Try the experiment for yourself. For a few days, ask a lot of people whether technology and our lack of knowledge about how to direct it for human purposes has become a problem as well as a cornucopia. See if most people don't start arguing the case for technology (antibiotics will be mentioned), before trying to imagine, for the sake of the thought experiment, that "progress" might not be what we thought it was. I began to realize that we've been so well-trained to think about the world in a certain way that we don't usually notice we've been trained, or even that there are other important ways to think about the world.
Every time I talked to Richard Nilsen, Whole Earth's late "land use" editor, he gently put my face in the ecological sustainability crisis posed by the unconstrained evolution of technology. Whenever people say "you can't stop progress," J. Baldwin, Whole Earth's "tools guy," and a former student of Whole Earth guru R. Buckminster Fuller "ahems" until he has the attention of the assembly, and then asks loudly,"progress towards WHAT?"
One of my first issues as editor of Whole Earth Review was devoted to "Questioning Technology," an activity I discovered most people don't want to engage in, even as a thought experiment. I was able to justify my own suspension of disbelief and entertain the idea that the technologies I enjoyed and profited from might be toxic and hypnotic, because questioning your assumptions was a Whole Earth thing to do, and my assumptions had been that continuing evolution of the powers granted by technologies was a viable route to utopia.
The Whole Earth Review gang's funky old office in Sausalito was where I started thinking about where the technologies I appreciated so much might all be going, and where I began to discover that one price of my own technology intoxication was a kind of somnambulism regarding its dark side.
I was outraged, during my tenure as editor, when William Irwin Thompson, in The American Replacement of Nature, accused me and Stewart Brand by name of being agents of the Zoroastrian demon of mindless mechanism. Hmm. Now I think maybe he was right.
Stewart Brand, the founder of the magazine, and the Whole Earth Catalog the counterculture best-seller that the magazine descended from, was a biologist who shared my fascination with mind amplifiers. Indeed, when Doug Engelbart produced his famous 1968 demonstration of the future of computer technology, his audio-visual coordinator was Stewart Brand. And Brand's early writings about Xerox PARC helped steer me there, although I didn't meet him for years to come. Brand's mentors, Ken Kesey and Gregory Bateson, were iconoclasts, pranksters, and whole-systems thinkers. Putting deep ecologists together with software engineers and questioning the fundamental premises of both camps was just the kind of thing Stewart Brand or Whole Earth would do. Over the years, the Whole Earth organization created cultural experiments such as the New Games Tournament, Cyberthon (a kind of geekstock for the protodigerati of 1992), the Hacker's Conference, the WELL computer conferencing system.
Although "Access to Tools" was the magazine's slogan, the Whole Earth Review editorial staff certainly included several strong and knowledgeable advocates for radically different ways of thinking about technology. In fact, founder Stewart Brand became an adviser in the early 1980s to California's governor Jerry Brown, who had created an "Office of Appropriate Technology."
At the time I was writing about virtual reality, I received an invitation from Kevin Kelly, who is now the executive editor of Wired magazine, but was at that time the editor of Whole Earth Review. I took over the job of editor of Whole Earth Review when Kelly took off to write his book, Out of Control. Finding myself at the vortex of the Whole Earth community certainly accelerated my critical thinking about technology. And I was immersed in an atmosphere that deliberately widened its focus from just the details of digital technology to include the biosphere, and technologies of agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, urban planning.
When I wasn't hanging out online or writing about hanging out online, I maintained a professional interest in the evolution of computer technology. In 1990, I travelled from MIT and NASA to laboratories in Tokyo, London, and Grenoble, in order to research a book about a new computer technology that was threatening to create totally artificial worlds for people to pretend to inhabit: virtual reality. First, the computer came out of nowhere to dominate our lives. It looked like the next step might be for people to live inside the computer. In the process of writing my book, Virtual Reality, and in my reading of the book's reviews, I began to wonder whether the ultimate direction of personal computer development would be really be the empowering mind amplification I had hoped for, or whether it might instead devolve into hypnotic disinfotainment. When someone can make a business out of selling everyone in the world a tool for telling them what else to buy next, do other potential applications for any new medium have a chance to compete?
We should not close the books on the debate about the mental or social health of virtual communities. And neither should we stop at a shallow level of analysis. It's time to look at today's questions about digital life as instances of the same questions Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford asked about technological civilization half a century ago, and which Marx, Weber, and Veblen dealt with even earlier.
It took years for me to understand the outlines of the problem, and that the problems of technology in which I began to suspect I shared complicity were inseparable from the powers granted me by my mastery of personal computers and online media. I still use and appreciate the same tools, but I was definitely more intoxicated fifteen years ago with the sheer pace of change. A new world was emerging and it was fun, empowering, enriching, and, most of all, cool.