part of the MSc in E-learning at the University of Edinburgh

Why the dichotomy?

The films at the first festival were interesting illustrations of the polarised views of the impact of technology on society. Both Collossus and Bendito Machine depict a swing from hopeful utopian visions of the benefits of technology to society, for example world peace in Collossus, to the dystopian fears associated with technology taking control resulting in a loss of human agency etc. For me, a question that these films raised was why are these positions polarised? Why don’t we see positions representing a spectrum of possibilities along the dystopian/utopian continuum? Why the dichotomy? Two elements from my lifestream offer some explanations for this. The Gartner hype cycle describes a cycle of expectations from inflated promise to dissolution associated with the appearance of new digital technologies and their assimilation into our digital environment. While the initial excitement surrounding a new technology might align with a more utopian view in terms of its impact on society, the trough of dissolution does not necessarily represent a dystopian perspective.

However in an article I came across recently Fisher (2001) does unpick these polarised view points in terms of Ogburn’s theory of ‘cultural lag’. The idea put forward is that it takes time for a technology to become assimilated into the cultural landscape and that early in the process of assimilation opposing positions are voiced representing hopes and fears rather than actualities. As the technology becomes embedded in the fabric of society knowledge increases about what its capabilities are and so claims about its impact become less extreme. Interestingly the process of assimilation seems to be as much about society being shaped by the technology as vice versa.

Posted by Geraldine May Jones on October 3rd, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (60)

60 Responses to “Why the dichotomy?”

  1.   Siân Bayne Says:

    Interesting post Geraldine. It made me think of Neil Badmington’s* point about the rise of Hollywood sci-fi in the 50s/60s and how that aligned with the theoretical challenge to the ‘supremacy’ of the human (‘Man’) in continental philosophy. Badmington makes the point that classic sci fi (The Blob, Return of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds etc) always made humanity victorious over the ‘alien’ other in an unconscious response to the sense that existing humanistic models for understanding our place in the world were under threat. So where theory was championing the ‘death of Man’ Hollywood was defending ‘him’ from attack – an oppositional landscape that is maybe shifting now as theory begins to re-accept forms of humanism and sci-fi begins to present images of ‘Man’ as problematic (Avatar, and so on). Thanks anyway – I really like your discussion of ‘cultural lag’ here.

    *Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

  2.   Geraldine May Jones Says:

    Thanks for your comment Sian. I had not thought of this kind of tug o’ war between the positions adopted by contemporary philosophy and that depicted in contempory sci fi literature. I guess it is a common literary device to adopt an extreme position in order to hightlight an issue. However it seems to me that the danger is – as aluded to in the Hand article, that these extreme positions spawn a ‘moral panic’. This course is revealing many exciting new pockets of literature – thanks again!

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