Technology’s Dialectic

How does a technology address its own breakdown in the social sphere? Can we better evaluate its impact by speculating on its absence?

Without risk of exaggeration, and even accounting for it, there is evidence that the role of technical media in the crucial service of human urgencies and needs has become sufficiently beneficial and unproblematic in the face of such needs that the question of whether it serves or hinders is no longer seriously considered. This precludes the realization that the primary casualty in this uncritical embrace is the possibility of truly creative change borne of new forms of media engagement, given that by remaining true to any prevailing technical order, we are thereby operating almost exclusively within the narrow functional roles that it makes for us. We might call the Grand Silence the now-dominant impulse to dismiss the problem of how technology can locate, address, and correct human systems that have misused it even as they have been framed by it and within it. There was a time, particularly in the 1920’s and, much more sporadically, the four decades that followed, which is to say, before the totality of technical media eclipsed even informal human engagement, when the question was seriously considered. The most rigorous warning, perhaps too subtly articulated, was of course Heidegger’s critiques both in Being and Time and The Question Concerning Technology, texts that inform theorists, philosophers, and historians but neither engineers nor architects of systems. What is today misinterpreted as largely incorrect and therefore irrelevant skepticism in Heidegger’s own thinking — namely that technology’s impulse toward Order encapsulates and imprisons even the most vigorous dimensions of experience by framing (“Gestell”) them within reduced and normalized parameters — means that the warnings not only of authors like Orwell but even of computer scientists like Terry Winograd and Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the human dialogue emulator ELIZA, are worth considering, at least momentarily, in relation to the behavior of large commercial industries – medicine, to take one example —  as the focus of current new media research.

One contemporary urgency whose contact with the social sphere has intensified recently involves the question of medicine’s trajectory as a presumed service to human well-being and care. As more than a scientific discipline, medicine is one of the fundamental theaters of operation testing whether and how technology’s inexorable enframing of experience has at its core a positive consequence. The medical system in industrialized countries is itself a thoroughly technological machine, faithful to that classic form of the von Neumann architecture, the flowchart of intervention: at the input side, the patient represents the entry point into the system; in the intermediate phases, a diagnosis is reached and a protocol of treatment is applied — all emblematic of the computational processing cycle; finally, the output is produced in a dual evaluation where both patient and intervention are carefully examined.

The thought of how within this narrow model of control a revolutionary change can take place presents more than a symbolic conundrum, it goes to the heart of whether technical enframing can sow the seeds of its own transcendence. It seems paradoxical and perhaps impossible. It is in this messy maelstrom that the New Media Medicine Research Group at the MIT Media Lab imagines itself, with modes of intervention that are both highly technological, precisely so for the purpose of rewriting the flowchart within which not only the typical patient but the entire social system have become imprisoned. In a recently posted video précis of its work [1], the group commits to aims whose impracticality today reflects the degree of social alienation that such immense systems have wrought. To the question of where the major contribution of the group’s work might lie, one researcher (Cf. minute 4:39) aspired to a possible future whereby patient, doctor, and insurance company all see the same information. How ,indeed, has a technological system so carefully controlled and scientifically delegated become so disjointed that even crucial, basic data is not seen, or, we might ask, how does a network unaware of its own loss of nodal connections effect self-repair? How is a frame of technological control that has is what we might term “the diagnostic pipeline” able to work in the service of its users when they are not provided requisite information on its operation? Here, later in life, was Weizenbaum – by then a healthy skeptic himself — on the importance of the ontological Gedanken with which I opened this discussion: a speculative appreciation of technology’s impact through the vision of its *absence* rather than its influence:

If it had not been for the computer, if the computer had not been invented, what would the banks have had to do? They might have had to decentralize, or they might have had to regionalize in some way. In other words, it might have been necessary to introduce a social invention, as opposed to the technical invention.

What the coming of the computer did, “just in time,” was to make it unnecessary to create social inventions, to change the system in any way. So in that sense, the computer has acted as fundamentally a conservative force, a force which kept power or even solidified power where is already existed.

Inevitably, the Heideggerian enframing that seemed so easily dismissed as philosophical pontification has come to pass with lasting clairvoyance.

Note: This is an extension of thoughts posed in an essay, Spirited Gestures and Rational Views Transversing Shamanism, Turing, and ELIZA, published in Recipes for an Encounter, edited by Marisa Jahn, Candice Hopkins and Berin Golonu. New York: Western Front and Pond: Art, Activism, and Ideas, 2009.

[1] LabCAST – The MIT Media Lab Video Podcast » Archive » #43 New Media Medicine. Published:10.12.09 / 5pm.
[2]  Diana ben-Aaron, “Weizenbaum Examines Computers and Society,” The Tech, April 9, 1985.

[1] LabCAST – The MIT Media Lab Video Podcast » Archive » #43 New Media Medicine. Published:10.12.09 / 5pm.

[2]  Diana ben-Aaron, “Weizenbaum Examines Computers and Society,” The Tech, April 9, 1985.

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