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New MLA Course Interrogates Technology’s Impact on Self and Society

Technology, Society, and Self spurs student questions about technology’s ever-accelerating role in society.

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Living in northern California’s Bay Area, technology surrounds Rob Mann even more so than most contemporary Americans.

The epicenter of the nation’s tech scene, the Bay Area boasts the corporate headquarters of tech powerhouses like Apple, Google, and Facebook. Digital natives fill the streets. Hackathons line the region’s cultural calendar. Tech is so engrained in Bay Area activities Mann confesses he has long overlooked its dominant hold on daily life.

Such is a key reason Mann, a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) student at the Graham School, enrolled in a new course this past summer titled Technology, Society, and Self.

“I thought it important to take a step back and, from an academic perspective, thoughtfully consider how technology impacts us,” Mann says. “What does it mean? How is it affecting us and shaping our lives?”

The liberal arts in a tech-fueled world

The tech world is increasingly recognizing the value of the liberal arts mindset, something the Harvard Business Review, CIO, and Forbes all recently noted. Some of the core elements of a liberal arts education – critical thinking and communication, creativity and research competency, ethical decision making and more global worldviews – are finding a home in tech, where professionals are finding that career advancement brings a more extensive set of responsibilities and a more diverse range of questions than technical knowledge alone can address.

The MLA began the Technology, Society, and Self course to create a space for students, and particularly those from tech and science backgrounds, to examine technology’s ever-accelerating role in society, including what it means to and for human lives.

“We wanted to get our students, who by virtue of their professions are often steeped in the intricacies of technology, to begin to see the forest through the trees by evaluating and interrogating technology’s role in our society, including its ethical implications, with a broader worldview,” MLA director Tim Murphy says.

In the 10-week course led by Eugene Raikhel, students began exploring conceptual questions about the relationship between technology and society. Thereafter, students examined case studies and various technologies individuals regularly encounter in contemporary life such as social media, data-tracking devices, psychopharmaceuticals, and biomedical tech.

Two authors whose books loomed large in the course, Natasha Dow Schüll (Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas) and Hannah Zeavin (The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy), also visited the course and detailed how the technologies they studied in their respective works had shaped society and human lives, sometimes in troubling ways.

The course pushed students to see technology not as something governed by its own internal dynamics but rather intricately and intimately intertwined with society and self.

“That kind of understanding then leads to more critical perspectives of technology,” says Raikhel, a cultural and medical anthropologist. “Rather than fading into the background of our lives, we begin to think more deeply about how these technologies shape how we live and work.”

Sparking deeper analysis

MLA student Kaushik Bhattacharya, who regularly interacts with technology as a management consultant, found himself drawn to various theoretical frameworks introduced in the course, including the theory of affordances and actor-network theory. He credits both frameworks for helping him better evaluate technologies in his personal and professional life.

“Viewing technologies through a classical lens is training me to look at these innovations with an entirely different perspective, not just accepting them as clever innovations,” Bhattacharya says. “It’s made me a better consultant and a better person.”

A willingness to scrutinize technology, to question its motives and design, is crucial as tech becomes more engrained in daily lives, Raikhel reminds, and especially so given the ethical questions technologies like artificial intelligence and social media prompt.

“It’s important we look at technology with a critical eye because it isn’t necessarily politically or socially neutral,” Raikhel says. “Certain values can and often are baked into technologies.”

Mann called it eye-opening to consider the diverse ways in which technology is impacting society and influencing humans. He relished the lively debate among classmates about theories or case studies and the diverse perspectives his peers brought into conversations based on their own lives and work experiences. It all spurred him to reflect on technology’s presence in his life, its promises as well as its pitfalls.

“This course made me a skeptic in all the right ways and completely changed the way I look at the tech around me,” Mann says. “I’m hungry to learn more, and this feels like the beginning of a much longer journey for me to assess the relationship between technology and society in my life.”

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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