Material and Formative Technologies

Material and Formative Technologies January 15, 2019

When we talk about technology, we are often thinking of the instruments we use to interact with our environments—tools such as computers, clocks, books, wheels, et cetera. But technological artifacts are created with specialized knowledge and skills, such as engineering, timekeeping, writing, and pottery. Technology is also technique. And tools and techniques are developed and sustained within social structures and systems that shape people and the world. When we talk about technology, we should be thinking about human culture.

View of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2018 before its demolition in 2019
View of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2018 before its demolition in 2019

Using Simone Weil’s succinct definition of culture as the “formation of attention,” we can think of technology as having both material and formative dimensions. What we’ve been formed to pay attention to and value will influence how (and whether) we develop material technologies. Intentional or not, these technologies will have certain agentic affordances, which will then form us individually and collectively—as well as the natural world. It’s best when we are as intentional as we can be, and develop formative practices that leverage the best—and mitigate the worst—aspects of our technologies.

Chad Wellmon provides a good example of what a material-formative technological synthesis looks like when he describes how the modern research university was developed as a technology for information management. The intention of this new form of the university was to supplement prolific printed material with new scholarly practices for the formation of attention and agency.

(An even greater—if not the greatest—information technology for integrating material and formative technologies is the library, but that’s another post.)

Imagine if internet, social media, and mobile technologies had been developed along with formative practices that could have enhanced their use and constrained their abuse! … More encouraging is the current ethical attention being given to the design, use, and governance of artificial intelligence.

When we take an instrumental or deterministic view of technology—asserting that technology is simply neutral or inevitable—we separate material technologies from related formative practices that nonetheless precede, could have productively paralleled, and will deformatively succeed them. And we create dystopian realities rather than apocalyptic truth.

Alternatively, when we view technology as an integral part of human culture, we can approach it with the most important questions about what we can know, what we may hope for, and what we must do—philosophical questions of epistemology, eschatology, and ethics. And we can cultivate practices, such as those associated with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which will help us use technology wisely.

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