Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

There Is No Such Thing As Technology

I make this point incessantly here on Amor Mundi, but it's clearly time to make it yet again.

Many self-identified technoprogressive folks I admire enormously otherwise regularly say what seem to me to be utterly mystifying things to the effect that they are "champions of technology" and that this championing arrays them against villainous others -- usually described as "luddites" or "technophobes" -- who "oppose technology" with a deadly ferocity equal to the passion of the goodly would-be champions. The stakes of this confrontation are, to all appearances, enormously high for those who are invested in talking this way. Likewise, many self-identified environmentalist folks I admire enormously (not all of whom are technoprogressive, self-identified or otherwise) regularly say what seem to me to be equally mystifying things to the effect that "technology causes more problem than it solves" and that, therefore, "more technology is the last thing we need" right about now.

I know how to draw a pinhead droplet of nectar from a honeysuckle blossom, and I can draw a reasonably common-sensible proposition easily enough from each these formulations as well: "Don't uncritically or reflexively prefer the status quo over needed intervention out of what amounts to the complacency or timidity of privilege." And: "Don't confuse hypothetical technofixes with actually-existing solutions to actually-existing problems." See how easy that was? But setting all that aside for a moment I think it probably better repays our attention to direct it here to the incredibly problematic underlying premise on which both of these formulations (before my reasonable retroactive reconstructions of them) deeply depend for most of their actual force.

You see, the problem is that there is, after all, no such thing as "technology."

To say otherwise is, as often as not, a straightforward matter of confusing "technologies" for "Technology."

There is, one might usefully say, a general discourse of technology, a discourse through which, through a shifting proliferating swarm of developmental pathways, some artifice gets called "technology" while other artifice does not. This usually seems to have something to do with what happens personally or more generally to be more or less "familiar" or "unfamiliar" to people. It often responds to symptomatic investments of fears and fantasies of agency (omnipotence/impotence) that historically, often accidentally, come to encrust certain kinds of made things more than others ("next generation" medicine, humanoid automatons, fast vehicles, megascale engineering projects, and so on).

But there is no such thing as "technology in general."

There is no such thing as "technology in general" to champion or to fear.

There is no such thing as "technology in general" to be "pro-" or "con-" for.

There is no such thing as "technology in general" the championing of which or battling against which then, inevitably enough, provides the rationale for some people to assign to themselves the status of "defender of civilization" or "savior of humanity."

There is no such thing as "technology in general" either solving more or less problems than "it" causes.

Problems are specific and diverse, needs are specific and diverse, stakes are specific and diverse, the positions from which problems, needs, and stakes are grasped and articulated are also specific and diverse.

I think the term "Technology" is like the terms "Reason" or "Action," as when people actually offer up bland vacuities like "Let Us Now Apply Reason!" or "Let Us Now Act!" in the face of some concrete complex quandary and then pretend (or even actually believe?) that there is something practically useful or distinctive about such a recommendation at that level of generality. These are all thin, glacial, mountain-top abstractions, miles and miles away from connecting to contestatory specificities in anything like a useful way.

These formulations almost always derange deliberation, whatever position one assumes within these debates. Even the ungainly phrase "technodevelopmental social struggle," which I have been trying to steer people to here on Amor Mundi as a way of articulating these issues that is alive to their breadth, intensity, inter-implication, while always directing us to the actually existing scene of concrete, plural, ongoing stakeholder contestation of this field, maybe even this ungainly phrase is, despite my efforts and intentions, still too abstract and monolithic.

Come what may, I do think insisting on the phrasing "technodevelopmental social struggle" is a salutary effort to resist the facile and ultimately conservative ("retro-futurist") rhetoric of "natural progress," of "autonomous technology," or of "neoliberal innovation" (ie, confiscatory wealth concentration). Even better, because so much simpler, may be the straightforward expedient of never confusing what are always particular technologies among many more for Technology "as such" or "in general."


Jamais Cascio said...

You elucidate very nicely why my typical response to anyone talking about "Technology" is to say " 'Technology' is anything invented after you turned 13."

Dale Carrico said...

" 'Technology' is anything invented after you turned 13." It's so true!

n8o said...

I totally take your point. Keep harping on it; it WILL sink in - I promise! :)

By broadening "technology" to any form of finding solutions to problems, you can back the luddite "anti-tech" position into either the absurd position that no problem can have any kind of acceptable solution, or a more mature, nuanced discussion of the drawbacks and advantages of specific solutions, whether they lend themselves to characterization as "technologies", or not (say "techniques" or "methods).

But by this point, we could also do well to pinpoint more specifically the type of objections we're responding to: those who would advocate repealing, rather than refining, existing solutions as a rule, regardless of whether or not participants in such discussions had reached puberty before their proposal or implementation (heh).