Why Wireless Internet at the Burrow is a Good Idea: In Praise of Technological Uselessness
Joel B. Hunter
Any description of the present age would have to account for the place of technology. Technology, and digital technology in particular, is described routinely as having the power not only to accommodate our desires, enhance our experiences, and expand our abilities, but to transform the daily life of human societies and redirect the course of history. How are we to understand technology as a social and historical phenomenon, and how can we best analyze its character, claims and consequences? In this presentation, I shall advance an interpretation of technology based on the social, political and ethical contours delineated in the Harry Potter series. Rowling's depiction of magic and its uses in the series gives us an imaginative foothold from which to deepen our understanding of the relationship between technology, history, society and the character of contemporary life. The perspective on technology which her work presents gives us some critical tools with which to think through and anew the meaning and ethics of technology.
The idea of comparing the magical world of the HP series to our technological world is not new. An excellent essay by B. Lipscomb and W. C. Stewart, “Magic, Science and the Ethics of Technology,” appeared in Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. In a significant way, the issues I'm raising in this presentation are preliminary to that essay. Lipscomb and Stewart adopt the familiar characterization of technology as “applied science.” But I do not think that is sufficient to understand technology as a social, human and spiritual fact. And so I will appropriate the analyses of sociologist Jacques Ellul, especially as elaborated in his seminal The Technological Society. Following a brief overview of Ellul's ideas, I shall turn to the distinctions between historical, “traditional” magic and the magic of the HP series. Next, I will show the ways in which HP magic and technology are governed and operate by the same logic. I will conclude the presentation with some examples of social and political phenomena which correspond between Harry's and our world, and as time allows we will discuss the implications of those correspondences.
Dr. Joel B. Hunter is an Honors Faculty Fellow of the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University where he teaches a "Great Books" style humane letters course in intellectual history for first-year students. He has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering (Georgia Tech, '90) and master of arts (Georgia State, '98) and doctoral degrees in philosophy (University of Kentucky, '08). He organized and became the faculty sponsor of the Harry Potter Society at ASU last year because of his philosophical interest in imaginative literature. The Harry Potter Society at ASU has weekly meetings to discuss the novels, secondary Potter literature, and explore the connections to other imaginative fiction and classical literature. In November 2009, the Society and the Barrett Honors College sponsored a public lecture by noted Potter analyst, Travis Prinzi. Mr. Prinzi has solicited a contribution from Dr. Hunter for his next volume of Hog's Head Conversations.