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Technology: A Tool of Cultural Amplification

Joseph Irrante and Zachary Student described American life as spatially and internally transformed by the interstate highway system (Irrante) (Student). Irrante’s efforts expanded upon the cultural outcomes produced by highway systems. As the automobile allowed users to commute to more distant locations, highways provided efficient means for laborers to commute to cities separate from their own residences. Companies and manufacturers began to move their production outside of city centers and started forming smaller industrial towns. Similarly, pre-existing townships near highways economically flourished. As such, communities developed around the highway system (Irrante). Irrante’s spatial argument to cultural-technological research adds value to the idea of Hughes’ deterministic argument.

Zachary Student’s own contribution has sentiments similar to Irrante and Hughes, but an important issue that Student raises is the civil activism that occurred in reaction to suburban sprawl and its resulting urban decay. As Student says, interstates “intended to solve urban problems and generate urban renewal, [but] they accomplished the opposite” (Student 17). Metropolis highways were built for the function of decongesting city streets, but instead instigated worse congestion and diminished nearby residences with noise, air, and water pollution, resulting in these areas turning into slums.

The environmental movement in the 60s and 70s found that highways were detrimental to environmental resources, in particular regards to air quality and natural resource conservation. As such, U.S. legislatures developed policies to relocate highways in an attempt to mitigate harmful effects on people and the environment. Feenberg’s argument of “democratic rationalization” comes into view again, as people contextualize interstate infrastructure to fit their views of urban and eco-friendliness, and use political institutions to transform the highway system into one that fits the contemporary cultural climate. Is technology as truly implacable as determinists want to believe?

The internet, or more technically referred to as Information Technology, has been intensely discussed as a colonizing force upon indigenous cultures (Iseke-Barnes & Danard), viewed as a vehicle for misrepresenting indigenous people or forcing global culture upon them. As Judy Iseke-Barnes and Deborah Danard state: “As visitors to the Web site [about native Canadian ‘story robes’], we can read about these Story Robes, but we cannot enter the community of origin. We cannot know the ways that this history continues to live in the lives of the present generations and those of the future” (Iseke-Barnes & Danard). This becomes a warning to historians and researchers using web sites to represent indigenous cultures as images and text can reduce a modern population to its historical creative expressions. For Iseke-Barnes and Danard, internet technology is seen as an extension of Western colonial power, moving into indigenous groups for active and passive ‘modernization’.

Other researchers have argued for the opposite: the internet as a tool utilized by the indigenous for the indigenous. Juan Francisco Salazar asserts that information technology can be utilized “according to traditional knowledge and systems of law” (Salazar). Salazar recommends that researchers should move their focus from the social impact of information technology upon indigenous people and toward understanding their cultural constructions of new communication technologies. This connects Zachary Student’s political shaping of highway infrastructure and again with Feenberg’s drive for contextualizing technology.

If technology were the hegemonic force that Hughes, Irrante, and Iseke-Barnes and Danard believe that it is, there would be a more unified interpretation of technology and infrastructure in regards to societal development. However, it is seen that there are disagreements in the academic community and local communities about how technology has shaped people, and in fact hint at people having shaped technologies in their own image and otherwise the amplificatory nature of culture via technology.