Switch ContentsQuestions Concerning Music Technology

by Agostino Di Scipio

2. The standard vs the heretical notion of technology

It is very common to view technology mainly as a means for producing commodities. The assumption is that human beings have problems that can be solved with the help of the skillfull making and using of appropriate tools. Technology, then, provides the power to efficiently give solutions to practical problems which prevent us from focusing on and enjoying more vital aspects of our daily life. I call this a standard notion of technology, which reflects more profound socio-cultural processes described by Andrew Feenberg as technological determinism [Feenberg, 1991, 1995]. I shall come back to this later.

There exists, however, another notion that I use to call the heretical notion of technology, as it views technology less as a source of solutions to given problems than a way to challenge previously established solutions and previously recognized problems, less a way to reinforce the known - the knowledge embodied in any given piece of technology - than an opportunity to state the limitations of the known and open to the unknown. Every technological reponse to some given problem makes new, unforeseen questions come to the fore, and eventually suggests and/or requires a modification in the tools which embody that response. The loop thus created, gives way to an indeterministic process within which the very source of indeterminacy is represented by every single individual who, by accessing technology and interacting with it, also interprets it in peculiar ways.

The commonplace assumption of a standard notion is that technical tools, including well-defined sequences of operations - e.g. computer algorithms - are neutral instruments, serving only the purposes born in the beholder's mind. The contrasting assumption behind a heretical notion is that those very tools result from a particular body of knowedge and stem from someone's beliefs, wants and theories about a particular domain - thereby representing someone's knowledge (the designer's) in the shape of workable means. For which reason not only tools cannot be neutral - this would be nothing new - but one could also analyze and eventually transform them in order to question the knowledge and the purposes they were put to serve.

This latter view is substantial to the creative experience of art, even more so for today electronic artists and computer music composers, as I shall argue later. To start with, however, I will focus first on the view of technology advanced by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), as I believe it has much to do with the assumptions of the standard notion of technology. The questions I would like to raise by the end of the paper will eventually emerge from the contrast between Heidegger's view (the good and the bad in it) and the critical assumptions of a heretical notion of music technology, considered an instance of subversive rationalization (with the terminology of Feenberg' Critical theory of knowledge [1995]).