The Stories We Tell About Technology

Michael Solana wants to put an end to dystopian science-fiction. Enough already. No more bleak, post-apocalyptic stories; certainly no more of these stories in which technology is somehow to blame for the disaster. Why? Because, as the title of his Wired opinion piece puts it, “It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.”

This is as good a time as any to drop the word flabbergasted–I’m genuinely flabbergasted. Granted, there’s a good chance Solana didn’t pick his title, but, in this case, it pretty much sums up the substance of his view. Solana really seems to believe that our cultural imagination is driven by Luddite fears. He really seems to believe that stories which present technology as a positive force in human affairs can be … ready for this … “subversive” and “daring.”

Like Alan Jacobs, I find myself wondering what world Solana inhabits:

“I have to say, it’s pretty cool to get a report from such a peculiar land. Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools. So, you know, comparative anthropology FTW.”

Indeed.

Interestingly, I found myself wondering much the same thing when I read Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s post, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral” (more thoughts on which are eventually forthcoming). Gobry and Thiel, in the talk that inspired Gobry’s post, both lament what they seem to regard as an oppressive pessimism regarding technology and innovation that supposedly dominates our cultural imagination. To listen to Thiel, you would think that Silicon Valley was an island of hope and pragmatism in an ocean of fear and doubt. Gobry is particularly concerned with the prevalent pessimism about technology that he observes among Christians. Maybe French Catholics have a proclivity toward Luddism, I don’t know; but on this side of the Atlantic I see no great difference between Christians and non-Christians with regards to their attitudes toward technology. On the whole, they are generally enthusiastically positive.

In fact, I think media scholar Henry Jenkins is much closer to the mark, regarding communication technology at least, when he writes,

“Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

I don’t want to be to snarky about this, but, honestly, I’m not entirely sure where you have to stand to get this kind of perspective on society. True, there have always been skeptics–Thoreaus, Postmans, Elluls, Toflers–but, historically, they have been the counterpoint, not the main theme. They have always been marginal figures, and they have never managed to stem the dominant tide of techno-enthusiasm. (Granted, the case may be different in Europe, where, for example, nuclear energy has been in retreat since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.) Perhaps we simply prefer to see ourselves, regardless of the actual state of affairs, as an embattled minority. And perhaps, I’m guilty of this, too.

In any case, the only evidence that Solana submits in defense of his claim that “people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been” is a decidedly non-scientific survey of attitudes toward artificial intelligence. You can follow the link to read the details, but basically the survey offered three choices:

1. Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening
2. No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening
3. I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology

Here are the results:

1. 16.7%
2. 27.1%
3. 56.3%

Set aside any methodological issues; the results as reported simply don’t support Solana’s assertion that “the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence.” Given the phrasing of the third choice, selecting it hardly suggests irrational fear. In fact, it may just reflect a modicum of common sense. By contrast, consider this recent Pew Research survey which found that “When asked for their general views on technology’s long-term impact on life in the future, technological optimists outnumber pessimists by two-to-one.”

Now, all of this said, Solana’s underlying assumption is worth considering. Human-beings are the sorts of creatures that do make sense of their world by telling stories about it. Stories have the power to shape how we imagine the place of technology in society. Our attitudes toward technology often flow from a larger story we buy into about technology and society.

It’s worth asking ourselves what story frames our thinking about technology. Broadly speaking, there are utopian stories and dystopian stories about technology. Utopian stories tell of a future that gets better and better as a result of techno-scientific progress. Dystopian stories present technology as a source of disaster or societal disintegration. I’d suggest that there are also tragic stories, and that these are not the same as dystopian tales. The paradigmatic techno-tragedy is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a classically tragic tale that recognizes the allure and power of the techno-scientific project, while also grappling with its inherent dangers, dangers which are ultimately a function of the human condition.

Of course, these stories need not be fictional. They might also be stories we tell about our national history or about individuals, such as inventors or entrepreneurs. Moreover, what we want to ultimately consider is not any one story, or even a set of stories, it’s the net effect or the cumulative “story” that becomes part of our tacit understanding of the world.

While it is easy to think of popular stories that frame technology as a source of trouble, it seems to me that the still-dominant narrative frames technology as a source of hope. When Solana writes, in the pages of Wired mind you, that “Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it,” it seems to me that he is preaching to one massive choir.

With more time, I’d argue that our story about technology is not just a story. “Technology” is another name for the dominant myth of our time. This myth gives shape to our imagination. It sets the boundaries of the possible. It conditions our moral judgment. It is the arbiter of truth and the source of our hope. Is there a little anxiety wrapped up in all of this, even among the true believers? Sure. But as scholars of religion have long observed, what we hold sacred tends to invoke both wonder and fear.

So, what’s the view from where you stand? What do you perceive as the dominant cultural attitude toward technology? Have the Luddites really won the day, have I somehow missed this startling development?

8 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell About Technology

  1. If it’s possible to do, then man will more than likely do it….

    Do you ever wonder what goes on in secret with animals and humans?

    Do you ever wonder where that could lead us?

    So perhaps we could say that when technology is designed HUMANELY by humans, not sub humans, then we will be very careful what we make. Obviously we are at a point in history which is very dangerous for all life on this planet and that life has taken millions of beautiful and perfect (in a way) years to evolve and develop.

    Unless we have great respect and feelings for nature we could destroy it and obviously the machine is helping us do that. So to be natural ourselves is imperative, to be part of nature. Very few are part of nature and therefore natural…. and all that that entails.

    We do not know yet who or what or why we are here and yet we are trying to create Stars and black holes?????

    The Robin looks at us in disbelief :)

  2. I think the general attitude is “Ooh! Ooh! When can I get in line to get the next shiny, new gadget.”

    Within the circles of the people who focus on technology for a living (in various ways) the lines are more clearly divided, and I would guess 60% in favor of a utopian version of how the technological world works.

    Love your ebook by the way Michael.

  3. Count me in the group of slightly paranoid, dystopian technophobes, along the lines of the Terminator and the rise of the machines. I am forever asking, so what could possibly go wrong here? I think I am a bit of an outlier however, most people seem to be pretty enthusiastic and optimistic about artificial intelligence.

    I would like to see more optimism in our sci/fi, more triumph of the human spirit, more ideas that really embrace and celebrate our humanity, the good and the bad, but I’m fairly certain that simply painting a rosy picture of technology would ring false because that’s simply not realistic. Call me crazy, but at some point we’re going to screw it up and it’s going to get away from us. That’s is the nature of human beings. We always like to think we’re the ones in control, we got this, we know what we’re doing. We deceive ourselves.

  4. It’s Solana’s concerns that sound paranoid to me. Not the Luddites. Can Luddites even exist in today’s paradigm? I can’t help but interpret his piece as a call for science fiction to become a monolith of naive optimism instead of the varied reflection of its individual authors’ and their occasional take on what could be perceived as the dismal reality of the present, a reality Solana himself admits to but renders obscure in his opening paragraph.

    Yet, for every pop dystopia projected via Tivo or Netflix there’s a huge blockbuster implicitly cheerleading what the future has in store for anyone who dare cross the good guys. And historically, the latter has reflected a reality that creeps exponentially nearer the further along the timeline we have come.

    As far as technology itself is concerned, one need to look no further than who funds r&d to see where it might head. While science can be a tool to solve the problems of survival, when applied, it discriminates. Everyday people may not express this belief in their everyday actions, but they are certainly aware of it intuitively – hence dystopian science fiction. It has always stemmed less from technology and more its application in a world where most people feel they have no control over it.

    As you correctly point out, the dominant narrative of technology has always been positive. It’s framed by every glitzy schmaltz the ad industry can recycle. Before the fact, however much technological development comes out of the desire to improve the general standard of living, this always comes as a secondary result, at best, and is never the prime mover. The residual stuff, further driven by post launch crass consumerism, is never enough until everybody, even the most hardened pessimist, has one in his or her hands.

    Whoever the Luddite contingent of this day & age might happen to be, their level of skepticism is directly proportional to that skepticism being vindicated whenever some new technology has firmly completed the transition from optional lifestyle tool to compulsory standard. You don’t have to go to science fiction to see it. Quite the opposite, really. You just have wake up and look around.

  5. Parallels are obvious to the pervasive pessimism about capitalism/obsessing over its failures and disregarding the phenomenal material benefits to an enormously expanded humanity. Eat your heart out Marx and Malthus.

  6. As an avid reader of YA dystopian novels I am under the impression that Michael Solana is putting on the same bookshelf gory sci fi and more emotionally driven dystopian stories. Since Michael Solano’s short sidebar bio says that he believes in teenagers with super powers, he must have read the most recent books in the genre. Few are about technological fear but more about abusive human power, inequality and injustice. Take Divergent and Insurgent for example.
    As an ordinary user of modern communication tools, I am aware of their amazing power but I’m not afraid of them. I am afraid of the power a few can use to control us. And I think this is a legitimate concern when we read about Facebook and Google for example. I think that most Americans and Europeans (the two continents I know best) are equally wary about that but certainly not of the tools themselves. As always, great post. Thank you.

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