Think Technological Progress Is Always Something To Praise? Not So Fast…
The following is a republished interview I conducted. For some reason it was lost when I transferred my blog back to my domain here.
It is important, so I decided to publish it here again (slightly revised and updated)…
As I’ve written before, I get a chance to interact with some pretty fascinating people.
One of those people you will be introduced to today is Doug Hill, who has some very interesting thoughts about technology (very similar to mine). He has published a book titled Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology.
I got a chance to ask him 5 questions via email about it and he graciously answered them all. The result was a “mini-interview” that should broaden your perspective about technology, Silicon Valley, techno-utopians, and our lives.
Enjoy, my questions in bold, Doug’s answers in standard text…
- You start in the introduction by introducing a hero of yours, Lewis Mumford, and his “bird’s-eye view of technology.” Can you please give the readers of this interview a brief summary of what Mumford’s “bird’s-eye view” was?
I’m not sure how familiar your readers will be with Mumford. I’m no Mumford scholar but I’ve been profoundly influenced by his three monumental works on technology:
Technics and Civilization, Technics and Human Development and the Pentagon of Power (the last two comprise two volumes of a collective work entitled The Myth of the Machine).
Those books are informed by an incredibly deep and broad knowledge of history, combined with equally remarkable powers of critical perception. Mumford’s “bird’s eye view” of technology is a product of that combination. As a longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine, Mumford wrote well, but what’s most important are his observations regarding the fundamental characteristics of technological development.
I also quote in my introduction the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, who said that we can only begin to appreciate the nature of technology by looking at “the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern,” just as we can only begin to understand its influence when we recognize the “normal totality” of technology’s presence in the world. That normal totality has created a massive forest/trees problem that afflicts everyone who lives in the technological society.
You have to get a certain distance to be able to appreciate the degree to which technology has shaped and continues to shape our daily experience, which in turn has shaped and continues to shape who we are. That’s what Mumford meant by taking a “bird’s eye view” of technology.
- In chapter 1 you have a focus on “technological utopianism,” or the general idea that we can use technology to move closer to a “utopian” future. You focus on several thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Eric Drexler. Can you please share a brief version of your own view on this “technological utopian” viewpoint?
Technological utopianism is a way of describing the belief that technology will deliver us, soon, to some version of Eden. The two most commonly promised features of this machine-made paradise are universal plenty and endless leisure. Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists have added to the list of gifts technology will soon bestow infinite cognitive power and the eradication of death.
We hear a lot of utopian promises coming out of Silicon Valley today, and it’s startling how closely they match the promises of technological deliverance that have accompanied technological advance literally for centuries. (I quote some then and now examples of these parallels in my book, and it’s fun to see them side by side.) The utopians uniformly fail to recognize that they’re telling an old story, which testifies to the narrowness of their vision. They also fail to adequately acknowledge the myriad ways in which technological advance has taken us in the opposite direction of Eden, however you define it.
These qualities make the technological utopians truly dangerous, rather than simply annoying, because the fantasies they promulgate are so seductive. Yes, they tell us, the world is a mess, but relax: the engineers know how to fix it, and pretty soon, if we stay out of their way, they will, at which point everything will be really cool!
It’s a sales pitch that drowns out recognition of technology’s dangers, thereby undermining the possibility that we might proceed on the basis of more realistic expectations. A more measured approach could celebrate the contributions of science and technology to the betterment of the world without stimulating the pursuit of gold, glory and distraction that so dominate the technical arts today.
- My favorite part of the book is chapter 7, “The Nature of Technology.” In that chapter you explain the 4 characteristics of technology’s nature. Can you share a summary of those characteristics here?
I’m happy to hear that you liked that chapter, because that’s one I expect will rub some people the wrong way. The suggestion that machines collectively can be said to have a nature – a set of inherent characteristics that produce a consistent pattern of “behaviors” – might, at first blush, seem pretty wacky. My hope is that reading my analysis of those characteristics will allay that initial skepticism. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with my arguments, I think they can help you think about technology in a way you might not have before.
My argument about the nature of technology is set up by the book’s previous chapter, in which I review some of the definitions of technology that have been proposed by a variety of scholars over the years. My own view aligns with those who define technology broadly – systemically – a view that for me means that technological systems incorporate the human beings who run, manage, use or are used by them.
At a certain stage of development – as the size, reach and ubiquity of the technologies in question increase – dehumanization becomes an inevitable result of that incorporation. Charlie Chaplin spinning on the massive gears of the factory in Modern Times is an expression of that view. Commercial air travel entails an especially immersive absorption in the technological web most of us are familiar with today. Many people have jobs that make them feel as though they’re cogs in a machine, and from technology’s point of view, they are.
The four characteristics that identify the nature of technology are:
- Technology is by nature expansive.
- Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
- Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
- Technology by its nature strives for control.
I won’t go into detail here about what I mean by those characteristics except to emphasize that together they lead to two of the most important points of my book:
1) That to see technology accurately is to understand it as a collective entity rather than merely a set of discrete artifacts, and…
2) That in its collective effects technology embodies a force in the world that is similar to but separate from the force of nature, and in opposition to nature.
A lot of writers disagree with that last point in particular. They argue that the opposite is true, at least as far as human beings are concerned: that human nature is inherently technological. I agree we have a tendency to bond with our machines, but again, as the size, reach and ubiquity of our technologies increase, the law of diminishing returns applies. As Jacques Ellul often said, at some point a change in quantity becomes a change in quality.
- Then, in chapter 8 you bring up the possibility of humans losing control of technology. Please explain?
That’s the chapter in which I talk about the question of technological autonomy. To suggest that we don’t control our machines is another unpopular point of view that becomes more convincing upon examination. If we’re in control of our technologies we should be able to choose whether or not we want them in our lives. We simply don’t have that choice. That’s true in part because technology becomes a form of embodiment. As I said above, we’ve defined our physical world (academics would say our “surround”) and therefore our existence, by the technological structures we’ve put in place. We’ve also lost control of the impact our machines have on the environment. Global warming is the ultimate demonstration of that. We know they’re killing the planet and yet we’re incapable of taking the necessary steps to stop the damage because we can’t undo our commitments to technology.
My argument in the book is that we live today in a state of “de facto technological autonomy.” What that means is that although it is theoretically possible to live without technology, practically speaking you can’t.
To reject technology is to find yourself excluded from any meaningful participation in the culture. Try applying for a job without using the internet, for example. Try getting elected to Congress without using television. Getting by without a car is possible, but not easy; if you don’t drive, you’re marginalized. In all those examples some measure of choice is involved; they don’t account for the countless exposures to technology over which we have no control. Again, global warming is the ultimate example. The lives of Inuit fishermen in Alaska will be profoundly disrupted by climate change even though their carbon footprint is negligible.
A reasonable response to these sorts of arguments is to say, sure, there are some problems associated with technological development, but there are also innumerable benefits. On balance, we’re ahead. To that I’d say, maybe – I would never argue that technology is all bad, and I’m well aware that I personally wouldn’t survive a week in the wild without it. My own way of life is as committed to technology as anyone else’s (or almost as committed – I still don’t own a smart phone).
The point of the argument about technological autonomy is whether we can choose which technologies we want to live with and which technologies we can choose to live without. Is it really an all or nothing proposition? The nature of technology suggests that it is, and the consequences of that are disastrous, for a multitude of reasons.
- Throughout the book you refer to Jacques Ellul, as I have in many of my own essays on technology. What are some of your favorite ideas about technology that Ellul explored?
Without question Ellul has influenced my thinking about technology more than anyone else. His work is brilliant, passionate, uncompromising and, I admit, occasionally over the top. A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe intended to introduce general readers to Ellul; it’s here.
I agree with what Albert Borgmann said when I interviewed him for that piece: It’s easy to dismiss Ellul as a bringer of bad news, but what makes him important is the comprehensiveness of his explanation of the technological phenomenon coupled with his powerful moral concern.
The essence of Ellul’s argument is that technology is a unified force that imposes demands that erode and ultimately destroy the fullness of what it means to be human. He used the word “technique” rather than “technology” to make the point that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices, but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that drive technological systems as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. The central goal and overriding value of that mentality is efficiency.
Here’s a representative quote from Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in French in 1954 and in English a decade later:
It is mere vanity to wish to distinguish a technique as good or bad according to its end. Whether technique acts to the advantage of a dictator or of a democracy, it makes use of the same weapons, acts on the individual and manipulates his subconscious in identical ways, and in the end leads to the formation of exactly the same type of human being…the well-kneaded citizen.
Technique worships nothing, respects nothing. It has a single role: to strip off externals, to bring everything to light, and by rational use to transform everything into means…Far from being restrained by any scruples before the sacred, technique constantly assails it…The mysterious is merely that which has not yet been technicized.
It is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure.
How can readers get in touch, and get your book?
The short story is that I’m a journalist who has studied the history and philosophy of technology for more than twenty years. My blog is The Question Concerning Technology. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@DougHill25) dedicated to my thoughts on technology.
I haven’t been very active on any of those fronts lately, due to the pressures of a new job, but I hope to resume regular communiqués soon. My book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, is
currently in the review process at a major publisher and not currently available, but I hope it will be soon. (JOE: It’s available now at the link).