April 23 2012

Kirk Was A Commie

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science. --- Paul Goodman, in New Reformation

If you are feeling depressed about the economy, the job outlook, and the discussion over possible remedies, you may need to shift your focus a bit and redirect your attention to a discussion about computers. Not necessarily about computers per se, and not just because you may be harboring some uncomfortable thoughts about how you may someday be replaced by one, but about computers because that is “where we talk about the future,” according to Ted Friedman, writing in Electric Dreams, Computers In American Culture.

“Debates over the meanings of computers (and cyberculture) are notoriously speculative.” However, since these “debates over cyberculture take place in what I call the utopian sphere: the space in public discourse where, in a society that in so many ways has given up on imagining anything better than multinational capitalism, there’s still room to dream of different kinds of futures.”

In describing a utopian sphere, Friedman isn’t “claim[ing] that cyberspace is a medium where one can transcend the bounds of race, gender, age, and so forth, and discover a kind of utopia on earth.” What he is saying is that “the uses and meanings of computer technology is one of the few forums within the contemporary public sphere where idealized visions of the future can be elaborated without instant dismissal.”

A brief survey of current debates over unemployment provides an interesting illustration of the general thrust of his argument. “The range of acceptable discourse on this topic in the American public sphere [...] is depressingly narrow.” Though Friedman may be oversimplifying things a bit here, what the discussion generally boils down to is one of the following two perspectives: “Liberals argue for faster economic growth to create more jobs. Conservatives insist this isn’t worth the risk of higher inflation. The imaginative scope of possible remedies is astonishingly thin: a decrease in the Federal Reserve interest rate, perhaps a modest government jobs program. What’s beyond the scope of debate is the current structure of the economy as a whole. At a time when increases in productivity as the result of new technologies are making more and more workers unnecessary, should we scale back the 40-hour work week? Or perhaps, at a point when many people’s labor is simply unwanted and unneeded, should we reconsider the ‘work ethic’ altogether, and try to find other ways in which to define social worth? These ideas can be broached on the fringes of academic discourse, but not in the talk shows, newspapers, and magazines of mainstream America.

“However, there is one public space in which these possibilities can be explored: the discourse over future uses of technologies. While the left has no room in the American public sphere to critique the merits of the 40-hour work week, writers who call themselves ‘futurists’ do have an open space to suggest that, some day, many of our needs will be fulfilled by machines, and 40 hours (or more) of labor a week will be unnecessary. Couched in this science-fictional language, there’s even room to suggest that capitalism itself might some day be rendered obsolete. In as ubiquitous a dream of the future as Star Trek, for example, the replicator, a machine that can produce a copy of any object, appears to have done away with the market. The economy instead seems to work under the principle ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ ”

Such a “form of futurism may seem hopelessly technologically determinist, less about the future we want than the future machines will give us. Capitalism may disappear in Star Trek, but only because of a deus ex machina: the replicator. But the presumption of technological determinism actually functions as a cover, authorizing a safe space in which to articulate utopian values. The public religion of technology can momentarily suspend the ‘pragmatist’ [worldview] that derails utopian projects as impossible and utopian thinking as a foolish waste of time. It opens up a space – a utopian sphere – where we can imagine what we might want the future to look like.”

Imagine that.

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