Technology, History and Culture: Schulte Discusses Relationship Between Ideas and Tech
Camilla Shumaker: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is Camilla Shumaker. Today I’m talking to Stephanie Schulte, associate professor of communication. Her research focuses on the intersection of technology, history and culture. Welcome Stephanie.
Stephanie Schulte: Thank you. Happy to be here.
CS: Tell me about your approach to research in general. What draws you to certain topics?
SS: We have these ideas about the world, and we create these technologies to reflect those ideas, but then also, we create these technologies that change the way we think, and so the ideas that really excite me the most are the ones that get at those relationships between ideas and technologies. And, ultimately, I hope that tracing back that history, that culture or the politics of those ideas, the origins of those ideas helps us think about them as historical and not universal. They’re not, they don’t come from nature. We created them historically by a confluence of events. And I hope that that will help us be thoughtful about how we apply those ideas.
SS: So one of the most interesting parts of my research has been looking outside the United States to other countries for comparison. And as part of my book project I looked at how other parts of the world imagined the internet in the 90s. And I found some really fascinating differences.
SS: So when you look at American blockbuster movies about technology, right — and I’m talking about the Matrix or the James Bond movies, for example — mastering technology is almost always the goal. So the hero and his foe—and it’s usually a “his,” right, because these aren’t usually ladies—they fight over technology. They fight with technology. So in the Matrix, the internet is both a weapon and a battlefield right? You have to use the internet, but you have to master the internet and win over the internet. So in these in American movies, you almost always win by being the best at tech.
SS: And in Europe, some of that’s the same, right, in part because like they watch our movies. But some of their own homegrown movies are quite different, and the hero actually disconnects from technology entirely. So in one German movie, which is called Half the Rent, the hero dramatically throws his laptop into a river and he burns his telephone. And what’s fascinating to me is that that image wasn’t really offered to Americans in the 1990s. It really wasn’t thinkable that disconnecting from technology could be the winning move. But it was available to Germans, and I really think that that reveals how we have developed different ideas about the values of technology.
SS: I also think that that has changed. And Americans now are really thinking about disconnection as an option in a way that we didn’t in the 1990s.
SS: Thinking about reality mining and data collection, and data aggregation, which is sort of a big topic right now. And companies have collected data on individuals for more than a century, right? There’s a lot there that is not new. Social media really amplified that process by allowing companies to collect data about our social connections, all the ways in which we interact with each other, which for the most part was not captured by datasets previously. And our everyday objects are getting more and more connected. So our refrigerators are talking back to systems, and cars are becoming networked. And that allows companies to do what’s called reality mining, which is collecting data from lots of different activities that we do. And countries and populations and different places are more or less concerned about this.
SS: And so one of the things that I’m working on is thinking about the ways in which we are thinking through these issues differently in different places and the reasons why. So in 2018 Europe rolled out a comprehensive data rights law called the General Protection Regulation. You may have heard of that as called the GDPR.
SS: And the law does lots of things. It requires that people know that their data is being collected. It requires that they know who is collecting it. What those people are going to do with it. It says that people should be able to access their data and in some cases delete it. Now in the U.S., we don’t have anything like that. We don’t have a federal level law like that, and you might ask “Why not?” Well, if you look at the history and politics and culture, it gives you that answer.
SS: So at least since the 1980s in the U.S. we have disliked our government, and we’ve loved our companies. We really love our tech companies in particular. We really haven’t cared so much about how they monitor us, because we trust them. So in the U.S., we haven’t really thought collectively about the ways that we can be manipulated through data collection and aggregation. And really until we saw that Russians were messing with our social media and then we started thinking about it.
SS: But the history of Europe is really different. Germans worry a lot about data monitoring. They lived through a world in which people’s data, their religious status, their sexuality, their political affiliations resulted in death sentences at the hands of Nazis. So Germany really thinks that transparency is important. If data are collected, Germans want to know about it. So in Europe in general people tend to think in opposite ways to Americans.
CS: So on the other side you’ve written a lot about the history of technology, which sometimes gets overlooked as we anticipate the next big thing. Can you talk about something in the past that has shaped technology of today?
SS: One of the things that I look at as a historian of technology is the ways that technologies speak back to the ones that preceded them. I look back at the oldness as well as the newness. So, for example our computers have what we call “desk tops,” right? Our screens, especially sort of early computer screens were made to look like the actual top of a wooden desk with these little icons that look like paper file folders, right. And you might ask “Why is that?”
SS: Well screens were terrifying when they first emerged. People were afraid to use them. And so computer designers really tried to make them look like the things we already knew.
CS: In your book, Cached, you talk about how the early internet was shaped by the military and also teenagers? How did this odd combination make the internet what it is today?
SS: We often think about the internet, and have thought about the internet, in really conflicting ways at the same time. So it is simultaneously a toy for teenagers, but also this national security threat and a weapon. It is at the same time this uniquely American thing. But it’s also this icon of globalization. And I find that it’s really hard for us to reconcile these conflicts as a nation. And it’s really hard for policy makers to do it when they’re trying to write policies about technologies, especially ones that are constantly moving.
So one of my favorite examples of this clash of these conflicting ideas happened in the 1980s when policymakers discovered hacking as an activity and were trying to figure out what to do about it. So on the one hand, they had these kids who were basically playing jokes. They were hacking into government computers, and they were printing really silly messages, like “You can’t catch me” on computers. And on the other hand, these kids were breaking into military computers. And the policymakers really had no idea what they could do, either on purpose or accidentally. Hacking, right, even of military computers, was seen in this context of like youthful indiscretion. And it’s you know, it’s a funny moment, right, where you have this, like gaming teen also smashed up with this military thing, right. This sort of toy teen and military product smash up.
SS: But it really had real-world consequences, and in this case it actually helped shape the discussion of the very first law that regulated the internet, which was the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And it’s been the act that has determined all future regulation around hacking.
CS: What’s a common misconception about technology that you wish you could clear up once and for all?
SS: I wish that people really thought about technology in a more mindful way, and really thought about it as a series of choices instead of obligations. When you’re using technology like a cell phone or a keyboard every day, it starts to seem like an extension of yourself, an extension of your body, of your brain, of your social network, of your economic activities. But those technological objects are products, and they’re products that evolved with their own histories and their own companies driving them and their own particular values. And I find that when my students learn to think about technology as this, in this kind of alien way, as this thing that has its own history, it really opens their minds and they start thinking about their daily activities differently. They start seeing their tech use as a choice and not an obligation or a ritual or even a default.
Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to kuaf.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.