Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Black Box

About a month ago, Steve Shapin, historian and sociologist of science, wrote a favorable review of The Shock of the Old, a new book on the history of technology by David Edgerton. Here’s the link, for those of you who are interested:

Shapin used to be faculty at my university, but he left us a few years back for a more prestigious post at Harvard. Now, having achieved the pinnacle of the academic cursus honorum, he’s also begun contributing occasional pieces for the New Yorker, where his review of Edgerton appeared.

Although Edgerton is a specialist in military technology, his new offering is a general history of technology, and it proposes the important thesis that we should reorient the focus of our histories of technology away from innovation and towards use. Apart from registering the obvious truth (recognized now in the specialist literature for about three decades or so) that what we do with things is often more significant, in terms of lived experience, than either their novelty or the intentions of their designers, such an approach has the added benefit of decentering the typical Eurocentric perspective of most histories of technology. As both Edgerton and Shapin point out, the Third World has become a huge dumping ground for cast-away western technology; in the hands of the poor but resourceful multitudes, technological goods that we have come to see as disposable, notably cars, take on a new life. African mechanics, for instance, have developed ingenious means of repairing automobiles that can make them last virtually indefinitely. (In an interesting turn of phrase, Shapin labels such skills “ ‘creole’ technologies.”)

But even if we in the west were so inclined to practice this kind of frugal and pragmatic maintenance, the know-how required for it becomes more and more impossible to acquire as more and more of our essential technology gets “black boxed,” a popular science-studies term (borrowed from engineering) that refers to the extent to which the expertise that goes into the making of the technology we consume is rendered inaccessible. Back in the day, it was fairly easy to “reverse engineer” your radio: all you had to do to figure out how it worked--even how to build one yourself--was to take it apart and put it back together again. Only a select few could do that today with an ipod--or afford to try. Technological knowledge has thus been rendered much less independently and democratically accessible.

Shapin doesn’t have a problem with that; he even goes so far as to argue that it’s better this way. The “enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users,” he writes, “is exactly as it should be,” since it is “a sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.” In other words, I don’t need to know how my ipod works; I just need to know how to make it work for me.

I part ways with Shapin on this point. I think he takes Edgerton’s conclusions too far, and in the process undercuts the more radical perspective that Edgerton’s global approach opens up. Shapin’s position, to me, is indicative of an increasingly popular--and increasingly dangerous--consumer-centric approach to social issues. The problem with this approach is that it blinds us to the ever-important role of production and labor in structuring our existence, and subtly reinforces the neo-liberal ideology that sells us dependence and alienation by packaging them as their exact opposites. The Third World, for instance, has not only become a kind of afterworld for western technologies; it’s also where most of those technologies are being produced in the first place, often under exploitative conditions. In essence, under the present system Third World workers are forced to make things twice--once for us, and once, much later on, after we’ve used them up and discarded them, for themselves. Indeed, it can be argued that the very disposability, the very “high-throwaway” nature of our material existence is grounded in the easy availability to global capital of cheap labor in the undeveloped world. Contenting ourselves to keep our technology black boxed does not, as Shapin suggests, empower us; it renders us complicit.

This is also one of the major snags, I think, that has hit the mainstream environmentalist movement. It’s actually become easier for socially conscious people to envision the individual consumer saving the world through his or her private choice to buy organic dishwashing soap than to envision some kind of democratic, socialized control of the complex forces of production that are threatening both the environment and society in the first place. So I buy organic, to help the environment, but fail to realize that organic agriculture is heavily reliant on the exploitative use of illegal immigrant labor.

Don’t get me wrong. Organic food is good; technology is good. Like many on the far Left, I wouldn’t really want to live in a world that didn’t cultivate pesticide-free strawberries or produce mp3 players. But unlike Shapin, I don’t think that that means we should be content to know about technology only the use we make of it; it behooves us to know something about where it comes from, and how our consumption of it implicates us in the bigger scheme of things. Otherwise, any hope for broader social change is bound to wind up in disillusionment.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

You probably wont like this but please check out this site which argues (and discusses the consequences) that we are all trapped in the deadly iron cage of scientific materialism---Weber's iron cage

Altogether the "philosopher" who inspired this site points out that ALL of the usual philosophical, religious, and theological chitchat is done from within this iron cage.
He also points that the consciousness of the dreadully sane normal person (that is all of us) who live within this cage is crippled by a hell deep fear and trembling.
On this basis He then asks how profound could any "philosophy" (and culture)produced within this fear saturated paradigm/cage possibly be?

These two essays discuss the origins and consequences of the current universal insanity which has inevitably been "created" in the collective image of our fear saturated dreadful "sanity".


For some light relief please check out these 4 references.



mJ said...


Thanks for your note and welcome to our small corner of the blogosphere. I've taken a brief glance at the first link you posted and, as you mention, it describes "scientific materialism" as a kind of iron cage and the site as a whole seems to be offering and endorsing a more metaphysical or transcendental perspective.

You have pointed correctly to our preference for materialist thinking at this site. It's not exclusively scientific though. However, I hope that you will find - as we continue to post and build our blog - that we have not uncritically accepted this position. Moreover, we would welcome some discussion of it (which hopefully will appear in the future).

For now (and H. may have some additional comments), let me say that I am skeptical of any outright rejections or turns away from the material world (especially technology). First of all, such a project is extremely difficult to do vis-a-vis defining a standard of what types of materiality or technology to exclude. Not that he's necessarily in the same camp as the website you have cited, but think of Thoreau - often cited as one of the founders of environmentalism (in the US at least). He went to Walden Pond to get away from technology and certain kinds of materiality but ultimately he still relied on the material (for example, he lived in some kind of house or shack and mentions writing at his desk). Perhaps, this is just another example of someone working within the iron cage of scientific materialism.

In that case, consider, that our very discussion of this topic is facilitated by the massive technological system that is the modern computing/communications industry. Consequently, it is hard to imagine how one could work outside of of the material world. Perhaps, the way out is through (as H. has suggested elsewhere)?

Thinking beyond materialism is fine and worthwhile. And we may even delve into a bit of this here. Yet, as H. emphasizes, it "behooves" us to understand how our material world works and how it is produced and maintained. From my perspective, this knowledge is one step towards some understanding of our connections (even if mediated by technology, time, distance, etc...) to other human beings around the globe. In addition, it will hopefully get us thinking about what kinds of connections these are and if we want to maintain them as they are, alter them or eliminate them completely.

As I said, we should be shortly posting more on the issue of technology. So, perhaps, we'll have an opportunity to discuss and unpack our materialist bent a bit more.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I hope to get a chance to spend some more time with the site that you have recommended.