A Man Walks Into A Bank

I walked into my bank a few days ago and found that the lobby had a different look. The space had been rearranged to highlight a new addition: an automated teller. While I was being helped, I overheard an exchange between a customer in line behind me and a bank worker whose new role appeared to be determining whether customers could be served by the automated teller and directing them in that direction.

She was upbeat about the automated teller and how it would speed things up for customers. The young man talking with her posed a question that occurred to me as I listened but that I’m not sure I would have had the temerity to raise: “Aren’t you afraid that pretty soon they’re not going to need you guys anymore?”

The bank employee was entirely unperturbed, or at least she pretended to be. “No, I’m not worried about that,” she said. “I know they’re going to keep us around.”

I hope they do, but I don’t share her optimism. I was reminded of passage from Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Writing in the early ’90s about the impact of television on education, Postman commented on teachers who enthusiastically embraced the transformations wrought by television. Believing the modern school system, and thus the teacher’s career, to be the product of print culture, Postman wrote,

[…] surely, there is something perverse about schoolteachers’ being enthusiastic about what is happening. Such enthusiasm always calls to my mind an image of some turn-of-the-century blacksmith who not only sings the praises of the automobile but also believes that his business will be enhanced by it. We know now that his business was not enhanced by it; it was rendered obsolete by it, as perhaps the clearheaded blacksmiths knew. What could they have done? Weep, if nothing else.

We might find it in us to weep, too, or at least acknowledge the losses, even when the gains are real and important, which they are not always. Perhaps we might also refuse a degree of personal convenience from time to time, or every time if we find it in us to do so, in order to embody principles that might at least, if nothing else, demonstrate a degree of solidarity with those who will not be the winners in the emerging digital economy.

Postman believed that computer technology created a similar situation to that of the blacksmiths, “for here too we have winners and losers.”

“There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extend has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies …. In a word, almost nothing that they need happens to the losers. Which is why they are the losers.

It is to be expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners … They also tell them that their lives will be conducted more efficiently. But discreetly they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.”

The religion of technology is a secular faith, and as such it should, at least, have the decency of striking a tragic note.

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.

Hospitable Technology

“Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” — Neil Postman

Apt metaphors can be illuminating and instructive. Media ecology is one such metaphor. By seeking to understand the impact of communication technology by analogy to natural environments, media ecology suggests a number of important insights into the nature of technology. It suggests, for example, that a new technology is not merely additive.

When a new species is introduced into a natural ecosystem, the result is not the old ecosystem plus a new component; it is a new ecosystem. The impact of a new species will have systemic ramifications which will transform the ecosystem (and sometimes destroy the ecosystem). Likewise, when a new technology is introduced into a particular social context, its consequences are not merely a matter of adding certain affordances to that social context; it restructures the whole. Its impact radiates outward, reordering the relationships of the pre-existing components. New technology Z does not only impact component A and B, it alters the relationship of A to B.

As an example, consider how the introduction of the automobile did not simply add a mode of transport to early twentieth century American society. The automobile changed, among other things, the physical shape of our cities. It made the emergence of suburbs possible (and thus facilitated the consequent reorderings of social life). It reinforced a certain restlessness and placelessness that had already been characteristic of the American experience. Certain modes of social life faded and others emerged because of the introduction of the automobile.

This last observation leads to another useful dimension of the ecology metaphor: it implies the notion of hospitality. We know that particular environments are more or less hospitable to particular species. Species uniquely adapt to particular environments and are thus naturally at home in them. Transplant these species to another ecosystem and they may or may not survive. The ecosystem will be more or less hospitable to them.

By extension this suggests that the technological components of social ecosystems render these ecosystems more or less hospitable to particular social realities. This strikes me as a useful extension of the metaphor because it resists the blunt judgements “this technology is good” or “this technology is bad.” Ecosystems are not in themselves good or bad with regards to life. Rather, they are more or less hospitable to specific forms life. So it does no good to ask, Is this  a good ecosystem? One must ask, Is this a good ecosystem for such and such a species? The answer is contextual and teleological (i.e., ends oriented).

We will arrive at more balanced and nuanced evaluations of technology if we keep this in mind. The question is not whether a technology is good or bad; the question is whether a technology is likely to render a social environment hospitable or inhospitable to specific practices, social arrangements, values, ways of life, etc.

To ask whether a certain technology yields a more or less hospitable social environment also avoids the voluntarist error of locating all ethical value with regard to technology in the particular uses to which a technology is put. The uses to which a technology is put need not be in themselves morally objectionable in order to yield systemic ramifications that prove inhospitable to certain practices, etc.

The first of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws reads: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” To speak of how a technology impacts a social environment by rendering it more or less hospitable to specific social realities reinforces this observation. I believe this also reflects McLuhan’s dictum about the message of a medium: the “‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” It is, in other words, systemic and environmental.

Of course, measuring systemic consequences and anticipating the socio-ecological implications of a new technology can be a tricky business. We are always plagued by unknown unknowns and the law of unintended consequences. At the very least, though, the these metaphors help us ask better questions.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Technological Theology

Early in his book Technopoly, Neil Postman presents a helpful summary of the variety of schema or classifications offered by historians for the history of the relationship of technology to culture:

We think at once of the best-known classification:  the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steel Age.  We speak easily of the Industrial Revolution, a term popularized by Arnold Toynbee, and, more recently, of the Post-Industrial Revolution, so named by Daniel bell.  Oswald Spengler wrote of the Age of Machine Technics, and C. S. Peirce called the nineteenth century the Railway Age.  Lewis Mumford, looking at matters from a longer perspective, gave us the Eotechnic, the Paleotechnic, and Neotechnic Ages.  With equally telescopic perspective, Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote of three stages in the development of technology:  the age of technology of chance, the age of technology of the artisan, the age of technology of the technician.  Walter Ong has written about Oral cultures, Chirographic cultures, Typographic cultures, and Electronic cultures.  McLuhan himself introduced the phrase “the Age of Gutenberg” (which, he believed, is now replaced by the Age of Electronic Communication).

A lot is packed into that paragraph, and if we were to go on and read each of these scholars in order to understand their classifications we would end up with an impressive grasp on the relationship of technology to culture. To these Postman adds his own schema.  He divides cultures into three types:  tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. Here is a quick overview for your consideration:

In a tool-using culture according to Postman, tools were “largely invented to do two things”:  “solve specific and urgent problems of physical life” and “serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion …” Additionally, “in a tool-using culture technology is not seen as autonomous, and is subject to the jurisdiction of some binding social or religious system.”

In a technocracy, society is “only loosely controlled by social custom and religious tradition” and it is “driven by the impulse to invent.” A technocracy, however, “does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique.  Technopoly does.”

Technopoly, in Postman’s most succinct formulation, features “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”  Postman took the assumptions informing Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management to be more less the assumptions of the “thought-world of Technopoly.” These included the following beliefs:

  • “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency”
  • “technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment”
  • “human judgment cannot be trusted because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity”
  • “subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking”
  • “what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value”
  • “the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Ironically, in Postman’s view, these assumptions amount to a “technological theology.”  In other words, while traditional theologies which governed tool-using cultures are displaced in a technocracy, in a  Technolopy a governing ideology in the mode of theology is reintroduced to order society. The function of theology has not been eradicated, it has just been reconfigured, which rather reminds me of a Dylan tune:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

I’ll leave the applications to you.