Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

questioning cultural artifacts

Some years ago I came across a document called “Seventy-Six Reasonable Questions to Ask about Any Technology.” If you follow that link you’ll see the questions attributed to the late Jacques Ellul, but I believe they were actually produced by members of the Jacques Ellul Society. In any event, they’re pretty interesting questions.

I’ve been thinking about them lately in relation to my friend Andy Crouch’s remarkable new book Culture Making. Now, this is a book written primarily for Christians who want and need to do a better job of “making something of the world” — Andy’s core definition of what culture is, adapted from Ken Myers — but the task of culture making is everyone’s task, and there’s a world of wisdom and provocation in Andy’s book. I can't recommend it too highly.

Anyway, I’m reminded of those seventy-six Ellulian questions when I read Andy’s thoughts on how we might make sense of, and properly evaluate, any cultural artifacts, not just the ones we tend to call “technological.” (Of course, in a deep sense all cultural artifacts are the products of technology.) He suggests that we ask five questions of those artifacts, and I’m going to end this blogging year by recommending those questions to you. It would be a good discipline in the coming year to ask them often (and also to read Andy’s book).

(1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is? What are the key features of the world that this cultural artifact tries to deal with, respond to, make sense of?

(2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be? What vision of the future animated its creators? What new sense does it seek to add to a world that often seems chaotic and senseless?

(3) What does this cultural artifact make possible? What can people do or imagine, thanks to this artifact, that they could not before? Conversely,

(4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)? What activities and experiences that were previously part of the human experience become all but impossible in the wake of this new thing?

(5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact? What is cultivated and created that could not have been before?