On the xkcd Philosophy of Technology, Briefly

Before I say anything else, let me say this: I get where this is coming from, really, I do.


This is a recent xkcd comic that you may have seen in the past day or two. It makes a valid point, sort of. The point that I’d say is worth taking from this comic is this:  both unbridled enthusiasm and apocalyptic fear of any new technology are probably misguided. Some people need to hear that.

That said, this comic is similar in spirt to an earlier xkcd offering that Alan Jacobs rightfully picked apart with some searching questions. Although it is more pronounced in the earlier piece, both exhibit a certain cavalier “nothing-to-see-here-let’s-move-it-along” attitude with regards to technological change. In fact, one might be tempted to conclude that according to the xkcd philosophy of technology, technology changes nothing at all. Or, worse yet, that with technology it is always  que sera, sera  and we do well to stop worrying and enjoy the ride wherever it may lead.

In truth, I might’ve let the whole thing go without comment were it not for that last entry on the chart. It’s a variation of a recurring, usually vacuous rhetorical move that latches on to any form of continuity in order to dismiss concerns, criticism, etc. Since we have always already been X, this new form of X is inconsequential. It is as if reality were an undifferentiated, uncaused monistic affair in which the consequences of every apparent change are always contained and neutralized by its antecedents. But, of course, the fact that human beings have always died does not suggest to anyone in their right mind that we should never investigate the causes of particular deaths so as to prevent them when it is reasonable and possible to do so.

Similarly, pointing out that human beings have always used technology is perhaps the least interesting observation one could make about the relationship between human beings and any given technology. Continuity of this sort is the ground against which figures of discontinuity appear, and it is the figures that are of interest. Alienation may be a fact of life (or maybe that is simply the story that moderns tell themselves  to bear it), but it has been so to greater and lesser extents and for a host of different reasons. Pointing out that we have always been alienated is, consequently, the least interesting and the least helpful thing one could say about the matter.

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14 thoughts on “On the xkcd Philosophy of Technology, Briefly

  1. Excellent piece as usual. I believe we are also back in the realm of a topic we’ve discussed before, which I called “Completely Different and Exactly the Same” (http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=221). But let’s add: “completely different” regarding its awesome new benefits for everyone and “exactly the same” regarding whatever drawbacks it may have. I believe the ancients called this “Panglossism.” (not all that ancient.)

  2. You’re right, it’s tempting to take that simple conclusion of “it’s happening, so let’s let it happen.” That’s why I like reading your blog so much, you have such thoughtful analysis on technology that I really don’t see many other places

  3. Nice post. Put me in mind of Mark Zuckburg’s notion that technology will elliminate deceite (it won’t) or the inventor of the dirigable, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who hung himself after realizing that far from eliminating the alienation he saw as the cause of war, the airplane was being used to wage it.

  4. Excellent post and great thoughts. It reminds me of a lot of the thoughts and writings of the late Neil Postman. If you have not read any of his works yet, you should definitely do so. He may have been a little more on the apocalyptic side of things, but his arguments and suggested outcomes he made decades ago are now coming to fruition.

  5. I think that this very medium, the discussion in the form of a blog, is a shaping technology with an unexpected and ironic side-effect. We can say, or debate, that blogs and all of social media are in favor now because they are easy sources of marketing data for the investors in social media companies, and that the communication and discussion that goes on is a secondary effect of the information the business people want about all of us.

    In another post you said that you resist complaining. That may be a personality stance for I use it as a path to analysis. I have been misconstrued for that because irritation doe me really does lead to deeper understanding.

    To whit, the deep flaw in the every medium we are using, the blog itself. It is that discussions don’t really go anywhere. That isn’t because people are stupid and shallow, they clearly aren’t, but because the technology is used for one purpose, a business purpose, people are denied structure they must have to hold real conversations, talk to points and debate with one another if need be. So I have been irritated for sometime by the face that blog discussions really don’t go anywhere even when they are heated and people have hurt feelings.

    The terrible irony of this is that we had been down this road before, which puts the lie that technical change is progressive, it isn’t. There has been a rich experience about how to manage extended discussions and accommodate all the tendencies in people to change the subject and make other distractions to manipulate the flow of ideas. I speak of the USENET that free-for-all of text based discussions that still exists but has fallen into some disfavor because of unsavory aspects of it, posting porn, or pirated binaries, for example. But it should be reexamined as a lesson on how to build forums.

    The universal experience with blogs is that because of the limitations of the technology people self censor. They do this because others show displeasure about off-topic or change of topic comments. Now, topic drift is a normal feature of any conversation, so is name-calling and other forms of intimidation. You hear these tactics in many overheard conversations. Because the blog is so lineal and you have to deal in some way with every post, it just doesn’t work for anything beyond a few replies, or safe replies.

    People make a mistake of presenting complex and contentious topics and then asking for comments in a blog because some entrapaneur made a decision to make that the standard for discussions, Many newspapers and web sites have adopted this as the model because it is simple to use and simple to implement. Just give ’em a Javascript Textarea, as if that bit of new technology was really an improvement.

    In fact what we need, including on WordPress, is to implement a full-featured forum. I’ve seen people calling blogs forums as though the two are interchangable. If you go back and look at USENET newsreaders and the features they supported, those forums had much more structure. They had the ability to quote from a previous post in your reply, and they used the changing of a topic line to guide the reader to subthreads, to cope with topic drift, trolls, other abuse, and even threads which had too many obvious replies, low hanging fruit threads. Some newsreader had the means to show and hide threads, junk threads, and quite a few had a feature to produce a digest from a thread in which the duplicated quotes were removed, so the whole conversation became a script.

    I tend to write a good deal, to make my points clear. I would like to close that America’s very freedom is threatened by the blog and its effects on public discourse, and that some political factions would have it no other way. If you look at most blog postings, everywhere, you see two things: The topics are driven by the page owner, and the replies are all comparatively isolated. The mechanism of a trur forum like the USENET newsgroup would add a great vitality to replies and you would find persistance in threads because people could focus on ideas and arguments and reasoning without continual distraction. Go look at Google’s USENET archive. The evidence is there.

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