With rare exceptions, no one likes being called a Luddite. Steve Talbott, the thoughtful, somewhat skeptical philosopher who writes the Netfuture e-mail newsletter, for example, takes offense at being labeled “pessimistic.” I thought it was a fair beef, but he devoted considerable space in his last missive to a defense of his position and denied that he was negative
It’s easy to be a critic: Technology may not be a poisoned chalice, but it sure is a Mickey Finn. Focusing on the flaws is a simple way to stake out a position, and one that can be especially gratifying when the other half of humanity is touting the wonders of our digital future.
The real problem is that the middle ground isn’t sexy. Pragmatism is so boring. “On the one hand … on the other hand…” Balance, objectivity — fine stuff, but real snoozers.
Take the “technorealists.” Please.
They debuted last year with a manifesto that declared “technology is making life more convenient and enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier and wiser. But it is also affecting work, family and the economy in unpredictable ways, introducing new forms of tension and distraction and posing new threats to the cohesion of our physical communities. … We see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. We anticipate mixed blessings from today’s emerging technologies …”
Their guiding principles are: Technologies are not neutral; the Internet is revolutionary, but not utopian; government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier; information is not knowledge; wiring the schools will not save them; information wants to be protected; the public owns the airwaves, the public should benefit from their use; understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship.
Still awake? If so, and still interested, check out their Web site for the manifesto, FAQs, a list of readings and an opportunity to join the movement. (The promised journal hasn’t materialized yet.)
The original statement was conceived and endorsed by 12 technology writers. The three principal movers and shakers were Andrew Shapiro, then a tech writer and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, David Schenk, author of the fine book “Data Smog,” and Steven Johnson of Feed.
They offered the manifesto as an antidote to the “utopian/dystopian extremes, [the] cyber-libertarian fantasies and [to encourage] a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the role technologies play in society.” And then they conceded that much of that “nuanced understanding” was “common sense.”
Stirring stuff, eh? The technorealists got slaughtered in the press. Jon Katz did an especially savage job, labeling the movement “way-new technopomposity.” He couldn’t figure out why the group felt obliged to hype what would have been “a perfectly decent Op-Ed piece” and transform it into a manifesto and a movement. In short, Katz thought the technorealists had a point, but couldn’t see why they made a fuss.
Technorealism faded pretty quickly, but its adherents aren’t discouraged. Shapiro, now the director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project, has just written “The Control Revolution” (by PublicAffairs Press) and his common-sense ideas are back in the press. Its balance and sensibility have been applauded. Excerpts appear in the new issue of Foreign Policy and at his the book’s Web site
The excerpts apply the technorealist approach to some of those big claims made on behalf of the Net: It is inherently democratizing; freedom of speech will flourish; information wants to be free; and the Net will enhance cross-cultural understanding and empathy.
Shapiro argues that none of those things is necessarily true. Take that last beauty as a test case. If we use the Internet to explore new worlds and have new experiences, then yes, cross-cultural understanding is likely to increase. But if we use filters to create tiny virtual communities, if we use technology to distance ourselves from the real world, then it only increases our isolation and makes understanding even more difficult.
Or consider the claim that the Net is inherently democratizing. Shapiro says that is flat-out wrong. Technology can be built, altered and controlled in ways that are not obvious to techno-illiterates. Remember the Echelon program? The government can know and do a lot more than you ever dreamed or feared.
Sure, anyone can put up a home page, but in the coming data deluge, getting attention is going to be the nut. In that battle, money and power will still matter, since they will help determine who has the best tools and the best chance of attracting eyeballs.
Eli Noam, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University, is also skeptical about the Net’s effect on democracy. In a recent speech, he argued that the Net will be bad for the democratic process. He pretty much echoes Shapiro’s line: Money matters, both to get the important data and to get attention. Arguments are going to become more shrill and simplistic to cut through the data fog. Joining cybercommunities might cut people off from their real communities. Technology can be controlled, etc, etc.
He and Shapiro make good cases. Their analysis is rock-solid. You can question their conclusions, but that is what they want you to do. Their argument is that we cannot assume the best. No particular outcome is determined. Everything depends on how the technology is used.
It’s so … obvious that is it hard to give it the credit it deserves. Common sense wins few medals and sparks few rebellions. But the point has to be driven home and maybe fear might work where persuasion doesn’t: If you don’t think about these things, your fate will be determined by the folks who do. Who do you trust?