In a recent fit of self-disclosure, I confessed to my deeply rooted Arcadian disposition. I went on to add, “The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.” This phrase prompted a reader to suggest that the critic of technology is preferably neither an Arcadian nor a Utopian. This better sort of critic, he wrote, “doesn’t ‘mourn what is lost’ but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.” The reader also referenced an essay by the philosopher of technology Don Ihde in which Ihde reflected on the role of the critic of technology by analogy to the literary critic or the art critic. The comment immediately triggered a series of questions in my mind: What exactly makes for a good critic of technology? What stance, if any, is appropriate to the critic of technology toward technology? Can the good critic mourn?
First, let me reiterate what I’ve written elsewhere: Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology. I stand by that. It is true that I am temperamentally Arcadian and so inclined toward certain forms of pessimism. But I don’t regard that temperamental inclination to be normative and I try to keep it in check.
Secondly, it is worth asking, what exactly a critic of technology criticizes? The objects of criticism are rather straightforward when we think of the food critic, the art critic, the music critic, the film critic, and so on. But what about the critic of technology? The trouble here, of course, stems from the challenge of defining technology. More often than not the word suggests the gadgets with which we surround ourselves. A little more reflection brings to mind a variety of different sorts of technologies: communication, military, transportation, energy, medical, agricultural, etc. The wheel, the factory, the power grid, the pen, the iPhone, the hammer, the space station, the water wheel, the plow, the sword, the ICBM, the film projector – it is a procrustean concept indeed that can accommodate all of this. What does it mean to be a critic of a field that includes such a diverse set of artifacts and systems?
I’m not entirely sure, but this is not exactly what I care to sort out right now. Let’s say, for present purposes, that critics of technology find their niche within certain subsets of the set that includes all of the above. The more interesting question, to me, is this: What does the critic love?
If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. We might grant that a certain variety of critic probably loves nothing so much as the sound of their own writing. But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?
It is true that the music critic might detest certain expressions of music, while yet loving others, and so with the other standard set of critics. Then we might conclude that the technology critic may very well hate a number of specific instances of technology while yet loving others. But I think you might agree that there is still something odd about that analogy. It does not quite work. In part it fails because of the difficulty involved in circumscribing the phenomenon in such a way that we might arrive at an ideal form.
What then does the critic of technology love that is analogous to the love of the music critic for music, the food critic for food, etc.?
Perhaps there is something about the instrumental character of technology that makes completing the analogy difficult. Music, art, literature, food, film – each of these requires technology of some sort. There are exceptions: dance and voice, for example. But for the most part, technology is involved in the creation of the works that are the objects of criticism. The pen, the flute, the camera – these tools are essential, but they are also subordinate to the finished works that they yield. The musician loves the instrument for the sake of the music that it allows them play. It would be odd indeed if a musician were to tell us that he loves his instrument, but is rather indifferent to the music itself. And this is our clue. The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology is never for its own sake.
So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community and friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. Returning to where we began, I would suggest that the critic may indeed mourn just as they may celebrate. They may do either to the degree that their critical work reveals technology’s complicity in either the destruction or promotion of that which they love.