Last week in class, I asked students to consider Janet Murray’s thoughts the relationship between technology and consciousness. In her introduction to The New Media Reader, Murray writes, "The right instruments organize not just the outer world, but consciousness itself, a phenomenon that is feared by the humanists and embraced by the engineers." I think Murray’s statement is a good starting place for discussing a humanities-based approach to new media studies, such as the one this course takes.
I used a photo by Harold Edgerton of a detonation of an atomic bomb to discuss why one, depending on his or her perspective, might either fear or embrace new technologies.
This is a photograph of a new technology (an atomic bomb) taken using a new technology (stroboscopic flash photography). For a minute disregard the new photographic technology; Let’s just consider how the development of the atomic bomb as a new technology organized consciousness itself. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it is safe to say that the consciousness of the survivors in Japan was entirely reorganized. Their sense of themselves in relation to the world around them must have been radically affected. For the scientists and engineers who developed the bombs and the authorities who made the decision to use them, they were the “right instruments” to end the war (to organize the outer world in a way that they wanted), thus they were embraced. But these “right instruments” also organized the consciousness of the entire world. The Cold War centered on who had these instruments and who didn’t. School children in the 1950s knew where the closest fallout shelter was. These effects on consciousness are not generally the concern of the folks developing the technology, but they are very much the concern of the humanists studying the technology.
Now, let’s consider the new technology that Edgerton used to take the photograph of the atomic bomb detonation. The divide between the engineers and humanists seems overdetermined in the bomb example, but stroboscopic photography does not have the same dramatic moral dimension. Edgerton’s super quick flashing light attached to his camera allowed him to make a realistic image of something that the naked eye could not see. When our perception of the world around us changes, how does our consciousness change, as well? To ask this question does not mean taking a side in a moral dilemma; it is more important to look for an answer than to hastily assign a value judgment to it. In other words, the ability of technology to organize consciousness often takes on moral dimensions in intellectual debate (for example, is Facebook good or bad for social development?). The point of humanities-based new media studies, however, is to back up from these goodtech/badtech binaries and really analyze what, if any, changes new media bring to how we understand ourselves and the world around us.
For more about Edgerton, visit this page at MIT about his inventions.
Quicker’n a Wink is a short film from 1940 about Edgerton’s photography directed by George Sidney. Its goofy humor can be read as an attempt to make the science of Edgerton’s visually stunning work more accessible to a general audience.
Harold Edgerton, Atomic Bomb ca 1952 (Joshua Trees), 1952
gelatin silver print 11 x 14 in.
Courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.
© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, 2009