The Technology Of Culture

This week’s reading was from the introduction of Murphie, Andrew, and John Potts’ book ‘Culture And Technology’ and focuses on efforts to defining key terms involved in a theoretical analysis of the complex relationship between culture and technology: technology, technique, and culture.

The authors summarize why these definitions are so important for this area of study towards the end of the introduction, by saying that “civilizations are based on the technologies of building and writing. Cultural activities are dependent on technology. Contemporary mass culture is made possible by the technologies of communication and production”. This terms are obviously crucially important to understanding culture, society, and the way in which networks are formed, and the clear starting point is to define them, which proves to be much harder than you’d think.

Words can just as easily adapt and evolve with societal changes as technology does, with different meanings and interpretations evolving. Potts uses the example of the word ‘technocrat’ for this, saying that in the 1920s it originally describes someone who supported technocracy, a style of governance. Consequentially this word could be either an insult or a compliment, depending on your political ideology. But across time, technocrat has lost much of its political foundation, and its modern understanding now describes someone who highly values the potential of technology.

Because words can adapt and transform across time, and quickly, like this, it makes it problematic to attempt to stringently define them. The reading uses the analogy of technological change to refer to how quickly things can adapt, saying that the “cultural ramifications of technological change are multiple and volatile, making fools of modern-day prophets”. Prophets can also looks like ‘fools’ when trying to pin down the meanings of words, as they can also develop along with technological changes.

Potts claims that the word technology has come to describe the overall system of machines and processes used, while also stating that it has “become so ubiquitous that it has been said that we now live in technology, are surrounded by technological systems, and are dependent on them”. The word technology now has such a broad definition that it is almost impossible to effectively deal with, because, as Potts says, “technology has become so central to so many societies that it needs to be considered as much more than a collection of tools and machines”.

In contrast to this, the word technique refers to “a specific method or skill”, the means by which technology is harnessed in order to achieve an intended goal. Very basically, it is “the use of skill to accomplish something”, but as Potts observes, anything to with our own bodies must also involve technique then, and “techniques are as crucial to cultural and the transmission of culture as technologies”.

Raymond Williams is quoted as saying that culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”, and this is due to the fact that it can be so widely applied: it can described something self-contained, such as Australian culture, but can also be applied so broadly as to include the entire human race.

Potts says that “we see culture as messy, confused and riven with contradictions”, and that it is ultimately unpredictable, with the ‘inventors of culture’ inevitably not envisioning the technologies being used in the way that they now are, with the internet providing a relevant example.

I liked Brian Eno’s definition of culture the best, and thought it was the easiest to understand. Eno concisely defined culture as “everything we do not have to do”. For example, we have to move, but we don’t have to dance or run or skip, therefore these are cultures. I think this is a good way to simplify the ideas of culture into an easily understood and workable definition.

This reading provided some useful ideas surrounding troublesome definitions of the important concepts of technology, technique, and culture, and this will now be able to be applied to other aspects of analysis in the networked media.

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