Our technologies are not unlike our children; we react with reflexive and sometimes intense defensiveness if either is criticized. Several years ago while teaching at a small private high school I forwarded an article to my colleagues. This was a mistake. The article raised some questions about the efficacy of computers in education. I didn’t think then, nor do I now, that it was at all controversial. In fact, I imagined that given the setting it would be of at least passing interest. The article appeared in a respectable journal, was judicious in its tone, and cautious in its conclusions. However, within a handful of minutes — hardly enough time to skim, much less read, the article — I was receiving rather pointed and even angry replies.
I was mystified, and not a little amused, by the responses. Mostly though I began to think about why this measured and cautious article evoked such a passionate and visceral response. Around the same time I stumbled upon Wendell Berry’s essay titled, somewhat provocatively, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” More arresting than the essay itself, however, were the letters that came in to Harper’s where the essay had been reprinted. These letters, which now typically appear alongside the essay whenever it is anthologized, were caustic and condescending. In response Berry wrote,
The foregoing letters surprised me with the intensity of the feelings they expressed. According to the writers’ testimony, there is nothing wrong with their computers; they are utterly satisfied with them and all that they stand for. My correspondents are certain that I am wrong and that I am, moreover, on the losing side, a side already relegated to the dustbin of history. And yet they grow huffy and condescending over my tiny dissent. What are they so anxious about?
Precisely my question. Whence the hostility, defensiveness, agitation, and indignant, self-righteous anxiety?
I’m typing these words on a laptop and they will appear on a blog that exists on the Internet. Clearly I am not, strictly speaking, a Luddite. (Although, in light of Thomas Pynchon’s analysis of the Luddite as Badass, there may be a certain appeal.) Yet, I do believe an uncritical embrace of technology may prove fateful, if not Faustian.
The stakes are high. We can hardly exaggerate the revolutionary character of certain technologies throughout history: the wheel, writing, the gun, the printing press, the steam engine, the automobile, the radio, the television, the Internet. And that is a very partial list. Katherine Hayles has gone so far as to suggest that as a species we have “codeveloped with technologies; indeed, it is no exaggeration,” she writes in Electronic Literature, “to say modern humans literally would not have come into existence without technology.”
We are, perhaps because of the pace of technological innovation, quite conscious of the place and power of technology in our society and in our own lives. We joke about our technological addictions, but it is sometimes a rather nervous punchline. It makes sense to ask questions. Technology, it has been said, is a god that limps. It dazzles and performs wonders, but it can frustrate and wreak havoc. Good sense seems to suggest that we avoid, as Thoreau put it, becoming tools of our tools. This doesn’t entail burning the machine; it may only require a little moderation. At a minimum it means creating, as far as we are able, a critical distance from our toys and tools, and that requires searching criticism.
And we are back where we began. It is that kind of searching criticism of our technologies that we seem allergic to. So here is my question again: Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies? Or, and this is entirely possible, is this not at all the case outside of my own quite limited experience?