Posted: October 13, 2014 in Culture, Debate, Idle Nonsense, Science, Technophilia
Tags: , ,

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.

  1. the Heretick says:

    This is just a metaphor for the subtle enslavement of the human being to “intelligent” machines; a programmed symbiosis of man and computer in which assistance and the much trumpeted “dialogue between man and the machine” scarcely conceal the premises: not of an avowed racial discrimination this time so much as of the total, unavowed disqualification of the human in favor of the definitive instrumental conditioning of the individual.
    Virilio, Paul and Julie Rose (Translator). “The Art of The Motor.” in: Stanford University. (Original Publication:) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 133-156.

  2. Clem says:

    So there’s a range of value to innovations. Some tech is better, some not. And this by itself isn’t new. So perhaps the issue now is how rapidly the new tech comes at us (thus requiring so much time filtering the grain from the chaff). And not only is there such a mountain of new and different, but the landscape of tech’s sources is expanding with rapid global communication and transportation. Perhaps that marvel – the Homo sapien brain – hasn’t evolved fast enough to keep up.

    For my eyes this appears just another two edged sword. Without some effort it is easy to get overwhelmed by the onslaught of convenience. But on the positive side – there are technologies which can help us fix things around us (and I realize ‘fix’ becomes a value laden notion… what needs to be fixed?; what priority does this or that repair deserve? etc. ). And effort is also needed to discern what sorts of future circumstances have to be at the very least ‘considered’ or ‘anticipated’ so we aren’t caught with too little opportunity for fruitful response.

    And on this latter matter – time to respond to circumstances at hand – is where I sense the two of us most disagree. Technophobia may be a problem for some of us, but it isn’t the salient matter. Insightful valuation, and proper application of tech innovations are important. This and the old fashioned need for some ‘elbow grease’ – putting in the time and effort to think about circumstances and how technology can help – will serve us better.

    • Brutus says:

      I’m not so sure we disagree; much of what you have to say I merely left unsaid. It’s obvious that there are good and bad effects to technology and innovation.

      My objections are basically three: (1) reflexive embrace of anything new coming down the pike, (2) the destabilizing speed at which modern tech operates, and (3) the wholesale transformative powers granted by some technologies, which we don’t possess the wisdom to manage properly. Aggregate effects of technology continue to pile up, which often look like demographic shifts when maybe they’re something else. If Thibodeau and the others he quotes have any circumspection about these issues, it’s not apparent in his whining article.

      • Clem says:

        Sorry – I wasn’t clear… where we have disagreed in the past – as for how much longer we can keep the ship afloat. On the matter at hand, Thibodeau’s article… I have to agree. But so much fodder is perhaps something akin to all the technology about – lots of chaff and only so much worth our time.

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