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Edge Tech - Technos
technos: Robert Rossney

What is Technology Criticism?

As the twentieth century shambles to its end, we seem to be spending its last days in an excited debate about technology.

It's happening everywhere you look: Op-ed columnists gripe about email, comedians crack jokes about programming their VCRs, management theorists soberly ask if computerization is really making workers more productive, politicians rhapsodize about electronic democracy, businessmen celebrate the virtues of shopping from home.

It's more than a conversation. It's a cacophony. Nonetheless, while it may be hard to make out individual voices, it's easy to tell that the discussion is polarized.

On the one hand, you have Wired telling you that everything associated with computers is Hot! and New! and Fun! You have cable-TV technology programs marveling over driverless vehicles, intimate computing, and virtual reality. You have hucksters from Jerry Yang to Barry Diller talking about making fortunes in the interactive world.

And on the other, you have Harper's telling you that computers are killing the book and multimedia is turning writers into hacks. Or Dianne Feinstein claiming that terrorists will learn to build bombs by reading about them on the Internet. Or Jeremy Rifkin and Kirkpatrick Sale claiming that computers and communications are turning everyone but knowledge workers into paupers.

It's a huge, noisy, out-of-control discussion. Which isn't bad in itself, but it's also totally ill conceived.

In America, the debate seems to have the same form as the country's central political controversy, the struggle between liberals and conservatives. As sociologist Robert Bellah points out, conservatives believe that it's the free market that gives Americans what they need so that their individualism will allow them to flourish. While liberals, he says, believe that Americans can't reach their full potential without some support from the government.

The result is a debate that is similarly contentious and divisive. It's full of strong opinions and bold claims. And it produces a seemingly endless amount of discussion. But it is also a debate that leaves no place for the idea that the nation has some other purpose than the fulfillment of individuals.

Much of what we see in the present discussion of technology is the same kind of argument. We are choosing to look at only a tiny sliver of the world of technology. And we subject what we do bother to examine to the most banal kinds of analysis.

"Gene, I think the Internet is going to disconnect us from one another, supplant the printed word, and encourage us to form attachments to illusions. I give it a thumbs down." "I can't agree, Roger. It decentralizes control, empowers the disenfranchised, and is creating whole new ways for people to relate to each other. I give it a big thumbs up."

This isn't criticism. It's reviewing. And most of what gets subjected to this tastes-great/less-filling treatment isn't really technology as such. It's the new products on the shelves, or the environmental crisis of the week, or the new gadget that the commentator can't figure out how to use.

Technology is vital to the human experience. It keeps us alive. It helps us hold our society together. We use it to make ourselves and to transform ourselves, to build and to destroy. Our technology and our culture are utterly intertwined. With so much energy going into bickering about tiny pieces of the technological mosaic, it's dismaying that so little attention is paid to the vast scene that they comprise.

If we wait for newspapers, magazines, and TV shows to move beyond reviews of products and start turning a critical eye towards technology, we'll still be waiting the day we start dating our checks with double zeroes. If anyone's going to be the critics, it's going to be us.

So how do we do this? How do we become critics of technology? Well, let's start by understanding that criticism is not condemnation. We're not trying to find the flaw: we're trying to comprehend the whole. A book critic who didn't like books wouldn't be of much use; we need to find out as much as we can about technology and learn to love what is good and detest what is bad about all of it.

A good critic goes through what the geographer Peirce Lewis described as "cycles of observing, thinking, and writing." We have to keep our eyes open, think about what we've seen, and write about what we've thought. Then we go out and look some more, using what we've learned from the process in evaluating what we're seeing.

Technos is a place to do the writing part of that exercise. And it's a place to see where others are looking, and what they're thinking about what they've seen.

I'm full of ideas for what we might discuss here. But I'm not by any means an expert, and I strongly believe that the scene is far too broad for any one observer to take in anyway. It's a big beat to cover. So while I'll be happy if you just want to read what we're saying here, I'll be happier if you came to this party because you're thinking about what you've seen and read and you want to add your thoughts to the stew.

Here are a few things that I know we'll be discussing here in the weeks to come:

  • How agriculture has disappeared from everyday life, where it still survives, and what the implications might be

  • How cultures adopt and diffuse innovations across time and space

  • How a century or so of effective and safe birth control has shattered cultures worldwide

  • The persistent movement toward abstraction in industrial society, and what it means that most of us don't know where our water, power, or food come from

  • How the technologies of satellite communication, the fax machine, and container shipping have combined to restructure the world's economy

  • How the mass media, particularly television, have spurred the creation of a new kind of culture

  • The effect of electronic communications on the movement of money

  • How deeply the culture of petroleum is intertwined with our lives.

  • The technology of famines, and why people create them

  • How the national debates over technology in America, Germany, England, France, Japan, China, and Russia relate to those countries' history, culture, and hopes for the future.

I also want to examine obsolete technologies and niche technologies, technologies that infiltrate everyday life and that never make it out of the lab. Eventually I am sure I will be sharing my curious preoccupation with beekeeping.

But this place isn't my show. It's ours. There's a tremendous amount for us to talk about. There are a lot of questions we need to be learning to ask. Come tell us what you've found, and help us learn what to look for.


rlauriston said:

I narrowly avoided a car crash once--saw a truck losing control, floored the engine, looked in the rearview, and saw the truck jack-knifed across all four lanes of Interstate 80, and cars smashed up every which way. I think maybe that was when I refused to ride in cars for a couple of years. In any case it was much more disturbing than any of the three relatively minor crashes I was actually in myself. But it didn't make me horny--maybe that's because Rosanna Arquette wasn't along for the ride.

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