Joho the Blog » technodeterminism

September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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July 28, 2013

The shockingly short history of the history of technology

In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition [1] to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.

You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.”[2] Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science [3], a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,”[4] that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!

The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology. [5] His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.[6])

Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” [7]. And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” [8]) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”[9]

So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.


[1] Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology'” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.

[3] Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.

[4] Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12

[5] Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.

[6] Multhauf, p. 3.

[7] Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.

[8] Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.

[9] Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.

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June 10, 2013

Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism

I’m leaving tomorrow night for a few days in Germany as a fellow at the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Research on Culture and Technology. I’ll be giving a two-day workshop with about 35 students, which I am both very excited about and totally at sea about. Except for teaching a course with John Palfrey, who is an awesomely awesome teacher, I haven’t taught since 1986. I was good at the time, but I forget the basics about structuring sessions.

Anyway, enough of that particular anxiety. I’m also giving a public lecture on Thursday at the city library (Stadtbibliothek am Mailänder Platz). It’ll be in English, thank Gott! My topic is “What the Web Uncovers,” which is a purposeful Heidegger reference. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write this, and finally on Sunday completed a draft. It undoubtedly will change significantly, but here’s what I plan on saying at the beginning:

In 1954, Heidegger published “The Question about Technology” (Die Frage nach der Technik). I re-read it recently, and discovered why people hold Heidegger’s writing in such disdain (aside from the Nazi thing, of course). Wow! But there are some ideas in it that I think are really helpful.

Heidegger says that technology reveals the world to us in particular ways. For example, a dam across a river, which is one of his central examples, reveals the natural world as Bestand, which gets translated into English as “standing reserve” or “resource”: power waiting to be harnessed by humans. His point I think is profound: Technology should be understood not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it reveals about the world and what the world means to us. That is in fact the question I want to ask: What does the world that the Web uncovers look like? What does the Web reveal?

This approach holds the promise of letting us talk about technology from beyond the merely technical position. But it also happens to throw itself into an old controversy that has recently re-arisen. It sounds as if Heidegger is presenting a form of technodeterminism — the belief that technology determines our reaction to it, that technology shapes us. Against technodeterminism it is argued quite sensibly that a tool is not even a tool until humans come along and decide to use it for something. So, a screwdriver can be used to drive screws, but it could also be used to bang on a drum or to open and stir a can of paint. So, how could a screw driver have an effect on us, much less shape us, if we’re the ones who are shaping it?

Heidegger doesn’t fall prey to technodeterminism because one of his bedrock ideas is that things don’t have meaning outside of the full context of relationships that constitute the entire world — a world into which we are thrown. So, technology doesn’t determine us, since it takes an entire world to determine technology, us, and everything else. Further, in “Die Frage nach der Technik,” he explains the various historical ways technology has affected us by referring to a mysterious history of Being that gives us that historical context. But I don’t want to talk about that, mainly because insofar as I understand it, I find it deeply flawed. Even so I think we want to be able to talk about the effect of technology, granting that it’s not technology itself taken in isolation, but rather the fact that we do indeed come to technology out of a situation that is historical, cultural, social, and even individual.

So, how does the Web reveal the world? What does the world look like in the Age of the Web? (And that means: what does it look like to us educated Westerners with sufficient leisure time to consider such things, etc.) Here are the subject headings of the talk until I rewrite it as I inevitably do: chaotic, unmasterable, messy, interest-based, unsettling, and turning us to a shared world about which we disagree. This is very unlike the way the world looks in the prior age of technology, the age about which Heidegger was writing. Yet, I find at the heart of the Web-revealed world the stubborn fact that the world is revealed through human care: we are creatures that care about our existence, about others, and about our world. Care (Sorge) is at the heart of early Heidegger’s analysis.

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December 7, 2012

Are things different? Taleb on the future

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (a book about modeling that is unlikely to star Natalie Portman) has a new book out — Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — that has been excerpted by Salon in an article titled “The future will not be cool.” I haven’t read the new book. so what follows is based purely on this 2,000-word excerpt.

Taleb makes a point that challenges some pretty deep assumptions. Life, he says, really hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years:

Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.

Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different…

So, why, Taleb wonders, do we keep predicting that technology will radically transform our future? His answer:

Odds are that your imagination will be adding things to the present world. I am sorry, but this approach is exactly backward: the way to do it rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things that do not belong to the coming times.

I am not saying that new technologies will not emerge — something new will rule its day, for a while. What is currently fragile will be replaced by something else, of course. But this “something else” is unpredictable.

The excerpt doesn’t explain what Taleb means by “fragile,” which is the theme of his book apparently, but, after a digression critiquing hip technologists who are too technocratic and uncultured for his taste, he gives some examples. Paperwork was fragile, which we know because the Internet has removed so much of it. Shoe manufacturers are moving from over-engineered shoes to “shoes that replicate being barefoot.” The iPad et al. return us to the “Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take (sic) notes on a tablet. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand…”

Oh dear.

I’m confused by his overall theme as expressed in this exceprt, since he uses Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell as examples of futurists who got it wrong, but they would have gotten it far wronger if they had predicted the future by subtraction. The very things Taleb hopes will be subtracted — “deleterious, unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding technology” — were by and large added during the past 150 years. Thus, predictions would have gone right if they had anticipated those additions. Presumably this is cleared up in the book itself.

But let’s go back to the passage I quoted at the beginning that argues that futurologists have tended to over-estimate the extent of change, and that life is pretty much as it always was.

Well, yes and no. At the highest levels of abstraction, Taleb is right: We still eat, shit, and fuck. We still talk with one another. Many of us still live in climates that shove our unclothed bodies out of homeostasis. We still have a system of specialization and economic exchange that lets you cook for me if I provide you with some compensation. So, yes, we eat together, wear clothes, and go to restaurants. We have not transcended our biology, our basic sociality, or our need for a culture and economy. Therefore we have not progressed?

Perhaps the problem is with using eating dinner in a nice restaurant as our example. Perhaps we might look at the systems by which Taleb is served his wine and artisanal cheese. If you can’t tell the difference between a basket and a truck, between a scythe and a thresher, between a root cellar and a refrigerated container vessel, between vassals and unionized farm workers, between planting last year’s seeds and genetically altering crops, between slavery and social mobility, then, yes, you’ll see no progress on your plate.

Ok, I admit that I’m not getting it. I look forward to reading his book.

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August 4, 2012

Ethanz on culture’s shaping of technology

I wasn’t sure how to title this post from a few weeks ago by Ethan Zuckerman. His own title is also inadequate: “Kenya, Power, and Questioning My Assumptions.” It’s not so much that the title is bad as that the post is too, too rich.

Holy cow, Ethan is a good writer. And this piece is superb in every direction. It’s structured around assumptions of his that were overturned by his visit to an “upscale slum” in Nairobi, exploring what might be needed from a power generating business he is involved in. (No, he’s not turning into a utilities baron.) In the course of the post, we learn at every level possible: about technology, economics, communities, Nairobi, and the persnickety ways culture shapes technology.

Ethan is special. If you know him or have heard him you already know that. So I would never want to generalize based on him. But he’s engaged in a style of writing that we simply would not have been able to find in the past, which meant that people didn’t bother writing it. Thank you, Internet!

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October 23, 2011

Waiting for the Italian spring

Journalist and friend Luca de Biase wonders why the Italians have not risen up against the unabashed corruption of the Berlusconi years.

Italians are living an “after war”, a cultural war that devastated the country. Rebels have conquered the government and have destroyed peace, in Italy. Fear, urgencies, finances, are concentrating attention on the short term. Italians can rebel again. But most of all, they need perspective and peace.

How to get peace?

Luca suggests a direction more than an answer:

Italians, probably, don’t really need a rebellion. They need a shared vision based on facts and reality (not on ideology and reality shows): a deep cultural change, that helps them in understanding their shared project, that helps rebuild a perspective and that makes them look ahead with an empirically based hope.

Although Luca does not say so in this piece, I suspect he looks to the Internet as a tool for forging that shared vision and project.

(Luca has invited me to the Italian Internet Governance conference in Trento in November for a panel discussion. Perhaps part of our discussion can be whether the lack of an Italian Spring indicates a failure of the Internet as a political/cultural tool. After all, if we’re going to give some credit to the Net for its role in Arab Spring, then shouldn’t it get some of the blame? Or, should we wonder how much worse the Italian situation would be if there were no alternative at all to Berlusconi’s Orwellian control of the mass media?)

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November 24, 2010

Rich Net users are different

A new Pew Internet survey confirms some obvious assumptions as well as some not so obvious ones about differences in how the Net is used by those with more money and those with less.

For example, U.S. households with an income of $75K tend to have faster connections and more Net devices. But also:

  • “Even among those who use the internet, the well off are more likely than those with less income to use technology.”

  • The richer are more likely to get their news online.

  • “Some 86% of internet users in higher-income households go online daily, compared with 54% in the lowest income bracket.”

  • “79% of the internet users in the higher earning bracket have visited a government website at the local, state or federal level versus 56% of those who fall into the lowest-income group”

Obviously, there may well be other correlations going on here. But it’s an interesting report, and one that confirms for those who need it that the Net is different depending on the circumstances within which it is embedded.

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October 21, 2010

Brazilian library slides

The conference I talked at in Rio yesterday has posted the slides from my keynote. You can download them here. The talk was organized around five characteristics of the Net just about anyone experiences by spending even a little time there. More particularly, what do those characteristics tell us about knowledge?

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October 18, 2010

Berkman report on circumvention tools

The Berkman Center has released a new report on the use of tools to circumvent restrictions on the Internet imposed by countries that control their citizens’ access to the Net. This is important especially given the State Department’s commitment funding of such tools (“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.”).

Here is a brief summary from the email announcing the report:

In this report, the authors use a variety of methods to evaluate the usage of the first three of these four types of tools to test two hypotheses. First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools, they find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies. Second, even when including the more widely-used simple web proxies, the authors find that overall usage of circumvention tools is still very small in proportion to the number of Internet users in countries with substantial national Internet filtering.

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February 21, 2010

[ahole] Human rights and the Internet

I can’t go to a conference on an Amnesty International conference on whether technology is good for human rights., but the organizes said they were accepting videos and other contributions. So, I dashed this off in a hotel room the other day.

Evgeny Morozov very likely disagrees.

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