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Misa, et al. Modernity and Technology


Modernity and Technology.

Misa, Thomas J., Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg, editors. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. 376 p, $42.00, hardcover. ISBN: 0262134217.

Imagining the Cultural Studies of Technology

Davin Heckman

<1> In the course of my own research on culture and technology, I have marveled at the vast pool of valuable resources available in both Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies. And I have been equally amazed by the disciplinarity that seems to keep each of these approaches from interacting with each other, in spite of the fact that they share common ancestors like Marx, Heidegger, and Mumford. And so I found myself intrigued by the arrival of Misa, Brey, and Feenberg's edited volume, Modernity and Technology -- a deliberate effort to reconcile the theoretical question of "Modernity" with a pragmatic case-study driven approach. The grand result is a collection of thirteen articles that deal with a diverse range of topics from feminism to environmentalism, from surveillance to alternative medicine, and from Taiwan to Trinidad. While the articles vary greatly in intensity and appeal, a reflection of my own disciplinary prejudices no doubt, Modernity and Technology succeeds in opening up a much needed dialog, and in inspiring curiosity for scholars on both sides of the fence.

<2> The first section of the book, "Modernity Theory and Technology Studies," is geared towards establishing the utility of this combined approach from a number of critical perspectives. The essay "Theorizing Modernity and Technology," by Philip Brey articulates the opposition between these two methodological approaches as a question of "Micro" versus "Macro" (62). To clarify, micro-scale studies focus on individuals and small groups, meso-scale studies focus on social groups and organizations, and macro-scale studies focus on cultures and institutions (50). For Brey, who seems to be speaking to a Science and Technology Studies audience, the solution is to develop a mutual critique, with the micro- (and meso-) scale insights of the STS scholar offering a counterpoint to the macro-scale claims of the theorist and vise-versa. In Andrew Feenberg's "Modernity Theory and Technology Studies," the proposed reconciliation is less a question of a dialectical approach than it is of a combined approach. In essence, Feenberg suggests a cultural studies of technology, by which theoretical approaches are grounded in empirical study. With an eye on the common ancestor Heidegger, whose awareness of the specificity of subjectivity was a cornerstone of his philosophical insights, technology and culture are united in the process of "deworld[ing]" (93), Feenberg explains that both disciplines focus on the ways that their respective objects of study rearrange one's understanding of and interaction with the world. A third article, "Critical Theory, Feminist Theory, and Technology Studies" by Barbara L. Marshall, looks to feminist theory which has a long tradition of negotiating between theory and practice. Specifically, Marshall points to the intersection of gender, culture, and technology, drawing attention to the ways in which gender exists as a cultural construct and as a practical reality, and affirms the need to see the relationship between social life and technological processes.

<3> The second section, "Technologies of Modernity" (which, because it was the most enlightening, will receive the most attention), is geared less towards demonstrating the need for such studies than in showing some examples of what they might look like. Don Slater's fascinating article, "Modernity under Construction," discusses the idea of "Modernity" as experienced through the development of Internet connectivity in Trinidad. Dispatching with preordained notions that have been built around First-World experiences with development and the experience of "postmodernity" that have followed, Slater looks to the post-colonial experience of modernity as being characterized by diaspora, migration, and the "experience of disembedding" (148) As a result, the Trinidadian encounter with the Internet, Slater argues is "hardly postmodern" (148). Looking at both how the Internet is used and how it has developed according to the logic of global capitalism, Slater's study is able to situate the practical questions of technology in Trinidad within a larger framework, making it a strong example of the books overall argument.

<4> David Lyon's "Surveillance Technology and Surveillance Society" demonstrates the ways in which more dated theories of social control, in particular the notion of the "Orwellian" state, has been superseded by multiple decentralized and private surveillance assemblages which resonate with Foucault's "governmentality" and the control of "biopower" (178). A theme which has certainly been considered by cultural studies scholars who work in the shadow of Jameson's postmodernism, Lyon's contribution seems to suggest that studying the multiplicity of surveillance technologies can provide a useful framework for understanding the postmodern. And, more importantly, it can offer clues about the potential that "reshaping" these technologies might have for staving off the theoretical future of total surveillance (183).

<5> Paul N. Edwards, in "Infrastructure and Modernity," employs the macro/meso/micro approach advocated by Brey to critique the notion of infrastructure. Looking to Heidegger, whose notion of "enframing" both describes, in the large sense, the codes through which the "world picture" is constructed and, in the small sense, the individual's intimate use of those codes, Edwards develops a model that pits an infrastructure's design against its use. Using the development of the Internet as an example, Edwards explains the ways in which the ARPANET (which would evolve into the Internet) was designed on the macro-scale to provide "a survivable command-control system for nuclear war," was used by individuals on the micro-scale to exchange information unofficially, and created on the meso-scale a robust network that was ultimately used for things other than nuclear war (217-219).

<6> In "Creativity of Technology," Junichi Murata attempts to reconcile the anti-essentialism of technology studies with the idea that "technology" itself is an essential aspect of modernity (227). Looking at the clock, which has long been considered to be a defining technological feature of modern life, Murata removes the device from the western context which has defined much of its study and focuses on two case-studies: the reception of the clock in China and Japan. Skillfully, Murata is able to shed the essential construction of the clock while situating its technical and technifying nature as a measure and component of modernization. In the West, the clock developed alongside a worldview in which clock time served as a powerful metaphor; in 17th century China, clocks were used as an ornament; and in 17th century Japan, they were reconstructed to reflect Japanese notions of time. What this means, Murata argues, is that the essential feature of technology vis-à-vis modernity is primarily a creative one. While the practical effects of technology are potent enough in themselves, it is when they succeed in capturing the imagination that they become a sociocultural force to be reckoned with.

<7> The third section of the Modernity and Technology, "Changing Modernist Regimes," presents a series of technology studies which interrogate the contemporary contradictions and modifications of modernism. Johan Schot's contribution, "The Contested Rise of a Modernist Technology Politics," analyzes the way in which the theoretical construct of modernity and its faith in technology has emerged as a reflexive political practice of modernization. In other words, Schot is describing the phenomenon by which change, once a consequence of technological modernization, has come to be an objective of politics. David Hess' "Technology, Medicine, and Modernity" applies close scrutiny to "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM), which is often dismissed as anti-modern (284). Seeing CAM as a practice which is determined by a range of social concerns rather than being reduced strictly to the question of medical technology, Hess concludes that alternative medical practices can and often do exist safely alongside high-tech medical practices, and thus constitute a new development in the history modern medicine. Arthur P. J. Mol's "The Environmental Transformation of the Modern Order" seems to build on the work of Schot and Hess by describing the reflexive modernity of the environmental movement. Again, resisting attempts to see ecological conservation as anti-modern, Mol argues that this postmodern movement is part of an overarching logic of globalization and the widening conception of resources -- a manifestation of "reflexive modernization" (309). And finally, Haider A. Khan, in "Technology, Modernity, and Development" offers a fourth model for understanding the role the relationship between technology and late capitalist practices. Critiquing the modernist notion of the "national innovation system" (NIS) which provides a heavy-handed, top-down model for managed technological development, Khan looks at the example of Taiwan which he claims follows a "positive feedback loop innovation structure" or POLIS (341). The strength of the POLIS model, Khan argues, is that it presents a more dynamic understanding of technological modernization which relies not simply on an infusion of money and/or skill, but on an intimate sociocultural relationship with technological artifacts that is able to generate the reflexive loop that is needed to fuel innovation and development.

<8> In spite of these many great selections, Modernity and Technology is not without its shortcomings. While a great deal of attention is paid to Heidegger, and mention is made of scholars he has inspired like Hubert Dreyfus and Michel Foucault, the text seems to avoid stitching the Heidegger who wrote about technology to the Heidegger who wrote about being (which really could be a volume in itself). Furthermore, cultural studies luminaries like Michel deCerteau, Deleuze and Guattari (whose theories are preoccupied with the micro-scale phenomenon of subjectivity, the macro-scale project of modernism and all of its technocratic associations, and the meso-scale where the micro and macro interact at the level of ethics) would provide a wealth of resources for scholars attempting to generate a productive relationship from contrasting methodologies. And finally, a great deal of time seems to be spent tracking down a reflexive modernism (also called postmodernism), which for many is simply an uncritically accepted "fact" of the contemporary landscape.

<9> As a collection of articles, Modernity and Technology has some real gems that are fascinating and fun to read (as mentioned previously, the second section is especially strong). For people interested in the specific topics that are covered by the various case-studies, all reflect a great deal of care and rigor, making them well worthwhile to read as stand alone pieces. Where the book seems to succeed as a whole is in building bridges between disciplines that might lead to more integrated and resourceful scholarship. And, in spite of its relatively minor limitations, Modernity and Technology serves as a much needed reminder that those who love theory should test it out from time to time, and that those who do empirical studies should be willing to consider the bigger picture.