Sunday, November 7, 2010

Telling Time by Technology I

I was struck last year when I realized that some of my students were marking the seasons of their lives with technology. The most technologically-identified among them framed their childhoods with the progression of computer models and video game-box release numbers, identifying their age by how fast the processors were or how clunky those “old-fashioned” graphics looked. As someone who came to adulthood without a computer, it seemed to me that some of them actually viewed their life as set into relief and contextualized primarily by a parade of technologies that were always getting better and better, not merely faster and more expensive.

Many of them are still young enough to be entirely gripped by this delusion, to see this pattern of planned obsolescence engineered by hardware and software companies as actual improvement, rather than as a scheme for corporate exploitation. Several of them also explicitly expressed the conviction that it is our responsibility to stay on top of the latest technology, that we have no choice in the matter. People who don’t stay on top of the latest technology are losing out, in their minds, and are therefore losers. I think otherwise.

I’d like to refer back to Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and assert that we do indeed have a choice. I’ve been using this essay with my Introduction to Electronic Music course since about 1993 as a way to try to open a space between what are perceived as technological/economic imperatives and considered ethical choices.

In a music technology course, presenting the idea that we might choose not to “buy in” to the latest technology on moral/ethical grounds often brings up strong reactions from the students, as you can imagine. But I’m with Wendell Berry when he asserts that we should choose carefully the limits of our participation in technologies based on the full dimensions of their effects on the world. We would do well to meditate upon the impact of our actions before we give over our faith to the agents of technology, lest we also give ourselves over blindly to unintended exploitation and evil.

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