Alumnae Bulletin November 2008

On Course: Cultures of Technology

A Different Kind of Technosavvy

By Alicia Bessette

When Amanda Weidman '92 was a student, a course like Cultures of Technology wasn't offered; among anthropologists the cultural impact of, say, the Internet, wasn't discussed.

Now the Internet, cell phones and other technologies pervade many societies. As a result, understanding how those technologies affect the way we think, speak, and act is a serviceable skill to have.

Students examine how technologies enable, or play a part in bringing about, certain cultural and social formations.

"The cultural study of technology is a very important and growing field in anthropology," says Weidman, now assistant professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr. "It's really blossomed in the last five to 10 years."

Cultures of Technology: Aesthetics, Senses and the Body, a course she created, is interdisciplinary, drawing on perspectives from anthropology, history, and gender,media and technology studies. Students examine how technologies enable, or play a part in bringing about, certain cultural and social formations.

"The goal of the course is to examine technology ethnographically, as both a product of culture and something that affects culture," Weidman says. "Technologies are used and framed in certain ways, depending on the place and the time they emerge in. The idea is not to be technologically determinist; it's not to say, 'everywhere people have cell phones, certain things will happen.' The idea is to look at the different effects similar technologies have in certain places."

In Jamaica, for example, cell phones are used primarily for extremely short conversations—30 seconds maximum—in order to stay in contact with others. They are rarely used to pass along extensive information in long conversations.

"Cell phones play a role in the already-established cultural expectations of having large social networks in Jamaica," Weidman says, "and they fit into the preexisting idea of social networks. They help people contact many more people than they can speak to face to face."

In a recent political protest in the Philippines, cell phones not only helped protestors organize, but they also were a sign of certain class membership. "The people protesting and getting together with cell phones imagined themselves as middle class, as opposed to other protesters whom they called 'the mob,' 'the masses,' " says Weidman.

In yet another area of the world, Japan, cell phones are changing the face of the publishing industry, as a growing number of mostly young women writers compose novels on their cell phones and text them, in installments, to readers.

Typically, the history of the telephone sparks lively discussion in class about ideologies of gender and voice.

"When the telephone was first invented," Weidman says, "telephone operators were all women. They all sounded a certain way, with a certain type of voice. An image of the ideal woman was produced in this moment in history. Students usually have a lot to say about voice in gender ideologies, and about the ways gender is partially produced by technologies, or the roles technologies play in producing ideas about gender, race, and class.

"The overarching theme of the course is that there is a link between the medium and the message, between technologies and the content that comes out of them. Technologies are not just mechanical means of relaying information. They affect how that information gets produced, and who it gets circulated to."

Phones are discussed in the "Aurality, Sound and Practices of Listening" unit, along with radio broadcasting and sound recordings. Central to this unit is a study of how sound recording has changed the practice of ethnography and the relationship between colonists, natives, anthropologists, and informants.

The subject of sound recording is well-known to Weidman. Her dissertation, which evolved into her book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India, discusses her research on how sound recording changed notions of authenticity and authority in Southern India.

In future "Aurality" units Weidman might discuss the work of Charles Hirschkind, who has studied the use of audio cassettes, in Egypt, of Islamic sermons. "People use the cassettes in everyday life, and Hirschkind has found that their capacities—the fact that you can rewind and fast forward them—fit in with ideas of being a modern, urban, ethical Islamic subject," says Weidman.

Other units of study are "Visuality, Images, and Practices of Seeing," and "Artificial Intelligence and the 'Posthuman,' " during which students examine artificial intelligence from cultural (versus technological) points of view, and ask what it means to be human. A highlight of that unit is a guest appearance by Deepak Kumar, professor of computer science, and Douglas Blank, associate professor and chair of computer science, and their dog robot. "Hirschkind has found that [the capacities of audio cassettes]—the fact that you can rewind and fast forward them—fit in with ideas of being a modern, urban, ethical Islamic subject."

Students also develop an understanding of the role technologies have played in colonization in certain areas of the world. "Railway networks and the technology of transportation had a huge impact on the way people imagined India as a nation,"Weidman says. "There is lots of interesting work being done on radio, cinema, and photography, and how those played roles in the imagining of national cultural identity in many places outside of the West," such as radio broadcasting in 1940s Indonesia, which emerged at the same time as the nationalist movement there.

Liz Newbury '07 majored in anthropology and took the course as preparation for writing her senior thesis on the "digital divide"—the division caused by gender in technology.

"[Cultures of Technology] was a perfect match for my interests," she says, "and for my need to get a historical perspective on the intersection of culture and technology. Professor Weidman really tried to look at each technology from a new and different angle, and how it was a back and forth interplay amongst people, cultures, and the technology itself. Did you know that electric lighting was a class issue when it was first introduced? That trains influenced cinema, and vice versa? That TV commercials and soap-operas were designed as a byproduct of marketing towards housewives? I found it interesting to know that for many technologies, women are the primary target audience, but the technology itself is almost always gendered male by society."

Cultures of Technology doesn't shy away from heavily theoretical writing, including a 1930s essay by German Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote on modern mass culture and the ways cinema and other technologies of visual display, such as those found in storefronts, produce the effect of overstimulation.

"Benjamin found that the bombardment of too much mass-produced stuff, too much stimulation, numbed people and paralyzed them," Weidman says. "Students talked about the King of Prussia mall, and how it is built to suck you in and make you unaware of what's going on outside." Students drew parallels between the techniques used in the mall and those used in propaganda films by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—"dazzling spectacles that draw you in aesthetically, so that you forget what political projects you're also being drawn into," Weidman says.

In addition to several one- to two-page papers that address weekly readings, students prepare a 10–12-page research paper and a short oral presentation on the ethnographic and/or historic impact of a particular technology in a particular context.

Newbury's final paper was on the gendering of video games, and how women have been represented and marketed (or not) in video games.

"I learned that Ms. Pac-Man was the first woman to ever be featured in video games,"Newbury says. "They put a pink bow on Pac-Man, watered down the game a bit and called it a day. The first woman to speak in video games only said the word 'Help!'Within a year of their commercial launch, video games went from a family-based game to being a market primarily targeted towards young men."

Weidman says that all college students benefit from courses that get them thinking in interdisciplinary ways.

"In my own work I combine history and anthropology quite a bit; it's a very productive combination.

"Cultures of Technology does that, too."