Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Resistance to the techofrontier?

This is somewhat of a response to Peter’s post on Monday. He asked about Tsing’s offhand designation, the “technofrontier, the endless frontier made possible by industrial technology” (31), its relation to the masculine, dominating mentality Tsing attributes to the Kalimantan frontier, and resistance to/embrace of new consumer technology. Rather than addressing the local manifestations of the technofrontier, however, I want to look at its global implications. The technofrontier is a logical extension of the idea that globalization is both universal and, once initiated, inevitable, a widespread cultural assumption that I think Tsing successfully undermines. In chapter one, she argues that the frontier—the local horizon of capitalist expansion—is always a construction mapped on to preexisting spaces by the needs of ever-expanding capital. The frontier is an ideology, not a natural fact of life.

The technofrontier is simply the information-age incarnation of the Old West frontier paradigm. It is endless, hence the perfect frontier, because the internet—and the financial transactions it engenders—knows no physical bounds.

Tsing explicitly reacts to the frontier ideology on the side of preservation—that is, preserving societies, cultures, and natural environments from the uprooting grasp of capitalist frontierism. Her criticism extends similarly, though mostly implicitly, to the technofrontier; “In the guise of development,” she says, “the technofrontier dream hit Indonesian centers hard in the late 1960s” (32). I’m not sure what she means here: how did the technofrontier “hit hard,” and what was its relation to the resource exploitation that most of the book addresses? My bigger question, though, is what alternatives to the technofrontier are available to us? Tsing’s argument for preserving local environments and cultures is clear, and I agree with it. Physical frontiers can and should be limited. But when it comes to the ever-advancing horizon of technology, especially digital technology, it’s hard to see limits: resistance to new technologies gets harder and harder (e.g., Braxton finally getting a cell phone). Granted, I am thinking about our own Western culture, which is has already been colonized and reshaped by technology. Remote localities may yet be safe. (But is the dichotomy between technological and traditional societies really that unequivocal?) Even though there are no more physical frontiers within the US, however, the technofrontier remains alive and well here, and with it the idea of inevitability that I personally find so hard to resist. Is an alternative to the technofrontier possible?

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