Metaphor as Technology

Introduction

In reading Walden, one might focus on Thoreau's attacks on trains (scattered throughout the chapters I have selected). In the last chapter listed here, "The Ponds," Walden Pond is described as a kind of cure for those who see it as they pass by on the train. After looking at Thoreau's attacks in detail, I'll ask everyone to think about what "Walden" means in this text -- what parts of (human) nature it stands for that threaten to be trampled underfoot by the march of technological progress. The modules below, and indeed the remaining units on Identity and Narrative, tend to focus on positive meanings for the term "technology," so I'm hoping in this introductory unit to get on the table the humanist attack on technology as something to be heeded but also questioned.

Questioning begins at once in this introductory unit because, in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates attacks writing as a retrograde technology: designed to further memory, he says, it will actually destroy it. It is crucial to have this text before us because I believe that most students will, like me, see writing as part of what makes us human, as what lifts us out of the realm of purely animal nature. Convinced that technology refers to typewriters and cash machines, they may not be used to thinking of writing itself as a technology. Jack Goody's text describes the huge technological advances made by literate as opposed to nonliterate societies, but it also introduces the idea that writing as a technology has in fact changed the shape of the human brain. Goody's chapter also has the virtue of distinguishing between nonliterate and illiterate, the latter encoding a value judgment that we will question by thinking all semester about various kinds of literacy.

LEVEL DESCRIPTORS:

First-year college students / AP English (High School)

LEARNING OUTCOMES:

A sense that, once a technology is developed and naturalized, it runs people's lives if they don't think about how it shapes what they see and do;
Expanded understanding of the meaning of the term "technology";
Understanding how human tools shape humans;

DISCUSSION POSSIBILITIES::

Ask students to talk about a recent technological development or "improvement" (currently -- 2004/2005 -- the use of cell phones). Ask them to get into groups. Each group will pretend that they are Thoreau, Socrates, or Goody. What questions would they ask about it? Write those questions down to lead class discussion. If they ask about the cost to quality of life (Thoreau), about what kinds of thinking or feeling an improvement prevents that it seems to further (i.e., with cell phones, closeness; Socrates), and about possible changes to the human brain (Goody), your lesson has been a success.

ASSESSMENT:

In reading the students' answers to the two assignment questions, you should see evidence of the learning outcomes:

--Whether or not they agree with Thoreau, they should be able to state that he asks you to calculate the amount of life (time) spent in acquiring any "improvement."

-- Whether they agree with Socrates and/or Goody, they should be able to see that they define a technology as any tool for thinking that runs by itself, without supervision, that prefabricates thought possibilities and intellectual capacities.

--- what this looks like in a real student essay (samples coming) --

BACK