Self-Defeating Technological Projects

In Technoculture and Critical Theory, Simon Cooper seeks a third way to understand technology that avoids the pitfalls of technological determinism on the one hand and instrumental accounts of technology on the other. According to Cooper, an instrumental approach to technology which treats technologies as neutral tools enabling human beings to do better (or worse) what they already do in any case fails to ask whether “the meanings of these human capacities are reconstituted through the operation of a technological framework.” Cooper thinks that is the crucial question.

“Understanding technology’s capacity to reconstitute human meanings and activities within different constitutive frameworks,” Cooper believes, “provides the condition for determining whether we might say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to technology.”

Cooper goes on to argue that “technology enables a more constitutively abstract mode of engagement with the world.” The levels of abstraction, which may be either intellectual or material, effect both “modes of social integration” and “ontological categories of existence.” The ontological categories of existence include space and time as well as subjectivity and embodiment. Following Paul James, Cooper suggests three levels of social integration: the face-to-face, the agency-extended, and the disembodied (Cooper is quick to point out that these do not exist in pure form).

These concepts are crucial to Cooper’s argument. In his view, desires and meanings that are constituted at the face-to-face level of social integration, are re-constituted when their fulfillment is pursued through technologies that shift the interactions to the higher levels of abstraction. This leads Cooper to ask,

“If technology allows for a more abstract mode of engagement with the world, if it reconstitutes social and cultural settings, in effect creating a new constitutive framework through which to operate, then how ought we to negotiate the relationship between this emergent level and prior levels of engagement and association?”

Ultimately, Cooper wants to recognize “the benefits of technological reconstitution while setting limits to the extent of its operations.” He offers two reasons why such limits are worth pursuing. “The first,” Cooper explains, “concerns the degree to which the abstract reconstitution of social and cultural meanings is easily harnessed to the commodity relation.”

The second revolves around what Cooper calls ontological contradiction, “the process whereby desires and practices contained within one constitutive layer contradict those carried within another.” Cooper explains further: “Insofar as human needs and desires are carried within specific historical and cultural frameworks, it is necessary to consider whether technology is able to consummate these needs, or whether the reconstituting process it enables works to undermine the ground which historically sustained them.” In other words, it’s worth considering if the pursuit of certain ends through certain technological means does not ultimately undermine the end being pursued.

Cooper goes on to give a handful of examples of such self-defeating operations from the theorists he has chosen as his conversation partners:

“Heidegger’s technologised subject, whose power to objectify the world through a process of abstraction only comes at the coast of objectifying the self, is a classical formulation. Paul Virilio’s claim that technological ‘speed’ ultimately leads to inertia has a similar tenor, in that both theorists describe a situation in which technological mediation extends previous capacities only to undermine the ground on which such extension would have any meaning. The Futurists desire for a more powerful and regenerated nation-state was attempted within a theory that worshipped technology for its transgressive and universalising character. Yet the nation-state was invoked at the very same time that emerging technologies allowed for the easy transcendence of any physical and cultural boundary and hence threatened to undermine the meaning of the nation.”

3 thoughts on “Self-Defeating Technological Projects

  1. Michael, another truly thoughtfully provocative post for which I am grateful. Especially since it is about a book I am not going to be able to afford for awhile, if at all, and thus a real service in that I can put it on my list for one I will search out to read from the British library or a university, having understood from your short post how critical it is.

    It is actually a “thing” to know the world primarily emotionally. It is a way of understanding that rather than just abstracting one’s thoughts cognitively and upwards, also anchors them lower, a form of embodying that understanding inside oneself in felt subjectivity, as well. The “coherency” of the two together does depend on clear signals and processing that living as a human being in concert with others now around the world that embody real differences and culturally prescribed limits, often makes difficult to achieve. But no less important to do so. Even more important to do so. Since as you say the book describes this new technologically-mediated reality, is also how I have indeed felt it happen in my own world at a painful loss of self that I had spent a life trying to develop more coherently both in myself and in relationship to other human beings:

    “Heidegger’s technologised subject, whose power to objectify the world through a process of abstraction only comes at the coast of objectifying the self, is a classical formulation. Paul Virilio’s claim that technological ‘speed’ ultimately leads to inertia has a similar tenor, in that both theorists describe a situation in which technological mediation extends previous capacities only to undermine the ground on which such extension would have any meaning.”

    My own response as I have felt that loss, has been to move more towards children and nature itself, in increased human and full-bodied interaction and away from teaching via technology as primary medium, especially in the very young. I have found that is the critical “learning” about this lived and possible human coherence that most children do indeed crave deeply, and is not available to them on this technology alone, despite all its other educational enhancements and a commodifying society pushing it too far, for its own reasons.

    Most critical of all, I have found it is the only way to truly teach and learn love and that loss with the technology, despite the dream of “mad :-) AI-obsessed scientists” (cf. the movie “HER”), is for me the most dangerous result of its overuse in all human interaction, of all.

  2. Another fascinating post — something for which I have come to depend from you. This direction of thought is very important, I think, because it seems, finally, to be moving towards the real heart of the matter — the sometimes unforeseen reciprocity between self, culture and technology — and to be now permeating the active spheres of life.
    June Gorman’s comments above (and many other similar threads of thought which I have noticed emerging in artistic and educational circles) makes me wonder if we may expect the emergence of a neo-neo-romanticism — in reaction to unprecedented technological innovation — som
    ething to which I would, not necessarily, be averse. Off to dig out my Wordsworth. :>)

  3. Michael,
    I came upon this essay belatedly and am glad I didn’t miss it. Much of what Cooper says bears upon issues I discuss in the chapter in my book on abstraction (cleverly called “Abstraction”), especially his point that abstraction can undermine crucial grounding in context. I quote N. Katherine Hayles on that point, with an assist from Jaron Lanier, but I like Cooper’s framing of the problem and might have included it had I been aware of his work earlier. Good to know about him, in any event.

    Having said that, he lost me when he said (as you quote him), “Understanding technology’s capacity to reconstitute human meanings and activities within different constitutive frameworks provides the condition for determining whether we might say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to technology.”

    Does he mean saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to technology beforehand, or after it’s in place? In either case I wonder how that would be so. As you know, it’s difficult to anticipate ahead of time the reverberations a given technology will have once it’s introduced, and once it’s introduced saying “no” isn’t always easy. I’m not saying it’s impossible to foresee some of those reverberations, or that we shouldn’t try to foresee them. I’m just acknowledging the inevitable incompleteness of the enterprise.

    Perhaps Cooper says more on this subject in the original text?

    Thanks again for the essay.

    Doug

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