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What is the relationship between skill and technology?

What is the relationship between skill and technology?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Farhan Samanani. Originally submitted for Living With Material Culture at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Stephanie Bunn in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Farhan Samanani. Originally submitted for Living With Material Culture at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Stephanie Bunn in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
 What is the relationship between skill and technology?
 Abstract: It is a common claim that contemporary western society fosters anindividualistic worldview. Yet, for the most part, Social Anthropology has takenthis claim for granted as a starting point and, in the study of western society,has sought to find its exceptions and limitations. Consequently, questions as tohow individuality has come to be a prominent experience have been largelyneglected. Here, I approach this problem from within the discipline of material cultural studies which has similarly focused mostly on the social dimensions of materiality.While endeavoring to respond to the question “What is the relationship betweenskill and technology?” I draw on practice theory – in particular the work of  Pierre Bourdieu and Tim Ingold – and evidence from the work of variousethnographers, to establish the link between bodily practice and technology. From there, I highlight the ontological and epistemological implications of thisnexus of practice and technology, noting how it tends to engender an ‘extended’ conception of the self. Having done so, I then look at instances of technological use which fall beyond the dynamics of skilled practice discussed in the first section, and in doing soargue that when technology is able to move us beyond the dynamics of skilled  practice the ontological and epistemological consequences are necessarily thoseof distancation – both from our material and social environments. In thisregard, I examine how powerful technology can mask the contingency of ouragency and conclude by briefly outlining the implications of this masking.
 Key Words: Skilled Practice, Technology, Embodiment, Distanciation, Individualism
Introduction
In this essay, I want to examine the relationship between technology and skill, as well as the relationship between the two and how their users conceive their beingin the world. To do so, in the first section, I look at skilled practice as a subset of technology, and the way this practice relates to the perception and processing of information. In the second section, I then look at the implications involved in theuse of other forms of technology, which are opposed to the definition of skilledpractice outlined in the first section. In doing so, I argue that technology whichshuts out skilled practice serves to create an individualist epistemology, and thusto promulgate the individualist ideology which many thinkers hold to be at thecore of modernity and modernism.First, however, I want to examine briefly the definition of technology – animportant matter, as the vagueness of the concept has long hindered theanthropology of technology (a problem which Pfaffenberger (1988) notes, but
 
does not sufficiently move beyond himself). Bearing in mind Pfaffenberger’simportant admonishment that technological forms, their ascendency and theirapplication cannot be cleanly separated either from their socio-cultural context orprevious technological developments – which determine the possibilities andlimitations of technology (1992: 498) – I define technology by two key parameters: 1) Technology is always, at least in part, an embodiment andapplication of knowledge. This embodiment need not be material – it can take theform of a skill, technique, or intellectual system – and the knowledge need not beconscious cognition – it can be the embodied knowledge of practice. Moreover,technology’s application need not match the knowledge deployed in creating it;un-intended applications of technology do not render it un-technological, andthere is no necessary link between form and function (Pfaffenberger, 1992). Whatis central is that it is embodied knowledge that can be used instrumentally. 2)Technology supplements or supplants human capacities in some way. In thisregard, a bowl may be considered technology when it is used to hold water or siftgrain, but cannot be considered very technological if simply used for decoration(except in a weak sense, in that it facilitates an aesthetic quality). It follows thatthe extent to which something is technology is based on the extent to which itaugments or supplants human capabilities; grain may be sorted by hand moreeasily than one’s geographic location can be calculated manually – and in thelatter case, the GPS system is certainly quicker and more accurate than theastrolabe. Finally, it bears remembering that, as Paffenberger (1988)admonishes, technology can only ever be seen as a social phenomenon – that is tosay that the efficacy which defines technology cannot meaningfully be removedfrom the social context which within which it is made efficacious, whether they bethe material conditions which allow for mass production or the social values which guide adoption and the specific uses of technological objects.
1. The Technology of Embodiment: skill and the continuous self.
I would like to start by examining the meaning and implications of skill astechnology by looking at two case studies: Gísli Pálsson’s account of Icelandicfisherman (1993) and Robin Ridington’s account of the hunting practices of theBeaver people (1990).For the fishermen Pálsson worked with, certain bodily practices – whether beingattuned to the movements of crewmates, or being able to notice changes in the weather or condition of the ocean – were central to fishing practices, particularlfor skippers but certainly for their crews as well. These practices, however, werenot simply transmitted through explanation – not only did they have to beacquired through mimetic practice, but their very point was their embeddednessand mutual contingency – making the agency of these practices a matter of mutual constitution within each crew. In this sense, what we can think of astechnological is the
habitus
of fishing – the shared set of internalized bodily dispositions and schemas of thought and action that underlie any shared practice(Ibid: 921; Bourdieu, 1990: 53)
i
. The
habitus
of the fishermen was anorganization of applied-intellectual and bodily knowledge into a body of practices which constituted successful fishing and which new fishermen learnt through
 
mimetic practice and general exposure to the social dynamics and cultural codesof fishing. The technological nature of this
habitus
becomes clear in itsapplication – the ‘enskilment’ of fishermen allowed them to intuit the locationsand movements of fish, or to predict the movements of crewmates and tosynchronize with them – in ways which would elude explicit cognitive reasoning(Pálsson, 1993: 919-920). Here then, is a system for augmenting humancapabilities through the articulation of an organized system of (primarily) bodily knowledge. Indeed, skippers found that the internalization of this
habitus
wasmore essential to the success of their crew than any comprehension of or accessto material technology (Ibid, 916-918). For example, the utility of electronic fish-finding equipment was not held to be in any ‘objective’ information they provided, but in the skipper’s ability to correctly interpret the information (Ibid:910).For the Beaver people, it is not only a shared
habitus
but also the entirety of theircosmology and social structure which functions as technology (Riddington, 1990:86-97; see also Brightman, 2002 for the same case being made with regards toRock Cree). That is to say the entire system of moral relations framed withincosmological thought and articulated in the dynamics of social relations serves toensure not only fruitful hunting, but the survival and strength of the band as a whole. Successful hunting is predicated upon encountering the animals first within dreams (having knowledge of them), which is in turn contingent uponstrong moral relations with others (including reciprocity and generosity insharing hunting spoils); and upon the ability to encounter sprit-animals, which isdeveloped through extensive exposure to the bush, navigation, the habits of animals, the movements of celestial bodies etc. Hence, successful hunting is theproduct of a linked moral and physical agency, which in is founded uponpractices which strengthen the group and which inculcate a
habitus
of skillfulhunting, respectively. Far from being in thrall to the whims of their environment,then, spiritual “knowledge of the environment is a genuine source of power thatmay enable people to regulate their relations to it.” (Riddington, 1990: 97). Inthis sense, knowledge of sprit animals, and the system of moral relations andpractice that it requires, “is a fundamental means of production in hunting andgathering societies. From this perspective, technology may be viewed as atechnique for the application of knowledge,” (ibid). Like Pálsson’s fishermen, theBeaver people do certainly use material technology in their hunting practices – but the instrumentality of material technology is always only a consequence of the instrumentality of the more important social and cosmological technology.If there is still doubt that the above-detailed forms of social, cosmological and bodily practice can be called technology, consider them in the context of humancapabilities. In both cases, these practices have been pivotally instrumental intwo regards; they have facilitated a greater ability to apprehend and comprehendthe environment; and they have facilitated a greater ability to reach desired ends– I.E. to transform the environment. We can think of analogues in terms of material technology for both these ends – e.g. a map and a rifle, or a fish-finderand an electronic lure. We can also imagine a close affinity to other forms of material technology whose efficacy – whose technological nature – is constituted

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