- Arnold Pacey: The Meaning of Technology
What does it mean to use technology? How do individuals construct meaning through their use of technology? How does technology reflect the larger sense of purpose—the mission—that we bring to life? What is the difference between subjective and objective knowledge? What can we learn from our subjective experience with technology that we might otherwise miss from so-called objective points of view? How does personal experience with technology contribute to the cultural, social, and political meanings that we attach to technology?
Arnold Pacey, the highly regarded British philosopher and author, speaks to such questions in The Meaning of Technology, a work that examines how the ideals of individuals can be seen in the larger scope of technology use. In his three previous MIT Press publications—The Culture of Technology (1983), Technology and World Civilization (1991), and The Maze of Ingenuity (1992)—he discussed technology in relation to cultural, historical, and economic contexts. In this new book, Mr. Pacey seeks to affirm the significance of personal experience with technology that ranges from information systems to home appliances to automobiles to weapons systems (to give only a partial listing). His stated goal is to develop [End Page 86] "ways of discussing individual experience that avoid devaluing it with comments about the 'merely subjective"' (p. 11), a category of knowledge that often resists qualification and quantification. He bases his analyses on binary oppositions that he constructs, such as subjective and objective modes of knowledge, personal and social meanings of technology, detached and participatory technology, people-centered and object-centered technology, and the environment and weaponry.
Mr. Pacey contrasts his approach with studies that prioritize the "social construction and political economy of technology" (p. 4) and which produce knowledge that might be termed as objective. While he acknowledges the value of such studies, he criticizes them for a narrow focus that denies the contribution of the individual and thus misses the most important aspect of technology: "how human imagination deals with the practical experience of the material world" (p. 4). The author's approach aligns with a humanism that celebrates the creativity and freedom of the individual, as opposed to post-modern critical theory with its focus on the social construction of knowledge, which some might say works at the expense of the individual. Thus, the book advocates a participatory philosophy in which individuals assume responsibility for the positive use of technology through recognition of appropriate environmental and ethical concerns.
Mr. Pacey's examination of experience requires him to ask "what it feels like to practice engineering, or to use a machine" (p. 5). In the first half of the book, he answers this by looking at musical, tactile, and visual experience. Through discussion of similarities among the rhythms of labor, machines, and music, he notes how the physicality of sound and rhythm is a powerful way of creating meaning. He explains how automobile engine noise is tuned and adjusted for sale to specific markets in Japan and elsewhere. To show how individual experience with technology, like music, can also be understood in more than just a physical way, Mr. Pacey correlates music and math through discussion of Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo, and Kepler, which leads to a consideration of the work of Douglas Hofstadter, the well-known author and computer scientist. Mr. Hofstadter's writings are used to argue that "music reflects the order—the organization—that is necessary for the human nervous system to function" (p. 30).
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Mr. Pacey's point is that personal interaction with technology, which is aesthetic in nature, thus resembles the tactile sensation of singing or playing an instrument or the experience of hearing music. His insight will resonate with anyone who has found that electronic and digital composing tools, including synthesizers, computers, and software, can inspire creativity or raise questions about artistic process, just...