image of J.M. van der Laan

J.M. van der Laan

Technology is everywhere. For good or for ill, it infiltrates all aspects of our lives. Professor of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures J. M. van der Laan explores how humans perceive and discuss the technology surrounding them in his new book, Narratives of Technology.

“Narratives are about meaning,” said van der Laan, who spent years studying fiction, non-fiction, plays, movies, and even advertising to gain insight into how people understand technology for the book. “Narratives create meaning. We, as a culture, find meaning in technology.”

While most people consider technology devices and machinery, van der Laan views technology as those things and techniques that humans use to adapt the world around them to their needs—from something as complex as a cell phone to something as simple as a pair of glasses.

vanderlaan_book2“People don’t really understand that technology is all around them,” said van der Laan, adding that all humans deal with technology, no matter their culture, religion, or background. “Our lives are now centered on making our lives better through technology.”

The book examines narratives of technology found across time—in the poetry of Greco-Roman times, the play Faust by Johann Goethe, and the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. “Dr. Frankenstein creates a humanoid, living and breathing,” said van der Laan. “But what he creates is not wonderful and beautiful, but monstrous, so he fails. His success is his failure.”

A subtle shift of technology from villain to hero can be seen in modern movies, such as The Matrix and The Terminator series. “On the surface these movies appear to present technology as a threat to humankind,” said van der Laan. “Yet by the second Terminator movie, the machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—there to annihilate humanity–becomes the savior. Why? Because that machine, technology, cares more and does everything better than any human being can.”

Technology can revolutionize human lives, noted van der Laan. “Think how the mechanical watch transformed how we see and understand reality,” he said. “In the Middle Ages, day was when it got light. Night was when it got dark. And those changed during the year. Think of how scheduled we are now. Think of how watches and electricity—artificial light—restructured our experience of the world.”

Though technological advances can help humankind, critical narratives often pause to ask if the advances are good or bad. “A lot of narratives that criticize technology are not anti-technology,” said van der Laan, who looked at literature in English, French, German, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, and Italian for the book. “In the literary fiction, there’s a small minority that warn against all technology. And then there’s a whole lot of writing—fiction and non-fiction—that says, ‘We just need to use it right.’  Which is flawed reasoning.”

When examining narratives, van der Laan equated humanity’s reliance on technology to a kind of addiction or even deification. “I call it technological idealism,” he said. “It’s the idea that technology will fix everything. It will allow us to do everything. It will allow us to know everything. It is the dominant feature of our civilization.”

An unquestioning faith in technology can be dangerous, warned van der Laan. “We grow the genetically modified foods to create bigger yields. Then we create different herbicides and fertilizers to maintain the bigger yields. Then we see the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds,” said van der Laan. “So we have to find the next technology to fix the problem technology created.”