Computerworld has a preposterous article by Patrick Thibodeau entitled “Why We Live in an Anti-Tech Age.” The argument is that science is the object of hatred and “real” technological progress has stalled because it hasn’t given us a serious game-changer since … well, the early decades of the Atomic Era cum Space Age. The explicit suggestion, quoting David Hanaman, is that modern tech may have “a lot of cool technology, and it has made first-world lives maybe a little more superficially fun, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the human condition.” Thibodeau also cites dystopian movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Avatar, Elysium, and Gravity as reflections of society’s hostility to tech. I guffawed at these assertions. Here’s another one, citing Peter Thiel:
Technology has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1950s or 1960s. During that period, it meant computers and rockets, underwater cities, new forms of energy and all sorts of supersonic airplanes. Since then, there “has been this narrowing” view that technology is mostly information technology.
Sure, it’s different now. The field of play has shifted. Then, it was more about big, centrally funded government projects (infrastructure and otherwise), remote and exotic places, and traversing the spaces between. Now, projects are more likely corporate or crowd-sourced, and we take for granted international shipping and travel, bringing much more of the world to our homes both materially and digitally.
What irritates me most is that Thibodeau assesses the public attitude toward tech, or more appropriately, high-tech and innovation, completely wrong. The public has none of the considered reluctance or refusal to engage with tech that would earn them the slur Luddites. Indeed, lines around the block for each new release of the
Jesus Phone iPhone demonstrate how much in demand are the latest tech products. The public is heavily primed to adopt anything innovative coughed up by technology, such as wearable computers (e.g., Google Glass) and 3D TVs. However, the public simply doesn’t understand basic scientific principles or much of resulting technology beyond childish, push-button interfaces, and even that has proven to be too much, as the modest difficulty of setting VCR clocks revealed decades ago. There’s a reason why devices are designed to be plug-and-play: the public can’t use them otherwise. As a result, to the public, what tech delivers is more nearly magic, and that engenders distrust and fear (e.g., self-driving cars), which is foolishly mistaken by Thibodeau as hostility. What portion of the public uses more than a small fraction of the full capability of smart phones, computers, automobiles, etc., which are BTW constantly adding new, unneeded features, is a matter of debate. But Americans in particular are unlike Asians, who often drill down to the most arcane and pointless aspects of the user experience solely to demonstrate prowess.
My other irritation is the risible assertion, quoted above, namely, Hanaman’s remark concerning the human condition. Why would that be any kind of measure of successful innovation? Further, as ought to be clear to anyone paying attention, we are in the midst of an epochal shift in the way human cognition functions, which is a direct result of wall-to-wall engagement with media. Literacy and education have taken nose dives in the last few decades. We now outsource basic mental processes to computers and gather opinions and attitudes by listening to some of the worst pundits and demagogues the public sphere has has created through a perverse set of financial incentives that reward noxious infamy. This leads directly to debasement of institutions both real and idealized (e.g., democracy) that rely on an informed public able to think critically and act responsibly in the interest of themselves and the commonweal.
Examining how these shifts affect society as a whole would be a very long undertaking and lies outside the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that many sociologists, philosophers, and even technologists from the early decades of the 20th century have documented and demonstrated how society in the modern era has lost much of its beauty, meaning, and spirituality at the hands of technical progress. Cool gadgets, conveniences, efficiencies, and entertainments have not actually served us very well in the long run. In fact, they have weakened and diminished the human condition at the same time we are granted amazing powers of creation and destruction. It’s impossible to know sometimes whether science, technology, and innovation are on balance salutary or demonic, but certain aspects are certainly recognizable as unspeakably nasty. Gradual shifts occurring over the span of generations are harder to assess, but hindsight is beginning to reveal that we are increasingly hollow men and women, largely because of technology’s effects. Thibodeau’s reflexive technophilia and marshaling of quotable entrepreneurs slavering for some new, game-changing innovation are plainly poor analysis.