The Tech Contrarians

The concept of post-literacy is often infused with and embedded in ideas of advanced technology. This is not surprising. Technology, particularly information and communications technology (ICT), has transformed almost everything we do and how we understand who we are. So pervasive and so rapid have these changes been that many of us (people and societies alike) are still trying to comprehend what it all means:

Technology is neutral.
Technology has an agenda.
We are technology.
Technology will replace us.

Perspectives on ICT vary widely. The techno cheerleaders are abundant, as are the thoughtful analysts. While the vision of post literacy described here deliberately avoids the dark side (largely because it is too easy a target to undermine a useful dialogue), there is no question the dark side exists. These perils have been articulated by a series of technology contrarians whose work challenges that status quo. Exploring their concerns and warnings will help expose some of the limitations, shortcomings, and pitfalls inherent in post-literacy.

For the most part these cautions are thoughtful and coherent. A few are just rants. Let’s start there.

Perhaps the most archetypal and enduring anti-technology rant is the manifesto of Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber, as he has come to be known, was sociopath who killed and maimed. His despicable acts cannot be justified although his rambling, often incoherent, manifesto tries to do just that.

Published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post on September 19, 1995 as part of a promise by Kaczynski to end his bombings, the manifesto (“Industrial Society and Its Future“) is the work of a madman. But like many such works, it contains some insights which are startling and valuable. Amid the ravings, some clarity.

Calling the Industrial Revolution a “disaster” for humanity and urging a “revolution against technology”, Kaczynski believed that “the technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown.” The result was a social system, a techno culture, that preferenced machines and dominated humans:

“In the future, social systems will not be adjusted to suit the needs of human beings. Instead, human beings will be adjusted to suit the needs of the system.”

This is a theme which is central to Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). Postman is an erudite and thoughtful scholar, and his work is nuanced and clear. However, his concern is similar:

“Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.”

Postman goes on at length about information overload and the glut of information which is distracting us not informing us:

“Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.”

Published in 1993, before the Internet had its full impact on the world, his observations about too much information seem quaint from our perspective. His glut was really just the trickle before the fire hose was unleashed.

However, his analysis that information has become corrosive echoes the ideas of Theodore Roszak almost a decade earlier (The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, 1986). For both Postman and Roszak the rise of information technologies cheapened the value of ideas by extolling the value of data. The dominance of “information processing” by increasingly dominate technologies led Postman to imagine a society where people were,

“relieved of any responsibility to think at all. The system would do their thinking for them. That is crucial, because it led to the idea that technique of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of Technopoly.”

For “technique” read the idea of machine intelligence that we have argued for and you have Postman’s nightmare come true. Of course, he didn’t have much time for computers as an enabler of thought and intellect:

“If the press was, as David Riesman called it, ‘the gunpowder of the mind,’ the computer, in its capacity to smooth over unsatisfactory institutions and ideas, is the talcum powder of the mind.

Postman also calls on us to oppose technology, asking for us to become “technological resistance fighters” who maintain an “epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.” The point of the singularity, in contrast, is exactly that; to make humans and machines one. Not by bolting them together but a new evolutionary state; something natural.

Bill Joy, in his famous piece in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us“, cautioned that “our most powerful 21st century technologies … are threatening to make humans an endangered species.” Calling for a countervailing attitude towards technological development that centered on ethics, humility, and a capacity for caring, Joy raised an ancient concern, that what humans were developing were too powerful for humans to understand and manage. We are the architects of our own demise. Warning that “we tend to overestimate our design abilities” with a hubris that ignores the dangers, his solution is to retreat:

“The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.”

This is highly unlikely given the predisposition of humans to explore, invent, and advance knowledge. However, the depth of Joy’s concern and his emphasis on sustaining the essence of humanity even as we explore the transformational impacts of technology are observations to remember.

Like Joy, Jaron Lanier is a technology expert who has come to seriously challenge the very tools he has had a part in developing. You are Not a Gadget (2010) is Lanier’s manifesto. And the themes are familiar. Starting from the important observation that all technologies are limiting in some dimension, Lanier calls this effect being “locked in.” Locked in because certain options, directions or expressions are prevented by the design choices made by the creators of the technologies. Some of these choices (limitations) are fine, others not so:

“Most of the ideas that have been locked in so far are not so bad, but some of the so-called web 2.0 ideas are stinkers, so we ought to reject them while we still can.”

Referencing his earlier article “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” (2006), Lanier sides with Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur, 2007) and against James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds, 2004). The result of mass collaboration, the global scale participatory culture of Web 2.0, is not wisdom but “mush.” And for Lanier, the culprits are the social networking tools that have limited our capacity to use these technologies in the humane ways expressed by Joy and Postman.

Locking in has profound consequences. As Postman (and McLuhan) warned, the tools and their imperatives shape us and our society. Technologies will enable some things but also prevent or preclude others. The pervasive nature or ecology of ICT is leading us to rethink ourselves in its image. Lanier is blunt:

“I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.”

Donald Norman (Things That Make Us Smart, 1993) echoes this in the context of the rise of ubiquitous computing:

“I am concerned that the new tools have moved us in unexpected ways to accept experience as a substitute for thought.”

Is a digital human an evolutionary advantage or a decline from our essential nature? The techno contrarians offer cautionary insights into how advanced technologies can shape, even warp or distort, ourselves and our societies. What Faustian bargain are we entertaining? Alternately, what capacity might we deny ourselves for fear of unanticipated consequences?

Postman observed that “technological change is neither additive or subtractive. It is ecological” (Technopoly, 1993). By that he meant that this sort of change is pervasive and all encompassing. It is a type of change that becomes us not merely something that happens to us.

Post-literacy is not imagined as a simple toolset. Like the alphabet, it becomes part of who we are at a profound and intimate level. Those who challenge the impact of advanced technologies are canaries in the coal mine of this new exploration and we ignore their insights at our peril.

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The most famous of contemporary contrarians, Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010), deserves his own separate consideration.

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