In our recent studies for the theory class, we were tasked with assessing the role and impact of technology in society.
What follows is my synopsis of each author’s view commingled with my reaction:
Neil Postman has perhaps the most thoughtful anti-technological view I have ever read. He tears down the myth of technology as panacea and urges us all to reassess our relationship with technology. Perhaps what I enjoyed most was his coining of the term ‘technological modesty’. The concept that our relationship with technology could be immodest and the implied moral order reminds me of my rural upbringing, in particular my proximity to the Amish. ‘Gelassenheit’ is the term they use to encapsulate their views, one of which is the perpetual question, “Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?”. The wisdom of both Neil and the Amish strike me as particularly relevant in the era of Google Glass, the NSA revelations, and the ubiquity of smartphones.
John Dewey was a philosopher and psychologist who wrote the book Education and Experience in 1938. Despite the difference of 75 years, many of his criticisms are shockingly relevant today. For the purposes of my presentation, I dropped the use of the word education and found a set of guidelines which are causing me to rethink my online habits. Dewey mentions in particular that any experience you have changes you and impacts future experiences. Negative experiences can form a rut which becomes harder to escape as time goes on. When an experience is not planned and has no ties to future experiences, he weighs them negatively as they can mis-educate (or mis-inform) a person. Something to think about when you are bored and choose to scroll through inane Tweets or the latest memes on Reddit instead of a good ebook.
Paul Dourish, like Neil Postman, takes a generally negative view on technology. He calls out the nature of turning the user into a commodity via their personal info as well as the blurred lines of privacy as we allow third parties to mediate our connections with our friends, family, and neighbors. As a privacy-aware frequent attendee of the HOPE conference I am particularly inclined to agree. As we were warned when the .com domain was established, the commercial internet has brought incredible changes at incredible cost.
Danah Boyd lays out a coherent argument that technology has pushed our methods of communication beyond the boundaries of our evolved processes. How can one keep up with the deluge of information? What happens when personal details are put out on the Internet with no expectation of reciprocity? I would believe that as it stands, we cannot keep up. However, as a technologist I also believe that it is possible to remedy the particular issues enumerated.
Emily Nussbaum flips the concerns of Danah, Paul, John, and Neil by showing us that the youth have adapted without any particular damage to their psyche. She also points out that by not expecting privacy to begin with, the younger generation has managed to capitalize on all of the benefits of a networked world. I largely agree with this progressive view. I have personally experienced the benefits of a networked world as I met my wife online.
C.K. Prahalad presents a very different view as well. He states that not only is technology empowering, it is necessary to lift the poor out of poverty. He defines poverty as the absence of choice. By bringing technology to the poor new markets are opened and the new information creates a market advantage for the users. I share his optimistic views on the role technology plays.
Erik Hersman holds a largely similar view to Prahalad. The fundamental differences I noticed were that he would have any developer pair up with a local entrepreneur as their knowledge is necessary and the revelation that progress does not need to follow the historical path of developed nations. It is entirely possible to skip generations of technologies with little or no ill effect.
Jocelyn Wyatt did not particularly say much about technology or it’s effect on society, but rather strongly emphasized the responsibility of the designer to be certain that their products and services truly fit well in the larger environment of their deployment. She explained the concept of ‘design thinking’ as a method of problem solving which aims to address such issues. I honestly did not particularly absorb much from this reading as it didn’t provide much support my framework.
Morality, Empowerment, and Dehumaniztion - A framework for understanding views on the role of technology in society
As you can see in the graph, there are three particular groupings which stand out: Technophobes, Technophiles, and Moral Relativists.
From the bottom, we see that both Neil Postman and Paul Dourish are Technophobes. Postman’s stance on technology is clear, however I would like to explain a little better why Paul Dourish belongs here as well. This stems from his statements on two fundamental aspects of technology: 1. To communicate via technology there is ALWAYS an intermediary. This serves to blur what are otherwise well understood relationship boundaries in the real world. 2. To use technology, particularly the networked world, you must sacrifice a piece of your private self every time. The layperson has no choice but to give away their location at a particular time, their relationships with others, their purchase history, their browsing history, and many other forms of data with each click of the mouse. I interpret his highlighting of these facts as his belief that they are fundamentally immoral.
The Moral Relativists spread across the horizontal axis each elaborated a similar stance with technology, it’s how you use it. Danah Boyd stands out as she (rightfully in my opinion) places the responsibility with the mediation of relationships on the service providers. Most of the examples she gave articulated a view that companies are not creating systems which enhance our humanity, but rather play on our evolutionarily engrained habits for monetary gain. If John Dewey were alive today he would likely wish for more curation so that a person doesn’t haphazardly flit about from Facebook post to Reddit to Twitter, but rather has a consistent and reinforcing positive means of gaining useful information while leaving the cat memes out. Emily Nussbaum however presents a more cultured view via pair of quotes by Clay Shirky which says that morality is generational, the kids are ok, and largely thriving. She does show one particular negative case as well which informs me that her view isn’t entirely positive and it is a ‘how you use it’ philosophy.
Wyatt, Hersman, and Prahalad round out the Technophiles. Each one of them articulated a view, however briefly, that technology is good for humanity on all counts. As I stated earlier with Wyatt, her paper did not merge easily with my framework. I did however gain a toehold when she mentioned the impact of technology on a particular woman. She demonstrated quite clearly that technology allowed for safe, clean, affordable drinking water for many villagers and it was only a matter of minor changes which would broaden this impact to a woman who otherwise couldn’t carry the container nor use such a large amount of water in a day. I took this view to mean that technology is empowering and moral, but its impact is largely the responsibility of the designer. Hersman and Prahalad had largely similar views with only minor variations in their implementations. For them technology was absolutely the tool for empowerment.
So where is my conflict with technology? It is because I am a technologist by exposure, training and trade. I grew up with a TRS-80 Color Computer in my bedroom from age 5. I have been raised on the view that technology has no downside whatsoever. Reading the works of Postman, Dourish, and Boyd were absolutely shocking as I had to shift my views to incorporate this notion that it’s not just the government and corporations who are abusing technology via their policies, but it is also the fundamental nature of the technology itself which can be corrupting and distracting.
As the foundation of my identity as a technologist was being demolished by these works I needed a new toehold. I found it in the Amish. By continuously examining the role of technology in their lives, they have made informed decisions which have maintained their communities and kept families tightly knit amidst a world of rapid changes.
I summarized my presentation this way:
We should all reflect on the role of technology in our lives. Look at each artifact, each site, each Twitter feed and ask ourselves two things: What impact will this have on me, and “Does this bring us together, or draw us apart?”No Comments »