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.”