Technology and the Common Good in a Democratic Society

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Date: September 25, 2020
Time: 1:30 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Location: Zoom
Category: Lecture

An Emeritus Academy colloquium presentation by Allen W. Batteau, Anthropology

Abstract: Technology and the Common Good in a Democratic Society builds on economists’ distinctions among different types of goods (private goods, public goods, club goods, toll goods, and common pool resources) to argue that the “common good” — a shared sense of value and values — is built on more than simply the accumulation of private goods, and is today challenged by new information technologies. Going back to the Enclosure Movement of the 16th century, in which common pool resources were converted into private estates, and tracing through the Age of Discovery in which Africa and the New World were colonized, and up through the Industrial Revolution, it examines how technologies, beginning with the magnetic compass and proceeding through the steam engine and today the Internet, have altered the coordinates of social life.  Although colonial empires have largely disappeared, in their place some of the largest technology firms colonize the conscience of their subjects, only today called “users.” This presents a challenge for the construction of a sense of the common good, particularly within societies that have deep tribal divisions among regions, classes, and races. It presents a critical examination of technology, arguing that technologies are more than sophisticated tools, but instead uniquely involve translation and compression of energy and information, scalability, and autonomous representation. These capabilities and characteristics of technology have the consequence that adjusting the relationship between society and technology are uniquely difficult in the age of the internet.

Allen W. Batteau came to Wayne State University after working in the software industry for Wizdom Systems, Inc. Prior to that he was an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, and then the Assistant Director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the academic consortium of the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago). He served as the American Anthropological Association’s Congressional Fellow from 1983-1984, and went on to found the Institute for Illinois, a Congressional Research Institute. He is the author or co-author of three books (The Invention of Appalachia, Dragon in the Cockpit, and Technology and Culture). At Wayne State he organized a first-of-its-kind workshop on the social implications of the Internet in 1995, and in 2005 to 2011 he led the Institute for Information Technology and Culture and the Anthropology Department’s concentration in Business Anthropology. In 2018 he launched the Global Business Anthropology Summit. 

This colloquium will take place via Zoom. Those wishing to attend should email Arthur Marotti ( and they will be sent a link to join the meeting.


Arthur Marotti