Notes on FIT Jan 11:


1) What is Science and Technology Studies (STS)?

a)     Typically we think of science and technology as something that has an impact on society. We actually have a two-way interaction; a “dialectic” or feedback loop.

b)    STS is dedicated to creating a better understanding of this feedback loop, and to apply that understanding to social problems.

c)     STS methods include both semiotic analysis – examining cultural symbols – and materialist analysis – examining relations of matter, energy, products, labor, etc.


2) What kinds of social problems can STS address?

a)     Example: the percentage of National Income (the value generated by taking raw materials and labor worth X dollars and selling the resulting product for X+value dollars) that goes to the salary of workers has been dropping rapidly since the 1970s. The economy is booming, but that means little to “Joe Sixpack.”

b)    Example: When we look at income by gender and ethnicity, we see great disparity: white males make the most money, women of all ethnic groups make less, black women make less than white women, etc.

c)     Example: “Waterworld” scenario – if we end up with massive global warming it won’t matter what economic class or ethnicity or gender you are.


3) Why a course on the Future of IT?

a)     IT can be critical to making changes in all 4 of these social problem areas (race, sex, class, and environment).

b)    Thinking about the future helps us figure out what changes we need to make today – for example, how can IT help to lower the emission of “greenhouse gasses” that lead to global warming?

c)     Our projections of the future also tell us much about our present society


4) How do normative issues (“values,” “ideology”) enter into STS?

a)     Technophobe view: technology is inherently evil. (eg unibomber)

b)    Techno-utopian view: technology is inherently good. (eg Walt Disney)

c)     Technology is neutral view: “a hammer can be used to murder or to build a house. The technological artifacts themselves are therefore politically neutral.”

d)    STS takes a 4th approach – the Social Constructionist view. Examples:

1.     Classist engineer Robert Moses constructs the bridges on Long Island such that low-clearance bridges lead to beaches and parks, preventing poor people from cluttering up his nice areas reserved for the rich. After Moses dies, the bridges are still doing his dirty work – impossible to analyze under the “technology is neutral” view. Artifacts can have politics.

2.     Power stations built in 1923 in Berlin show strong centralization, but those in London 1923 show strong decentralization – different “cultural styles.”

3.     The first voice-recognition software worked better on men than women – not due to an individual’s sexist agency, but do the structural sexism in the institutions.

4.     Web search engines originally used an out-of-date thesaurus to avoid paying copyright fees – but this means they have the linguistic politics of long-ago (eg synomyns for “Jew” is “cheap” or “cheat”).


5) The modern era: film “The World of Tommorrow” (a look at the 1939 World’s Fair).

a) The modernist dream was to eliminate the squalor of depression economics, slums etc with ORDER and CONTROL.

b)    Planned cities and the progress of science were the primary means of achieving this shiny new future in the US (elsewhere socialism held the same utopian promise).

c)     Streamlined designs – from toasters to trains  – symbolized the semiotics of progress, speeding toward utopia. Giant Cartesian grids for city layouts and Euclidean shapes for buildings captured the semiotics of planning and elimination of disorder.

d)    Remember when we laugh at ELECTROMAN etc -- how their dreams revealed the limitations of 1939 thinking – our future scenarios are similarly limited to our era’s absurd thinking.


6) The postmodern era: lecture on cybernetics and youth subculture.

a)     1960s mainstream cybernetics was all about modernist order and control – top-down hierarchy, linear digital systems that imposed order from above.

b)    1960s youth subculture (hippies etc) was all about disorder and autonomy – bottom-up spontaneous activities, natural chaos rather than artificial order.

c)     Late 1970s we start postmodern era – mainstream cybernetics switches to fractals, neuromimetics, chaos theory, and other analog bottom-up systems.

d)    Late 1970s postmodern youth subculture (punk rock, rap/hiphop) switches to digital systems and celebration of the artificial (eg urban spaces, machine-like haircuts, etc).

e)     Late 1980s introduced a synthesis of the opposites in cybernetics, just as “new age” subculture started to introduce a synthesis of opposites in its signifiers.

f)      In summary: IT and popular culture are closely connected, and we can learn much from examining their interactions. What youth subculture movements do we see starting in the late 1990s?