I’ll be teaching Technology and Culture this fall in the anthropology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I did my doctoral work and where I follow in the footsteps of anthropology pioneer Margaret Mead as well as sex therapist (and Holocaust survivor, former sniper, and all-around badass) “Dr. Ruth” Westheimer. I am excited to teach topics I really relish — Bruno Latour on the social construction of science; Elizabeth Eisenstein’s and Michael Clanchy’s on transformations of writing; not one but two of Finn Brunton’s entertaining and well-explained books (spam and cryptocurrency); Lucy Suchman’s Xerox copier work; Ivan Krstic’s postmortem of the One Laptop Per Child project; and — this is where I nearly hyperventilate with delight — African diaspora traditions of drumming as telecommunications media.
As I’m working on my syllabus, I finally got around to writing up some ground rules for my students, regarding terms I want them to use very, very carefully, if at all. I’ve been gobsmacked by how carelessly my students — even my graduate students — throw these terms around. They appear in the thesis statements of papers, discussion comments, and proposals for technology interventions.
I’m posting this list here, as well, because these are also suggestions I’d make to people talking about technology and society in other contexts — journalism, grant writing, pitches to VC firms, and user research among them. Because if you’re going to be making claims about how technologies will impact or be adopted by human beings, you’d better back up those claims with evidence.
Academic work in university settings is, at its best, built on long traditions of citing evidence and using language in careful, well-defined ways.
There are certain statements that, if you make them carelessly, will instantly bring this professor’s scrutiny down on your arguments with judgments that are likely to hurt your grade. Please work hard to avoid the following:
“Engaging and fun.” Students often try to make the case for media or technology interventions in education because they’ll be more “engaging” or “fun” than other alternatives. This assumes that 1) technology inherently has certain effects (an assumption we’re going to take apart in this class), 2) those effects are positive (same), and 3) “fun” means the same thing to everyone (see other “bad” words below). In the words of the internet, yeet these words directly into the sun. Find a more specific, nuanced argument for recommending a technology.
“In society” — generalizations like “in today’s society.” Which people are you talking about? What are the boundaries of this “society”? Everyone, worldwide, throughout history? I guarantee that neither you nor anyone you hear talking this way has the evidence they need to back up a broad, sweeping statement like this about human “society”: it has never been a single, unified, timeless, worldwide thing. Note the difference from saying (for example) “in 1920s Russian Jewish society” or “in a society, there is a need to provide care for its oldest and youngest members.” Those are arguments that might be possible to make, if you have evidence. When I’ve asked students why they’ve used the phrase “in today’s society,” they’ve said “it just sounds convincing.” It’s a weak, crappy line of argument. Throw it out.
“Popular” or “trends” — again, with which groups of people? To demonstrate popularity or trends, you’d better have data to back up that claim. Better just to not make these claims, unless they’re important to the point you’re making. “Popularity” is usually a more interesting quality to people in business than it is to academics; it sells products. Even in business, if you make the case that something is popular, someone ought to ask you for numbers to back your claim up.
“Culture.” This term isn’t as much of an electrified third rail for me as it is for Dr. Varenne (who was my doctoral advisor), but use caution. Faculty in this department generally use the term “culture” differently than the way it is used in everyday speech, the news, schools, etc. We encourage students to think about culture not as a quality an individual person has (or does not have), not as values that can be separated from the behaviors of groups of people, but rather as an ongoing process of groups of people deciding what to do next, and the various products of that process. When, as academics, we observe “culturing” or “enculturing” behavior in this way, we are able to make stronger arguments based on evidence.
“Community.” Again, this word gets used differently in everyday speech than it does in this department, so use it carefully. In news or politics, it is frequently politicized, with subtle implications about who is considered to be a member of this “community” and who is not. As with “culture,” it’s better to be able to defend your argument that there is a “community” with evidence that people are actually interacting with each other (and, as Varenne points out, the definition of community often involves people disputing each other’s membership).
So now that I’ve driven everyone nuts by warning them to take extreme caution when using the word “culture,” let me now make that worse! Same thing goes for “technology.” As you may have guessed from the preview of my syllabus, we’re gonna spend the semester whomping on the term “technology” until it busts open like a piñata, spilling allll the spicy lil social assumptions we invest in it — social roles, class, gender, race, “normal” bodies, western narratives about “progress,” nationalism, colonialism, etc etc etc. But this list here is one that tends to apply across semesters, whether my class is on “technology” or not. Enjoy.