A Reply to Adam Thierer

By most measures, this blog enjoys a modest readership. However, if I may be allowed the boast, I’d venture to claim that its readers were among the most thoughtful, irenic, and articulate commenters you’d be likely to find in the Hobbesian world of Internet comment boxes.

Adam Thierer of Mercatus Center at George Mason University has long been one of these thoughtful interlocutors. If you take a look at the comments on my last post or jump over to his post, you’ll see Adam’s reply to my list of suggestions for tech-writers. It’s worth reading, and what follows will make more sense if you take the time to do so.

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Adam,

As always, thanks for your thoughtful and irenic response. Reading over your comment, it seemed to me that we are in broad agreement, at least as to the importance of asking the right questions.

You are, for instance, exactly right to note that most of these recommendations, including 2 and 10, “are born of a certain frustration with the tenor of much modern technology writing; the sort of Pollyanna-ish writing that too casually dismisses legitimate concerns about the technological disruptions and usually ends with the insulting phrase, ‘just get over it.’”

That’s a pretty good summary of the posture of critics and writers that I was targeting with this list. Happily, while this posture may characterize too much tech writing, it doesn’t describe the whole of it!

The best critics will, in my estimation, do precisely what you recommend; they will pursue “inquiry into the nature of individual and societal acclimation to technological change.” The research program that emerges from the series of questions you listed would be tremendously important and useful.

My knowledge of such things is certainly not exhaustive, but I’m having trouble thinking of a title that explicitly and comprehensively addresses the mechanisms of cultural adaptation to new technologies. Of course, a good deal of preliminary work has been done in the form of the many studies by historians of technology of particular technologies and how they were received. I’m thinking of a few classics such as Merritt Roe Smith’s Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change, Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, and Claude Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.

What is lacking, so far as I know, is a work that draws on such granular studies in order to develop a more comprehensive theory of technological change and assimilation.

Of course, as you write, it is one thing to describe the processes of adaptation or the mechanisms of assimilation (and resistance!), and it is another thing to then make normative judgments about the axial status (for lack of a better, sufficiently inclusive way of putting it) of those adaptations and assimilations.

Such metrics eventually involve us in sorting out the various sources of our political, economic, ethical, and even religious assumptions. This was part of my point when I wrote about what the tech critic loves a couple of years ago. Our criticisms and evaluations are animated by our fundamental commitments. Thus, as you suggested, it may be that arriving at a consensus about the standards of evaluation would prove elusive. Actually, I’m almost certain that it would prove elusive. But I’m in favor of foregrounding that lack of consensus and our tacit evaluative frameworks; failure to do so leads to unfruitful exchanges among people who do little more than talk past each other while failing to understand why others don’t see what is obvious to them.

All of that to say that I would not object to your proposed addendum to number 10: “But how people and institutions learned to cope with those concerns is worthy of serious investigation. And what we learned from living through that process may be valuable in its own right.”

My only hesitation on that score, I would put this way: There are some forms of experiential knowledge that, while ultimately valuable, I would not voluntarily choose to gain, nor wish on others.

I think, for example, of the kind of self-knowledge that we might gain through the experience of tragedy. There may very well be personal knowledge, enhanced vision, greater strength, etc. to be had, but I would not choose tragedy for myself nor place others in a situation in which they were forced to learn such things whether they wanted to or not.

Technological innovation is important and it can be valuable and beneficial. (I say “can be” advisedly. I think it is a mistake to assume that innovation is in itself an unalloyed good.) Innovation entails risk, of course, and a life driven solely by the avoidance of risk is not a healthy life. Following Huxley, I’ve made that point a number of times on this blog. That said, there is a difference between the voluntary assumption of risk, and a involuntary imposition of risk on others, particularly when the negative fallout would disproportionately come to those upon whom risk was imposed and who stood to benefit the least from the potentially positive outcomes. This is part of the ethical challenge as I see it. The nature of our technologies (connected, global, networked, etc.) are such that risk may be unjustly distributed. There may be no easy practical solution to this, but we should at least be prepared to speak frankly about the nature of the situation rather than glossing over such things with cliches and slogans. (I do not mean to suggest that you are guilty of this.)

This is, I realize, a tremendously thorny and complex field to navigate wisely. I suspect that in your latest work you addressed some these very issues, and I’m hoping to read what you have to say about it as soon as my schedule lightens up. Also, I’ve not read Garreau’s work, but it looks as if that should also go on the ever-expanding, never-diminishing “to-read” list.

I’ll wrap up by commending your optimism. While the list that kicked off this exchange was focused on the characteristic errors of the tech-utopians, a similar list might’ve been put together to challenge the tech-dystopians. As I’ve admitted before, I like to think that I occupy the pragmatic middle that you identified in your schema of tech optimism and pessimism, but perhaps leaning toward the pessimistic side of the ledger. But pessimism is not the point, of course; much less is despair. I’m not sure that optimism is quite right either, though. Returning to the philosophical/moral/religious frameworks at play in our thinking about such things, I tend toward the language of hope. Such hope, however, does not preclude the possibility of much penultimate injustice and disorder that we should work to mitigate and set right.

Again, many thanks for the response!

 

10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers

Nobody asked me, but here they are anyway. A short list of suggestions and clarifications for pundits, journalists, bloggers, and assorted scribblers who write about technology, in no particular order …

1. Don’t be a Borg. The development, deployment, and adoption of any given technology does not unfold independently of human action.

2. Do not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.

3. Do not deify technology or assign salvific powers to Technology.

Pieter Brueghel, Construction of the Tower of Babel (1563)

Pieter Brueghel, Construction of the Tower of Babel (1563)

4. When someone criticizes a specific technology without renouncing all other forms of technology, they are not being hypocritical–they are thinking.

“I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art
connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. 
To love is to choose.
And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation.” (Paul Virilio)

5. Relatedly, the observation that human beings have always used technology is not a cogent response to the criticism of particular technologies. The use of a pencil does not entail my endorsement of genetic engineering.

6. Don’t grant technology independent or sufficient causal force. Consequences follow from the use of technology, but causality is usually complex and distributed.

7. If you begin by claiming, hyperbolically, that a given technology is revolutionary, thereafter responding to critics by assuring them that nothing has changed is disingenuous at best. If something is completely different, it can’t also be exactly the same.

8. It is banal to observe that a given technology may be used for both good or evil; this does not mean that the technology in question is neutral.

9. Use the word technology circumspectly. It can function as an abstraction harboring all sorts of false assumptions and logical fallacies.

10. That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.

These are, of course, otherwise known as Sacasas’ pet peeves. You may take them accordingly.

Taylorism on Digital Steroids

Here are reminders, if we needed them, that the role of technology in our world transcends artifacts, tools, and devices. It also entails, as Jacques Ellul well understood, a particular way of looking at the world and its problems (and, as Morozov has suggested, it constitutes certain conditions and phenomenon as problems).

From Salon:

“Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.”

From Business Insider:

“There’s a fine line between micromanaging and house arrest, and British grocery store chain Tesco [...] seems determined to cross it. According to the Irish Independent, employees at the company’s Dublin distribution center are forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take a bathroom break.

The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score.”

These folks would’ve been in trouble. They might also have had the good sense to revolt, being peasants and all.

Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)

Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)

Why We Disconnect Matters

A little over two weeks ago, The New Republic ran a piece by Evgeny Morozov titled “The Mindfulness Racket.” Comments that accompanied links to the article on social media suggested that Morozov had torn into the advocates of mindfulness and critics of digital distraction with the sort of eviscerating rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from him. The title reinforced the expectation.

When I finally got around to reading the article, however, I found that this was not exactly the whole story. Morozov does take issue with the “digital detox crowd,” but not because of their desire to disconnect or their uneasiness with the new “attention economy.” Rather, he takes aim at their motives and their strategies. For instance, Morozov points out that many advocates of mindfulness urge us “to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” Unplugging and the pursuit of mindfulness, if it is only practiced in order to re-immerse oneself in the same regime of distraction and technocratic productivity, if it does nothing to change the conditions that gave rise to the need to disconnect in the first place–such practices simply do not go far enough.

Approached in this way, disconnection functions analogously, although inversely so, to the place of carnival in medieval society. Carnivals playfully overturned the expectations and assumptions ordering society. They inverted political, religious, and social expectations. They were temporary eruptions of disorder that ultimately functioned to preserve the order of society. They did so by operating as safety valves releasing the tensions, frustrations, and desires that were ordinarily repressed by the existing moral order. Extraordinary moments of controlled disorder, in other words, served to preserve the ordinarily existing order. On Morozov’s reading, disconnection as practiced by many of its advocates functions similarly. Disconnection is a moment of order that functions to sustain the ordinarily disordered status quo.

Morozov also alludes to Nathan Jurgenson’s critical essay, “The Disconnectionists,” and Alexis Madrigal’s similarly suspicious piece, “‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety.” But Morozov’s brief discussion of these pieces is a hinge in his argument. After citing Jurgenson and Madrigal, both of whom raise important considerations, Morozov adds,

“Note that it’s the act of disconnection—the unplugging—that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called ‘real-time.’”

A little further on he warns, “critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.” From there Morozov suggests that the problematic aspects of social media should not be viewed as a natural price to pay for the enjoyment and benefits we derive from it. Rather, he thinks we should scrutinize social media as we would slot machines: “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.”

Finally, Morozov is right to stress the fact that “why we disconnect matters.” “We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity,” Morozov suggests, “or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley.” Of course, it is the latter option that Morozov urges us to adopt.

I trust that this has been a faithful summary of Morozov’s argument, but I encourage you to read the whole piece. Critics like Jurgenson, whose essay from last year I’ve long meant to write about, and Madrigal raise important concerns, but it has always seemed to me that the net, perhaps unintended, effect of their criticism was to suggest that there is no real problem with the way that our digital lives are ordered. In my view, Jurgenson and Madrigal are most useful when they are pointing out the self-serving and self-righteous tendencies in some of the digital cultures critics. Morozov does the same, but in doing so he does not suggest that the problem itself is illusory. In fact, the most serious failure of the disconnectionists in his view is their failure to fully understand the scope of the problem. Consequently, they have not been serious enough in their efforts to redress it.

The Furies Within

“By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

From Edward Mendelson’s recent essay, “The Secret Auden.” Read the rest for an elaboration of this point and much else worth your consideration.

In his closing paragraph, Mendelson cites a line from Montaigne which Auden once used as an epigraph. I leave you with it:

“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”