Technology and the Humanities – A Theoretical and Practical Meta-Discussion

It is uncontroversial to claim that the non-human is efficacious, capable of effecting change. Not merely the non-human, but the non-living is efficacious in this way. Indeed, we count among its effects. Neither is it controversial that we are changed by the technology we use. What may be controversial though, is ‘how?’

Perhaps we need to begin by expanding the notion of technology itself. Might we for instance regard the eukaryotic revolution (when bacteria-like procaryotes invaded the membranes of other prokaryotes creating the first multicellular organisms) as a technological moment, when one entity becomes augmented by its use/relationship of another? On the other hand, making the concept so inclusive may render it redundant.

Perhaps then the focus should be not on making the concept of technology more inclusive in an expansive sense, but rather more inclusive in an intensive sense – expanding the notion of technological efficacy within technology itself, as we already understand it to be, a (mostly) human thing or process. How might we intensify our conception of technology in this way? Firstly, by trying to think the details; the how of the RECIPROCITY between ourselves and the technology we create and employ, and Secondly, by trying to think how this technology can PROLIFERATE and CHANGE beyond our actual intentions.

RECIPROCITY can be thought of in a simple ‘man and his tools’ example. The man who, using a hammer to beat a length of metal into shape, is fundamentally different to the man without such an implement. This man is augmented by his implement: materially and mentally. There occur changes in the man himself beyond the changes he intends to effect in the length of metal. The implement itself is augmented in becoming an implement – a length of wood with a steel weight attached, it is now a hammer. The implications of reciprocity are further intensified when we come to the subject of machines as opposed to simple tools, and even further, computers and (the possibility, actuality of?) intelligent machines.

Questions of PROLIFERATION and CHANGE necessarily entail the way technology exists as an idea. How can the ideas of technology in general, as well as the ideas corresponding to particular technologies, change independently of human intention? This is perhaps a more difficult (and thus more contentious) area to consider. We might consider the concept of memes, replicating units of cultural information (including technological information) that spread independently of human intention in the minds of human beings, as well as through human media (books and the internet to use just two examples). Memes represent an attempt to think about the development of human culture in evolutionary terms. Thus, some memes seem to be fitter than others, better adapted for surviving in a given environment, and so proliferate more successfully than others, thereby altering/ augmenting that environment in what might be regarded as a technological fashion. Again, when we come to consider computers, networks and the possibility of intelligent machines, the implications of these ideas become radically intensified. Can we think of technology as operating in this way?

I propose a two part structure for this session. In the first half, I propose that we discuss the ideas sketched above. Are they useful for thinking about technology? Can we make adjustments, hone and improve them? In the second half I propose applying the results of the first discussion to the work and research interest of the particular ‘unconferencers’ present: how do these reconceptions of technology impact on the technology they are employing in their own research? And how does this in turn affect the relationship between this technology and the area of the humanities they are engaged in?

About Joshua Comyn

I am a postgraduate research student in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. My proposed research field (I don’t have a topic yet) is the relationship between literature and the ‘posthuman’ (and posthumanism/ transhumanism). I am therefore considering literature, especially avant-garde, experimental literature in light of emerging technology.

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