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[foocamp06] All technology is neutral

[As always, all of this is me rapidly paraphrasing, paying attention most to what happens to interest me, and putting everything worse than the speakers did.]

Chris Csikszentmihalyi says science doesn’t work the way it thinks it does. For one thing, only 3-5% of experiments are re-proven. Often that’s because they’re so sensitive to instruments and materials. Also, much of the knowledge is tacit. Instead, scientific conflicts are usually settled by looking at the lab it came from, etc.

So, his lab wants to know what types of research isn’t getting done.

Three dualisms: 1. The Prayer Gauge Debate. In the 19th Century there were attempts to measure the efficacy of prayer. Science went up against a popular paradigm. Chris contrasts this with lab press releases getting done if they promise a cure for cancer. I.e., scientists learn to mis-represent their projects in order to get funded.

2. Mertonian Norms. Merton said that scientists work for commonality, universalism, and organized skepticism. Vs. 80% of MIT funding comes from the US government. To the scientists involved, the knowledge they develop is not politicized. But Chris’ Indian friends see it as inevitably and very much politicized.

3. Tool neutrality. But saying it’s neutral is like saying that from far away, everything is small. Vs. Technology is out of control. If it’s out of control, it is an agent, and thus isn’t neutral. [Hmm. This contrast isn’t symmetrical.]

Chris’ conclusion: We know very little about how technology works, and we tend to very sloppy in how we think about it.

He gives a couple of examples of non-neutral tech: A Lebanese grad student is consistently searched multiple times when coming across the US border, so she built a suit that records the pat-downs.

And a student created a personal audio device that integrates ambient sounds, so that someone speaking to you is brought in as someone singing beautifully.

Me: If someone says what they’re building is neutral, you can ask them, “Then why are you building it?”

Chris: Given where the funding for tech is coming from, given how hard it is, how can we build stuff that isn’t just neutral? Bruno Latour’s example: The thingies that automatically pull the door closed behind you. You get one after the sign you put up that says “Please close the door” fails to work. The door now shifts from normally being open to being shut.

Kaliya Hamlin: The interesting thing is to shift where the money is coming from.

Quinn Norton: Socially responsible investing has the reputation of being money-losing, but it’s not.

Tom Coates: I’m reminded of research that showed that initially took sperm as the active principle and eggs as lazy. And looking at only one sexuality scale rather than multiples is silly. Examining these premises is useful. Not everything is right.

Chris: The idea of bedrock is troubling. Diverse interpretations work.

Tom: But some paradigms advance us. E.g., the info model of the brain lets us do more than the old pneumatic one.

Chris tries to steer the discussion from this topic because, he thinks, it can progress without having to resolve the issue. Chris and Tom agree that all are politicized.

Zack Exley: For the past 150 years ago we’ve been stuck in this abstract argument.The solution is to do something. Make something. Run for Congress. More smart people in Congress.

Kaliyah: It’s a structural problem.

Someone: VCs are investing heavily in non-military projects aimed at making the world better.

[Conversation gets too thick to take notes on sensibly. And, as you may have noticed, the above doesn’t capture the conversation up to this point very well. Sorry.]

Chris: Right now, engineers generally look at the efficiency of solutions. My thirty year goal is to expand the considerations. E.g., suppose the democratic quotient or the egalitarian quotient were involved? We don’t have a lot of language for talking about this.

Zack: Why would a corporation do this?

Chris: They can do this in part because of the myth of the neutrality of technology.

Me: But “tech is neutral” is only a rationalization. If you could get the corporate mission to be enhance shareholder value AND make the world better, you wouldn’t have to worry about the rationalization.

Chris: But 18 year old engineers-to-be are taught that they don’t need to consider the effect of their tech on the world because they’ve been taught that tech is neutral.

Kaliya: You should read Engineering by Design…

[It continues...]

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2 Responses to “[foocamp06] All technology is neutral”

  1. You are way off dude… and I doubt you or most everyone else understands why… There is an author out there who’s day job is working for ABC-TV, and on the weekends, travels with a book tour… Right now he’s touring with his new book “The Bird Flu Survival Handbook.” This past weekend I traveled to Ashland, Virginia and met the author… But not to talk about bird flu… His next book is posted on Google for download… “The Human Quantum Leap.” Wanna guess what it is all about? First Conatact… This guy, AJ Ensor has written about his life long friend and hands over for anyone to read the science of space travel… It’s right there in black and white no guessing… I ask him why he has it only on Google Books and he said that it took him 10 days to write the last chapter and 3 months to edit it and it’s still not perfected because everyone is still having problems with the science part… I suggested that most people aren’t scientists… he agreed but said “what’s the point in knowing the truth if you can’t understand it…?” He leaves it for Internet downloads so people can read and challenge the material… the book is at

    but his home page with e-mail is his fist book which is a competitor for Harry Potter and that’s

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