I have more notes on I, Robot on tomorrow’s page, but I wanted to explain the reason I find the novel so important to discussions about science and technology in society. Below are excerpts from an article I wrote about using I, Robot in class.
All excerpts come from: Toscano, Aaron. “Using I, Robot in the Technical Writing Classroom: Developing a Critical Technological Awareness.” Computers and Composition, vol. 28, no. 1, 2011, pp. 14-27.
My General Goal
My goal for using Isaac Asimov’s novel I, Robot is to move students toward being aware that there are sub(altern) discourses about technologies—and not just computers. These discourses do not consider technology inherently progressive or essentially good. The novel’s setup fits in well with technical writing courses because, although it is 60 years old, it analyzes high-tech culture. Readers understand it as fiction, but they can be moved to read the novel’s subtext, which illuminates the ideologies carried out through the dominant culture’s beliefs and discourses about technology….The mantra “bigger/smaller, faster, stronger, better” is not always accurate. In fact, it promotes a modernist paradigm for technical writing. Such a paradigm privileges the technologies over the communicators, much like system-centered design suggests that “the documentation is written to reflect the image of the system designer” (Johnson, 1998/2003, p. 295). Incorporating I, Robot into the technical writing classroom advances a postmodern pedagogy that privileges student agency and asks students to be critical of their own career goals when exploring the wider cultural forces that may shape their decisions and the products that their cultures produce. (p. 15)
Critical Technological Awareness
I define critical technological awareness as understanding how technology fits into our lives beyond merely using tools. This awareness, which initiates a student’s acquisition of critical technological literacy, requires a social analysis of the impacts and demands of technologies and a personal exploration regarding one’s uses and desires for technologies. In other words, having a critical technological awareness does not mean knowing how to use technology, but rather knowing how technology fits into our lives and carries ideologies that our culture embraces. (p. 16)
Social Construction of Technology vs. Technological Determinism
I, Robot helps students identify narratives of the cultural work that technologies do by comparing the experiences that Asimov’s characters have with their own experiences in order to understand the ways in which technologies adhere to and are mediated by culture. From a strict social-constructivist position, technology comes to be because society “demands” it. Also, this position claims that no technology gets produced without adhering to social values. In contrast, a technological deterministic position claims that technologies get produced and then cause social changes. Winner (1986) describes the view as “the idea that technological innovation is the basic cause of changes in society and that human beings have little choice other than to sit back and watch this ineluctable process unfold” (pp. 9-10). Andrew Feenberg (2002) defines technological determinism similarly in his critique of modernization by noting that technological determinism claims “technology is an invariant element that, once introduced, bends the recipient social system to its imperatives” as if “[it] has its own autonomous logic of development” (p. 138). The problem with this view is that it assumes that technology advances outside of human endeavors (Feenberg, p. 139). Although technologies can change practices, it is difficult to claim that technologies change values—the values already permeate society. For example, mobile communication devices altered where and when people communicated, but they did not cause people to want the ability to have remote, instant communication. The demand or value for instant communication already existed; mobile communication devices fulfill a social desire….it is important to note that critical technological awareness privileges a social constructivist position over technological determinism. (pp. 17-18)
More notes on I, Robot are on tomorrow’s page. Even if you aren’t finished with the novel, those notes might help to guide your thinking on the novel. Have a happy Memorial Day!
Feenberg, Andrew. Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Johnson, Robert J. “When All Else Fails, Use the Instructions: Local Knowledge, Negotiation, and the Construction of User-Centered Computer Documentation.” In T. Peeples (Ed.), Professional Writing and Rhetoric. New York: Longman, 2003: pp. 287–316. (Original work published 1998).
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.