Libraries, Archives and Technology in Post-Modern Times

DNA strands

My interest in the moral and ethical use of technology has led me to publish papers such as Moral and Ethical Concerns of the Online Environment, Halakhah and Netiquette, and Women and Responsible Use of the Online Environment, as to remain silent puts society at great risk.

On one hand, biotechnology has promoted the longevity and quality of life.  For example, organ transplants and pain elimination enhance the value provided by the medical profession. Soon, advances in stem cell research and cloning may allow engineered biological enhancements (such as eye implants to enable night vision) and end diseases through reverse genetic engineering. Thus, we understand Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetic verse in “Patmos”: “Where the danger is, there is the saving power too.” Of course, these new scientific advances raise many important ethical and moral questions in the rapid advance of biotechnology. See, for instance, our LibGuides on: Humanistic Medicine, Jewish Ethics, Jews in Medicine, Internet and Online Ethics, and Philosophy of Science

Yet, technology may be a two-edged sword.  Technology exploited by sinister elements for nefarious ends could lead to nuclear Armageddon if the one-dimensional Marcusian Buberian I-IT relationship triumphs above all.  What Nietzsche described as the “will to power” and Heidegger refers to as the essence of technology being Control (Gestell) means we must look thoughtfully and critically into this “two-edged sword” which has the power for both immense good and immense evil.

As archivists traditionally seek to preserve, conserve and leave traces of civilization and the afterlife of events, the question becomes how that is done in an age when technological footprints are in constant flux and knowledge is no longer seen as static, but constantly evolving in different formats. What is being done by archivists today to preserve traces of our now “current- past” (intentional oxymoron) civilization?

Media archivist Wolfgang Ernst (see Digital Memory) pioneers the field of media archaeology (archivology) which uncovers and excavates not the role of specific technologies, but infrastructures that structure what is possible for humans to do and achieve in potential for arriving at media historical knowledge, and mechanisms in shaping culture and memory in digital culture.

Archives are no longer just a static body of knowledge, but rather an ever-changing interactive fluid dynamic outside of human control. The constantly-changing nature of the contents of the digital archive point to a James Joycean simulacrum, Kafkaesque reality (see “Before the Law” in The Trial) of ambiguity & flux, and a Beckett-like anticlimactic Waiting for Godot post-modern condition. Derrida (in Archive Fever) notes that this post-modern condition risks the slippery slope of being unable to tell the difference between intelligence from artificial intelligence, historical artifact, real time in the philosophical understanding, and consciousness. Not only is culture (see Neil Postman) at stake, but thinking itself, upon which de Tocqueville says democracy exists of, falls.

Finger selecting email button

Technology also leads to many problems. One problem is addiction to its use. More is needed than just partial solutions like ‘Camp Grounded’, ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety to disconnect only temporarily from a menacing threat that risks denuding the human being in the image of G-d, and the place for the sacred (Mander, 1992). Unplugging temporarily will not save us, according to Jurgenson, who argues that virtual reality risks replacing understanding of the real reality. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology discusses a frenetic age of technocracy (fusion of bureaucracy and technology) that threatens to reduce all causality, including escalating of military confrontations with weapons of mass destruction, “to a reporting” (see The Question Concerning Technology) that is susceptible to the “technological glitch”, not to mention “tampered technologically generated data”, hacking, data breaches, identity theft, etc, eliminating thinking itself by computing.

Technology has also led to a 1984-type Orwellian slouching described, in part, by Bernard Harcourt. We live in an age where network service providers, search engines, and social media monitor our every digital action, potentially eradicating freedoms, privacy, and thought itself.

Another problem is that students sometimes falsely believe that with the click of a mouse their assignment is easily done, when in reality the hard work of reading critically, analyzing, thinking, and creatively presenting a case has not begun. Accordingly, the effort is the reward!

What is the place of libraries and archives in this Borgean labyrinthian (see Borges’ short story, The Library of Babel) reality that dare not be trumped by virtual reality? It is not just fact-checking and knowing how to access “information” (see Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), it is the resistance to the eradication of true thinking that penetrates to the depths and roots of problems, and offers not a superficial panacea to its rectification but a final solution to guarding the freedoms, dignity, and transcendence of the life of the mind, and search for intellectual, moral, and spiritual virtue. The danger grows as we have evolved at risk from the school of Protagoras that mistakenly held man is the measure of all things to a worse state where machines have dangerously become the measure of all things. Good luck navigating the maze of the matrix!

Contributed by Dr. David Levy, Chief Librarian at the Lander College for Women

Related Reading List

  • Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Beniger, James. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Harvard. 1986.
  • Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way Ladies and Gentleman for the Gas. Penguin. 1976.
  • Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Random House. 1996.
  • Braun, Ernest. Futile Progress: Technology’s Empty Promise. Routledge, 2009.
  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton, 2011.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guitarri. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis, 1970.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Mal d’Archive: Une Impression Freudienne. Galilée, 1995.
  • Des Pres, Terrence, The Surivor. Oxford. 1980.
  • Drafan, George. Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.
  • Elul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1967.
  • Elul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Knopf, 1973.
  • Ernst, Wolfgang:
    • Das Rumoren der Archive. Ordnung aus Unordnung. Merve, Berlin, 2002.
    • Im Namen von Geschichte. Sammeln – Speichern – (Er-)Zählen Habilitationsschrift HU Berlin. Wilhelm Fink, München 2003.
    • Das Gesetz des Gedächtnisses. Medien und Archive am Ende (des 20. Jahrhunderts). Kadmos, Berlin, 2007.
    • Doppelband Gleichursprünglichkeit. Zeitwesen und Zeitgegebenheit technischer Medien und Chronopoetik. Zeitweisen und Zeitgaben technischer Medien. Kadmos, Berlin, 2013.
    • Signale aus der Vergangenheit. Eine kleine Geschichtskritik. Wilhelm Fink, Berlin 2013.
    • Stirrings in the Archive. Order from Disorder, Übersetzung von Das Rumoren der Archive. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Boulder, New York, London 2015.
    • Im Medium erklingt die Zeit. Technologische Tempor(e)alitäten und das Sonische als ihre privilegierte Erkenntnisform. Kadmos, Berlin 2015.
  • Feinberg, Andrew. Transforming Technology. A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Foucault, Michel:
    •  Madness and Civilization. Vintage Books, 1995 (trans. Of  Surveiller et punir)
    • The Birth of the Clinic: an archaeology of medical perception. Vintage Books, 1994. (trans of Naissance de la Clinique)
    • The Order of Things: an archeology of the human sciences. Vintage Books, 1994. (trans. of Archeology du savoir)
    • “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” 1969. given at the Collège de France on 22 February 1969 by French philosopher, sociologist and historian Michel Foucault
  • Freeman, John. The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox. Scribner, 2009
  • Harcourt,  Bernard E.   “Surveillance State? It’s So Much Worse.” in Chronicle of Higher Education, November 29, 2015.
  • Herring, Mark Y. “Ten Reasons Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library.” ALA, April 2001.
  • Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. Harper and Brothers. 1932.
  • Jackson, Maggie. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Prometheus, 2008.
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979.
  • Orwell, George. 1984: a Novel. New York: Signet Classic, 1984.
  • Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York : Penguin, 1946.
  • Madrigal, Alexis. “‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety.” in the Atlantic Jul 9, 2013.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. 1964.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Die Frage nach der TechnikVorträge und Aufsätze. Verlag, 1954.
  • Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann. Technofix: Why technology won’t save us or the Environment. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2011.
  • Jurgenson, Nathan. “The Disconnectionists.”  The New Inquiry, Nov. 13, 2013.
  • Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Vintage, 2010
  • Mander, Jerry.  In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Sierra Club Books. 1992.
  • Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Harcourt. 1962.
  • Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage. 1993.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin. 2005.
  • Postman, NeilThe Disappearance of ChildhoodDelacorte, 1982.
  • Postman, Neil.  Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education. Random House, 1988
  • Reinke, Tony. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Crossway 2010.
  • Rubinstein, Richard. The cunning of history : the Holocaust and the American future. New York : Perennial, 2001.
  • Schull, Natasha. Addiction by Design, Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Watson, David. Against the Megamachine. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998.
  • Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation. W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd, New Edition 1976.
  • Winner, Langden. Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. MIT Press, 1977.
  • Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Vintage, 2010
  • Žižek, Slavo. “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism”, in Cabinet , issue 2, Spring 2001.

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