Hospitable Technology

“Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” — Neil Postman

Apt metaphors can be illuminating and instructive. Media ecology is one such metaphor. By seeking to understand the impact of communication technology by analogy to natural environments, media ecology suggests a number of important insights into the nature of technology. It suggests, for example, that a new technology is not merely additive.

When a new species is introduced into a natural ecosystem, the result is not the old ecosystem plus a new component; it is a new ecosystem. The impact of a new species will have systemic ramifications which will transform the ecosystem (and sometimes destroy the ecosystem). Likewise, when a new technology is introduced into a particular social context, its consequences are not merely a matter of adding certain affordances to that social context; it restructures the whole. Its impact radiates outward, reordering the relationships of the pre-existing components. New technology Z does not only impact component A and B, it alters the relationship of A to B.

As an example, consider how the introduction of the automobile did not simply add a mode of transport to early twentieth century American society. The automobile changed, among other things, the physical shape of our cities. It made the emergence of suburbs possible (and thus facilitated the consequent reorderings of social life). It reinforced a certain restlessness and placelessness that had already been characteristic of the American experience. Certain modes of social life faded and others emerged because of the introduction of the automobile.

This last observation leads to another useful dimension of the ecology metaphor: it implies the notion of hospitality. We know that particular environments are more or less hospitable to particular species. Species uniquely adapt to particular environments and are thus naturally at home in them. Transplant these species to another ecosystem and they may or may not survive. The ecosystem will be more or less hospitable to them.

By extension this suggests that the technological components of social ecosystems render these ecosystems more or less hospitable to particular social realities. This strikes me as a useful extension of the metaphor because it resists the blunt judgements “this technology is good” or “this technology is bad.” Ecosystems are not in themselves good or bad with regards to life. Rather, they are more or less hospitable to specific forms life. So it does no good to ask, Is this  a good ecosystem? One must ask, Is this a good ecosystem for such and such a species? The answer is contextual and teleological (i.e., ends oriented).

We will arrive at more balanced and nuanced evaluations of technology if we keep this in mind. The question is not whether a technology is good or bad; the question is whether a technology is likely to render a social environment hospitable or inhospitable to specific practices, social arrangements, values, ways of life, etc.

To ask whether a certain technology yields a more or less hospitable social environment also avoids the voluntarist error of locating all ethical value with regard to technology in the particular uses to which a technology is put. The uses to which a technology is put need not be in themselves morally objectionable in order to yield systemic ramifications that prove inhospitable to certain practices, etc.

The first of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws reads: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” To speak of how a technology impacts a social environment by rendering it more or less hospitable to specific social realities reinforces this observation. I believe this also reflects McLuhan’s dictum about the message of a medium: the “‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” It is, in other words, systemic and environmental.

Of course, measuring systemic consequences and anticipating the socio-ecological implications of a new technology can be a tricky business. We are always plagued by unknown unknowns and the law of unintended consequences. At the very least, though, the these metaphors help us ask better questions.

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7 thoughts on “Hospitable Technology

  1. Michael,

    I was thinking all the way through your piece about the points in your last paragraph. We as a society have never been especially interested in contemplating the broader ramifications of a technology before it’s introduced. And, as you say, to do so with any degree of completeness is impossible (which is not to say it isn’t worth the attempt). It may well be in the nature of any given technology NOT to consider the broader ramifications. The purpose of a hammer’s existence is to drive a nail, period. I realize your argument vis hospitality implies that we overcome that ontological nature, but that exercise is also in opposition to our own intentions in creating or using the tool in the first place. The ecology of us + the tool is Darwinian. Kudzu comes to mind. Nonetheless, the vision you offer here is of a carefully tended garden, and surely that is a goal very much worth pursuing. Any chance of success, though, will depend on the reordering of certain fundamental priorities.

    Doug

    • Doug,

      Agreed, these are good points throughout. The metaphor struck me as descriptively useful. However, making it prescriptively useful is considerably more difficult. Of course, the whole project of trying to live well with technology, carefully tending a garden as you well put it, is itself fraught with these same difficulties. It is worth pursuing, it seems to me, but always imperfect and incomplete. Our agency is entangled with that of other individuals, social structures, and (dare I say it) the agency of the tools and systems. Although I will say that in my more hopeful moments I do think we are able to make some non-trivial judgments about how a particular technology will impact a social system (perhaps best at small scales – a family say, or a classroom). And one last thought, it is pretty straightforward that a hammer wants to be a hammer (if I may be forgiven the personified Aristotelianism), but what does a smartphone want to be? In other words, our more complex technologies have multi-valent ontologies, and this of course just makes it all the more challenging.

      Thanks as always for thoughtful responses — they’ve got me formulating another post in my mind.

      Mike

    • Yes, good connection. I just went back to a post were I’d excerpted from “Tools for Conviviality.” There’s this line: “Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile” — renders the milieu hostile/renders the environment inhospitable … It would seem that convivial for Illich describes a social environment that is hospitable to meaningful human interrelationships.

  2. Loved your point about adding a technology to an ecology creates a new thing. It got me thinking about the reverse – when you remove a technology or other thing from an ecology, I think a new thing is created too. Anyway, very generative. Thanks.

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