Tag Archives: technology

Alien Phenomenology

Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a ThingAlien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

What else is there, here, anywhere right now? Anything will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plentitude of the alien everyday. (134)

I have been interested in things for a long time. I remember on a visit to an art museum as an undergraduate being fascinated by a scuffed section of worn wooden floor in a corner that I thought deserved as much attention as the exhibits. It seemed to carry such a weight of narrative. Likewise at a conference in Wisconsin I found an old, painted heat register in a corner of a museum next to a forgotten chair, and I was struck by its quiet gravity. For me, objects became a way of connecting to the stories that had washed over them like waves. Who else had seen, touched, forgotten this?

I am attracted to environments in a similar same way: who has been here before? Wandering through the empty halls of the Union League Club in Chicago or the streets of Oxford or Venice, the details of pavement or chipping plaster or window or stone seem so heavy, so linked to human stories and remembering but so resolutely independent of me and my own. My photography often seeks to highlight these details.

In the natural world that human touch is more distant, but especially in my Midwestern home it is never absent: who else has walked this way or will again? Who else is weaving prairie, trail, ash tree, railroad embankment, rutted farm road, wind-turbined horizon, and cumulus into the human story?

All of these considerations though are intensely anthropocentric. I find significance and beauty in these things because I’m constantly linking them to the human narrative, even when they strike me primarily due to their distance to my own personal narrative: I’ll never know all the details of this particular grove of poplars or this weathered barn, but they would have no significance at all if I wasn’t here to wonder about them. Would they?

For Ian Bogost, this is just another example of our tendency to view everything through a correlationist lens: to see the ontological significance of things from an anthropocentric view. Bogost sees this reflected in both the scientific endeavor (which seeks to harness and utilize the universe for human use) and the humanities (which evaluate everything according to the human narrative):

[B]oth perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientists believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structure erected in the interest of human culture. Like a mirror image of the scientist, the humanist mostly seeks to mine particular forms of culture, often suggesting aspects of it that must be overcome through abstract notions of resistance or revolution. “Look at me!” shout both the scientist and the humanist. “Look what I have uncovered!” (14)

I don’t know that I buy Bogost’s critique of the scientist, as I think it’s often the scientific endeavor that yields insights that do the most to challenge our anthropocentric views. For instance, during a show about exoplanets in the planetarium years ago, thick with scientific descriptions of stone and surface temperature and wind speeds, a friend of mine asked not the how do we know question of science but the what does it mean question of philosophy. What does it mean that there are these physical places where rocks are being weathered and clouds are drifting through skies that we will never experience? We want to maintain that they are physically significant (I might even say holy, in the eyes of an orthodox Christian materialism). But they are outside the mediation of mankind. This is part of my fascination with Bogost’s philosophical view, known as object oriented ontology (OOO): it seems a compelling way to grapple with some of these questions. What do I do with the reality of objects that have no bearing whatsoever on the human narrative?

Bogost’s work is short, compelling, and more engagingly written than any piece of philosophy I have read in a long time. I won’t be able to do justice to his treatment, which also provides a helpful introduction to the handful of other philosophers that are pursuing this line of thought. In short, Bogost argues for a flat ontology, a way of perceiving the world in which objects and their relationships are given as much ontological significance as possible, regardless of their relationship with the human perspective:

In a flat ontology, the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top. (17)

And quoting Harman: object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other . . . For we ourselves, just like Neanderthals, sparrows, mushrooms, and dirt, have never done anything else than act amidst the bustle of other actants. (39)

There are some obvious issues with such a view, for one thing the apparent paradox that Bogost never really qualifies what he means by “thing,” so that at times he’s talking about discrete physical objects but at other times he discusses ideas or even systems or institutions (“criminal justice system”) that are human constructs. It’s difficult to see how one can argue for the independent significance of objects that clearly only arise through the human narrative itself. Likewise, it’s hard to take seriously a philosophy that discusses how objects might perceive each other or that tries to deconstruct objects into their smaller units when those units at times only have conceptual existence in the human mind.

To be fair, Bogost recognizes both the alienness and the difficulty in his task, and he qualifies much of what he is doing as speculative analogy or even poetry, with an intention more of challenging the way we think about the world than arriving at actual insights on the nature of things.

Speculation isn’t just poetic, but it’s partly so, a creative act that beings conduct as they gaze earnestly but bemusedly at one another. Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortable intimate contact with strangers. (31)

This is why Bogost’s work is interspersed with poetry, which ironically returns us to the anthropological centricism of humans interpreting their universe. Yet that’s okay for Bogost, as long as we recognize the creative endeavor of attempting to interpret the universe but without stubbornly maintaining ourselves at the center. It’s a sort of philosophical, ontological Copernican revolution, and its results of course will inform our poetry and our expression, as Bogost provides multiple examples of.

Bogost more than anything wants us to be aware, to appreciate the things for themselves, as he appreciates antiquated computer systems not simply for what they represent about human ingenuity or design but because (as offered in some of his most compelling examples) they have intrinsic value and they are worth the effort expended in analyzing their function for its own sake. Bogost is an engineer-mystic, and he writes what a philosophical treatise should be at the core, a discussion of things that are, of ways to see the world.

Object oriented ontology is compelling to me because it emphasizes the reality of the world, of distant galaxies and the axial spin of the quaking neutron stars in those galaxies, the condensation of methane and the whorls of cloud and the fragmented feldspar on the moons of gas giants in those galaxies—the reality of those things outside the reach of my own knowledge. A flat ontology says they are all equally significant, utterly regardless of human cognition. They must remain alien, as alien and unknowable in their essence as the plastic molded Lego lid or the woven textile couch cushion or the jadite cup and saucer beside me. They have their own existence, yes, but also their own unknowable stories, tensions, and relations beyond me. And why not? I am after all one who rides largely unaware of the processes in my own body and mind, a sliver of consciousness in a rambling, unknown house. Everywhere there is wonder and ignorance.

Bogost again, quoting lines by Zhdanov:
Either the letters cannot be understood, or
their grand scale is unbearable to the eye—
what remains is the red wind in the field,
with the name of rose on its lips.

Yet I can’t go as far as Bogost because I can’t give up the human role of mediating the universe, of the primacy of human experience. Aspects of OOO suit my ideas of an orthodox Christian materialism but at the same time undermine the theological role of humans. Every person brings you Christ. Every place, every object, holds God. This might be where the flat ontology of Bogost is at odds with an orthodox Christian materialism. They agree that all is significant, but OCM says because everything is holy, where OOO simply says because everything is.

The Distracted Mind

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech WorldThe Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Distracted Mind (always capitalized in this study of the same name) refers to our current state of affairs due to both our neurological makeup and our current use of technology. The authors—a psychologist and a neuroscientist—address the problem of our distractions from three angles. First, they want to explain our chronic distraction neurologically (why we’re wired to be so easily distracted) and socially (how our technology is changing us and exacerbating the problem). Finally, they want to offer some practical solutions for things that we can do about it, short of a Luddite rejection of those technologies that have become a perceived necessary for professional life.

The first part of the work was the driest and most technical. Written primarily by Gazzaley, it is a detailed explanation of how and why of the human mind. Specifically, it discusses the structure of cognition and metacognition (our ability to think about how we think) as related to attention. Gazzaley provides an analysis of internal and external distractions and our proclivity to multi-task, which, as he explains, is not actually doing multiple things at once but rather rapidly switching between tasks. This portion of the study includes a bit of history about the development of our understanding of how the mind works here, including some really uncomfortable nuggets about lobotomies and how they revealed the aspects of neural structures related to keeping one’s attention on a goal and managing distractions. A primary analogy used in understanding why we’re wired toward distraction, why we’re so intent on flipping from source to source or device to device foraging for information, is a squirrel running from tree to tree looking for nuts, and a good portion of the work is Gazzaley providing an explanation for this “information foraging” nature of human thought.

The second portion of the work was more interesting to me. As a college professor, I feel like I’m on the front lines of the struggle against distractions brought about by technology. Because of research like that outlined in this book, I have a “no device policy” in my classes, and it’s amazing to see how difficult it is for college students to go for a single fifty-minute period without consulting their devices. In the second half of the work, Rosen (switching now from the neurologist to the psychologist) outlines the current state of our relationship with technology and examines how smartphones and the internet’s mobile accessibility represent a huge jump in technology and our distracted engagement with it. Quoting from a wide array of studies, Rosen gives data about average usage to show how ubiquitous this technology has become and how tied we are to it (how many minutes go between email or message checks, for instance, or studies about how stress increases when people are kept away from their phones). At the same time, Rosen outlines the social cost to all this, which includes stress, loss of life (texting while driving), detriments to feelings of well being and sleep patterns. In sum, the conclusion is that our technology drives us to distraction and contributes to feelings of anxiety and stress. No real surprises here, though they carefully document studies outlining what I’ve always offered simply as cranky-old-man anecdotes.

Rosen and Gazzaley are not simply cranky old men though. They’re much more reasonable than me, as I’ve sworn off a smartphone entirely because I fear what that amount of accessibility and distraction would do to me. [Swipes this screen while writing the review to check Facebook.] But the authors, recognizing that my amount of crankiness toward technology may not be practical for most, spend the third section of the book outlining ways to be smarter about our technology usage. If we have a good handle on our own metacognition (on our understanding about the way we think and the way we’re driven to distraction), they argue, we can take steps to use our technology more efficiently.

Being scientists though, they can’t simply offer what they think are good ideas. They have to analyze what’s actually been shown to work and give evidence for whether this will have any real impact. And being scientists they don’t want to take anything off the table, even approaches like drug therapies, brain stimulation treatments, and mental exercises that might be impractical for most readers (admitting that these are largely new and experimental and thus unconfirmed approaches). Indeed, the only real thing that holds up enough evidence for them to recommend without equivocation is physical activity, which has been shown in studies to contribute to focus and improve feelings of well-being and ability to concentrate. Other pieces of advice run the gamut to more technological fixes (recommended apps that can block or control the messages coming into your phone or the sites you’re allowed to visit during specific periods) and the blatantly obvious (such as carpooling to work to avoid the danger of texting or being on one’s phone while driving).

There aren’t any big “ah-ha” take-aways from this book, as the writers themselves admit. We all know we’re distracted. We all know our technology is probably largely behind this. What Gazzaley and Rosen want to outline though are the mechanics of this distraction in the human mind itself, the psychological details of the impact of our technology, and some (pretty straightforward and obvious, for the most part) suggestions of how we can address this. For me, working to provide a space where students are free from the tyranny of their own devices and forced to think without using their hand-held brains—at least for short periods of time—it provided solid scientific grounding for some of the arguments I already use, but it didn’t provide any real guidance for how to help my students navigate or transcend their own distractions. Because the point, as the authors touch on, is that many of us want to be distracted. It feel good, in the short term. But for those of us who recognize it as ultimately frustrating and shallow, a drain on cognitive energy, a syphoning away into a hundred small distractions what could be channeled toward those things that take deep thought and concentration to actually carry to fruition, The Distracted Mind provides an affirming call to action.

Drone: Remote Control Warfare

Drone: Remote Control WarfareDrone: Remote Control Warfare by Hugh Gusterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How will the Obama presidency be remembered? However else our first African American president is valued or villainized, an important aspect of his presidency that must be recognized is the fundamental changes to how warfare is conducted, instigated by the usage of drones. This did not begin with the Obama administration, but as Hugh Gusterson recounts in the brief history of drones that begins his study, is was greatly expanded and continually transformed under the outgoing administration.

Drones—the unmanned aerial vehicles used in conjunction with ground forces and survalience but more and more commonly used for targeted strikes against assumed militants—have fundamentally changed the way warfare is conducted, even the nature of warfare itself. For most of us, these developments are on the edges of our media consciousness. Most of us probably have vague notions that technology is allowing new types of strikes in the borderlands of Pakistan and the airspace of Yemen, through planes piloted by personnel thousands of miles away and beyond any real danger of retaliation. Drones have been used for years, but today they are being utilized by our military in ways many of us don’t fully understand. Hugh Gusterson’s short, accessible study of drones aims to explain and analyze what’s happening: how this technology is causing slippage in how strikes are conducted and in the boundary between fundamental distinctions underlying our definitions of warfare, including concepts like civilian and combatant and the boundary between what is and what is not a war zone.

Gusterson’s book is a quick study, and the author avoids polemic, not coming down hard for or against the technology. Rather, Gusterson wants to outline the transformative nature of this technology to conflict itself. Proponents of drone usage, including President Obama, cite the benefits of long-term observation and reconnaissance this technology affords, of the ability for surgical targets against known militants that spare collateral damage or non-combatant life (and have zero risk for American servicemen). In a war against a state-less enemy, the argument goes, drones provide important tactical advantages.

On the other hand, drones—when used in places that are not formally war zones—strain our current categories of warfare and blur the line between military and police intervention. And, as the author takes time to examine, the limits of the technology itself impose certain costs: surveillance is not perfect, and a “god’s-eye-view” allows dangerous reductions, especially when (as is often the case in drone strikes) this view is divorced from actual intelligence from the ground or cultural understanding. Our military, Gusterson points out, has confused killing with winning, and various third party groups have cited the high civilian casualty counts of drone strikes. In addition, Gusterson highlights what the threat of drone attacks does to societies to under constant danger of unseen, striking power and the antithesis this poses to winning hearts and minds.

Again, Gusterson’s treatise is not an impassioned argument for or against drones, which adds to its value. Rather, the book is a nuanced analysis of the implications of drones for conflict. Though he makes a compelling case for the ways in which use of drones causes ethical and procedural slippages in warfare, Drone: Remote Control Warfare is a scholarly work aimed at examining how drones are deployed in combat (including a brief but illuminating history of drone warfare) and what the implications and possible future ramifications are. Whether you’re a technology buff interested in learning more about what and how these machines are actually used, or someone more interested in the philosophy of technology or foreign policy, this is a quick, accessible, and piercing analysis of something that has framed Obama’s presidency and current US foreign interventions, for better or worse.


Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to TechnologyTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a social critic must be a lonely job. No one wants to hear what he says, I imagine, besides those already disillusioned with the system. For those though who have a vague sense that something somewhere has gone wrong but lack the words to articular exactly what, the social critic serves an essential function. He helps diagnose the problem. Neil Postman did this in his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I read years ago, when he talked about the way that television has shaped public dialogue. One of the main themes in that book is that the medium is never neutral– it shapes the message and the type of dialogue that can be conducted. Whereas print allows a certain level of dialogue and reflection, the medium of television news– depending as it does on sensationalism and catering to the limited attention span of viewers, upon which their marketing model is sustained– cannot. In this book, Technopoly, Postman takes his idea of the impossibility of a neutral medium deeper with his critique of the assumptions that underlie our technological world.

Postman believes that the United States has become the world’s first “Technopoly.” In the first few chapters of the work, which was written in the 1990s, he sets out what this means with an overview of the history of technology that, though problematic in some respects, draws widely on many well-known historians of technology. (Indeed, the primary reason I read this book was because I wanted to get a sense for whether it would work for a history of technology unit in a history of science course I’ll be teaching in the spring, and these chapters indeed fit the bill for a general student reader.) Postman wants to chart the transition from societies in which tools are used by humans (a tool-using society) to a society in which those tools bring about radical social changes (what Postman calls a technocracy) and ultimately to the society we have today, one in which we no longer shape tools for ourselves but in which we shape ourselves for our tools (a Technopoly).

There are a lot of generalizations at play here, as one would expect in a three-chapter survey of the history of technology. Postman shows how the technology of writing transformed society and created an abundance of information that required institutions to manage. Schools and universities, for instance, arose in large part to help sort, organize, evaluate, and manage the new information created by the technology of printing. In the past century, Postman argues, technologies increasing the amount and immediacy of information– the telegraph, telephone, television, and finally computer– have proliferated much faster than the capacity of the institutions that exist to manage that information. The result in today’s Technopoly is a flood of information that exists without content, context, or relevancy; the assumption that information is good and valuable for its own sake; and the belief that society’s ills arise from a lack of information that only more information-generating technology can solve. One of the main threads in Postman’s argument is against these last two flawed (but overwhelmingly accepted) assumptions in today’s society.

Another complaint of Postman’s regarding technology’s role in society is the way humans become subordinate to technology. Postman’s claim is not simply that technology creates problems in today’s world; it’s deeper and more subtle than that. Postman wants to show the unperceived and unquestioned ways technology shapes thought. Against those who believe technological progress is always desired and inevitable, Postman argues technology is not value-neutral. It carries with it a host of assumptions that fundamentally change the way humans interact with each other and their environment and conceive of the natural and social world.

He provides specific examples from the field of medical and computer technology. The primary problem, he says, is the familiar adage that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Machines depend for their functioning upon the reduction of things to uniformity, automated processes, and problems of efficiency. The usurpation of culture by technology, Postman argues, takes place when this becomes the lens through which all human interactions are viewed. Machines predispose us to see social interactions in these reductionist, efficiency-driven terms. In these cases, Postman says, we are no longer simply using our machines; they are shaping the way that we view the world.

Postman takes this argument further by discussing “invisible” technologies– that is, technologies we use every day but that we don’t normally think of as technologies. His big examples here are the practices of standardized testing, questionnaires, polling, and the tools of social scientists– basically the perceived ability to objectively quantify specific traits. A standardized test is a technology, and again it’s a technology that has shaped the way we perceive the world. It allows us to believe that nebulous traits like empathy, beauty, and intelligence can be reduced to a number, and it causes us to reify things like “intelligence” that don’t really exist. Intelligence, empathy, beauty– they’re not things; they’re complex qualities that exists in different ways in different people in different circumstances.

The results of all this, Postman says, is that our culture places an inordinate faith in applying the methods of natural science– quantification, empirical observation, testing– to places where they never belonged in the first place, the realm of human interaction and society. Postman has a long screed against social scientists, who he believes misuse the tools of scientific practice and have contributed nothing to the actual understanding of the human mind or human interactions. I find this generalization to be a bit dangerous, especially the division he makes between studying the processes of nature (allowable via the scientific method) and human practices (not allowable, because humans are too complex). What would Postman make of the burgeoning field of neuroscience, for instance, which combines aspects of the social sciences with biology and psychology? The divisions here are, I think, more tenuous than Postman allows.

As a critique of a society that unquestioningly embraces technology and all the reductionist assumptions it entails, this book– published over twenty years ago– still seems incredibly relevant. No technology is value-neutral– for good or ill, using it has radical effects on human relationships (and this is where one can’t help but wonder what Postman would make of the internet today and the efflorescence of social media). Deeper than that though, Postman believes technology shapes the way we view the world. Computers, for instance, don’t simply process data for us; they give us an entirely new language. They cause us to re-conceptualize our problems in mechanistic terms, even when this is inappropriate. In some cases we start treating computers like people, and in many cases we start treating people like computers.

His conclusion– the “what can we do about it”– chapter of the book warms the heart of a historian of science. Postman says that the only place the problems of Technolopy can be address are in the schools (which are themselves a form of technology). The key, Postman claims, to helping people see the problematic assumptions of Technopoly is teaching the history of every discipline, especially the history and philosophy of science. It’s only by seeing the way in which what we know– or think we know– has changed over time that we can teach students to see and question the assumptions that today’s culture rests upon. As much as I agree with the call to historicizing knowledge (and Postman is right– this is the only way for knowledge to become more than a consumer product), the grand narrative of human progress that Postman thinks teaching should be structured around smacks of the very technological determinism that he is trying to avoid.

Most of society focuses on what we gain with technology; Postman wants to make us consider what we lose, but more than that he wants to warn against the standards of Technopoly– efficiency, information, standardization, immediacy– becoming the standards of culture. This is a warning that is just as poignant now, if not more so, than it was when the book was first written.