Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Technological Determinism, Control, and Education: Neil Postman and Bernard Stiegler





Upon re-reading Neil Postman's Technopology: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, I found many parallels to calls from Bernard Stiegler. I am still unsure whether this should trouble me. Stiegler's detailed philosophical reading of Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida is surely not for nought. However, it may be worthwhile to look at the difference between Postman and Stiegler.

The issue here is one of control. The question concerning technology either revolves around technology's "good" or "badness" or "neutrality," or, alternately, our ability to control it. I would like to argue here that Stiegler's "politics of memory" does not imply that we can control technology or that we can slow the process down (such as Virilio, who Stiegler uses generously in TT2), but that we can engage with it. Postman, in contrast, seems to suggest that we can control technology, even though he offers many examples of how technology's effects cannot be controlled or sometimes even predicted.

For Postman, the question of any new technology, is to ask what it may undo rather than what it can do (Postman 5). This already sets up his narrative as one characterized by nostalgia, as Sid Dobrin pointed out to me yesterday. Still, Postman recognizes, as does Stiegler that technology is never "neutral" because there is no technology "in itself." Instead, technology always enters into a particular situation and as such is pharmacological.

Postman misses this pharmacological aspect of technology; instead, he frames it as if technology has a telos: "once a technology is admitted; it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do" (Postman 7). He seems to see the technology as entering society as if from an alien force. That is, at one point, for Postman, technologies did not "attack" "the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced" (23). Postman seems unaware that (at least this is Stiegler's argument) that technics came first, and constituted the very possibility of culture in the first place. But once again, it is hard to disagree with statements such as the following:
embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. (Postman 13). 
Both Postman and Stiegler are concerned with how technologies alter education. Postman's main concern seems to be the television, a technology important to Stiegler as well ("Telecracy against Democracy"), but also the computer. Postman's views of the possibilities inherent in the computer are dated, as he argues that computers carry a banner of "private learning," "individual problem-solving." In his defense, Postman's book is pre-social network. Thus, later in this book, he characterizes computers as mainly calculating devices in the service of "Technopoly."

For Postman, the ideal time to live was not what he calls "tool using cultures" nor our contemporary moment, but what he calls a "technocracy," which emerged in the 19th century with the industrial revolution: Following Marx, he acknowledges alienation and poor work conditions, but he seems to think that back then we were more conscious of  them as evil things that must be eradicated. This is why one can call his orientation rather nostalgic compared to Stiegler (although Stiegler might be nostalgic for something else: the family? I need to read Taking Care). Postman writes,
And though it is true that technocratic capitalism created slums and alienation, it is also true that such conditions were perceived as an evil that could and should be eradicated [. . .] The nineteenth century saw the extension of public education, laid the foundation for the modern labor union, and led to the rapid diffusion of literacy. (44)
Technocracy also gave us "political and religious freedom," the idea of "progress." Postman thus concludes that "technocracy will not overwhelm us" (44-45). Technocracy does not render religion, for instance, totally ineffectual: "there still existed holy men and the concept of sin" (45).

This seems about as far away from Stiegler as one can possibly get. However, Stiegler too uses the word "spirit" as a positive term. The difference, one might argue, is that for Stiegler "spirit" must also be tied to a Freudian libidinal economy and the concept of mass affect. We get the sense that Stiegler does not long for a time when religion told us what to do; rather, much like Greg Ulmer, aesthetics and art -- various compositions -- should become an integrative paradigm. More on this later.

Returning to Postman, he sees an insidious transition between his beloved technocracy and Technopoloy. Technopology is "totalitarian technocracy" (48). Postman defines Technopoly's "thought world" via Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management:
The beliefs that the primary, if not the only goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that inf act human jdugment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.(51)
 From here, Postman laments the proliferation of information without any guiding structure (for instance, the schools). I do not think that Stiegler necessarily would disagree with this diagnosis. Indeed, this is not a far cry from Stiegler's claim in Decadence of Industrial Democracies:
the reduction of trust (and of time, that is, of belief in the future) to pure calculation, which would be capable of therefore eliminating anything incalculable, is what radically destroys all trust, because it destroys all possibility of believing: all the possibility of believing in the indetermination of the future, of the future as indeterminate and in this indetermination as chance, an opening to the future as to its improbability, that is, to the future as irreducibly singular. (45) 
Ironically, for all of his laments against calculability, if we are to believe Postman, the goal is to try and predict the future (to calculate it) and we do this by paying attention to the "telos" of technology. Ignoring Derrida's important argument that the condition for the possibility of the incalculable is also calculation, the machinic, repetition, etc. Postman condemns calculation tout-court, seeing in the concept of calculation "numerical measurement." This is the type of calculation, indeed, that Derrida or Deleuze (or maybe Stiegler) might call a "bad repetition." The repetition that does not repeat in a singular way.

Still, its notable that the gist of both thinkers map onto one another. Stiegler, like Postman, even points back toward religion as the force that once maintained those "consistencies" (infinitized tendencies that do not strictly exist -- for more on this, see Stiegler's new book, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology).

Postman increasingly fears the autonomy of technology and technique. He seems to believe that technology can once again be subject to our control. The problem, he argues, is that we have surrendered that control to "management" and to an autonomy of techniques that have become naturalized in the belief that these technical solutions can solve our problems for us. Once again, I do not think that Stiegler is in disagreement. However, his major point is not that "we" as human beings should take back control from the autonomous machines, but that we must participate in the constitution of culture through technical objects. Without this political-cultural-economic participation, the consumer remains alienated. Furthermore, Stiegler knows there is no unified "we" as a starting point, but, following Simondon, that it is through this participation that "we" emerges.

Postman uses stronger language: "And so it is necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they are good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty" (143). The "our" he is referring to, I think, is citizens as opposed to so called "experts."

Who are these experts? Scientists. Yes, indeed, apropos of recent debates between Stephone Pinker and Leon Wielselter, Postman is concerned with what he calls "scientism." Scientism is characterized by three principles:

1.) Methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior

2.) Social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize humanity on a rational and humane basis.

3.) The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality

(Postman 147)

Scientism, in other words, is the belief that "science" can guide our moral and ethical belief in humanity. Scientism, as Postman suggests and as Nietzsche taught us long ago, is Science as God.

As I've pointed out before, "science" itself is an abstraction. Postman is less concerned with "science" and more with "social sciences" such as psychology and sociology - precisely the kind of "science" practiced by Pinker and co. The problem with Postman's analysis is not that he reveals the quite obvious humanities point about social science (social science tells morality narratives too), but that he seems to think that the "hard" sciences are an autonomous realm of discovery, a la Galileo (science teaches us how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven). But this refuses to acknowledge that the hard sciences, too, are now "technosciences" (and have always been technoscience). Postman writes, "unlike science, social research never discovers anything" (157). To this I say, science does not merely "discover" anything. In Technics and Time 3, Stiegler writes,
Contrary to the ideal of pure, classical scientific constativity, the essence of technology, is in fact always performative. Far from describing what is i.e., the real, technoscientific invention (whose adoption is called  'invention' insofar as it brings to light a novelty that transforms being) is the inscription of a possible that always remains excessive to being, which means to the description of the reality of being. (203-204)
That is, even the narratives and inventions of science are always an instantiation of the possible rather than a discovery of the real. This also should tell us that even though Postman may be correct that the moral directives we discover in "social science" research can also be discerned and invented by the humanities, that the humanities does not have some sort of monopoly on meaning -- just that we don't do all the bullshit that gets us to such obvious conclusions (that make the conclusions more "factual" or "scientific").

What Stiegler is really calling for is for politics. Hard science, natural science -- neither is isolated from politics, as Bruno Latour shows so convincingly throughout his entire career.



The Great Symbol Drain and The Loving Resistance Fighter: What is to be done?

Postman argues that our symbols are being drained of their meaning, mostly through their overuse and abuse. In a forthcoming article on M.T. Anderson's Feed, the genesis of which can be found here, I argue that this society is so cut off from history that marketing has re-appropriated narratives and symbols almost to no effect. How could the society even understand the reference made to the bible in one of the advertisements if all of their information comes from a constant feed of new information rather than knowledge (a distinction made by Stiegler in his important article "Anamnesis and Hypomnesis"). Furthermore, Stiegler's forthcoming book, Technics and Time 4 is subtitled "Symbols and diabols." It does seem like both Stiegler and Postman are both concerned with the "draining" of the power of certain symbols -- a metaphor that recalls the sapping of the vital bodily fluid, the potency, of any given symbol. My guess is that Stiegler's analysis will be more rigorous than Postman's and at least attempt to take into account Derrida's essays on metaphor. Whereas Postman wishes these symbols still retained their potency, Stiegler's question is which symbols should be selected.

Postman laments advertising and marketing, rather than reading marketing theory in order to gain insight into marketing's function. In this way, he does not practice what he preaches: he does not inquire into the production of marketing ideology, simply asserting that it destroyed our most powerful guiding symbols. Rather than using advertising as a way to make new symbols (as I think Greg Ulmer is arguing for), he decries its irrationality and dishonesty. Although he mentions that marketing is linked to "depth psychology," the intricate history between Freud's nephew, Ed Bernays, and the advertising industry is in no way noted. For that history, we have to turn to Adam Curtis's documentary, Century of the Self.

Where Stiegler speaks of our collection of tertiary retentions, our collective memory inscribed in technical objects, Postman refers to a rather conservative notion of "tradition." He appeals to tradition, against advertising, claiming that advertising has no right to adopt traditional symbols. At his most polemic, he uses an unfortunate metaphor in our contemporary times: "The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition" (170). Postman is adamant that we must maintain a distinction between the sacred and profane -- a distinction whose implications for politics has been analyzed throughout the work of Giorgio Agamben.

Furthermore, Postman relies on the concept of "narrative" in a way that completely ignores the postmodern critique of a meta-narrative. Stiegler's "politics of memory" is hardly meant to suggest a unified narrative of history and understanding. Yes, it is an attempt at escaping cultural relativism that emerged from poor readings of postmodern philosophy, but Postman seems unconcerned with idiomatic difference.

We can sense Postman's impending conservatism when he mentions E.D. Hirsch and Alan Bloom. Postman critiques Hirsch's inane idea of "cultural literacy" of an "educated person," but reads Bloom in a favorable light! Postman also writes that we need a "national" (read: American) narrative rather than a transnational narrative. This is again in contrast to Stiegler, who argues for a transnational intellectual community which would be based on criteria. It is this latter aspect (criteria) that something like "facebook" does not allow us to do. Facebook does not allow the users to constantly interrogate and adjust the criteria of their organization. Instead, the changes in facebook are imposed from without. How many of us have said at one point or another, "Oh, look what Zuckerberg did to my facebook? A timeline? Oh, that's cute. A newsfeed? Oh shit, this is gonna suck." Facebook has evolved, but not through the participation and recommendations of its users who are barred from knowing the reasons for the interfaces transformations.

Despite Postman's more blatant conservatism and rhetoric -- and the lack of nuance in his argument-- both Postman and Stiegler arrive at similar educational imperatives. This begins with both arguing that central to our future is the future of our educational institutions. Both ask: What are our educational institutions for?

In an interview with Marcel O'Gorman, Stiegler says,
It's very important to study how maps are created. This is not taught in school, because we only teach the end results. We don't teach the process of the production of knowledge. It's a mistake. [. . .] We believe its necessary to revist the history of the construction of occidental knowledge, integrating these new technologies not just as a means of transmitting knowledge, as both objects to be explored and instruments for exploration. (470)
In Technopoly, Postman explains that we should hold

to the idea that to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener. (188)

But the problem, and the crucial difference, between Postman and Stiegler is that the former believes "the structure of the subject-matter curriculum that exists in most schools at present is entirely usable" (188). For Postman, its a question of making these subjects coherent, "a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness" of what they learn. This course of action, I think, describes the ideal of something like my own public liberal arts institution's goal. For Postman it's about understanding the past; for Stiegler, its a question of constantly (re)making the past and present in preparation for the indeterminate future.

Stiegler is making new institutions whereas Postman wants reform. Postman also clearly prefers "classical" art to our mere entertainment. He writes, "the schools must make available the products of classical art forms precisely because they are not so available and because they demand a different order of sensibility and response" (197).

This is suspicious and indicates Postman's implicit iconoclasm. Against "images," he presents us with "ideas" and classical art that demand a different sensibility. These artworks, however, do not demand a different sensibility "in themselves," but because they were from a different time period. I am not against teaching art from the past; however, art history and education cannot simply be, as Jack Stenner says referring to one of his students, "pictures of jesus." Its not the art of the past, but the art of the present --including the mass media -- that may be useful to bring students into the importance of symbols and what makes life worth living. This is Greg Ulmer's project and, I would like to believe, Stiegler is following suit.

But aside from the many problems with Postman's analysis, I generally agree with him that our education should be more focused on the humanities and that "technopoly" has sacrificed some of what makes our life meaning for the sake of efficiency and meaningless calculation and information. However, whereas Postman makes this an almost moral crusade, I prefer to frame the problem in terms of an intergenerational "politics of memory" and the processes of collective individuation via Stiegler and Simondon. Postman's "we" is an ideal we, a static we that does not attend to tendencies and desire.

For Stiegler, we may not be able to predict and control technologies, to weild it as sovereign subjects, but we can respond to it and hopefully invent not only new ways of "using" it, but inventing new technologies that can herald a new apparatus. Ulmer calls our current apparatus: electracy.




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