Ryan  Burns, phd
December 19, 2011

dialectics, technology, and society

I’m simultaneously fascinated and extremely challenged by dialectical thinking. For those of you unfamiliar, dialectics is, in a nutshell, the idea that two or more processes confront each other and present contradictions; these contradictions must be resolved, but may internalize those contradictions. An example from Marx’s (1977) Capital is the idea that since capitalists continually accumulate capital at the top to the detriment of the workers, a contradiction arises because it constantly depends on lower-waged workers but this tendency would effectively wipe out the working class (health, sustenance, etc.). Its requirements are its downfall, in a rudimentary sense. This and other contradictions are resolved through the state (workers’ protection rights, minimum-wage laws, etc.), through crises (market crashes, recessions, etc.), through labor movements (8-hour working day, age and sex protection, etc.), and through currency valuations (a classic “internalization” mechanism, if I understand Marx and David Harvey (1982) correctly).

This way of thinking is new to me, and I’m still struggling to fully “internalize” it (ha, look at my funny pun). But I find it incredibly useful for my own research interests, namely the potentially dialectic relationship between technology and society. My thoughts here revolve around the ways society is reflected in technology and vice versa.

Before getting too far into that, take a look at this other social dialectic identified by Mike Davis (1998, 208), that between the city and wilderness, or ‘urban’ and ‘nature’:

“Indeed, in the minds of most suburbanites, the unruliness in the center of the metropolis is figuratively recapitulated at its periphery. It is not surprising that [animal] predators [(e.g., cougars, coyotes, racoons)] are criminalized as trespassers and discursively assimilated to ‘serial killers’ or ‘gangbangers’. Reciprocally, the urban underclass is incessantly bestialized as ‘predators,’ ‘wilding youth,’ and ‘wolf packs’ in an urban ‘wilderness’. … In ripe Hegelian fashion, then, the social construction of nature is typically mirrored by the naturalization of purely social contradictions. … Los Angeles’s wild edge, in other words, is the place where natural history and social history can sometimes be read as inverted images of each other.”

Evan Watkins (1993) has identified a similar descriptive dialectic between technological development and poverty. For Watkins, poor people are seen as ‘technological cripples’, as behind-the-times who willingly failed to keep up with new social developments. Like a computer user who has held onto their Windows ‘95 machine, these ‘throwaways’ - again, poor people - have failed to take advantage of globalization, the entrepreneurial spirit, and their own bootstraps. In other words, these discourses enable the blaming of the individual - for casting blame on the person for their not keeping up. Watkins doesn’t touch on the inverse of this relation, specifically, the ways technological developments produce the poverty itself. The “network society” (Castells 1996) has reconfigured entire economies around the production, dissemination, and usage of technology. Those who have been unable to plug into these new flows of capital, or those who were from the start marginalized from them, are more prone to impoverishment.

But more broadly, lots of literatures have explored this idea of the co-constitution of technology and society. The Science & Technology Studies (STS) literatures, for instance, have a long heritage of looking at this relation. Geographers have both looked at spatial technologies (GIS, geoweb, etc.), and looked at the spaces dependent on - or resulting from - a specific relation with technology. Software, for one, is an assemblage that embodies a social relation but also works to produce space, leading some to speculate on a ‘spatial politics of code’ (Graham 2005). Different geoweb applications capture different aspects of this dialectic as well. On the one hand they reflect political economies, consumerism, humanitarianism, and so on, but on the other they have real effects on who does what where (digitally as well as ‘physically’).

I wonder if there’s more to a dialectics of technology and society. As I mentioned before, I’m not comfortable enough with that mode of thinking to take it anywhere. But maybe I should pack this idea away and come back to it at a later point. Until then…

Works cited

Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Davis, M. 1998. Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Graham, S. 2005. Software-sorted Geographies. Progress in Human Geography 29 (5):562.

Harvey, D. 1982. The Limits to Capital. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, K. 1977. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vintage Books Edition. New York: Random House, Inc.

Watkins, E. 1993. Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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