Over the last three years of writing this column, a question has repeatedly come up in mail sent to me by readers. Why, some people ask, do I "blame" technology for social problems? After all, technology is "merely a tool."
Technology itself is "neutral," some of these readers write. How technology is used depends on the motives and ethics of the people who use it, not on anything inherent in the technology itself.
On the face of it, this is a fairly obvious assertion. Technology has no more capability of having intentions than a rock or a sofa. "Blaming" technology is not that different from blaming a rock that falls on your head. It's pointless and even oxymoronic.
And yet, with technology the answer is not quite that simple.
This is one of the points made recently in a document posted on the Web by a group of writers and technology critics who have called themselves "technorealists."
The document was created to stake out intellectual territory that the original signers--12 well-known and mostly young technology writers--say has been neglected in recent public discussions about technology. The "technorealist" statement--the authors refuse to call it a "manifesto"--has sparked an intense debate on various Internet discussion sites, such as Feed magazine and the Well, and it was a hot topic of discussion at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival held last week in Austin.
The technorealist statement (http://www.technorealism.org) offers eight "basic principles of technorealism." The first one is "technologies are not neutral."
"A great misconception of our time," the authors say, "is the idea that technologies are completely free of bias--that because they are inanimate artifacts, they don't promote certain kinds of behaviors over others. In truth, technologies come loaded with both intended and unintended social, political and economic leanings. Every tool provides its users with a particular manner of seeing the world and specific ways of interacting with others. It is important for each of us to consider the biases of various technologies and to seek out those that reflect our values and aspirations."
The other seven principles, described as the basic points of a perspective on technology that attempts to avoid both fear and boosterism, are:
* The Internet is revolutionary but not Utopian.
* Government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier.
* Information is not knowledge.
* Wiring the schools will not save them.
* Information wants to be protected.
* The public owns the airwaves, and the public should benefit from their use.
* Understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship.
Each of these points is described in detail in the technorealist document. Based on these principles, and on the obvious need for a perspective that might help bring balance to contemporary discussions about technology, I'm a "technorealist" too. I also signed the document as a supporter of these principles.
There have been critics, of course. Todd Lappin, an editor at Wired magazine, quickly noted that there is what he called a "major 'duh' factor" in the technorealist statement--meaning that most, if not all, of the assertions in it are obvious and even banal.
Steven Johnson, co-founder and editor of Feed magazine on the Web (http://www.feedmag.com), responded, "This was exactly the point. We thought that these assertions needed to be brought together as common wisdom, under a new name, so that people would have a reference point in discussions about technology. Someone could say, 'I take a more technorealist position on that.' "
The document says, "Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history."
This has clearly not been true of most popular writing about technology in the last decade--the press has swung from hype to counter-hype, from statements such as the Internet is the greatest thing since the discovery of fire, to the idea that the Net is the world's most polluted pipeline of pornography and pedophilia. A balanced, critical perspective has been lost or buried.
The technorealism authors could have gone further, in my opinion. They left out a principle that I regard as one of the most important, if not the most important, of our time. This is the fact that technology is currently implicated in an alarming increase in social and economic inequality, both within nations and between nations and regions of the world. If we don't fix this, our children and heirs will live in perpetually turbulent, violent and precarious conditions. The word "inequality" is not present in the technorealism document, however.
While it is a relief to see some young and very smart thinkers about the digital era come forth with a long-overdue statement of balance and rationality, we still have a long way to go to match the intellectual contributions of earlier generations. This is not fully the fault of our younger intellectuals--the critical tradition in the United States and the role of the public intellectual have both nearly died out, and there are few role models left. We need to look back at figures such as George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, James Agee as a benchmark for what we should be doing.
Unfortunately, younger critics of technology today tend to have (with a few exceptions) a somewhat superficial grasp of history, philosophy and life in other cultures. Contemporary writing about digital technologies suffers from being too style-conscious and hip. This makes it engaging, often witty and whip-smart, but also weightless and unlikely to stand the test of time.
Finally, there are far too few technological pundits who acquire their values and principles by doing the hard work of day-to-day change in the arena of politics that confronts the urgent problems of race and class in the United States today. There is too much "life on the screen" and not enough life on the streets. While the principles of technorealism are worthy and overdue, they still feel disconnected from the lives of ordinary working Americans struggling to adjust to a new world.
"The point of philosophy," wrote the all-time grandmaster of technorealism, Karl Marx, "is not to understand the world, but to change it."
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com