Designing Our Disciplines in a Postmodern Age - and Academy

Designing Our Disciplines in a Postmodern Age - and Academy

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
. Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor
Coyne, Richard
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Online:

Matt Kirschenbaum on Richard Coyne’s philosophical treatment of technographics.

Common sense ought to tell us it requires less effort to open a web browser than it does to walk across campus. Which is fine, at least for the moment, at least until academicians in both the humanities and the sciences begin to appreciate the potential for interdisciplinary exchange that the network now offers them. And by interdisciplinary, I don’t mean the routine say you say me patter of a literary critic having a conversation with a colleague in history. Instead, I mean aggressive interdisciplinary work, as when a cultural studies scholar looks in on the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT and starts thinking about subjectivity and representation, or when a cognitive psychologist pays a visit to the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo and encounters language poetry for the first time. While information technology will not - not ever - allow communication between the Two Cultures that is totally free of noise, it is at least and at last beginning to offer us some reliable connections and channels.

Academic disciplines are themselves information technologies of a sort, and it is certainly no fresh insight to reiterate the manner in which such fields as history and literary studies have begun to fissure and break apart under the stress of what Habermas once called a legitimation crisis. What is more interesting, however, is to note the appearance and cohesion of new disciplinary orders across the academic knowledge-grid. Cognitive science, perhaps the most contested research area to emerge to date from within the twentieth century university, is itself an amalgam of neurology, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, psychology, and anthropology. Moreover, it has adopted the “network” itself as a cognitive model. As information technology reconfigures the real-world location of the postmodern university through such applications as distance learning, electronic archives, and electronic publication, so too will it reconfigure our current disciplinary arrangements. Things will become - as Ted Nelson is sometimes wont to say - deeply intertwingled.

In Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor, Richard Coyne has written what will likely become the standard overview of contemporary philosophy’s bearing on computer systems research and development. He has also written a book that probably couldn’t have existed until comparatively recently - not only because the hardware and software he studies have evolved at such an accelerated rate, but also because, as I have been suggesting, it is only just recently that the technology of the postmodern academy has evolved. Coyne is now Professor of Architectural Computing at the University of Edinburgh, and the title of his position is itself an indicator of the extent to which we can expect emerging technologies to reshuffle the distribution of knowledge and disciplinary know-how within the university. Throughout his book, Coyne draws not only from architectural design and the computer sciences, but also from several traditions of philosophy and critical theory, linguistics, sociology, and systems theory to survey a subject located at the intersection of all these fields.

Implicit in such an undertaking is the assumption that knowledge and awareness of the concerns of these various disciplines might have some measurable impact on the day to day activities of programmers or systems developers. Coyne tells us in the preface that the book is meant for “the researcher, designer, practitioner, commentator, and educator working in information technology” (xii). He also insists that his reader accept that philosophy is consequential: that “there is a domain of action known as philosophy that interacts consequentially with other domains of action, such as computer systems design” (ix). This is a pragmatist’s voice that we hear talking, and for Coyne it is indeed pragmatism rather than orthodox rationalism that is the dominant ethos in the design of information technology. Much of this book is in fact an effort to dispel the belief that wonkish logical reasoning is the underlying principle of information technology praxis.

The first two chapters of Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age sketch the broad canvas of philosophy’s treatment of technology. From the outset, Coyne introduces the opposition between rationalism (exemplified by Descartes and his Enlightenment descendants) and twentieth century pragmatism (as represented by Dewey and McLuhan). Rationalism “promotes the independence of reason from the material world of bodies and machines” (18), while pragmatism “embraces the primacy of human action, the practicalities of human involvement, the materiality of the world, the interaction of the senses, and the formative power of technology” (17). Coyne next distinguishes between dialectical (or pre-Socratic) thought and the telos of the Aristotelian syllogism; these two competing modes of intellectual engagement are responsible for most of the lines that have been drawn on the philosophical map in the centuries since the school of Athens. He then traces the dialectic’s modern revival by Hegel, Heidegger, and the Frankfurt School (notably Marcuse), and demonstrates how dialectical thinking is the foundation of the Frankfurt School’s well-known critiques of information technology. Yet ultimately, Coyne insists, the Frankfurt School narrative of technological domination is insufficient; domination must give way to power as Foucault understood it - enabling as well as restrictive. Coyne’s third chapter is devoted to Derrida’s critique of the metaphysical tradition in philosophy. Derrida’s thought allows Coyne to align many of the more strident critiques of information technology - that it disrupts our normative understandings of space, distance, materiality, human contact, and so on - with the same metaphysics of presence that Derrida deconstructs. The fourth and fifth chapters evaluate “cyberspace” and “virtual reality” respectively in relation to Heideggerian phenomenolgy. In the final two chapters, Coyne compares the limitations of systems theory and scientific modeling to a more metaphorically driven approach to designing information technology. Following a careful review of studies of metaphor by Davidson, Lakoff and Johnson, Ted Nelson, and (again) Heidegger and Derrida, Coyne concludes:

Metaphor provides a metaphor for understanding design. It is not the only metaphor, nor is it the most perspicacious in all situations. But then to appeal to logic, flow diagrams, rewrite rules, Turing machines, and other paraphernalia of programming theory is not to abandon metaphor but to shift to a different set of metaphors. The appropriateness of any metaphor depends on the context. The pragmatic view of metaphor asks is this metaphor enabling in this situation? (296)

Alongside metaphor, Heidegger’s sustained meditation on technology and Being is the informing presence in the book. For Coyne, Heidegger is easily the most important modern writer to have engaged the question of how technology affects the way we think. I am not a Heidegger scholar, and cannot evaluate the precise accuracy or profundity of Coyne’s summations of Heidegger’s thought. I can say that Coyne’s writing about Heidegger is always both cautious in what claims it infers, and nuanced in its presentation of those claims. Here is what Coyne finds valuable in Heidegger’s work: Heidegger does not teach that technology is inherently bad; rather, the problem with technology is that it discourages us from other ways of thinking. Technology is “enframing.” It keeps us from awakening to the withdrawal of Being from the world because it encourages us to objectivize and to forget the history of Being’s revealing and concealing. The point is not to abandon technology, but rather to resist technology’s bias towards other means of apprehension: the “letting be” Heidegger called Gelassenheit. This, for Coyne, is the pragmatist’s office in the day to day world of hardware and software design. Information technology should be fluid and responsive to a community’s changing needs and desires; it should not dictate those desires or become its own end. Hence also Coyne’s regard for metaphor, which shows us that language too must be fluid and responsive to changing circumstances and situations. It is pragmatism, coupled with an awareness of the uses of metaphor, that Coyne sees as the key to designing information technologies that will let us be.

It should be noted here that Coyne often seems to rely heavily on secondary studies for some of the philosophers he covers: Stephen Houlgate for Hegel, John D. Caputo for Heidegger, Jonathan Culler and Christopher Norris for Derrida. This is not an inherent weakness in the book, but it does reveal one of the calculated risks of interdisciplinary study: one must place a certain amount of faith in the most respected commentators working in a given field. It is also worth pointing out that Coyne’s writing style is relentlessly methodical. Ideas are almost always arranged in lists: “This is important for three reasons…”; “There are four main arguments against…”; “We can understand this distinction in at least two separate ways…” At times, this presentation becomes tedious. More significantly, it opens Coyne to a charge he is careful to anticipate in the preface: “To write clearly [linearly] is not to resort to Aristotelian logic, nor is it to bend the knee to technorationalism or instrumental reason…. It is not essential to enter into wordplay to open up a space for knowledge” (xi). Readers can decide for themselves whether Coyne’s approach - ultimately pragmatic rather than rationalistic in its intent - succeeds in opening such a space.

Perhaps most notably absent from the book is any extended or intensive scrutiny of actual projects (and products) from the recent history of hardware and software design. This is really the only aspect of Coyne’s study that I found disappointing. For all the rigor and insight that accompanies his discussion of Heidegger and virtual reality, for example, I can’t help but wonder why Coyne didn’t also add something about Heidegger and, say, VRML. Part of the reason is surely that stylish new implementations of information technology appear and disappear so quickly that, even when a scholar is afforded the luxury of writing about one of them before his or her book goes to press, the exercise is ultimately self-defeating in that it dates the work all the sooner. Still, there are many examples of information technologies that have achieved longevity, and which ought to be written about. If VRML has only just recently become part of our wired consciousness, then what about prior experimentation with three-dimensional representation on the display screen - the classic problem that Edward Tufte calls “escaping flatland?” Similarly, Coyne’s remarks on the phenomenology of cyberspace (as a concept) are suggestive, but I would have been equally interested in the phenomenology of the Internet, itself a technology now old enough to drive in most parts of the world. (Let us not forget that the current netscape, however lush, conceals the backbones of the information highway laid out by DARPA in the late 1960s.)

Yet none of this, to me, compromises the value of Coyne’s work, and there is no reason why other scholars cannot use this balanced and carefully written book as a reference and a starting point for undertaking some of the more particular case studies I mention above. Ah, but who will these “other scholars” be? Philosophers? Specialists in the computer sciences? Renegade literary critics? Students trained in newly formed media studies departments? In a slightly different context, Coyne writes:

[I]n spite of the deeper understanding promoted by Heidegger that to think is to contemplate things without asking why, without looking for causes, and that we are not in control of technology, the rhetoric of our disciplines indicates an unashamed concern with intervention. It may be a delusion, but the rhetoric of the professional, the technician, the educator, and the politician is to intervene. The importance of Heidegger’s inquiry may be to reinstate thinking, but there are still those caught up in the practice of “philosophy,” investigating causes and interventions, by virtue of the nature of their disciplines. (90)

To be sure. For now. But information technology offers not only the potential to change the way we practice within our own disciplines, but also the potential to change the way we conceive of the boundaries between our own and other disciplines. Here in the postmodern academy, we might begin to think about designing those disciplines so that the word “interdisciplinary” is no longer synonymous with “intervention.”