The first week of SFPC was a shorter three-day dash, but I feel like I'm already chewing on quite a bit. You can see all the cool kids I'm hanging out with here, and you can even meet us all in one go at this event! The SFPC Salon is also fast approaching.
While we met several teachers and TAs, right now I want to focus on Morehshin Allahyari's Critical Thinking of Technology: The Radical Outside class. Before even that, Morehshin's artist talk was incredibly inspiring to me not only for the work itself, but because she has found concrete ways to create art investigating precise and discrete topics stemming from her own interests. That kind of confidence in my own creative critiques is something I want to work towards. To be able to narrow in on something I want people to contemplate.
To prepare for our meeting we read "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" by Langdon Winner (1980) and "Critical Theory of Technology: an Overview" by Andrew Feenberg (2005). These essays sketched an argument that far from being a neutral (or even positive and progressive) tool, technology can embody and encourage certain unequal power structures when manipulated in various ways. These politics can be part of the technology's actual functioning or a secondary effect of implementation, but the point is it's not always just a case of "good technology in the wrong hands." For example; the idea that wind/solar power lends itself well to democratization because of its decentralized nature, as opposed to nuclear power's necessitation of rigid structure. When the question of violence in the role of pushing back against these power structures came up someone proposed humans just are violent—both in the tech they'll create and the way others will respond to it. This is a line of thinking I am fundamentally not interested in; it is the shallow reading of Lord of The Flies instead of acknowledging that of course a group of prep school boys coming from a system that rewards ruthlessness are going to create a vicious society. We create our technology from what we know, which currently "mutilates not just human beings and nature, but technology itself." (Feenberg) What might we create in a culture with totally different values? We can analyze the relation of politics and painting styles for example, and we should extend that to everything. To limit the potential of humans to what we see in ourselves now is not only defeatist but just generally a boring framework to explore.
These readings reminded me to finally sit down and read Murray Bookchin's "Post-Scarcity Anarchism" and "Towards a Liberatory Technology." These essays written in the 60s work from the assumption that with modern technology we are no longer forced to labor for survival; "a century ago scarcity had to be endured; today it has to be enforced." (Post) This is essentially true—there are more empty houses than houseless folks and for reasons purely political giving out food for free is sometimes illegal. Very relatedly, Feenberg notes that our push for endless efficiency is not neutral, it is defined ideologically in a system that values profits over people, but we can change that algorithm. Technology has moved past "the realm of invention to that of design," and from an "extension of human muscles into an extension of the human nervous system." (Towards) Unfortunately, that includes our biases. So between all these authors it seems certain that one can say tech is political, critiquable, and pliable. Coming from where we are now, how do we imagine a technology that creates a "self-liberation that reaches social dimensions"? (Post)
And it is imagination that is required, a most human skill I think crucial to critical thinking. Feenberg calls on critical theory to "interpret the world in light of its potentialities" and not just actualities, to look for facts and not just norms. The work to construct a society significantly more or less equal (or any other measure) than our current one requires defamiliarization from how our perceived individual worlds work. This is incredibly complicated! There are no sure answers! The wide reach of technology means that a few have "unprecedented means for manipulating and mobilizing the entire environment...and for perpetuating hierarchy, exploitation and unfreedom" (Post) and it's difficult to look away from this programmable media. A fellow student, Nabil Hassein, wrote this piece "Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition" that is a good example of stopping to interrogate "diversity" as good in-and-of-itself without an actual anti-racist system. I have many more personal speculations on our fully automated luxury-communism future that I'll save for now, but I think its clear that there is a feedback loop between the politics of our artifacts and the politics that organize our lives. The task at hand is to not settle on just the recognition of that being satisfactory but to critically speculate on possible futures.
*if it's not obvious, I'm a hyperlink fiend. Educated in the age of Wikipedia and memes, I'm very aware that my thoughts are an accumulation of my clicks and I like to present that collage for others when possible. I'm still figuring out how to write for an "audience," and I think including full references also means less guesswork about what people might have heard of.
*I've got a cold so I apologize if this turns out to be unusually incoherent