Saturday, May 13, 2006

Technological determinism

The recent Edebate exchange between Jackie Massey and Gary Larson regarding the Greene & Hicks article got me thinking about the way the article is deployed in coversations like this (and will likely be deployed in many future contest rounds). I went back and tracked Greene & Hicks's use of the word "technology" - a key term in their analysis, since they (following Day) describe debate as a "cultural technology." The term "technology" appears 11 times in the main body of the article. At first, Greene & Hicks dip their toes in gingerly, couching the term in qualifiers and suggesting that debate is a technology "capable of generating a commitment to free speech" (102). Here, the adjective "capable" leaves causal wiggle room - as a technology, debate need not necessarily do this; it could do other things. Then they move to the claim that debate is a "technology of citizen formation" that is "invested with an ethical substance" (110) - note the more restrictive and deterministic rendering created by "invested." Finally, the adjective "intrinsic" appears later to ratchet up the level of determinism: "Debating both sides, then, is necessitated by the ethical obligations intrinsic to the technology of democratic debate" (111).

As an aside, their deterministic claim regarding the intrinsic quality of the cultural technology of debate rests on assumptions about the psychology of debaters - something very difficult to prove with only textual analysis of a few commentators from the 1950s (i.e. Day, Murphy, et al.).

More centrally, it may be possible to fashion a critique of Greene & Hicks on the grounds that their analysis enacts a form of technological determinism, i.e. the notion that technologically speaking, there are intrinsic ethical commitments invested in the activity of switch-side debate (namely, belief in American exceptionalism). As a counter-example, one might point out that in the 1954 "debate over debate," this strong principle of technological determinism was not found in the psychology or practices of debaters who viewed a commitment to switch-side debate less as a foundation for American exceptionalism and more as a bulwark against McCarthyism. Another, perhaps even more powerful example is Malcolm X, who embraced switch-side debate as a tool to counter American exceptionalism.

A charitable read of Greene & Hicks emphasizes the narrow scope of their study (ONLY focusing on 1954, not extrapolating beyond), thus taking some wind out of the sails of the technological determinism critique. But notice how this retrenchment move is not available to the Masseys of the debate world who cite Greene & Hicks as proving that IN ALL CASES (even in today's milieu) debate as a cultural technology reinforces American exceptionalism. This is technological determinism in full flower, and we could fashion a compelling kritik argument suitable for use in contest rounds that would isolate this move made by opponents, and make rejection of the claim a voting issue.

1 comment:

Steveador said...

Very interesting! Is there a link where we can read the Massey exchange? I certainly don't think it's interesting enough to again sign up for edebate.

Also, expanding your ideas beyond the contest round: When we assign switch side debating in the classroom, are we again teaching exceptionalism? Another phrasing: Is it possible to teach switch-side debating in the university classroom and avoid the tropes of exceptionalism? Malcolm X might be part of the Answer, but I could see his invocation supporting exceptionalism. Can argument/debate instructors of the general undergraduate population construct a form of X-ceptionalism? Or X-exceptionalism and not get played by the trope like an X-Box?