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I had a bit of a time writing this show, partly because the sun was shining and I was stuck inside writing with a post-Onefest hangover, and I live downtown so I could hear all the Rugby World Cup to-do, bands playing and people cheering, but also because discussions about significant new pieces of technology are always, have always been, very fraught. Writing this felt like a minefield more than any other topic I’ve covered yet – mostly because I tend to deal in grievous examples, so I’m always reasonably certain of which side of the fence I’m on and why. But technology in the broadest sense of the word has been such a mixed blessing that you have to be sort of circumspect and broad of vision in order to honestly examine the utility and social impact of whatever new tool is under discussion. A lot of the tension around the acceptance of new inventions and new technologies has to do with the interrelatedness of the history of technology and the history of work; the function of technology being the efficient performance of tasks formerly done less efficiently by humans, mistrust of technology was based on a fear of usurpation. Labourers having only their physical labour to sell, the invention of a machine that does their job faster and cheaper in most cases costs them their livelihood. And work – who does what for whom, for how much and how often – has a great deal to do with power and money. So you can’t talk about the history or philosophy of technology without at least implicitly pointing to the history or philosophy of both power and economics.
I’ve been finding lately, in popular discourse, at least, as opposed to say academic or industrial, conversations around new inventions are very often either technophilic or technophobic – that is, they posit whatever piece of new technology they examine as being either our salvation or our damnation. I think it’s obvious how we arrived at this kind of dialectic, both as a general moving-to-the-edges of popular discussion about anything, and the fact that we are in the throes of the third industrial revolution in 150 years, and facing, as a result, problems of a magnitude never before faced by humanity, namely climate change. So just like many other discussions, with such high stakes and so little time, the tone tends a little towards the hysterical and extreme. On one end you have what James Kunstler calls techno-narcissism, I like techno-triumphalism or techno-utopianism, but either way it describes a near-religious faith in the infinitude of technological possibility. If we can imagine it, we can create it, and we will be able to build a technological solution to any conceivable problem facing humanity. The extreme end of this already pretty extreme view is the notion of the singularity, which is the inevitable melding of the human brain with a computer until we all live in a beautiful shiny computopia, but the faith in technology’s ability to save us is fairly widespread. It includes ideas like the ones held by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who believes that we will be able to genetically modify plants to be resistant to climate change. Ha, that’s one of those grievous examples I like so much; I find that notion to be just criminally stupid. But that idea, like the others, rests on the idea that new technology will be able to correct our problems, and if we don’t have it yet, we will come up with something. So it is, at bottom, faith in the exceptionalism of human ingenuity, the belief that we have infinite capacity for creative invention and innovation. And if we also had infinite time and resources, that faith might be justifiable, but alas, we do not. The other fairly problematic assumption at the heart of the techno-triumphalist narrative is the conflation of “newer” with “better”, implicit in which are the conflations of “faster” “smaller” or “more efficient” with “better”. That is not to say that making things faster or smaller has not had positive effects, just that they are not inherently positive traits. Same goes for “newness”; lots of new things have been great, but their newness is not what makes them so. Technophilia points to a belief that our quality of life can, will, and should continue to go up and up with each new invention, and that new is inherently an improvement on old.
On the other side of the coin is technophobia, the belief that technology has fundamentally altered our human environment, to our detriment, and that a retreat from technology is necessary to rescue our humanity. It’s an essentialist view that the technological is inherently opposed to the human, a postmodern critique that
“claims that information and communication technologies are taking us into the sphere of [Beaudrillardian] hyperreality . . . and that we are losing touch with our bodies, with nature, with other people and with focal things and practices … these liberal and humanist critiques of technology follow Heidegger [and later Marx] in perceiving modern technology primarily as instruments of domination and as threatening individual freedom, autonomy, and creativity. From this optic, the new technologies are imprisoning us in a technological cage … and reducing human life to mere instrumentality, while alienating us from nature, other people, possibilities of self-development, and being itself.”(Dr. Douglas Kellner)
So this idea of alienation requires the implicit acceptance of two false dichotomies. The first is the idea that there existed a former unity, a wholeness, that has been fractured by technology. There’s an almost biblical undertone, here, particularly with regards to our separation from nature, which kind of hints at the lost wholeness of the garden of eden. The other is the idea that technology is taking people away from “real life”, that they are losing touch with reality because of their use of technology: implicit here is the separation between your activities online and off as belonging to two separate spheres of reality, and that the online one is inherently lesser than the offline one. It posits the relationships formed, or the knowledge gleaned, as less valuable, that there is only one kind of connection that is valid. If we want to get really abstract, I would suggest that modern humans have always been alienated from nature by dint of self-awareness and reflexivity, that rationality itself alienated humans from nature. We mediate nature through rationality, and so must “understand technology – just as for example language, institutions or ethics – as a way of mediating the natural order” (that's Kellner again). But maybe that’s going a bit far.
Remember in the 90s when the Prodigy broke and everyone started talking about the end of guitar music? Or also in the 90s, when we started using debit cards and we were on the brink of a paperless society? Or Francis Fukuyama talking about the end of history? None of those things, obviously, were true, and talking about modern digital technology is not going to mean the end of community or the end of face to face relationships, as the fear of alienation indicates. As Jason Benlevi, my interview today, points out in his book, when TV was invented, Hollywood was afraid that people would stop going to movie theatres. At the time their response was to make their movie theatres an inimitable experience, but no matter what advances have been made with television, people still go to the movies. When recorded music was popularized, there was widespread concern that people would no longer go to concerts, and much of the concern around the internet is that young people no longer gather in groups, but are isolated in front of their computers or tablet screens. While there’s not no validity to this, we are, as i’ve said a million times before, social primates, and we need that human connection. People still go to parties, go out to dinner together, gather together in groups to interact. As Edward Glaeser notes, a few decades of the internet are not going to outgun millions of years of evolution. Economist Ha-Joon Chang points out that we have a tendency to view the most recent technological invention as being the most impactful, so it might surprise you to learn that it’s widely accepted that the washing machine had more of an effect on the way we live our day-to-day lives than the internet has. The washing machine, and the other small household appliances that it represents, freed women from a great deal of the time-consuming labour of housekeeping and facilitated their entry into the workforce. That’s a pretty major shift, which we tend now not to recognize. This is not to say that the internet will not, in time, come to be seen as having had an equally significant effect, but just that it will not wrest from us the things that make us human, namely, our interdependence and reliance on community. In Triumph of the City, Glaeser notes that the rise of the internet has been accompanied by a renewed interest in urbanization, and that the last few decades have seen a renaissance in downtown city living. This is, of course, due to a number of factors: a backlash against post WWII suburbanization and isolation; decreased public transportation and rising cost of private transportation, elimination of heavy industry from the city centres, making them nicer places to live; the increasing ability to live and work distantly via the internet, etc etc. But all those factors add up to a picture of people becoming more connected, not less, both physically and on the internet.
The instrumentalist view of technology posits the notion that technology is a neutral tool, it is not inherently good or bad – well, I suppose weaponry would be the exception to that. This is the view I tend towards, mostly because it’s the view put forth by Noam Chomsky and it’s pretty hard to disagree with that guy, but it can be tricky as well: talking about technology in purely instrumentalist terms also kind of rests on a narrative of individualism, and can overlook that technology is also a major constitutive force of contemporary social reality. Noam Chomsky compares the internet to a hammer – you can use the hammer to build a house, good, or to hit someone on the head, bad. There is nothing inherent in the hammer which favours one activity over the other. This is a fairly anthropological view, and he’s in good company, but it does tend to overlook the social impacts of technology. You can’t separate the technology from the society and culture in which it is created and utilized, and you can’t ignore the fact that the society and culture is being created, likewise, by the technology. Any productive critical theory of technology must also take into account the socio-economic conditions at the time of invention, how cultural biases or systemic discrimination might enter into the design or utility of a particular piece of technology itself. Social context in which a piece of technology is produced is going to impact the way it’s used once it’s been disseminated – for example, computers created by, and in the beginning were used almost exclusively by, relatively young, white, middle class males, and so inevitably that particular cultural standpoint is going to be included in the technology itself.
In the end, I think, what’s required is a sort of case-by-case analysis of the potential utility of a piece of technology – I’m talking from a theoretical standpoint of social criticism, not a regulatory or legislavtive one. It can be very difficult to figure out if a piece of technology is good or bad, or even what that means, as the traits that point to one or the other are often related, and this is where the instrumentalist view comes from: the internet is full of vitriol and hatred and violent porn, and love and resistance and kittens. The process of creation is deeply embedded in humanity, we are tool-makers, which makes any conversation about technology extremely complicated and difficult. We are altered by our technology, created by it in the same way that it is created by us – it has so deeply informed the way we have formed our societies and social institutions. The fact that it is created by humans for our use does not mean that the act of creating it, the process of invention, as well as its tangible effects, are not intrinsic to our humanity.
Next week - Raj Patel!