Recovering the Tech Critical Canon

Melvin Kranzberg was spotlighted in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend thanks to Christopher Mims. Kranzberg’s is not exactly a household name. He was a historian of technology who taught for many years at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1985, he gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in which he outlined six laws or “truisms” about technology “deriving from a longtime immersion in the study of the development of technology and its interactions with sociocultural change.”

The first of these laws is the best known: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” You can read about the rest of the laws in this earlier post. They are not well-known outside of a relatively small circle of historians, philosophers, and critics specializing in the academic study of technology.

Mims, a journalist covering the tech industry, was recently introduced to the Kranzberg’s Laws, and to his credit he has now introduced Kranzberg’s Laws to many more people who, in all likelihood, would never have encountered Kranzberg’s very useful insights. In tweeting out the story, Mims acknowledged that he had never come across Kranzberg’s work despite covering the technology beat for over a decade.

I recount all of this as a way of explaining why I have recently decided to make a point of posting excerpts from what I’m calling the Tech Critical Canon*. I’m thinking of a long tradition of writing from a wide array of disciplines that has focused critical attention on the social and moral consequences of technology. The tradition includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, theologians, linguists, media theorists, economists, cultural critics, journalists, novelists, and many individuals whose interests and specializations truly defy disciplinary boundaries. In fact, this is what makes many of these older critics so interesting. They were eclectic and eccentric in their convictions, training, and life experiences. It was this eccentric eclecticism allowed them to see more clearly than most what was happening.

These individuals do not speak with one voice; their perspectives often differ and their evaluations are not easily synthesized; and, of course, they were often wrong. But their writing, even when it is decades old, remains valuable. It is abundantly clear, however, that it is virtually unknown. Within the last month or so, I’ve commented on how recent cries for serious thinking about the political and ethical consequences of technology ignores the work of this diverse assortment of scholars and writers who have been doing just that for more than a century.

I am especially interested in the work of older critics, critics whose work appeared in the early and mid-twentieth century. I find these critics especially useful precisely because of their distance from the present. As I’ve noted elsewhere, if we read only contemporary sources on tech, we would be unlikely to overcome our chief obstacle: our thinking is already shaped by the very phenomena we seek to understand. The older critics offer a fresh vantage point and effectively new perspectives. They begin with different assumptions and operate with forgotten norms. Moreover, their mistakes will not be ours. (My point here is not unlike that made by C.S. Lewis writing in defense of old books.)

Chiefly, their distance from us and their proximity to older configurations of culture and technology means that they can imagine modes of life and ways of being with technology that we can no longer experience or imagine when we rely only on the work of contemporary critics, much of which is, of course, essential. As Andrew Russell pointed out, Kranzberg helped foster the valuable work of scholars who continue to produce important work advancing our understanding of technology and its consequences.

I fully recognize that I may very well be guilty of a common disorder: thinking that what the world really needs more of is the very thing about which I happen to care and with which I have a measure of aptitude. I also realize that my scribblings here will not amount to even a blip on the cultural radar. Be that as it may.

I’ve already posted a couple of excerpts (here and here). I’ll continue to do so and group these posts under the tag Tech Critical Canon. I do not plan to offer much commentary in these posts. I think the excerpts will stand well on their own. I trust that they will help us think more deeply about technology and lead us toward understanding and wisdom. I hope, as well, that they will function as teasers that induce readers to read the sources for themselves. Indeed, that is more or less how I’ve always thought about what I do here anyway: connecting readers to the really important work on technology that they may not encounter otherwise.

Admittedly, I’m not exactly hopeful that the recent interest in the ethics of technology and the work of thinkers such as Melvin Kranzberg will persist or that it will translate into meaningful change in the way that we order our society and our lives. But who knows?

*I should clarify, of course, that I mean critical in the same sense that we speak of a film critic or an art critic. The term does not necessarily imply only negative evaluations. For more on my view of technology criticism see What Motivates the Critic of Technology?

6 thoughts on “Recovering the Tech Critical Canon

  1. Thanks for these very thoughtful posts–are you familiar with Junger? The Glass Bees and The Forest Passage are part of this canon that often get overlooked…

  2. I finished my Cisco course tonight, which will wrap up an A.A.S. in Computer Science. For this, I’ve put myself through three years of night school while cleaning houses during the day, which I unwaveringly prefer to programming. I began as an English major, but I chickened out after taking a few classes from adjuncts with grad degrees who were making less than I do cleaning. I’m in my late 30’s; I’m not doing the loans. Originally, I’d hoped to write- about tech and philosophy, mostly- but with time I’ve become less and less clear on who I’d even be writing to, or what I’d be hoping to accomplish through it.

    One day, a few years from now, I hope to have enough experience to assist someone somewhere who is taking a critical approach to tech, whether that’s a journalist, philosopher, attorney or researcher. Or someone else. It’s a far more mundane contribution than I once aspired to, but I guess it’s something. And maybe I can write here and there along the way.

    All this is to say that there are still those of us out here who are shored up by seeing your posts in our inboxes. It’s important to have this kind of thing in my diet, so to speak, and it’s getting harder to come by. To read these reflections is like water in the desert after days on end of the prevailing wisdom (which is usually just marketing). I canceled my PEL subscription to kick in for your Patreon. I figure you can use it more than those guys now. Keep up the good work.

    1. Daniel, Many thanks for your comment and your contribution. I’m humbled by both. I appreciated your earlier comments on recent posts as well. I apologize for not being more present in the comments section, what time I get to mind the blog I try to take to write.

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