What’s Really At Stake When We Debate Technology

What does the critic love? More specifically, what does the critic of technology love? This question presented itself to me while I was thinking about some comments left on a recent post. The comment questioned whether mourning or celebrating technology was proper to the role of the critic. Naturally, I wrote about it. It was, as is often the case, an exercise in clarifying my thoughts through writing.

I’ve thought some more about the work of technology criticism today, and again it was thanks to some online interactions. Let me put these before you and then offer a few more thoughts on the matter.

Evan Selinger tweeted the following:

And then:

Selinger, whose doctoral work was advised by Don Idhe, echoes Ihde who wrote:

“… I would say the science critic would have to be a well-informed, indeed much better than simply well-informed amateur, in its sense as a ‘lover’ of the subject matter, and yet not the total insider …  Just as we are probably worst at our own self-criticism, that move just away from self-identity is needed to position the critical stance. Something broader, something more interdisciplinary, something more ‘distant’ is needed for criticism.”

Later on, Nathan Jurgenson made the following comment during an exchange about his recent essay:

“while it is technically true there has been a “loss” of sorts, i think it might be better to say at this juncture there has been a “change”; a change in how our reality has been augmented over time via various information technologies.”

I replied:

“Change” is certainly a more value-neutral way of putting it than “loss,” and depending on rhetorical context it certainly has its strengths. Sorting better and worse, of course, entails a normative framework of some sort, etc.

All of this began coalescing in my mind and what follows are some of the conclusions that emerged. Of course, I’m not claiming that these conclusions are necessarily entailed by the comments of others above. As the “Acknowledgements” in books always put it: I’m indebted to these, but any errors of fact or judgment are mine.

There is a reason why, as Selinger and Ihde put it, each in their own way, the critic must be something of an outsider. Criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the lives of institutions and communities, will be doing work that necessarily carries ethical implications.

In this they are not altogether unlike the music critic or the literary critic who is excepted to make judgments about the merits of a work art given the established standards of their field. These standards take shape within an established and institutionalized tradition of criticism. Likewise, the critic of technology — if they move beyond questions such as “Does this technology work?” or “How does this technology work?” to questions such as “What are the social consequences of this technology?” — is implicated in judgments of value and worth. Judgments, it might be argued, of greater consequence than those of the art or literary critic.

But according to what standards and from within which tradition? Not the standards of “technology,” if such could even be delineated, because these would merely be matters of efficiency and functionality (although even these are not exactly “value neutral”). It was, for example, a refusal to evaluate technology on its own terms that characterized the vigorous critical work of the late Jacques Ellul. As Ellul saw it, technology had achieved its nearly autonomous position in society because it was shielded from substantive criticism — criticism, that is, which refused to evaluate technology by its own standards. The critic of technology, then, proceeds with an evaluative framework that is independent of the logic of “technoscience,” as Ihde called it, and so they becomes an outsider to the field.

The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology from the perspective of their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. It is true that prior to reaching conclusions about the moral and ethical consequences of technology, careful and patient work needs to be done to understand technology. But I suspect this work of understanding, particularly because it can be arduous, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.

Such commitments are often veiled for the sake of appearing appropriately objective and neutral within certain rhetorical contexts that demand as much, the academy for example.  But I suspect that there are times when debates about the merits of technology would be advanced if the participants would acknowledge the tacit ethical frameworks that underlie the positions being staked out. And this is because, In such cases, the technology in question is only a proxy for something else — the object of the critic’s love.

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