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Audrey Watters

Fantastic Job Opportunity

from a 1970s Fantastic Four issue

Audrey Watters

Notes and Highlights from Amusing Ourselves to Death

22 min read

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

Although the Constitution makes no mention of it, it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office.

Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

When a professor teaches with a sense of humor, people walk away remembering.”1 She did not say what they remember or of what use their remembering is. But she has a point: It’s great to be an entertainer.

There is no shortage of critics who have observed and recorded the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the arts of show business. But most of them, I believe, have barely begun to tell the story of the origin and meaning of this descent into a vast triviality.

We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it.

For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.

Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture. This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.

all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message,

the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.

Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.

it may lead one to confuse a message with a metaphor.

A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.

time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.

Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.

Philosophy cannot exist without criticism, and writing makes it possible and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concentrated scrutiny. Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist—all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading.

a shift from the ear to the eye as an organ of language processing.

from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.

When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor.

And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism.

we do not measure a culture by its output

of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.

how media are implicated in our epistemologies.

As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself.

Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness.

there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.

You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth.

Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned.

“Seeing is believing” has always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but “saying is believing,” “reading is believing,” “counting is believing,” “deducing is believing,” and “feeling is believing” are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change.

As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it. Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzsche remarked. To which we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.

Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.

We have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment.

We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word.

every new technology for thinking involves a trade-off.

Media change does not necessarily result in equilibrium. It sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it is the other way around.

The invention of the printing press itself is a paradigmatic example. Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion.

although literacy rates are notoriously difficult to assess, there is sufficient evidence (mostly drawn from signatures) that between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.2 (The literacy rate for women in those colonies is estimated to have run as high as 62 percent in the years 1681-1697.3)

The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.

The first printing press in America was established in 1638 as an adjunct of Harvard University, which was two years old at the time.

This odd practice is less a reflection of an American’s obstinacy than of his modeling his conversational style on the structure of the printed word.

a kind of printed orality,

“Is the Iliad possible,” he asks rhetorically, “when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?”

Marx understood well that the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience.

Not only did Lincoln and Douglas write all their speeches in advance, but they also planned their rebuttals in writing. Even the spontaneous interactions between the speakers were expressed in a sentence structure, sentence length and rhetorical organization which took their form from writing.

the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content.

Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result.

the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.”

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.

Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.

Women were probably more adept readers than men, and even in the frontier states the principal means of public discourse issued from the printed word. Those who could read had, inevitably, to become part of the conversation.

the Age of Exposition ---> the Age of Show Business.

For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country.” It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.

The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.

The penny newspaper, emerging slightly before telegraphy, in the 1830’s, had already begun the process of elevating irrelevance to the status of news.

It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed.

As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant.

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives.

The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography.

burn its contents.

Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.

“Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

The photograph also lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world.

As Susan Sontag has observed, a photograph implies “that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.”

It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.

the crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in America at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact.

The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context;

the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.”

Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?

The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.

Theirs was a “language” that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.

As a small, ironic example of this point, consider this: In the past few years, we have been learning that the computer is the technology of the future. We are told that our children will fail in school and be left behind in life if they are not “computer literate.” We are told that we cannot run our businesses, or compile our shopping lists, or keep our checkbooks tidy unless we own a computer. Perhaps some of this is true. But the most important fact about computers and what they mean to our lives is that we learn about all of this from television.

Television has achieved the status of “meta-medium”—an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.

television has achieved the status of “myth,” as Roland Barthes uses the word.

myth a way of understanding the world

A myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is invisible.

What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?

Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral.

Each technology has an agenda of its own.

It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold.

All of this has occurred simultaneously with the decline of America’s moral and political prestige, worldwide. American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.

what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.

Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song, he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There’s No Business But Show Business.

The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.

The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.

“Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. ” Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody.

America’s newest and highly successful national newspaper, USA Today, is modeled precisely on the format of television.

Radio, of course, is the least likely medium to join in the descent into a Huxleyan world of technological narcotics. It is, after all, particularly well suited to the transmission of rational, complex language.

NOTE: Podcasting? Is this an heir to radio and that print-orality?

Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible.

to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.

“Television,” Billy Graham has written, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man.

This is gross technological naivete. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the message is experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that its social and psychological meaning is different, as well.

the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism.

There are, of course, counterarguments to the claim that television degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion.

Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice.

the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital.

The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.

The television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways. The first is by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns.

Being a celebrity is quite different from being well known.

Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as-celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the latter.

Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our age is characterized by a “refusal to remember”; he cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs....

We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.”

“Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.”

“Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.

Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen.

Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice.

Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.

every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same.

“The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning.

If we are to blame “Sesame Street” for anything, it is for the pretense that it is any ally of the classroom.

it is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children their letters and numbers is entirely irrelevant. We may take as our guide here John Dewey’s observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning.

As he wrote in Experience and Education: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes ... may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history.... For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”

the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns.

We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image.

This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum.

As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it.

Thou shalt have no prerequisites

Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.

Thou shalt induce no perplexity

the average television viewer could retain only 20 percent of the information contained in a fictional televised news story.

21 percent of television viewers could not recall any news items within one hour of broadcast.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved?

we are in a race between education and disaster,

necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media.

Audrey Watters

Unfair Taxes

3 min read

Here's another rant I posted to Facebook today (in lieu of my actual work):

 What counts as “fair share” of taxes is a totally subjective assessment. Most Americans do believe that the wealthy and corporations do not pay their “fair share,” although according to Pew, Democrats find this much more disconcerting than Republicans do. (Corporate taxes today make up around 10% of federal revenues, down from about a third of revenues in the 1950s.)

Sure, people have every right to claim deductions. But we aren’t talking about Trump taking advantage of deductions here, ffs.

If nothing else, we should recognize the way in which tax laws are set up and how the tax structure benefits the affluent much more than the poor – from deductions for having a mortgage to the low rate on capital gains. And it’s the latter in particular that has helped fuel the growing economic inequality in this country. The wealthy – including folks like Trump – are quite skilled at moving their money into categories that take advantage of lower tax rates so that they aren’t being taxed on income (at a high rate) but are taxed on investments (at a lower rate). They can afford to hire lawyers and accountants to do so.

While individual income tax does make up the largest share of government revenues, the fastest growing part of that revenue comes from the payroll tax. And most Americans – all but the wealthiest 20% – pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes.

To Susanne’s point: Trump seemed to indicate last night he pays nothing in taxes. I agree with her that that is wrong. It is grossly unfair. (Indeed, some of the reporting out of The Washington Post suggests that Trump has used his foundation to commit tax fraud in his attempts to avoid paying taxes.) The Clintons, for what it’s worth, paid over $3 million. I’m sure that had they hired “the best people” as Trump does, they could have whittled that down. But they didn’t. Because when you are wealthy, you have an obligation to help fuel prosperity for everyone, not just line your own pockets. And almost all economists agree that raising taxes on the wealthy would have enormous benefits, including addressing the growing inequality that this country faces.

Audrey Watters

Presidential Debate, No. 1

3 min read

I come from a long line of racists. I mean, let’s be honest white folks, we all do.

But all I can think right now is of my dad (RIP Kirk), who called me in tears on November 4, 2008 because he had cast his first vote for a Democrat in a presidential election.

I’m from Wyoming. One of the reddest states. You’re either a Republican there or you might as well be a Commie.

My dad called me that night in tears because he was proud of his vote and, I think, frightened of his vote. He said his dad would be rolling in his grave that his son had voted for a Black president. “What was this country coming to? A better place. A better place,” he kept repeating.

My dad said he couldn’t vote for McCain. He just couldn’t. He couldn’t support McCain if the guy would pick Palin as his running mate. To acquiesce to the kind of people who support Palin, he said, was to surrender everything that had made the Republican Party great; and even more, everything that had made this very flawed country believe in progress. “She doesn’t believe in dinosaurs, for fuck’s sake,” he said.

It wasn’t a vote for Obama. Let’s be clear. My dad was one helluva polite white supremacist, I’ll give him that much.

And that’s the Republican Party I knew as a kid in Wyoming, I suppose. One that believed in free markets and war and whiteness but also dinosaurs.

I don’t recognize much about the GOP today. Oh I do recognize the racism, for sure. I recognize the sexism. But there’s something about Trump, about his smug selfishness, sure, but about his willful dismissal of facts and truths – “We hold these truths to be self-evident” – that would have driven my dad and my dad’s dad to another party at this stage. I’m sure of it. I’m not sure how anyone, quite frankly, could have watched Trump in tonight’s debate and then pronounced “that’s my guy.” My dad and my grandpa – small businessmen, both of them – paid taxes, not because they were “dumb” as Trump suggested tonight, but because that’s what you do as a responsible citizen.

I want to write more about all of thisthis. About this embrace of factlessness and fantasy. About selfishness in lieu of sacrifice. But mostly I want to be able to understand how so many people I grew up with and love can support someone like Trump – someone who I think (and I think my dad would think too) is really poised to unravel everything everything that “we” – we white folks, we the people, what have you – have worked toward.

Why, it’s almost as though once “we” are confronted with extending rights and dignity to everyone – “all men are created equal” – that white folks would rather burn it to the ground than let people of color have access to freedom and justice and happiness.

Audrey Watters

Staying with the Trouble

15 min read

Notes and highlights from Donna Haraway's latest book Staying with the Trouble:

Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times.

Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

[Notice the spelling, intentionally re-spelling Lovecraft]


Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents, or futures.

Chthonic ones romp in multicritter humus but have no truck with sky-gazing Homo.

Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one;

They make and unmake; they are made and unmade.

Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin and genealogical and biogenetic family troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible.

Anthropocene. Capitalocene.

The first is easy to describe and, I think, dismiss, namely, a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children, or what amounts to the same thing, God will come to the rescue of his disobedient but ever hopeful children.

The second response, harder to dismiss, is probably even more destructive: namely, a position that the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better, or at least no sense having any active trust in each other in working and playing for a resurgent world.

This book argues and tries to perform that, eschewing futurism, staying with the trouble is both more serious and more lively.

Companion species are relentlessly becoming-with.

Pigeons are also “creatures of empire”—that is, animals who went with European colonists and conquerors all over the world, including places where other varieties of their kind were already well established, transforming ecologies and politics for everybody in ways that still ramify through multispecies flesh and contested landscapes.

Building naturalcultural economies and lives for thousands of years, these critters are also infamous for ecological damage and biosocial upheaval.

They are treasured kin and despised pests, subjects of rescue and of invective, bearers of rights and components of the animal-machine, food and neighbor, targets of extermination and of biotechnological breeding and multiplication, companions in work and play and carriers of disease, contested subjects and objects of “modern progress” and “backward tradition.”

Becoming-with people for several thousand years, domestic pigeons (Columba livia domestica) emerged from birds native to western and southern Europe, North Africa, and western and southern Asia. Rock doves came with Europeans to the Americas, entering North America through Port Royal in Nova Scotia in 1606.

Called “rats with wings,” feral pigeons are subjects of vituperation and extermination, but they also become cherished opportunistic companions who are fed and watched avidly all over the world.

Domestic rock doves have worked as spies carrying messages, racing birds, fancy pigeons at fairs and bird markets, food for working families, psychological test subjects, Darwin’s interlocutors on the power of artificial selection, and more.

Pigeons are competent agents—in the double sense of both delegates and actors—who render each other and human beings capable of situated social, ecological, behavioral, and cognitive practices.

My hope is that these knots propose promising patterns for multispecies response-ability inside ongoing trouble.

In Project Sea Hunt in the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. Coast Guard worked with pigeons, who were better at spotting men and equipment in open water than human beings.16 Indeed, pigeons were accurate 93 percent of the time, compared to human accuracy in similar problems of 38 percent.

Clearly, the pigeons and Coast Guard personnel had to learn how to communicate with each other, and the pigeons had to learn what their humans were interested in seeing. In nonmimetic ways, people and birds had to invent pedagogical and technological ways to render each other capable in problems novel to all of them.

Not very many kinds of other-than-human critters have convinced human skeptics that the animals recognize themselves in a mirror—a talent made known to scientists by such actions as picking at paint spots or other marks on one’s body that are visible only in a mirror. Pigeons share this capacity with, at least, human children over two years old, rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, magpies, dolphins, and elephants.

Pigeons passed their first mirror tests in the laboratories of B. F. Skinner in 1981.

pigeons did better at self-recognition tests with both mirrors and live video images of themselves than three-year-old human children.

“It would seem that our pigeons do quite a good job of exhibiting an agape type of love toward each other . . . Our pigeons are actually doing the work of real love.”

“The pigeon ‘backpack’ developed for this project consisted of a combined GPS (latitude, longitude, altitude) / GSM (cell phone tower communication) unit and corresponding antennas, a dual automotive CO/NOx pollution sensor, a temperature sensor, a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card interface, a microcontroller and standard supporting electronic components.


To re-member, to com-memorate, is actively to reprise, revive, retake, recuperate.

They remember; they entice and prolong into the fleshly present what would disappear without the active reciprocity of partners. Homing or racing pigeons and feral pigeons call both their emergent and traditional peoples to response-ability, and vice versa. City dwellers and rural people of different species and modes of living and dying make each other colombophiles talentueux in company with voyageurs fiables.

the municipal pigeon tower certainly cannot undo unequal treaties, conquest, and wetlands destruction; but it is nonetheless a possible thread in a pattern for ongoing, noninnocent, interrogative, multispecies getting on together.

Companion species infect each other all the time. Pigeons are world travelers, and such beings are vectors and carry many more, for good and for ill. Bodily ethical and political obligations are infectious, or they should be. Cum panis, companion species, at table together. Why tell stories like my pigeon tales, when there are only more and more openings and no bottom lines? Because there are quite definite response-abilities that are strengthened in such stories.

As spies, racers, messengers, urban neighbors, iridescent sexual exhibitionists, avian parents, gender assistants for people, scientific subjects and objects, art-engineering environmental reporters, search-and-rescue workers at sea, imperialist invaders, discriminators of painting styles, native species, pets, and more,

Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.

denizens of the depths, from the abyssal and elemental entities, called chthonic.

Their many appendages make string figures; they entwine me in the poiesis—the making—of speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, soin de ficelle, so far. The tentacular ones make attachments and detachments; they ake cuts and knots; they make a difference; they weave paths and consequences but not determinisms; they are both open and knotted in some ways and not others. SF is storytelling and fact telling; it is the patterning of possible worlds and possible times, material-semiotic worlds, gone, here, and yet to come. I work with string figures as a theoretical trope, a way to think-with a host of companions in sympoietic threading, felting, tangling, tracking, and sorting. I work with and in SF as material-semiotic composting, as theory in the mud, as muddle.

In passion and action, detachment and attachment, this is what I call cultivating response-ability; that is also collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices.

“It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas.”

It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.

What is it to surrender the capacity to think?

In that surrender of thinking lay the “banality of evil” of the particular sort that could make the disaster of the Anthropocene, with its ramped-up genocides and speciescides, come true.

Arendt insisted that thought was profoundly different from what we might call disciplinary knowledge or science rooted in evidence, or the sorting of truth and belief or fact and opinion or good and bad.

Arendt witnessed in Eichmann not an incomprehensible monster, but something much more terrifying—she saw commonplace thoughtlessness.
[NOTE: Not monsters but thoughtlessness]

a deeper surrender to what I would call immateriality, inconsequentiality, or, in Arendt’s and also my idiom, thoughtlessness.

what it means to hold open space for another.

Extinction is a protracted slow death that unravels great tissues of ways of going on in the world for many species, including historically situated people.

Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction . . . The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying; human beings must grieve with, because we are in and of this fabric of undoing.

Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think. Like the crows and with the crows, living and dead “we are at stake in each other’s company.”

carrier bag theory of storytelling
[NOTE: Carrier bag theory of pigeons]

Think we must; we must think. That means, simply, we must change the story; the story must change.

None of the parties in crisis can call on Providence, History, Science, Progress, or any other god trick outside the common fray to resolve the troubles.

sciences, not Science.

This is neither relativism nor rationalism; it is SF, which Latour would call both sciences and scientifiction and I would call both sciences and speculative fabulation—all of which are political sciences, in our aligned approaches.

the time-space-global thing called Anthropocene. The term seems to have been coined in the early 1980s by University of Michigan ecologist Eugene Stoermer (d. 2012),

Still, if we could only have one word for these SF times, surely it must be the Capitalocene.50 Species Man did not shape the conditions for the Third Carbon Age or the Nuclear Age.

Note that insofar as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan.

This Chthulucene is neither sacred nor secular; this earthly worlding is thoroughly terran, muddled, and mortal—and at stake now.

technotheocratic geoengineering fixes

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing.


A model is a work object; a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy. A model is worked, and it does work.

“We Have Never Been Individuals,”


“an idea of what the female bee looked like to the male bee . . . as interpreted by a plant . . . the only memory of the bee is a painting by a dying flower.”

The practice of the arts of memory enfold all terran critters. That must be part of any possibility for resurgence!

Symchthonic stories are not the tales of heroes; they are the tales of the ongoing.

“Make Kin Not Babies!”

Making—and recognizing—kin is perhaps the hardest and most urgent part.

Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. I was moved in college by Shakespeare’s punning between kin and kind—the kindest were not necessarily kin as family; making kin and making kind (as category, care, relatives without ties by birth, lateral relatives, lots of other echoes) stretch the imagination and can change the story.

Marilyn Strathern taught me that “relatives” in British English were originally “logical relations” and only became “family members” in the seventeenth century—this is definitely among the factoids I love.16 Go outside English, and the wild multiplies.

Kin is an assembling sort of word.

All critters share a common “flesh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically.

Cyborgs are kin, whelped in the litter of post–World War II information technologies and globalized digital bodies, politics, and cultures of human and not-human sorts.

they are not hybrids at all. They are, rather, imploded entities, dense material semiotic “things”—articulated string figures of ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating relatings of particular sorts, not all the time everywhere, but here, there, and in between, with consequences.

cyborgs are critters in a queer litter, not the Chief Figure of Our Times.

Conjugating is about yoking together; conjugal love is yoked love; conjugated chemical compounds join together two or more constituents. People conjugate in public spaces; they yoke themselves together transversally and across time and space to make significant things happen.

Marx understood all about how privileged positions block knowledge of the conditions of one’s privilege.

We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, but not in the same ways. The differences matter—in ecologies, economies, species, lives.

So much of earth history has been told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa. Tool, weapon, word: that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god. In a tragic story with only one real actor, one real world-maker, the hero, this is the Man-making tale of the hunter on a quest to kill and bring back the terrible bounty. This is the cutting, sharp, combative tale of action that defers the suffering of glutinous, earth-rotted passivity beyond bearing. All others in the prick tale are props, ground, plot space, or prey. They don’t matter; their job is to be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit, but not the traveler, not the begetter. The last thing the hero wants to know is that his beautiful words and weapons will be worthless without a bag, a container, a net.

Plants, however, they speculated, “do not communicate” and so have no language. Something else is going on in the vegetative world, perhaps something that should be called art.

Emma Goldman’s understanding of anarchist love and rage make sense in the worlds of ants and acacias. These companion species are a prompt to shaggy dog stories—growls, bites, whelps, games, snufflings, and all. Symbiogenesis is not a synonym for the good, but for becoming-with each other in response-ability.

polite inquiry.

“Think we must!”

Why should Virginia Woolf, or any other woman, or men for that matter, be faithful to such patrilines and their demands for sacrifice? Infidelity seems the least we should demand of ourselves!

Hannah Arendt and Virginia Woolf both understood the high stakes of training the mind and imagination to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations of having met. This is what I have called cultivating response-ability. Visiting is not a heroic practice; making a fuss is not the Revolution; thinking with each other is not Thought. Opening up versions so stories can be ongoing is so mundane, so earth-bound.

That is what “going too far” means, and this curious practice is not safe.

racing pigeons, also called carrier pigeons (in French voyageurs) and with their avid fanciers (in French colombophiles, lovers of pigeons).

Pigeon racing is a working-class men’s sport around the world, one made immensely difficult in conditions of urban war (Baghdad, Damascus), racial and economic injustice (New York, Berlin), and displaced labor and play of many kinds across regions (France, Iran, California).

Audrey Watters


7 min read

(For a project, formerly known as "Speaking Openly")

I often quote the Marxist Antonio Gramsci – “I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will.” I quote Gramsci because, as “ed-tech’s Cassandra,” I’m often accused of being too critical, too negative about the future of education. And admittedly, I do fear that the future might be grim. But I am an optimist. I think that most of us that work in and near education are – we have to be. We believe in the transformative potential of teaching and learning. We believe in shaping and changing minds; as such, we believe in shaping and changing the future. The three other respondents have all laid out fairly optimistic visions of the future of teaching and learning – deliberately so, no doubt – a future that honors individuals, empathy, cultural relevance, social change, and social justice. And if that future is technologically-enhanced, it’s enhanced in such a way to make it more human and humane and less machine-like.

These are all reflections of our pedagogical goals, I think, as progressive educators. But these are also political goals. And I want to pause here to talk a little bit more about what I see as the future of the politics of education and, perhaps just as importantly, the future of the politics of the digital technology industry. A possible future, I should be clear, if we do not tackle these questions politically.

I think the others were right to point out that “learning” is distinct from “education.” But I think we have to talk about “education,” the institution. We have to scrutinize their role in past injustices, their role in inscribing and re-inscribing hierarchies, and we have to demand better. But I’m not sure we can abandon institutions, particularly public institutions, entirely. I say this recognizing that among the many crises we face right now, a lot of these involve our loss of faith in institutions – in the government, in the Church, in markets, in medicine, in science, in schools. How do we rebuild so that the collective and the communal is protected and that, as I fear would happen without institutions, it’s up to the individual and her or his privilege and social capital alone, in order to survive and succeed.

When I talk about the digital technology industry, I use the shorthand “Silicon Valley.” It’s not quite an accurate term geographically, but I use it to refer to its ideology – one of radical individualism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, exploitative and unchecked capitalism. This ideology isn’t espoused only by those who work and invest in Silicon Valley, of course. But increasingly – because of the financial and political power and influence of Silicon Valley – this ideology is becoming quite dominant.

We must ask how this will affect education. Disinvestment? The shrinking of the public sector? A move away from the communal to the individual? “Personalization” – one of the buzzwords of education technology? Standardization? Outsourcing? Uber-ification? Dismantling of labor protections? Automation? Algorithms? Financialization and monetization of all aspects of our lives? Surveillance, not only by the state but by corporations?

2015 was a record-setting year for education technology investment. Over $6 billion by some estimates. What was popular among investors? Test prep. Tutoring. Private student loans. Learning management systems. Online “skills training.”

Now to be fair, that $6 billion is dwarfed by venture capital that goes into other sub-sectors of tech. And Uber alone raised about $5 billion last year. But this flood of money comes with political power. It comes with a power to reshape – or to try to reshape – all sorts of narratives about what it means to be social, political, workers, students, “users,” citizens. The narratives that Silicon Valley tells about education are that schools are broken, that they are irrelevant, that they are inefficient, that unionized labor prevents innovation, that education can be automated. Successful entrepreneurs do not just form companies or form investment firms; they start philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation and now the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. These organizations have an oversized influence on education policy. They envision a future of teaching and learning that is, to borrow from Liz’s formulation, very much about calculation – about data and algorithms and efficiencies and tracking and analytics. They are profoundly anti-democratic.

This is one of the challenges we face, I think, particularly when we talk about a future of teaching and learning and digital technologies: this question of democracy and open communication and collaboration built on technologies of surveillance and command and control, built on top of pre-existing communication networks, never quite erasing the previous manifestations of power or politics, despite our rather utopian hopes that technologies like the Web just might.

Investor Marc Andreessen famously said a few years ago that “software is eating the world.” Andreessen is an important figure to think about in terms of technology and education – and not simply because his investment portfolio includes companies like the MOOC startup (or once upon a time a MOOC startup) Udacity. Andreessen was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign where he worked on the Mosaic Browser, the first browser for the Web. He believed that the browser had commercial possibilities and built Netscape Navigator – which shared no code with the browser built by a public university but shared its functionality. Andreessen became a billionaire with Netscape, a company’s whose IPO is generally seen as synonymous with the Internet bubble and with young tech entrepreneurs who would reshape the world. “Software is eating the world.” It’s eating public education, it’s eating higher education, arguably, despite the origins of almost all the innovations of the past sixty years in the computer industry being intimately tied up with these scholarly institutions.

To echo Maha’s question about whose learning – learning by whom and for whom in what contexts, I would add a litany of questions about the world that software is purportedly eating – whose software, who benefits, whose world is being re-enacted and recoded and digitized? A world of the global elite? A world of the global north? A world of engineers? A world of white men? A world of machines?

What about the rest of us? Non machines and non humans alike?

The future of teaching and learning will continue to be, as the history of teaching and learning would show us, political acts, political practices. They must be ones of resistance, I think, to the stories and the practices of exploitation. As we think about institutions – new ones and old ones – we must demand justice. We must cultivate “response- ability” – I’m using this term as Donna Haraway does – to be able to respond, to be able to recognize our complicity in harmful acts past and present, and to think about transformation that is deeply critical and deeply empathetic to all the world around us. This is a political undertaking, and an incredibly urgent one. It isn’t because, as Andreessen gleefully pronounces, because “software is eating the world.” It is because the world is dying or careening at least to another global extinction event. Addressing this isn’t simply a question of engineering. It is a question of compassion and teaching and learning and radical pedagogy. We must be optimists, not pessimists as hard as it can be in the face of global crises. Our world, our survival demands it.

Audrey Watters

The Pigeon Camera

via The Public Domain Review

Audrey Watters

Thoughts on Colin Kaepernick

2 min read

(Reposted from Facebook)

Hate the 49ers. Love Colin Kaepernick. Full respect.

1) Among the things that makes this country "great"? We aren't mandated to respond a certain way to the flag or to the national anthem or to other nationalist symbols

2) White folks love to see black folks be "athletic," much of which involves all sorts of long-standing racist performances around the body. The male body. The same body we punish, we laud. The very same body. White folks readily cheer when strong black men's bodies get broke. I can see why Colin would sit down for a celebration of this. I can see why he extends his analysis of broken bodies off the field.

3) There is a long history of black athletes performing some of the most powerful displays of anti-imperialism and anti-white supremacy. I honor this history. I am proud to live in a country of raised black fists, of defiant black athletes but ashamed that it falls upon them to do so. We must recognize the history of white supremacy, built on black bodies.

4) Look at college athletes, particularly in the high profile men's sports -- football, basketball, baseball. This is the new plantation, as Taylor Branch has argued. Schools are completely implicated in this and by this. Black and brown bodies on display. We deny them a college education, while claiming that they get one for free. We use and abuse their body for sport. For. Sport.

5) "I wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn't my friend." -- Jackie Robinson. You do not disrespect the flag or the country by refusing to fly or salute the flag. You disrespect it by denying others freedom.

Audrey Watters

Introducing Tressie

4 min read

I was honored to get to introduce Tressie McMillan Cottom this week when she delivered the opening keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. Here's what I said:

When I was first asked to introduce the keynote today, I thought about wearing my Denver Broncos t-shirt to troll Tressie, who I haven’t seen since my team – go Broncos – beat her team, the Carolina Panthers, in the Super Bowl. See, I would have tied it all together though, something about Cam Newton and how society demands certain bodies – Black folks in this case – perform a certain kind of emotional labor alongside physical and intellectual labor, what that looks like not just in post-game interviews, but what that looks like in academia, what that looks like in a public talk.

I was also sorely tempted to tell you an anecdote from that one time we were together on the 17-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Atlanta, Georgia and Magic Mike XXL was one of the in-flight movies. But the set-up is kinda long and it perhaps require you have seen the movie and know a little about “Where Mike Got the Magic.” So I’ll save the story for the cocktail hour.

I actually want to be serious with this intro, because Tressie does some of the most seriously important work of anyone I know. In the last four years, her scholarship has become foundational to my own, as we work to analyze the systems and stories surrounding “skills,” “markets,” “certification,” and “schooling.”

I can tell you the first time I heard of Tressie McMillan Cottom. It was 2012. Tressie had written a response (or two) to an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education by right-wing pundit whose name isn't worth mentioning and started a petition to have Schaefer Riley dismissed from the publication. I caught wind of this all on Twitter (because thankfully, I’m not in academia anymore and I needn’t subscribe to The Chronicle).

In the Chronicle article in question, this pundit argued for the elimination of Black Studies departments by viciously mocking and attacking the work of three doctoral students. The work of three female doctoral students. The work of three Black women.

Perhaps it’s a familiar story to us now: a publication hires someone it knows is going to say outrageous things. That person writes something outrageous. Outrage ensues. Outrage and virality. The publication then solicits articles, from the offender and the offended, in response – “We encourage you to weigh in!” – an attempt, let’s be honest, to extend not resolve the outrage. As the business model for online publishing increasingly depends on page-views, we get rage clicks. Hate reads.

And Tressie, then a doctoral student herself, named it. She named it for what it is – not just the baiting (link baiting, click baiting, race baiting), but “the institutional logic of racism.” The institutional logic of racism at work on the pages of the premier publication for higher education, one that echoes the institutional logic of racism in higher education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is just one of the many, many gatekeepers in higher education. It’s the publication that faculty, staff, administrators, and yes graduate students are urged to turn to for the latest on the state of the institution, the disciplines, the politics, the future. It helps identify and shape the important issues, the important characters. The Chronicle, like all gatekeepers, carves out who belongs, whose scholarship – whose lives – matter. These gatekeepers distinguish, designate, and reinforce prestige.

Higher ed is, as Tressie’s work reminds us, a “prestige cartel.” (Her book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy will be out in February.) This distinction, this stratification – “high” and “low” – coincides, overlaps with others – “real” and “fake,” “public” and “private,” “open” and “closed,” “Ivy” and the rest of us plebs, and perhaps central to our purposes here at this event, “offline” and “online,” “standardized” and “personalized.” The keywords of the new higher ed-tech economy – “innovative,” “disruptive,” “at scale” versus the old, the traditional, the outmoded, the irrelevant.

I’m honored today to introduce the Digital Pedagogy Institute’s opening keynote, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom – a model public scholar, openly and ferociously engaged in issues of education and justice. My friend…

Audrey Watters

Notes from The Real World of Technology

26 min read

Ursula Franklin passed away several weeks ago. Although I'd been exposed to her work via several (Canadian, feminist) technologies and scientists, I hadn't ever read this book. I have to say: it's the best book I've read on technology in a very, very long time.

technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled.

Technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us. It has forced us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability.

technology as practice

Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

Technology also needs to be examined as an agent of power and control, and I will try to show how much modern technology drew from the prepared soil of the structures of traditional institutions, such as the church and the military.

technology’s social impact. I myself am overawed by the way in which technology has acted to reorder and restructure social relations, not only affecting the relations between social groups, but also the relations between nations and individuals, and between all of us and our environment. To a new generation, many of these changed relationships appear so normal, so inevitable, that they are taken as given and are not questioned. Yet one can establish clear historical trends. In order to understand the real world of technology and cope with it, we need to have some knowledge of the past, as well as to give some thought to the future.

Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice. The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice of justice and on the enforcement of limits to power.

The historical process of defining a group by their agreed practice and by their tools is a powerful one. It not only reinforces geographic or ethnic distributions, it also affects the gendering of work.

The common practice that a particular technology represents, in addition to leading to an identification with culture and gender, can also lead to the “right” of the practitioners to an exclusive practice of the technology.

Another facet of the concept of technology as practice is the fact that the practice can define the content.

Work-related technologies make the actual practice easier.

control- and work-related technologies

holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft.

Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

It is the first kind of specialization, by product, that I call holistic technology, and it is important because it leaves the doer in total control of the process. The opposite is specialization by process; this I call prescriptive technology.

“division of labour”

a production method.

The amount of material found, and the knowledge that this constitutes only a small fraction of what was produced, assures us of the presence of a large, coordinated production enterprise. It was only when I considered in detail – as a metallurgist – what such a production enterprise would entail, that the extraordinary social meaning of prescriptive technologies dawned on me. I began to understand what they meant, not just in terms of casting bronze but in terms of discipline and planning, of organization and command.

When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager.

invention. In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance.

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it.”

Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.

When successful, prescriptive technologies do yield predictable results. They yield products in numbers and qualities that can be set beforehand, and so technology itself becomes an agent of ordering and structuring.

The ordering that prescriptive technologies has caused has now moved from ordering at work and the ordering of work, to the prescriptive ordering of people in a wide variety of social situations.

“the digitalized footprints of social transactions,” since the technology can be set up not only to include and exclude participants, but also to show exactly where any individual has spent his or her time.

prescriptive technologies eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgement in general and especially for the making of principled decisions. Any goal of the technology is incorporated a priori in the design and is not negotiable.

As methods of materials production, prescriptive technologies have brought into the real world of technology a wealth of important products that have raised living standards and increased well-being. At the same time they have created a culture of compliance.


Underlying the different uses of the concept of scale are two different models or metaphors: one is a growth model, the other a production model.

A production model is different in kind. Here things are not grown but made, and made under conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable.

Production, then, is predictable, while growth is not.

choosing a particular university, following a particular regimen, will turn the student into a specifiable and identifiable product.

If there ever was a growth process, if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education.

The real world of technology seems to involve an inherent trust in machines and devices (“production is under control”) and a basic apprehension of people (“growth is chancy, one can never be sure of the outcome”).

vernacular reality

extended reality that body of knowledge and emotions we acquire that is based on the experience of others.

constructed or reconstructed reality. Its manifestations range from what comes to us through works of fiction to the daily barrage of advertising and propaganda. It encompasses descriptions and interpretations of those situations that are considered archetypal rather than representative. These descriptions furnish us with patterns of behaviour. We consider these patterns real, even if we know the situations have been constructed in order to make a particular pattern very clear and evident.

projected reality – the vernacular reality of the future.

today there is no hierarchical relationship between science and technology. Science is not the mother of technology. Science and technology today have parallel or side-by-side relationships; they stimulate and utilize each other. It is more appropriate to regard science and technology as one enterprise with a spectrum of interconnected activity than to think of two fields of endeavour – science as one, and applied science and technology as the other.

Today scientific constructs have become the model of describing reality rather than one of the ways of describing life around us.

As a consequence there has been a very marked decrease in the reliance of people on their own experience and their own senses.

the downgrading of experience and the glorification of expertise is a very significant feature of the real world of technology.

the message-transmission technologies have created a host of pseudorealities based on images that are constructed, staged, selected, and instantaneously transmitted.

Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.

Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.

As a community we should look at what the new technologies of message-forming and -transmitting do to our own real world of technology and democracy. This is why I have a sense of urgency to map the real world of technology, so that we might see how in our social imagination the near is disadvantaged over the far. We should also understand that this does not have to be so.

Viewing or listening to television, radio, or videos is shared experience carried out in private. The printing technologies were the first ones that allowed people to take in separately the same information and then discuss it together. Prior to that, people who wanted to share an experience had to be together in the same place – to see a pageant, to listen to a speech.

there are new, high-impact technologies and these produce largely ephemeral images. The images create a pseudocommunity, the community of those who have seen and heard what they perceive to be the same event that others, who happened not to have watched or listened, missed for good.

Since normally only a fraction of the pseudocommunity become members of the real and active community, the possibility of forming such groups may be greater in the case of broadly based international concerns that are “the far” for most viewers than in the case of specific problems of “the near.”

There is a lot of talk about global crises and “our common future.”8 However, there is far too little discussion of the structuring of the future which global applications of modern technologies carry in their wake.

Whenever human activities incorporate machines or rigidly prescribed procedures, the modes of human interaction change.

technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties.

For example, a face-to-face discussion or a transaction between people needs to be started, carried out, and terminated with a certain amount of reciprocity. Once technical devices are interposed, they allow a physical distance between the parties. The give and take – that is, the reciprocity – is distorted, reduced, or even eliminated.

reciprocity is not feedback. Feedback is a particular technique of systems adjustment. It is designed to improve a specific performance.

Reciprocity, on the other hand, is situationally based.

It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.

these technologies have no room for reciprocity. There is no place for response. One may want to speculate for a moment whether this technological exclusion of response plays a part in the increasing public acceptance of the depiction of violence and cruelty.

technologically induced human isolation:

even in the universe of constructed images and pseudorealities there still exists a particular enclave of personal directness and immediacy: the world of the ham-radio operator. It is personal, reciprocal, direct, affordable – all that imaging technology is not – and it has become in many cases a very exceptional early warning system of disasters. It is a dependable and resilient source of genuine communication. I am citing this example so as not to leave the impression that the technological reduction of meaningful human contact and reciprocal response is inherently inevitable.

the growth of prescriptive technologies provided a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.

Technology has been the catalyst for dramatic changes, in the locus of power.

Any task tends to be structured by the available tools.

Tools often redefine a problem.

The real world of technology is a very complex system. And nothing in my survey or its highlights should be interpreted as technological determinism or as a belief in the autonomy of technology per se. What needs to be emphasized is that technologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out of a social structure, they are grafted on to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable. In this complex world neither the option that “everything is possible” nor the option that “everything is preordained” exists.

A change in one facet of technology, for instance the introduction of computers in one sector, changes the practice of technology in all sectors. Such is the nature of systems.

I much prefer to think in terms not of systems but of a web of interactions.

When women writers speak about reweaving the web of life,5 they mean exactly this kind of pattern change. Not only do they know that such changes can be achieved but, more importantly, they know there are other patterns. The web of technology can indeed be woven differently, but even to discuss such intentional changes of pattern requires an examination of the features of the current pattern and an understanding of the origins and the purpose of the present design.

1740s, a very influential book was published by La Mettrie called L’Homme-machine

the discovery of the body as object and instrument of power led to a host of regimes of control for the efficient operations of these bodies, whether they were the efficiencies of movement, the measured intervals of the organization of physical activities, or the careful analysis and timing of the tasks bodies could perform, usually in unison.

It was into this socially and politically well prepared soil that the seeds of the Industrial Revolution fell. The factory system, with its mechanical devices and machines, only augmented the patterns of control. The machinery did not create them.

To plan with and for technology became the Industrial Revolution’s strongest dream. The totally automated factory – that is, a factory completely without workers – was discussed by Babbage and his contemporaries in the early nineteenth century.

While the eighteenth century exercised control and domination by regarding human bodies as machines, the nineteenth century began to use machines alone as instruments of control.

For the British manufacturers, machines appeared more predictable and controllable than workers. The owners of factories dreamt of a totally controlled work environment, preferably without any workers. If and where workers were still needed, they were to be occupied with tasks that were paced and controlled by machines.

Industrial layout and design was often more a case of planning against undesirable or unpredictable interventions than it was of planning for greater and more predictable output and profit.

a clearly perceived loss of workers“ control and autonomy. It was not resistance to technology per se so much as an opposition to the division of labour and loss of autonomy that motivated the workers” resistance.

What the Luddites and other groups of the period clearly perceived was the difference between work-related and control-related technologies.

somehow I find no indication that they realized that while production could be carried out with few workers and still run to high outputs, buyers would be needed for these outputs. The realization that though the need for workers decreased, the need for purchasers could increase, did not seem to be part of the discourse on the machinery question. Since then, however, technology and its promoters have had to create a social institution – the consumer – in order to deal with the increasingly tricky problem that machines can produce, but it is usually people who consume.

Technology has changed this notion about the obligations of a government to its citizens. The public infrastructures that made the development and spread of technology possible have become more and more frequently roads to divisible benefits. Thus the public purse has provided the wherewithal from which the private sector derives the divisible benefits, while at the same time the realm from which the indivisible benefits are derived has deteriorated and often remains unprotected.

The global environ mental destruction that the world now has to face could not have happened without the evolution of infrastructures on behalf of technology and its divisible benefits, and corresponding eclipsing of governments" obligation to safeguard and protect the sources of indivisible benefits. Whether the task of reversing global environmental deterioration can be carried out successfully will depend, to a large extent, on understanding and enforcing the role and obligation of governments to safeguard the world’s indivisible benefits.

Prescriptive technologies are a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.

Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions.

the “technological imperative.”

whatever can be done by technological means, will be done.

the need for a credible long-term enemy.

the changes that technology has brought to the part of citizens in war preparation and warfare. Just as fewer and fewer unskilled workers are needed in a modern technological production system, a country now has little practical need for raw recruits to operate its modern technological destruction system. Abandoning compulsory military service is not so much a sign of peaceful intentions as it is a sign of galloping automation.

Military service from citizens is no longer a prerequisite for war. What is a prerequisite is the compulsory financial service of all citizens, well before any military exchange begins.

Planning, in my sense of the word, originated with prescriptive technologies. As prescriptive technologies have taken over most of the activities in the real world of technology, planning has become society’s major tool for structuring and restructuring, for stating what is doable and what is not. The effects of lives being planned and controlled are very evident in people’s individual reactions to the impingement of planning on them. The real world of technology is full of ingenious individual attempts to sabotage externally imposed plans.

A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

holistic strategies are, more often than not, intended to minimize disaster rather than to maximize gain.

planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster.

the real world of technology denies the existence and the reality of nature.

the prediction of a senior official at IBM, in an article called “The Banishment of Paperwork.” He confidently forecast the total absence of paperwork in 1984: Computers, within two decades, would have become the sole medium of communication, while all that burdensome paper would have vanished from our desks.

Ivan Illich pointed out in his 1981 essay, Shadow Work,1 that prescriptive technologies, particularly those in the administrative and social-service sectors, produce the desired results only when clients – for instance, parents, students, or patients – comply faithfully and to the letter with the prescriptions of the system. Thus, advanced applications of prescriptive technologies require compliance not only from workers, but also from those who use the technologies or are being processed by them. Illich stressed the role of individual and group compliance by citizens in this process of making prescriptive technologies work.

as more and more of daily life in the real world of technology is conducted via prescriptive technologies, the logic of technology begins to overpower and displace other types of social logic, such as the logic of compassion or the logic of obligation, the logic of ecological survival or the logic of linkages into nature. Herbert Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, speaks of this overpowering.

a “mechanical bride,” the term used by Marshall McLuhan to describe the relationship between car and owner.

It is aimed at creating an atmosphere of harmless domesticity around the new technology to ease its acceptance.

If one doesn’t watch the introduction of new technologies and particularly watch the infrastructures that emerge, promises of liberation through technology can become a ticket to enslavement.

The authors of this prognostication evidently assumed that the introduction of the sewing machine would result in more sewing – and easier sewing – by those who had always sewn. They would do the work they had always done in an unchanged setting. Reality turned out to be quite different. With the help of the new machines, sewing came to be done in a factory setting, in sweatshops that exploited the labour of women and particularly the labour of women immigrants. Sewing machines became, in fact, synonymous not with liberation but with exploitation.

What turns the promised liberation into enslavement are not the products of technology per se – the car, the computer, or the sewing machine – but the structures and infrastructures that are put in place to facilitate the use of these products and to develop dependency on them.

To recap: many new technologies and their products have entered the public sphere in a cloud of hope, imagination, and anticipation. In many cases these hopes were to begin with fictional, rather than real; even in the best of circumstances they were vastly exaggerated. Discussion focused largely on individuals, whether users or workers, and promised an easier life with liberation from toil and drudgery. Discourse never seemed to focus on the effects of the use of the same device by a large number of people, nor was there any focus on the organizational and industrial implications of the new technologies, other than in the vaguest of terms.

once a given technology is widely accepted and standardized, the relationship between the products of the technology and the users changes. Users have less scope, they matter less, and their needs are no longer the main concern of the designers. There is, then, a discernable pattern in the social and political growth of a technology that does not depend on the particular technical features of the system in question.

how teaching, research, and practice in most areas of science and technology follow essentially male patterns by being basically hierarchical, authoritarian, competitive, and exclusive.

Major facets of technology are related to prescriptive practices and thus to the development of instruments of power and control.

The great contribution of women to technology lies precisely in their potential to change the technostructures by understanding, critiquing, and changing the very parameters that have kept women away from technology.

What does it say about our society, when human needs for fellowship and warmth are met by devices that provide illusions to the users and profits to the suppliers?

as a response to loneliness, it seems to me deceitful and fraudulent.

the disregard that technical designers can have for the needs of operators. Typists not only got awkward machines, but they – and the telephone operators – also encountered the usual division of work that has become part of mechanization and automation. As the technologies matured and took command, women were left with fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.

The way of doing something can be “holistic” when the doer is in control of the work process. The way of doing something can also be “prescriptive,” when the work – whatever it might be – is divided into specified

steps, each carried out by separate individuals. This form of division of labour, historically quite old and not dependent on the use of machines, is a crucial social invention at first practised in the workplace.

I hold that, in fact, we have lost the institution of government in terms of responsibility and accountability to the people. We now have nothing but a bunch of managers, who run the country to make it safe for technology.

I firmly believe that when we find certain aspects of the real world of technology objectionable we should explore our objections in terms of principle, in terms of justice, fairness, and equality. It may be well to express concerns as questions of principle rather than to try to emphasize merely pragmatic explanations – for instance, that objectionable practices may also be inefficient, inappropriate, or polluting.10 The emphasis on a pragmatic rationale for choice tends to hide the value judgements involved in particular technological stances.

When my colleagues in the field of cold-water engineering speak of “ice-infested waters,” I am tempted to think of “rig-infested oceans.” Language is a fine barometer of values and priorities. As such it deserves careful attention.

Let’s make a checklist to help in the discourse on public decision-making. Should one not ask of any public project or loan whether it: (1) promotes justice; (2) restores reciprocity; (3) confers divisible or indivisible benefits; (4) favours people over machines; (5) whether its strategy maximizes gain or minimizes disaster; (6) whether conservation is favoured over waste; and (7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible?

redemptive technologies

the development and use of redemptive technologies ought to be part of the shaping of a new social contract appropriate for the real world of technology, one that overcomes the present disenfranchisement of people.

“protest and survive.”

“Let us understand, and on the basis of our common understanding, protest.” We must protest until there is change in the structures and practices of the real world of technology, for only then can we hope to survive as a global community.

If such basic changes cannot be accomplished, the house that technology built will be nothing more than an unlivable techno-dump.

many such communications have to be regarded as messages looking for receivers.

I have never liked the term cyberspace because it neither describes a space nor does its current use reflect the concepts of control and systems-design implied in the term cybernetics, after which the term cyberspace was patterned.

I got into real trouble once, when I suggested that the Internet could be looked at as one giant dump: people and organizations dump information in bits and pieces; they also retrieve whatever is of use and interest to them. What is found by the scavengers depends on where they dig, what was dumped, and what is considered useful or relevant enough to be retrieved. There is no pattern in the digging or reassembly, no one path through the dump, no compulsory reference to the scource of the bounty. And since the Internet contains information rather than stuff, the same treasures, or junk, can be retrieved again and again.

measured time and experienced time.

The role of asynchronicity in unravelling social and political patterns without apparent replacement with other patterns cannot be overestimated.

Many people have experienced the asynchronous forms of labour and have felt their consequences; the impact often includes the lack of work-related solidarity and selfidentification that can have profound social implications.

Women in particular have often treasured the opportunity to work asynchronously – getting a bit of writing done when the kids are asleep, sneaking in a slice of private life into their tightly structured existences. But I see a real difference between supplementing a rigidly patterned structure with asynchronous activities and substituting synchronous functions by asynchronous schemes.

The inhabitants of the City of Bits are still real live human beings, yet nature, of which humans are but a small part, appears to have no autonomous space in the bitsphere. There are no seasonal rhythms, no presence of the land nor the ebb and flow of individual lives, even though these are the synchronous patterns that have shaped culture and community throughout the time and, through their patterns, have provided a source of meaning to people for many generations.

the difference between a mechanism and an organism.

the biosphere and the bitsphere

Within the biosphere, human beings have attempted to codify and transmit their understanding of the world around them by ordering their experiences into general schemes and structures.1 Myths, religion, and science have endeavoured to transmit knowledge and experience so ordered as to convey sequence and consequence as ordering principles. Learning to recognize such ordering principles has been traditionally part of growing up in a given society. Ordering schemes help us to evaluate and interpret new knowledge and experience.

One of the most striking attributes of the bitsphere, on the other hand, is the absence of structure.

Unfortunately, the new technologies have entered the realm of education largely because they were regarded as production improvements, promising better products and faster or bigger production runs, and not because they were deemed to offer enrichment to the soil. Thus it is not surprising that the electronic classroom raises the same types of problems and exhibits the same social and political difficulties that one encounters in the realm of work or governance in the real world of the new technologies.

the displacement of people by devices

When external devices are used to diminish the need for the drill of explicit learning, the occasion for implicit learning may also diminish.

As considerations of efficiency and cost-cutting shift the balance of synchronous and asynchronous classroom activities, the balance of explicit and implicit learning is changing. While the pool of information available to the students may increase, the pool of available understanding may not. This has considerable consequences for social cohesion and peace and deserves careful attention.

how and where, we ask again, is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task?

where, if not in school and workplace, is society built and changed?

the practice of democratic governance is in grave question and the advancement of social justice and equality appears stalled in a labyrinth of random transactions.14 This does not have to be so. The interface of the biosphere and the bitsphere not only poses problems and precipitates crises but it offers new opportunities to advance the common good. It will take the collective thought, moral clarity, and strong political will of many people to move towards this goal rather than away from it.

This is a collective endeavour that no group or conglomerate can do on its own. Most of our social and political institutions are both reluctant and ill-equipped to advance such tasks. Yet if sane and healthy communities are to grow and prevail, much more weight has to be placed on maintaining the non-negotiable ties of all people to the biosphere.