College Quarterly
Fall 2009 - Volume 12 Number 4
Reviews The Myths of Technology: Innovation and Inequality
Judith Burnett, Peter Senker and Kathy Walker, eds.
New York: Peter Lang, 2009

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Though he would later become a novelist and an iconic singer-songwriter, in 1956 Leonard Cohen was a young poet who had just his first book. It was called Let Us Now Compare Mythologies. Its title, if not its content, could be identified as a connecting subtext throughout the book here under review.

In their Foreword, the editors write almost defensively. The thematic combination of myths and technologies, they say, “seems a strange one.” Not to me!

A little over a decade ago, I presented a paper to the American Anthropology Association that linked contemporary corporate culture with the perceptions and practices of Melanesian “cargo cults.”1 It seemed to me then, and it seems even more so today that the buzz words used by corporate executives, human resources departments and organizational theorists to describe, explain and justify the behaviour of modern business firms were strikingly similar to the chants and rituals of the “cargo cults” that were first observed in New Guinea in the 1890s.

The cargo cults, incidentally, still persist in today, though more as tourist gimmicks (notably in Fiji) than genuine millenarian movements. As Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, events occur in history twice—first as tragedy, second as farce. In any case, both the aboriginal attempts to come to grips with European merchants, missionaries and military detachments and the modern corporations’ desperate efforts at “re-invention” under the novel pressures of globalization, fiscal uncertainty and much-changed means of production were quasi-religious attempts to make sense of a new world with new technologies and a good deal of social disruption. Both sought to make novelty comprehensible and to promote actions that would result, despite immediate problems, in a better life down the road.

The surface differences between prehistoric and generally preliterate societies on the one hand and allegedly “advanced” societies on the other are obvious; but, there are discernible parallels as well for those with the wit and the will to see them. One way to do probe into our future by looking at the past is to understand that traditional and post-modern societies are similar in that they both try to rationalize daunting change through the production of “myth-dreams”—complex stories that seek to fuse traditional values to undeniable change and blend both into a comprehensive vision of the future. That vision (or hallucination), however, is very often more a matter of fantasy than of fact.

Burnett, Senker and Walker take as their topic the phenomenal changes in contemporary life, from the personal computer to the human genome project and try to make sense both of them and of the myth-dreams that people now rely upon to help negotiate the transition into the society of the near, to say nothing of the distant future (which, by contemporary standards, might be the week after next). They do an admirable job. They plainly possess both the wit and the will to explain and to deconstruct some of the myths that we live by. They do so to expose their frailties in order to allow us a more rational understanding of where we are and what we shall encounter as the 21st century comes rushing back at us. They are myth-busters, and they are gentle, but firm as they go about their task. Their aim and that of their contributors is to interrogate the social claims made by technology champions in domains from information technology to medicine and show not only why innovations have not led to their promised results, but why some of them cannot. Of critical importance for those who recoil from people whom they falsely and pejoratively label Luddites, is the fact that this volume is “fair and balanced.” It is equally critical of utopian and dystopian arguments, and holds all contentions and allegations up to the cold light of reason and performance.

An initial problem for the editors is to acquaint us with the nature of mythology itself. At least in the popular mind, they say, “myths are irrational, mere stories, unscientific and essentially primitive.” Yet, we do not entirely disown them. Very modern men like Northrop Frye and Carl Jung have argued that it is not easy to relegate mythologies to a primordial human past. They shaped our ancestors’ understanding of themselves, nature and themselves in nature. There are still important ways in which mythologies and metaphors continue to shape our attitudes and actions. There are those, indeed, who imagine that myths—properly understood more as allegories than as fantasies—are about all we fundamentally rely upon to give meaning to our lives. If nothing else, they are endemic to the ideologies which, despite our occasional pretensions to objectivity, govern not only what we think but, more importantly, how we think.

Technologies, in the alternative, are said to be “rational, material products of science, and ultimately expressions of modernity.” We regard them as practical and instrumental. Whereas mythologies are value-laden, we often think of technologies as “value-neutral.” So, the National Rifle Association tells us that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Guns can be helpful, they say, to hunters and to competitors in the biathlon; they are only bad when they are used by careless children and murderers. Likewise, it is said that atomic energy can be used to vaporize people when deployed in nuclear weapons or to heat our homes when produced in nuclear power plants (never mind the slight inconvenience of “nuclear waste”). The technology, we tell ourselves, is not evil or good in itself, but can be used for evil or for good; it all depends on the intentions of the user and the skill with which the technology is applied. After all, even US Vice-President Cheney managed to shoot a friend while hunting small birds (for whom, I imagine, guns are never good); so, competence is important as well as purpose. The value-neutrality of technology, of course, may be the most monstrous modern myth of all.

Having caught our attention, the editors go on to present their own version of the distinction between mythology and technology, the connections that interweave them and the structure of the stories they tell. The practical value of this collection of essays is immense, and not only for teachers who may find themselves stuck on one side or another of the mythology-technology divide. Such souls are commonly to be found lost airily in the wonders of poetry or lurking beady-eyed in a lab, both irretrievably cut off at one or the other end of C. P. Snow’s intellectual bipolar disorder, the “two cultures.”

Evidently knowledgeable in both the humanities and the sciences, Burnett, Senker and Walker take us through a foundational discussion of our sustaining myths about myths and technology. Students of Levi-Strauss and aficionados of the critical theorists associated wit the Frankfurt School as well as people well-versed in the language of Freud and Marx will find nothing remarkably new here; but, they will find what they already know set out in accessible language and in good order. So, the book’s potential as a course text in any number of subjects from liberal arts electives for engineering students and the health sciences to core programs for aspiring professionals in media arts or the business administration is enormous. And, it is also an excellent addition to the syllabus of many a conceivable course in the humanities, the social sciences and liberal arts programs devoted to understanding science and technology from an explicitly humanist perspective. What’s more, it doesn’t hurt that this widely useful work is set out in lively and uniformly engaging prose.

The book itself is divided into three main parts. First, there is a treatment of current issues in technology and inequality in which some central beliefs about globalization and the information society are interrogated. Second there is an exploration of computerization and communication in which some illusions about interactivity and empowerment are exposed and educators are urged to examine our own role as enablers of corporate mythologies. Finally, there is an excellent set of introductory inquiries into some of the most significant applications of transformative technology extant today in the form of emerging developments in biotechnology. Controversial issues from the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture to HIV/AIDS are given expert treatment; but, again, they are set out in concepts and language that are comprehensible and appealing to the intelligent and interested laity among whom, we must believe, are college students.

The contributors bring together certified expertise in history, political economy, psychology, sociology, computer studies as well as in the specific scientific and technological domains that are discussed. They carefully explain the utopian and dystopian overindulgences of people who have drawn firm lines and seek to hype (mythologize) modern technology in Messianic, Promethean or Faustian terms. Their main purpose, however, is to show that any genuine understanding of technological innovation must include a study of the ideological (mythological) context in which it is introduced, disseminated, understood and used for the advantage of certain segments in society.

In better world, our understanding would be informed by some immersion in philosophy. An acquaintance with that old standby, Martin Heidegger, and maybe professional and popular writers such as Hubert Dreyfus, Jacques Ellul, George Grant, Ivan Illich, Arthur Kroker, Neal Postman and Clifford Stoll would help. It would also be advantageous if we and our students possessed at least a moderate measure of scientific literacy, an odd but undeniable deficiency in our so-called knowledge-based culture. This physically slim but intellectually substantial volume does not provide that general literacy, but it is very effective in bringing us into contact with the worlds of computation, research and bioscience in a way that entices us to learn more.

The most important lessons that attentive readers will bring away from their experience concern the social implications of significant scientific discoveries and their technological applications. As someone who grew up a little before the ubiquitous culture of television, programmed my first computer in 1967 when such devices occupied large rooms with carefully controlled temperature and humidity monitored by intimidating men with clip-boards and white lab coats, and came to e-mail late in life, I can attest both to the enormity of the changes that have taken place in the past half-dozen decades and to the extent that they seem to be accelerating today. I use the expression “seem to” advisedly, for one of the fine chapters in this book is entitled “Old Wine in New Bottles,” and does a dandy job of exposing how myths are regularly recycled in order to frame our feelings about novelty and to structure even our critiques of methods and machines.

The Myths of Technology shows to the degree to which material changes transform into basic social assumptions without either being deeply understood. Students and teachers who read the book seriously (to the extent that serious reading is still part of our “lifestyle”) will be ably informed by erudite and sometimes noticeably passionate educators, and will almost surely be encouraged to continue the process of interrogation and reinterpretation, possibly leading to a revision of their own mythologies. Or so we may hope.


Note:
1. See “Cargo Cults and Corporate Culture,” in H. A. Doughty & M. Tuzi, eds. Culture & Difference: Critical Essays on Canadian Society (Toronto: Guernica Editions), pp. 136-207.



Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2009 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology