Friday Links: Questioning Technology Edition

My previous post, which raised 41 questions about the ethics of technology, is turning out to be one of the most viewed on this site. That is, admittedly, faint praise, but I’m glad that it is because helping us to think about technology is why I write this blog. The post has also prompted a few valuable recommendations from readers, and I wanted to pass these along to you in case you missed them in the comments.

Matt Thomas reminded me of two earlier lists of questions we should be asking about our technologies. The first of these is Jacques Ellul’s list of 76 Reasonable Questions to Ask of Any Technology (update: see Doug Hill’s comment below about the authorship of this list.) The second is Neil Postman’s more concise list of Six Questions to Ask of New Technologies. Both are worth perusing.

Also, Chad Kohalyk passed along a link to Shannon Vallor’s module, An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

Greg Lloyd provided some helpful links to the (frequently misunderstood) Amish approach to technology, including one to this IEEE article by Jameson Wetmore: “Amish Technology: Reinforcing Values and Building Communities” (PDF). In it, we read, “When deciding whether or not to allow a certain practice or technology, the Amish first ask whether it is compatible with their values?” What a radical idea, the rest of us should try it sometime! While we’re on the topic, I wrote about the Tech-Savvy Amish a couple of years ago.

I can’t remember who linked to it, but I also came across an excellent 1994 article in Ars Electronica that is composed entirely of questions about what we would today call a Smart Home, “How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?”

And while we’re talking about lists, here’s a post on Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology and a list of 11 things I try to do, often with only marginal success, to achieve a healthy relationship with the Internet.

Enjoy these, and thanks again to those of you provided the links.

12 thoughts on “Friday Links: Questioning Technology Edition

  1. I’m enjoying your work. In my class at The Evergreen State College, “Silence, Solitude, Laziness and Other Pillars of the Good Life,” I took in your 41 questions and asked them to think about the technology of “school.” I was taught by Ivan Illich and the class and I had ruminated a bit on schooling vs. learning, so your questions about /techne/ were inspiring.

    Here’s an excerpt from /Living into Focus/ by Arthur Boers:

    I once heard David Kline tell of Protestant tourists sight-seeing in an Amish area. An Amishman is brought on the bus and asked how Amish differ from other Christians. First, he explained similarities: all had DNA, wear clothes (even if in different styles), and like to eat good food.

    Then the Amishman asked: “How many of you have a TV?”

    Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

    “How many of you believe your children would be better off without TV?”

    Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

    “How many of you, knowing this, will get rid of your TV when you go home?”

    No hands were raised.

    “That’s the difference between the Amish and others,” the man concluded.

    Bill Arney The Evergreen State College Olympia WA and San Juan Island, WA

  2. Hey Michael,

    In my readings of Jacques Ellul I had never come across the “76 Reasonable Questions” list mentioned here, and in the various postings of it on the web I could never find a citation to a specific work of his. I asked David Gill, the head of the International Jacques Ellul Society, if he’s familiar with the list, and he said, yes, he’s seen it, but says it is definitely not from Ellul.

    1. Doug, I confess I’ve never thought to check the provenance of the list. Thanks for letting me know. I am curious now where those questions originated and how they got attached to Ellul.

      1. David Gill says he first saw the list in a 1997 collection of conference papers/addresses entitled “Turning Away from Technology: A New Vision for the 21st Century” (Sierra Club Books). It wasn’t attributed to Ellul at that point.

        1. So, out of curiosity I dropped one of the questions–“Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?”–into Google Books and returned The Technological Society and Propaganda. I can’t search inside, so I can’t see the page number. Is it possible that this list was compiled by someone else, but consists of questions culled from Ellul’s work?

  3. Hi Michael,

    I learned a bit more about the 76 questions mystery this morning, although the specific source of the list’s attribution to Ellul remains a mystery.

    I mentioned that David Gill of the Ellul Society had first seen the 76 questions list in a 1997 book entitled “Turning Away from Technology: A New Vision for the 21st Century” (Sierra Club Books).

    I happened to be in the midst of an email exchange with the editor of that book, Stephanie Mills, and so asked her what she knew of the list. She replied that the nucleus of the questions appeared in a 1978 paper by Hazel Henderson (“Science and Technology: The Revolution from Hardware to Software”) which Henderson subsequently submitted as her contribution to a 1980 conference at Mills College, “Technology: Over the Invisible Line?” Stephanie was among the organizers of that conference.

    Henderson’s original set of questions was added to, Stephanie says, during a pair of conferences sponsored by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in the early 1990s. Stephanie edited the proceedings of those conferences for the above-mentioned book, and in the process of doing so “incorporated” and “refined” the lists from Hazel Henderson and the Deep Ecology conferences.

    How Ellul’s name got attached Stephanie doesn’t know. Your Google search suggests that maybe his books might have included some of the points in the original lists. My reading of Ellul isn’t complete, by any means, but from the Ellul texts I’ve studied carefully (which include The Technological Society and Propaganda) he was not prone to compiling lists.

  4. It’s a good list but shouldn’t be attributed to (credited to or blamed on) Ellul even though it is in harmony with his thought.

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