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.

__________________________________________________

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.

Meta-Medium

As you know, I’ve been playing around with a new writing platform called Medium. A few days ago, I wrote up some thoughts on the platform in post titled, “Meta-Medium.” If you’re curious about the platform, give it a read. If you do, make sure to open up the notes by clicking on the small icon to the top right of each paragraph. Admittedly, I may have gotten a bit note-happy; I found it a very tempting feature. In any case, some important points are contained in them.

Kindling

The Tourist and the Pilgrim is now available through the Kindle Store.

I’m grateful to those of you who’ve picked up a copy and spread the word.

A couple of observations: First, you all are generous. Almost everyone who’s picked up a copy at Gumroad has paid more than the asking price. Secondly, if you refine the category sufficiently, it’s apparently not that hard to crack a top 100 list on Amazon, at least temporarily.

rank

Also, thanks for your patience as I do some self-promotion. I can barely stand it myself, but if I’ve put the thing together, I should at least make sure people know it’s out there.

UPDATE: Well, we’re movin’ on up …

ranking

The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age

A few days ago, I noted, thanks to a WordPress reminder, that The Frailest Thing had turned thee. I had little idea what I was doing when I started blogging, and wasn’t even very clear on why I was doing so. I had just started my graduate program in earnest, so I was reading a good bit and, in part at least, I thought it would be useful to process the ideas I was engaging by writing about them. Because I was devoting myself to course work, I was also out of the classroom for the first time in ten years, and the teacher in me wanted to keeping teaching somehow.

So I began blogging and have kept it up these three years and counting.

The best of these three years of writing is, I’m happy to announce, now available in an e-book titled, The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age.

Forty-six essays are gathered into eight chapters:

1. Technology Criticism
2. Technology Has a History
3. Technology and Memory
4. Technology and the Body
5. Ethics, Religion, and Technology
6. Being Online
7. Our Mediated Lives
8. Miscellany

Not surprisingly, these chapters represent fairly well the major areas of interest that have animated my writing.

Right now, the e-book is only available through Gumroad. Of course, feel free to share the link: https://gumroad.com/l/UQBM. You will receive four file formats (PDF, .epub, .mobi, .azw3). The .mobi file will work best with your Kindle. Some formatting issues are holding up availability through Amazon, but it should also be available there in the next couple of days for those who find that more convenient.

Each of the essays can be found in some form online, but I have revised many of them to correct obvious errors, improve the quality of the prose, and make them read more naturally as stand-alone pieces. Nonetheless, the substance remains freely available through this site.

Convenience and a few improvements aside, those of you who have been reading along with me for some time will not find much you haven’t seen before. You might then consider Gumroad something akin to a tip jar!

Finally, because I would not presume they would see it otherwise, I’d like to share the Acknowledgements section here:

Each of these essays first appeared in some form on The Frailest Thing, a blog that I launched in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure how long the blogging venture would have lasted were it not for the encouragement of readers along the way. I’m especially grateful for those who through their kind words, generous linking, and invitations to write for their publications have given my writing a wider audience than it would’ve had otherwise. On that score, my thanks especially to Adam Thierer, Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, Emily Anne Smith, Alan Jacobs, Nick Carr, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Evan Selinger.

But I must also acknowledge a small cadre of friends who read and engaged with my earliest offerings when there was no other audience of which to speak. JT, Kevin, Justin, Mark, David, Randy – Cheers!

And, of course, my thanks and love to my wife, Sarah, who has patiently tolerated and supported my online scribblings these three years.

Deo Gratias

My thanks, of course, are owed to all of you who have stopped by along the way. While it may sound sappy and trite, I have to say there is still something quite humbling about the fact that when I offer up my words, which is to say something of my self, there are those who come around and take the time to read them.

There is a sense in which I’ve written for myself. The writing has helped me in my effort to understand, or, as Hannah Arendt put, “think what we are doing.” It is no small thing to me that in making that process public, some have found a thing or two of some value.

Cheers!

cropped-picture-0062.jpg