, I can say that my phone brings me closer to my family since I am able to speak, text, and even video chat with them. Thus I pose the question whether cell phones are disrupting family relationships or in fact strengthening them? Why? [Very good. Asks us to reflect upon an approach using a technology that we should be familiar with. Perhaps a little long, but okay.]

Given that Wendell Berry's "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" was written in 1990 and the extent to which technology is used nowadays, do you think that his attitude would be different today? Would it be the same today? Or would his views at the time be even stronger today? Why? [Mixed. Generally an interesting question, but one that is likely to be hard for the class to answer because (a) we have very little sense of Berry beyond just a few pages and (b) none of you were alive in 1990, so you probably have limited conception of how computers have changed. Or maybe concern matters.]

Even if technology causes some amount of destruction in its creation or use as Wendell Berry posits in Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, couldn’t that technology still be used in ways that could create a net good overall? [Good. Could be improved by asking us to compare how we think Berry might response (since he gives us some fairly detailed perspectives) to how we might respond.]

Can a computer, a device that serves multiple purposes, be subjected to Berry's standards? Surely, one would not judge a recorder with the same criteria that one judges firewood. [Good]

Berry's final remark, while it was most likely meant to be a joke, is this logic not harmful to development of the human race as a whole? Can we not say that NOT vaccinating children is innovation? [Fair; Berry doesn't call for rejecting things out of hand; he calls for thoughtful rejection.]

Berry contests the questions within the letters - he claims that he does not need to be "up-to-the-minute" on what is going on around him. Why does this have to do with buying a computer, if anything - this comment makes him seem quite pompous and his claim seems out of control. Is this his attempt to shun all types of technology? [Fair. A close reading suggests that he is responding to NSB.]

Berry claims that through not getting a computer he is not buying into the extravagant consumption that in intertwined within our society. How is having a computer and using it to stay updated (as suggested) extravagant, if anything wouldn’t it be conserving trees? [Fair. Seems to ignore Berry's deeper messages and the "trees" comment ignores scale of effects.]

Why does Wendell Berry equate buying a compute to replace his typewriter to the "sacrifice [of] an association" with his wife and her role in his work? Is he really discarding more than a machine? [Fair. I think you've answered this in the second half of the question, and I think Berry answers it in his responses.]

Questions on Florman

Florman states "Technology is revolutionary." Is this statement consistently true? [Fair. This seems like a yes/no question, and I'm not sure it asks us to think that much more deeply about the author.]

In the excerpt, "Technology and the Tragic View," there were accounts of how technology involves a sense of compromise, or "trade-off." After viewing the assigned readings for class, what is the trade-off other than environmental hazards and do you find them worthwhile? Why or why not? [Fair. Florman's main theme is not about trade-offs, but about unexpected consequences.]

What are the myths of the "technological imperative" and the "technocratic elite" in Samuel C. Florman's Technology and the Tragic View? [Fair/Good. On one hand, I like background questions. On the other, this is something that a good reader would quickly check in an appropriate reference source.]

Considering his comparison of technologists to tragic heroes, is it Samuel Florman's belief that all technology is born from inherent human struggle. [Fair. Not a question we can really answer from the article.]

Florman assumes that technology progresses, at least in part, from fixing the mistakes that it created in the first place. Should we blindly follow such a path, especially when some "advances" (lobotomy comes to mind) may cause more harm than good without providing enough benefit to counterbalance its negative effects? [Fair; overly simplifies Florman]

How much do we have to tolerate before realizing that we cannot go further? Is there a point at which the cumulative amount of things we have sacrificed in the name of technology becomes to costly? [Good]

Questions on Weinberg

In our culture of fear and war on terror/drugs, how would Weinberg propose solving some of the issues relating to said "wars". [Very good. Asks us to think more carefully about technological fixes.]

Would a social engineering or technological approach work best for addressing the problems of drugs and terro? Can these two approaches work together? [Good.]

How can we successfully ensure that there is a collaborative effort between the social engineer and the technologist in a manner that benefits society as a whole? [Good]

Weinberg's argument seems to work on a hypothetical world that exists in a vacuum. When technological fixes are introduced, would they not change the behavior of people? Is there an end to these fixes? As an example, consumption (such as food and water) in America is much higher than other countries around the world, yet, there still are Americans who are impoverished. [Good]

It has been argued before that the amount of food being produced currently is enough to feed the world's population. Is it possible that, perhaps, technology cannot provide to solution to some problems? [Fair. A bit simple.]

What would Weinberg say about technology's place within simple human interactions today? Such as high schoolers hanging out on a weekend, all on their smartphones and having little face-to-face interaction. This essay was originally published in the 60's so it is more regarding larger scale mechanic technologies that should do social good, but what about social engineering to socially aide us in the current day. (While he talked about better water access for more people, what about improving access to education for more people and utilizing the more personal technological devices of today?) [Very good]

How should one go about socially engineering better uses of technology? He gives examples but how can you navigate around the political implications of the current uses of technology, such as the space example he gave? [Good]

When Weinberg's essay first came out, what was its reception like? Did the public at large buy his argument that poverty had, essentially, been solved (or at least that the biggest problem was overcome) by the application of technology to industrial agriculture? I'm curious as to this essay's critical reception. [Fair. It's a great question, but it's not one that we can answer in discussion.]

Copyright (c) 2014 Samuel A. Rebelsky.

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