The Possibilities and Limitations of Technology

Improvisation at Bowling Green State University

Compiled by Ellen E. Berry[i]


This page contains samples from the two improvisational sessions held at Bowling Green State University on October 19, 1996, under the sponsorship of its Institute for the Study of Culture and Society.  Individual participants responded to an invitation that was distributed widely to the university community as well as to selected individuals in the local community:


"We invite you to participate in either of two Collective Improvisation sessions led by Mikhail Epstein (Russian Studies, Emory University) and Ellen Berry (English/Scholar in Residence, ICS).  These sessions occur in conjunction with a talk the previous night by Epstein and Berry titled "Experiments in Transculture:  Rethinking Russian and American Creative Communication."  You are encouraged to attend the talk, but attendance is not required in order to participate in the sessions.


Collective Improvisations were group writing experiments pioneered at the innovative Moscow Center for Experimental Creativity in the last years of perestroika.  Their goal was to liberate thinking from predictable channels and encourage interactions among vastly different disciplinary perspectives, life experiences, and worldviews.


Each session began with an introduction by Mikhail Epstein in which he explained briefly the history, rationale, and procedures of improvisations to the assembled group.  The four examples that follow are from the morning session, where the topic selected was "The Possibilities and Limitations of Technology."




Vida Penezic

Department of Popular Culture



There is a computer hard disk in Iowa on which is stored all of our deleted revisions and drafts, all our spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, all the personal thoughts we wrote and then decided we would rather die than show to anyone.  Except that instead of disappearing from the face of the earth, they are forever preserved on that hard disk in Iowa.  While there are people who still claim that all our deletions go directly to God, the fact remains that they go to Iowa after all.

What happens when we introduce the idea of technology—or, more precisely, the idea of a technological device--into our search for the absolute?  If I am looking for the secret of the universe, will computer technology help me to find it?  Can I search the Internet for the answer?  Or does technology just stand in the way of my search?  Technology would seem to be completely outside such an ancient or primitive quest, which can only be conducted by a primitive tool such as the brain.  But are our brains ancient at some level or do they simply travel along and change as we--the species--travel through history, changing?  Does technology loom so large on our horizon that we now believe it alone might reveal the secret of the universe?

Walkman and sunset.  Internet and meditation.  There are probably good reasons why these pairs of terms should not be considered polar opposites, but for the moment, let's assume that they are.  Their role in my life is that they compete for my attention, for that limited number of minutes every day that I give myself permission to use however I choose, to do whatever pleases me.  Walkman and sunset.  I try to take a walk several times a week.  Do I wear my walkman or do I pay attention to the beauty of my surroundings--leaves on the lawns, the sky, the sunset?  Which will take me close to the secret of the universe?  Internet and meditation.  The same thing.  Every morning I have time only for one.  Am I going to sit down and meditate to have my mind less noisy, less cluttered; try to draw on some inner channels, perhaps?  Or should I travel the Internet, reach out into the world, fill  my mind with thousands of new images and messages?  I guess the question for me is, Do I have to choose or should I let both--all of it, all of everything--into my world?

In lieu of a conclusion: One good thing about having written this out by hand is that it won't end up on that hard disk in Iowa--unless someone types these improvisations on their computer.  Sunset and meditation, on the other hand, are not a part of this system unless, of course, they are directly hooked up to God.  Then they are search engines for the secrets of the universe.




The Social Consequences of Technology

Francisco Cabanallis

Department of Romance Languages


The social consequences of technology are simultaneously favorable and unfavorable.  Like other social constructs, technology is an expression of power.  As a form of rhetorical propaganda, technology is defined as a problem-solving entity; it is supposed to make existence better.  And, to a large extent, it does so.  But it also creates other problems, which new technologies must resolve.  Technology creates a great deal of our social existence; it determines most of our social patterns.  Favorable technology articulates itself in the social fabric with more than technological premises; it needs to accommodate its propositions within ethical premises too.  Unfavorable technology disregards ethical concerns; it is usually driven by narrow economic interests.

Some of the social consequences of the latest technologies include a simultaneous interplay between promoting social interaction and promoting social alienation.  As the current ultimate expression of technology, computers can do both.  They can connect individuals with the rest of the world, but they can also isolate those individuals from physical contact.  Virtual reality is both social and antisocial.

Some of the negative consequences of the latest technologies involve the ability of the state to accumulate information about individuals and to use it to repress the individual or a social group.  Technologies always have had this effect.  The main difference with the latest technology is that such surveillance has become even easier.

Another negative consequence of technology has to do with the way in which businesses take advantage of it; individuals are monitored in terms of their consumption, so their  public identity runs the risk of consisting of nothing more than their consumption habits to the exclusion of any other traits.  Technology thus can redefine identity.

An important social consequence of technology, which I have heard in both directions, consists of the possible elimination of cities (or the reduction of their importance), given that technology will make concentration of individuals in one physical space obsolete.  I have also encountered some economists who say the opposite: Cyberspace will increase the vitality of cities.  Only in the first instance would high technology have a profound social impact in that it would be reproducing a pretechnological form of society based on country--not city--existence.

Another important social consequence of technology (particularly computers) is that it increases reading and writing--which television decreases.  However, it is feasible to think that, given the pragmatic nature of technology, reading and writing are stimulated only in terms favorable to consumer society.

Technology can have positive social consequences in certain societies; however, overall I don't believe that technology is universally good.  Ultimately, the instability of technology suggests that people outside the field of technology should monitor it.  What I mean is that if we are to ensure that technologies are used in positive ways, we should always keep in mind the ethical consequences of them and should try to articulate them in the broadest and most democratic terms--nationally and internationally--which technologies such as the Internet are in a position of doing.




Everyday Technology and Communication

Patrick Alexander

American Culture Studies


In an age defined by technology, questions are often raised concerning the intimate role of the machine in the life of the user.  A transcultural perspective can be especially helpful in this respect, as different cultures have various tools that they take for granted (imagine chopsticks juxtaposed with forks); although they may use similar technologies, it is likely that every culture uses them in different ways or has a different way of expressing a personal relationship with the technology.

The subject of our personal relations with technology can be a difficult topic to elaborate on due to the clichés established in contemporary culture concerning the personal-technological dichotomy.  There is a tendency to imbue our technologies with spiritual or maybe simply human characteristics, for instance.

In this we can see the personal relationships we take on with our machines.  People name their cars, even their computers, and other objects.  We want to coax our technologies into functioning properly by caressing them, patting them, or goading them on with soft sweet talk: "C'mon now, that's it, load that program" or "Start for me, c'mon, Bob."  However, isn't this just simple anthropomorphism, the same way we explain to ourselves in our own terms the ways in which animals behave?  Through personalizing our technologies, we can better justify their integral role in our daily existence.

If we just label them all as machines we put a uniform quality onto them, generalizing them as one thing that functions in one uniform way.  Perhaps through our anthropomorphic attitude we are aiming to recognize the differences and diversity that characterize machines.  I can personally attest to having gotten involved in personal and distinctive relationships with seemingly identical machines.  Since I teach in three different places, I became acquainted with three different Xerox machines.  For each individual machine, I was forced to adopt a particular attitude if I wished to successfully interact with it.  So in many ways it was no different from having to interact and modify my behavior with three separate colleagues.  The most superficial, in that it is the most commonly trivialized, aspect of "the question of technology" and at the same time the most little discussed and most pressing is not just the relationships we form with machines but how these relationships affect our communications with other people.

It is interesting to consider the almost imperceptible process through which a technology moves from being a strange novelty to being an item of great centrality and unimaginable importance to our daily lives.  I recently bought a laptop computer.  When I picked this item up at the shop, the salesman said, "After this you won't be able to imagine how you lived your life before."  And this certainly seems to be the case.  We assimilate technologies into our daily routines quite readily.  Even the most trivial appliances--such as a coffee grinder or a food processor or a remote control--become so much a part of our daily lives that the thought of being without them seems the ultimate in deprivation or lack.  And this is where a real difference can be seen between cultures.  What about cultures in which items such as these are not universally available or owned by all?  What about people who operate within our own culture without these trinkets?  In cases such as these, can disparate experiences translate?  Can people who speak different technological languages communicate?

This is the part of the essay where I fear I will fail in my goal of shedding some new light on the topic of everyday technology and communication for all I can do is to restate the commonplaces--but perhaps this too can be helpful.  Does the use of the telephone facilitate communication or do people meet less face-to-face and fail to seek one another out?  Does a television (or ten) in every pub inhibit real conversation or serve as a stimulation and launching pad for discussion?  Does video isolate everyone in their homes, preventing them from venturing out to the cinema, or serve as an excuse for them to convene with others, view a film together, and then discuss it?  Does the Internet link millions of people or only accelerate and facilitate misinformation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding?  Perhaps we should ask, Does a solid community have to exist first, which can later be enhanced by technology, or can technology really create community, really generate true--and new--forms of communication?





Tools and Art

Ellen E. Berry

Department of English

Any technology is a tool, and tools are prosthetic devices, ways of extending the capacities of the body and moving us beyond our physical limitations.  So a rock becomes a hammer to protect the hand, which would otherwise be incapable of pounding corn into cornmeal.  Human consciousness and behavior are undeniably altered through the intervention of technology.  In fact we might claim that the history of civilization is inseparable from the invention of various technologies, whose purpose has always been to extend the capacities of the human body over time and place.

Was there a second use of technology present from the beginning?  Did our ancestors use rocks not only to pound corn into cornmeal or to kill animals but also to decorate their huts with small piles of stones that became sculptures?  When and how did tools move from pragmatic instrumental objects to become conduits of creative expression?  What can we learn about the complex and multiple histories of human creative expressions by looking at the technologies through which creativity ultimately had to be expressed?  Do particular technologies open specific kinds of creativity, and thus do genuinely new art forms only arise when new technologies are developed?  What is the sequence here?

The computer is perhaps the most recent example of a dramatically new technology, one originally invented for purely instrumental uses (and military ones at that; violence and the exercise of power through technology would be another angle on this topic).  Yet the computer has, almost from the first, been used for artistic purposes as well.  Computer art has had to go through the same process of acceptance that other new art forms have had to. I am reminded of how people considered photography and cinema to be illegitimate as art when they first were invented.  Their invention also raises the question of relations among the development of new technologies, the emergence of new art forms, and the resulting impact of these new technologically assisted arts on our perception of older art forms.  Walter Benjamin wrote about the waning of the artwork's "aura" (a kind of unique artistic presence) in the face of the possibility that art could suddenly be reproduced mechanically, made in multiple copies--the emergence of Xerox-consciousness and the loss of absolute, one-of-a-kind artistic uniqueness.  The shock of these new art forms--photography and cinema--has long passed, and the computer--computer-generated art--is now the site where we are working through these issues and anxieties concerning relations between the human and the technological--the human enhanced.  The artist is now "assisted" by the computer, or the computer actually generates the art.  Where is the artist in all this?  Has the human element disappeared in creativity to be replaced by the machine itself?  With the computer, have we invented a technology that--because it is a model of the human mind--will ultimately usurp the human as creator?

All these techno-fears and science-fiction scenarios.  Can thought go on without a body, as Lyotard asks?  Can artistic expression?  Or has the human creative capacity always been so dependent on technology that it is inseparable from it and in our demand to be recognized as individual creators have we repressed and ignored this fact?






Mikhail Epstein's home page


[i] More extensive samples of various sessions are presented on the Web site devoted to collective improvisations: