Today, many people use computers to store and retrieve pertinent information. What does this widespread use of computers and information technology do to our social development? In order to understand the way technology may be changing our views of ourselves and the world that surrounds us, we must first understand the way in which modern technology itself processes information.
Most computers use a binary digit system to store and manipulate data. The majority of home computers and personal computers in use today are called microcomputers. Microcomputers are made up of different internal parts that perform functions essential to the machine’s operation. This process of having different elements which performs individual functions to create a complex whole is very significant to our investigation of the effects computers have on our society.
The three major internal components of the microcomputer are the central processing unit (CPU), the memory, and the I/O system (input/output). Each is connected to the other through a bus system made up of a set of wires over which digital data is transmitted. Together these components create a working system that can aid in the inputting and processing of information, as well as manipulation of this data, minimizing the amount of work preformed by the user. As the computer is able to perform more, the user is required to understand less. Efficiency is an attribute that sells many products in our society including technology and specifically it is very effective in computer sales.
Internally, there are steps that take place each time data is entered into the computer. A microprocessor interprets and executes machine language, which is a set of all-purpose instructions. Machine language is a numeric language, which means that all machine language instructions and the data on which those instructions operate are in numeric form. All information needed to do anything on a microcomputer is encoded in binary, a numeric language of ones and zeros. Every time the computer performs an operation, each task is broken down into a series of binary digits which is read in from the memory, bused to the microprocessor and then, if an operation must be preformed, the I/O system is invoked.
From this knowledge we can say that machine language is a sequence of numbers that represents instructions and data, but since both instructions and data are represented by numbers, then the microprocessor can not tell the difference between the two simply by appearance. By the way a program is written and by specifying where in the program execution is to begin, the programmer tells the processor how to interpret the contents of each instruction.
Does this mean that the computer breaks everything into "yes" and "no", one or zero, right and wrong, black and white, good or bad? Well, the computer does not have a pre-designated answer for every question or operation which the user attempts. Each program tells the computer how to respond to the inputted information. For example, if I were to enter the same symbol at two different times, while running two different programs, Word 6.0 for Windows and WordPerfect 5.1 yet still on the same computer, I would get different responses.
If one were to hit the F3 key in WordPerfect, it would displays the help menu, but in Word hitting the same key produces an audible warning or "beep" and no other output. Although it was the exact same computer, the program changed the outcome of the system. We must recognize that the program or software is the one making the decisions in the processing of information, not the hardware. The software is the one giving the rules to the microprocessor so that it can manipulate the data. This is very important because although you may have a very expensive and powerful computer with all the newest and most effective attributes, it really is worthless without a program to take full advantage of those powerful attributes.
So what does this all mean? Does understanding the internal motions of the computer really help us interpret the way technology is changing our perspectives? Well, it is definitely a step in the right direction. If we understand that a computer is not a single entity, but a collection of smaller machines that when put together correctly create a computer, then we see how we can create other "entities" through the combination of multiple mechanisms. This combining of resources is essential to our western society, without it we would not have machines e.g. lawn mowers, cars, drills, cranes, dump trucks and firearms; nor would we have human organizations e.g. construction companies, manufacturing companies, consumer rights organizations, lobbying firms, business corporations, police departments, fire departments, and educational facilities; or even the country which we call the United States of America. If the founders of our nation had not worked together, as a whole, then we would not hav e the Constitution and we would not be in the same "state" right now.
So we can see how this information is relevant, now we must explore some perspectives on the issue of technology and its effect on us as both individuals and as a society.
Margaret Lowe Benston has written some material on technology as a language. She understands technology as a language for action and self-expression. "The technology available at any specific time provides a range of options for acting on the world... these options function rather like words in a language... you must use what tools and techniques are available in any attempt to carry out a particular action."(Benston p.18) We use technology as a medium to express our interests and our concerns.
Unfortunately, however, men control this language and therefore this makes technology a "gendered language". "Men’s control over technology and their adherence to a technological world view have consequences for language and verbal communication and create a situation where women are ‘silenced’."(Benston p.15) She goes on to point out that part of the current worldview is the right to own or control the material world, this is achieved through technology. If women are cut off from this controlling medium, then they too are cut off from the control. "Women generally do not think they have the right to control the material world and have little confidence in their ability to; as long as they doubt either, it is very difficult for them to use a technology created by those who accept domination/control as a given."(Benston p.20) If the woman does not understand or even have access to this critical aspect of our society, then she has less control over her physical surroundings than her male c ounterpart.
Benston claims that men frequently ‘do not understand what women are talking about’. This, she believes, results from a sort of "tunnel vision" that comes out of complete acceptance of the "dominant definition" of reality. Benston wants us to recognize possible generalizations as well as attitudes that both genders may make. She feels that women need to learn more about technology and gain more self-assurance, but both men and woman, together, need to develop technology into a medium that would serve the interests and goals of more that a group of privileged white males.
Through the creation of technology as a combination of mechanisms, working together as one, we have taken aim at a new target. We want to dominate our surroundings, but is this really helpful? Benston wants humans to work together and find a common goal, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. "Fundamental change can only come about by an attack on all the structures of domination in the society. As a part of this, we will have to change science and technology to give more primacy to the kinds of approaches now considered feminine. If we can do that, the consequences will be new kinds of technology as well as new kinds of people."(Benston p.27)
Martin Heidegger, a well-known German writer and philosopher, understood humanity and it’s relation to technology in a much different manner. He wants the human to be at one with itself. This is achieved through revealing or letting what is concealed come forth into appearance. Heidegger wants us to see things as they are, not as how they may appear to us at first. In order to see the truth we must be "granted" the revealing of these things, this he calls Granting. Through Granting we are aware of our essence as humans, this essence is actually a "saving-power" because we save time in that we are Granted the ability to understand the truth as it is, and not a misinterpretation or misjudgment of it. Whatever the thing may be, understanding it, as it is, is profitable to us because we do not need to think about it: we know and understand what it is. We have been granted this because we are human beings with the ability to be at one with our Being.
If we were at one with ourselves and therefore in a state of Being, we could see things as they really are. If we could see technology as what it is, we could see that it is itself a sort of revealing, who’s essence is Enframing. When translated from German, Gestell [frame], can mean skeleton as well as some kind of apparatus, like a bookshelf. Heidegger uses the term enframing as a challenging claim on man. Once things have been revealed to us we place them inside of a "frame" of understanding, much like a picture frame does to an image. Not only does the image now have a place inside the frame, but we can call it a picture because of the frame that it has around it. Yet it would still be a picture without the frame. We do not think of the wall that the picture is mounted on as part of the picture, nor do we think of the room that the picture is in as part of the picture. None the less, the picture is not itself if it is not in its proper place, if we had seen the picture in a different setting, would it have not looked different? Would there be anyway it could look the same? Instead of looking at everything that surrounds it, we just put a frame around the image and it becomes the "picture".
What Heidegger wants us to realize is that we can not neglect the surroundings, no matter how insignificant they may appear to us at the time. What is a block without the city? What is city without a state or province? ...without its country? ... without the Earth? ...without the Solar System? And what is the any of this without the Universe? Therefore, can we think of a city block without thinking of its relation to and place in the Universe? Everything that surrounds us is in the Universe and to not think of it in such terms would be idle and disadvantageous. Heidegger wants to Grant this understanding to us.
Heidegger believes that modern technology as Enframing is dangerous. If we Enframe, we are losing sight of our revealing and our essence. There is a tendency for us to reduce ourselves to "standing-reserve" or a source of energy for human use, we becomes "users" of the world around us and this includes other humans. "But Enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is. As a destining, it banishes man into that kind of revealing which is an ordering. This ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing. Above all, Enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiesis [truth], lets what presences come forth into appearance." (Heidegger p. 27) Heidegger supports the idea that through Enframing technology shapes society, at least in the way we perceive our surroundings and ourselves.
Another well known German philosopher, economist, and political theorist is a man named Karl Marx, he wrote on the subject of technology and its effects on society. Marx believed in human beings as producers. In an essay about politics he wrote, "In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness."(Marx p.38)
Here, Marx is expressing his feelings that in their social lives, humans (in a society) go through processes which they do not control and many times do not even realize, none the less, these activities are instrumental to the development of their material lives and the economy of their society. These processes are relationships with others. In these unions, they (as humans) are being used and/or using another in an effort to achieve a goal. Whether the individual is aware of it or not, out of these relationships comes the basis of both legal and political superstructures which are vital to our society. Marx goes on to say, "The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."(Marx p.38) Marx has hypothesized that our society, which is dependant upon many relationships of mechanisms, d etermines how we perceive, and therefore interact with our surroundings, including other humans.
Well then, the question arises: is it our society that determines the direction of our technology, or is it our technology that determines the direction of our society? This is a very interesting and perplexing question. Numerous articles and compositions have been written on this subject in recent years, one author is a man named John McDermott. In regards to technology, he wrote, "No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind generally and of America in particular..."(McDermott p.95) Here, McDermott wants to emphasize the level which technology has transcended our lives. He feels very strongly that technology is involved and, to some degree, influences us. The question is, for better or for worse? It would definitely have to depend on the technology we analyze.
If we begin to look at automation and robots in the work place, exemplified in the automobile industry, we see technology as being relatively influential. McDermott would see this as an example of technology shaping society. Not only is the car-assembling robot taking on more dimensions as far as the actual labor and creation of production is concerned, but it is also taking over the job of the skilled machinist. This machine is starting to gain ground, it now has a place in society as a machine, and it can only be replaced by machines of its type, which makes it important. The machine has taken on more that just the performance of its task, it has a place in the economic structure as well. If there are many machines that are taking over the tasks of human labors then we must become aware of their effect on our society. "Complex technological systems are extraordinarily resistant to intervention by persons or problems operating outside or below their managing groups, and this is so regar dless of the ‘politics’ of a given situation. Technology creates its own politics."(McDermott p.104) If the machines in a community have political power serviced by and in addition to playing an economic role in society, then technology begins to determine the direction of society and we must ask ourselves: who is really in control?
Another author who has expressed his interest in this subject is Langdon Winner. Contrary to McDermott, he has some good things to say about the effects computers have on our society. "The crucial weakness of the conventional idea [of what technology is] is that it disregards the many ways in which technologies provide structure for human activity... If the experience of modern society shows us anything, however, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape the activity and its meaning. The introduction of a robot to an industrial work place not only increases productivity, but often radically changes the process of production, redefining what ‘work’ means in that setting."(Winner p.6) We can see here that Winner wants us to see the positive results and effect technology can have on society.
If we were to think of the car-assembling robot, Winner would see it as a helpful medium to achieve the goals of the society. "What matters is not the technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded."(Winner p.20) Ultimately it is not the technology that manipulates society, but the society that manipulates technology. If the community had been created based on different principles then it would not have led to the development of specific technologies. In creating a technology, it’s effects positive or negative are created as well, and become part of the invention, these effects are with the technology as long as it is being used.
Winner felt that technologies are forms of life, and they can engender a world around them. There are two type of technologies for Winner, non-inherently political technologies and inherently political technologies. So called non-inherently political technologies are those which carry no political implications when they are created and in use. Inherently political technologies are ones which were created with intentions to have political implications. One example of this type of technology is the highway system in Long Island, New York. "Many of the overpasses are extraordinarily low, having as little as nine feet of clearance at the curb. Even those who happened to notice this structural peculiarity would not be inclined to attach any special meaning to it."(Winner p.22)
It turns out, however, that over two hundred or so low overpasses on Long Island are there for a purpose. They were willfully designed and constructed by someone who wanted to attain a specific social influence. "Robert Moses, the master builder of the 1920’s to the 1970’s in New York, built his overpasses according to the specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways. According to evidence provided by Moses’ autobiographer, Robert A. Caro, the reasons reflect Moses’ social class bias and racial prejudice."(Winner p.23) Moses build these highways for the upper class whites to use and since they usually were not on buses, they were free to enjoy the benefits of the parkways. Not only were Moses’ parkways created with political intentions, but their effects were not even realized by the public. Until recently, the effects were still accepted by the Long Island population and Moses was successful in oppressing the poorer classes. Whether we realized it or not wa s irrelevant because Moses’ creation of the parkways was inherently political. It was not the technology itself that created this effect, but the creator who designed the outcome.
An additional writer, named Samuel C. Florman has voiced his opinions on technology and it’s relation to society. Florman wants us to realize that everything in this world has both good and bad aspects, technology is no different. There are positive effects as well as negative effects in every technological creation, "practically every technological advance had unexpected and unwanted side effects. Along with each triumph of mechanical genius came an inevitable portion of death and destruction. Instead of becoming discouraged, however, our forebears seemed to be resolute in confronting the adverse consequences of their own inventiveness."(Florman p.125)
Florman believes in technology as a self-correcting process, each time we create a technology it has both positive and negative implications, but the next time we create technology it is to correct the negative aspects of the previous one, and so on in a continuous cycle. If we use the car-assembling robot example again, Florman would see it as another step in the continuous self-correcting process. It is an inevitable stage in the technological process that must be fulfilled if we are to have a society where technology helps us correct our problems.
"Technology is revolutionary. Therefore, hostility toward technology is anti-revolutionary, which is to say, it is reactionary."(Florman p.129) Reacting to technology is not going to help the situation. Reaction, as defined by Funk & Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary, is "a tendency toward a former state of things, a trend towards an earlier social, political, or economic policy or condition"(p.656). We must not move backwards in our thinking, we must move forward, otherwise we will be in a paradoxical state. We must accept technology for what it is, a self-correcting process, and take that into account whenever we use it. Technology is not the answer to all our problems, nor is it our savior, but it is undeniably helpful in numerous ways. "We must press ahead in the name of the human adventure. Without experimentation and change our existence would be a dull business. We simply cannot stop while there are masses to feed and diseases to conquer, seas to explore and heavens to survey."(Fl orman p.132)
We can see that there are some definite imperfections in technology, but expecting anything to be perfect, in this world, is an illusion. Some difficulties lie in the gender differences between men and women, and how this may influence our development of technology. Other problems may lie in our implementation of technology. We may also be letting technology take hold of our perspectives, closing ourselves in, as well as limiting us. We must remember that we are human beings and what that means to us individually. True Being is remembering where we are and who we are, while still understanding what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Through all this we must still ponder what is not clear to us and a very relevant question in this day and age is attempting to determine the distinction between the "technological determination of society" or the "social determination of technology". If we are to be the ultimate controllers of our lives then we must make sure technology is not making too many of our own decisions for us. I would like to close with a theory from an article by Don Ihde, "Technology as the revelation of the world as standing-reserve [a source of energy for human use] is the ontological presupposition and ground for modern science." (Ihde p.201) If this is in fact true and both our science and technology are based on using of the earth as a source of "materials", then we have a problem, because we are going to eventually run out of materials.
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Benston, Margaret. "Women’s voices/Men’s voices: Technology as Language." In Kramarae, Carol., ed., Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.1988
Bolter, David J. Chapters 2, and 3. Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina Press. 1984
Florman, Samuel. "Technology and the Tragic View." In Albert H. Teich, ed., Technology and the Future, 4th ed. New York: St Martin’s Press. 1986
"Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary." HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1993
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row. 1977
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Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. New York: Dell. 1952
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A search for limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1986