DH and the Postmodern/Technocratic Turn (post facto)

Mitch Ingraham

11 October 2015

ENGL 5529

Dr. Emerson

Week 7: Blog post

“The Map and the Territory”[1]: The Question of Rationale in Digital Humanities

“[I]nvention is always born of dissention.”

– Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge (xxv)

Reading Brand’s account of the inception, history, and development of the Media Lab at M.I.T. was both intriguing and, yet at times, a bit disconcerting. Published in the same year as Selfe’s essay on the “Rhetoric of Technopower” (1988), Brand offers an inside look into the daily activities and practices at the Media Lab. While, reading this over thirty years later, admittedly some of the material seemed anachronistic and archaic, I was also struck by how prescient and novel the research and experimentation was given its time and especially considering their technological limitations (e.g. HDTV, “conversational desktop” [read: ‘Siri’?], etc.). The most impressive realization I had was that the people involved in this ambitious endeavor were contemporaneously designing and developing the tools they needed in the process of experimentation, which, when you stop and think about it, is remarkable. As Brand claims, “The most ethical of all tools are tools of adaptiveness, tools that make tools, tools that remake themselves” (264).

Speaking of ethics: throughout Brand’s narrative I found myself continually questioning the underlying motives of and impetus behind the Media Lab. To wit: For whose interests does the lab operate and function? For consumers or investors/corporate sponsors? (or, perhaps both?)

Another thought that occurred to me based on the title itself was: if, as Brand suggests, we could/can build (“invent”) our future? Why this one? What does the world reality that we’ve created say about us? (i.e. does it reflect humanistic, or corporate/capitalistic, values? This, in turn, made me think of Lyotard’s discussion of technology, power, and knowledge. It seems to me that Brand’s depiction of the Media Lab resembles Lyotard’s description of a postmodern metanarrative. In terms of The Media Lab, I suggest the importance of maintaining, as Lyotard put it: “an incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). In other words, it is useful to resist the temptation to take Brand’s narrative prima facie. An undercurrent of a political economy runs throughout his book, which reveals an infrastructural power struggle between all involved parties: investors, scientists, and administration alike. Thus, once again, the question/problem of access (both to knowledge and resources) resurfaces. As Lyotard observes, “In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government” (9). Closing thought: are we moving toward a technocratic form of political governance?

Works Cited

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. New York: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1984. Print.

[1] Shamelessly borrowed from the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel (New York: Vintage International, 2012)

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