Rethinking Our Resource Taxonomy

At the endpoint of our last discussion, we came to the conclusion that if was necessary to sort out the assumptions involved in classifying resources into the categories of Natural, Technological, and Cultural. In particular, we need to figure out how our ideas about access and enclosure might change depending on what sort of resource we are addressing. In order to set up a foundation for further inquiry, here are a few points that have already come up and some initial questions that emerge:

1. Taking from Walter Benjamin’s notions about the nature of science and technology, as well as more recently-codified notions of envirotech, we want to approach technology as a relationship between humans and nature. This idea presents us with a potential nexus between natural and technological resources which may complicate our understanding of exactly what types of resources are being accessed or enclosed in certain instances (i.e., privatized water infrastructure).

2. In other instances, the boundary between technological and cultural resources seems similarly complex. For example, when DRM applied to an audio file, the process of enclosure is being practically applied across a spectrum of technologies (hardware, software, media file) that manage a relationship between a song and a listener. The ultimate object of enclosure is both a cultural resource (a song) and a technological resource (an audio file).

3. In both of the prior instances, there seems to be a tension arising between the task of addressing technology as an intermediary between people and some other resouces and the task of addressing technology as a resource in its own right.

4. When addressing points 1 and 2, do we understand technology’s work in managing the relationship between person and natural resource the same way that we understand it’s work in managing the relationship between person and a cultural resouce? In essence, this is to ask whether we have some assumptions about some sort of fundamental public rights of access to natural and/or cultural resources.

4a. Almost certainly, notions of auteurship will feature prominently in tracing the different sets of “rights” as related to these two types of resources. Do we imagine that cultural resources are produced though processes that grant their creators some sort of monopoly – economic or otherwise – over their use (as copyright suggests)? If so, where do we locate the limits of those monopolies and what entities or institutions should codify those limits?

5. On this note, we want to make sure to interrogate the notion that Cultural and Technological resources can be grouped together as “artificial” (i.e., human-made) in opposition to Natural resources.

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4 Comments on “Rethinking Our Resource Taxonomy”

  1. pizzapelsa Says:

    Great ideas, here!

    Just as the line between science and technology is blurry (both require a wide array of facts and artifacts, knowledge and know-how), so is the line between culture and technology (culture being defined as a set of tools for human interaction, technology perhaps as a set of tools for human-human and human-nature interaction).

    What I’m interested in is participating in this blurring, not in codifying new theoretical definitions of nature, tech and culture, but in showing the messy, vital relations between the three ‘domains.’ Your example of the song vs. mp3 is perfect on this score – how could we hear the song without the mp3? What makes this mp3 special, and differently useful than its millions of fellow mp3s – the fact that it is a recording of THIS song.

    On another note, we should be careful not to use “technology” in two senses throughout our writing/thinking, because it will get confusing.

    On the one hand, TECH = the whole arsenal of human tools for interacting with (learning about, manipulating, exploiting, impacting) nature. A la Benjamin, these relations could be more egalitarian and sustainable, or they could be more ‘imperialist.’ In this sense, TECH is a broad category that could encompass cultural, technological and natural elements. Here, TECH seems to be the broadest category, which absorbs culture and nature.

    On the other hand, we still often use TECH in a more narrow, common, popular sense – as tools and machines, most of them combining mechanical and electronic parts, which help humans do things like cook, clean, produce goods, transport things, etc. In this sense, TECH is a much narrower category, a narrow category which could be subsumed under the broader category of culture (in the broadest sense of the totality of things produced by humans). This sense of TECH fuels the idea of collapsing TECH and CULTURE into one concept, which we have already flagged as a significant conceptual move.

  2. P Says:

    On the topic of being comfortable with blurring the lines between culture, technology, and nature, one thing that I think is important to ask whether the corporate entities that promote the privatization of these resources are comfortable with the breakdown of these distinctions.

    In other words, do the gray areas of culture, nature, and technology hinder the commodification of particular resources? Does it make a thing less commercially viable if you can’t quite say whether you’re selling culture or technology?

    Certainly the development of branding seems to suggest that this is very much NOT the case. To the contrary, the power of branding is very much tied to a similar slippage between “products” (essentially technologies) and “lifestyles” (which seem in some way to be associated with culture).

    What’s more, the branding of digital technological devices such as the iPhone very much want to support a Benjaminian approach to technology in that these corporations want to establish their products as framing devices for consciousness – ways to mediate your relationship with the world at large. They claim, to use some corporate lingo, that they provide a “value add” to this relationship by letting you access and sort more numerous and various sensoria and that this value add is, broadly, their product.

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      Really interesting critique. Let me riff on branding and blurring:

      Blurring lines between conceptual categories (such as our culture, tech, nature) can be used in many, sometimes radically different ways. In more academic and literary circles, of course, such blurring is called “deconstruction.”

      When corporations use conceptual blurring to create inflated, mystifying claims about their products, they increase commodity fetishism, they confuse consumers, they spread hype or disinformation. This is the dangerous side of blurring: the confusing, even sophistic manipulation of linguistic categories to influence opinion.

      The second way to understand blurring or deconstruction is as a device for breaking up idea-scapes, vocabularies, and category schemes that have become twisted, outdated, ideological, hegemonic, etc. This is the enlightening side of blurring, where blurring helps us clear our cultural cobwebs and reach greater understanding.

      I would submit that corporations are very pleased with the first sense of ‘blurring,’ but very threatened by the second sense of ‘blurring.’ Let’s make sure we try to stick with the second type for our purposes.

      • P Says:

        To push back on your distinction between these two types of deconstruction, maybe we could frame the argument this way:

        The two types of deconstruction are actually identical, but that corporate narratives are only looking to apply the deconstruction within a limited scope. That is, they are willing to denaturalize specific relationships between people and particular tasks in order to insert their own product as a mediator. However, they do not want to deconstruct the underlying (techno-determinist? techno-positivist?) narrative that an ever-expanding array consumer electronics is leading us toward an endpoint of total convenience.

        My favorite example here is David Cross’ joke about the Salad Shooter. The commercial attempts to disrupt the intuitive relationship between a person and the task of making a salad, make it seem like a hardship that the consumer has needlessly taken for granted all these years, and insert the Salad Shooter as a way to reorganize the consumer’s relationship with this task.

        But this is the endpoint of the corporate deconstruction. There can be no further work to destabilize consumer capitalism or digital technology as a relationship between people and nature. Instead, marketing makes a sort of u-turn, to construct a substitutive commercial relationship in the place of the one it has just torn down.

        You could think of this as a parallel for the academic argument that simply substitutes a different set of assumptions for the ones it has deconstructed – in both instances the argument is probably attempting to fulfill a particular agenda (commercial or ideological) and is using deconstruction as a way to clear some space to implement that agenda.

        And the question for us is: are we not attempting to deconstruct the boundaries between tech, cultural, and natural resources in order to apply our own agenda in regards to privatization?


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