Making Peace with the Machine: The Case for Technological Realism - David Black, Royal Roads University


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David Black, Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, presented these slides as part of the Cybera Summit 2010 session "Techno-skeptics: A Critique of the Role of Technology in Western Society". For more information, visit

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Making Peace with the Machine: The Case for Technological Realism - David Black, Royal Roads University

  1. 1. Cybera  2010   Making  Peace  with  the  Machine:     The  case  for  technological  realism   September  22,  2010  
  2. 2. Technological  realism:   •  Technological  realism  is  a  posi=on   that  recognizes  that  we  cannot  un-­‐ the  middle  range  view   invent  technology  or  erase  the  values   in  Western  culture  that  have  made  it   so  technologically  innova=ve   •  But  it  recognizes  that,  in  the  name  of   realism,  that  we  cannot  benefit  by   either  uncri=cally  embracing  or   rejec=ng  technology   •  We  have  to  be  as  smart  as  the   technologies  we  create,  but  we  need   to  define  that  intelligence  in  poli=cal,   cultural  and  ethical  terms,  not  just  in   our  ingenuity  in  crea=ng  and   marke=ng  new  technologies   Richard  Feynman   •  Technological  realism  is  a  body  of   wri=ng  about  technology  highly   sensi=ve  to  the  poli=cal,  cultural  and   ethical  nature  of  technology  
  3. 3. Technological  realism:   the  middle-­‐range  view          “As  technorealists,  we  seek  to  expand  the  fer=le  middle   ground  between  techno-­‐utopianism  and  neo-­‐Luddism.  We   are  technology  ‘cri=cs’  in  the  same  way,  and  for  the  same   reasons,  that  others  are  food  cri=cs,  art  cri=cs,  or  literary   cri=cs.    We  can  be  passionately  op=mis=c  about  some   technologies,  skep=cal  and  disdainful  of  others.    S=ll,  our   goal  is  neither  to  champion  nor  dismiss  technology,  but   rather  to  understand  it  and  apply  it  in  a  manner  more   consistent  with  basic  human  values.”   From  Technological  Realism  website  
  4. 4. Technological  realism:   major  principles     Technologies  are  not  neutral.       The  Internet  is  revolu=onary,  but  not  Utopian.       Informa=on  is  not  knowledge.       Understanding  technology  should  be  an  essen=al  component  of     ci=zenship.       Governments  and  markets  both  have  a  role  in  the  development   and  management  of  technology.  
  5. 5. Exhibit  #1:   •  Mumford  was  an  American  historian  of   Lewis  Mumford   science,  architecture,    and  technology,   and  wrote  on  literature  and  current   affairs   •  Mumford  had  a  remarkable  intellectual   range,  and  is  regarded  as  one  of  the  best   minds  in  the  20th  century   •  His  major  scholarly  books  rela=ng  to   technology  are:     Technics  and  Civiliza/on  (1934)     The  Myth  of  the  Machine  (1967)   •  Long  before  it  was  fashionable,  Mumford   sought  to  balance  the  presence  of   technology  in  our  lives  with  design   principles  taken  from  ecology   Mumford  (1895-­‐1990)  
  6. 6.      “If  we  are  to  prevent   megatechnics  from  further   controlling  and  deforming   every  aspect  of  human   culture,  we  shall  be  able  to   do  so  only  with  the  aid  of  a   radically  different  model   derived  directly,  not  from   machines,  but  from  living   organisms  and  organic   complexes  (ecosystems).”   Mumford,   The  Myth  of  the  Machine  
  7. 7. Mumford:  against  the  “myth  of  the  machine”   • The  “myth  of  the  machine”  was  Mumford’s  term  for  our  mistaken  belief  that  technology   is  the  factor  that  ul=mately  determines  the  direc=on  of  history   • Insofar  as  we  believe  in  what  technology  cri=cs  call  “technological  determinism,”  we   become  cap=ve  to  its  spell,  and  as  a  result  act  passively  toward  technological  change     • Technology  does  not  have  determining  power  on  its  own,  and  only  exerts  itself  if  we   believe  in  the  myth  of  its  ul=mate  power   • A  strong  and  confident  culture  –  with  its  beliefs,  values,  and  ethics  -­‐-­‐  is  the  best  means   to  channel  technology’s  energies  in  a  socially  construc=ve  manner  and  deflect  the  myth   of  the  machine   • One  powerful  resource  for  culture  with  which  technology  might  be  shaped  to  humane   purposes  was  ecology,  as  he  saw  in  ecology  and  design  principles  inspired  by  ecology  a   correc=ve  to  raw  technological  forces   • One  form  this  work  has  taken  is  the  pursuit  of  elements  of  what  scholars  call  a   “technoculture”:  elements  or  principles  within  culture  resistant  to  the  myth  of  the   machine,  and  useful  in  adap=ng  it  to  socially  construc=ve  ends  
  8. 8. Exhibit  #2:   • Daniel  Boors=n  was  a  Pulitzer-­‐prize   Daniel  BoorsPn   winning  historian,  a  former  Librarian  of   the  U.S.  Congress,  and  one  of  the  most   widely  read  public  intellectuals  in  20th   century  America   • A  law  professor  by  profession,  he  was   beaer  known  as  a  historian,  and  his  many   books  on  American  history  sold  millions   of  copies   • His  best  known  book  on  technology  is   The  Republic  of  Technology,  published  in   1978   • The  key  idea  that  follows  from  this  book   is  the  “republic  of  technology,”  the  term   Boors=n  gave  to  the  form  in  which   technology  had  reorganized  society  and   Daniel  BoorsPn,   poli=cs  in  the  20th  century   1914-­‐2004  
  9. 9. “Our  Republic  of  Technology  is   not  only  more  democra=c  but   also  more  in  the  American   mode.  Anyone  can  be  a  ci=zen.   Largely  a  crea=on  of  American   civiliza=on  in  the  last  century,   this  republic  offers  a  foretaste   of  American  life  in  our  next   century.  It  is  open  to  all,   because  it  is  a  community  of   shared  experience.”   BoorsPn   The  Republic  of  Technology  
  10. 10. BoorsPn:  toward  a  republic  of  technology   •  The  rela=ve  freedom  in  American  and,  by  extension,  Western  culture,  has  acted  to   historically  free  up  the  crea=ve  energy  and  entrepreneurialism  necessary  to   technological  innova=on   •  This  same  talent  for  innova=on,  ironically,  also  leads  to  a  loss  of  the  freedom  and   diversity  that  characterized  life  in  the  West   •  That  is  because  as  technology  becomes  more  powerful  in  American  (or  any  other)   society,  it  threatens  the  very  culture  of  innova=on  from  which  it  originally  sprung   •  Technology,  ini=ally  a  spur  to  growth  and  ingenuity,  becomes  a  force  for  social   control,  excessive  cultural  accelera=on,  and  homogeniza=on   •  That  is  because  technology,  when  it  is  unconstrained,  leads  to  two  nega=ve   outcomes  that  threaten  to  destroy  the  culture  of  innova=on:     Obsolescence:  With  the  advent  of  a  highly  technological  modern  world,  technology   has  changed  the  texture  of  life,  speeding  up  reality  remarkably  and  rendering  old   values,  paaerns,  and  technologies  obsolete     Convergence:  Technology  has  a  tendency  to  homogenize  experience  and  assimilate   reality  to  itself  
  11. 11. Exhibit  #3:  Langdon  Winner     •  Winner  is  a  professor  of   technology  studies  at  Rensselaer   Polytechnic  Ins=tute  in  New  York   state   •  He  is  the  author  of  several  books   on  technology,  including:      Autonomous  Technology     The  Whale  and  the  Reactor:  A   Search  for  Limits  in  an  Age  of   High  Technology   •  A  former  rock  cri=c,  he  was  a   contribu=ng  editor  at  Rolling   Stone  in  the  late  1960s  and  early   1970s   •  He  is  especially  interested  in  how   technology  and  our  poli=cal   systems  relate  
  12. 12. Exhibit  #3:   Langdon  Winner        “While  it  is  widely  admiaed  that   the  structure  and  processes  of   technology  now  cons=tute  an   important  part  of  the  human   world,  the  request  that  this  be   opened  up  for  poli=cal   discussion  is  s=ll  somehow   seen  as  an  aaempt  to  foul  the   nest.”   Langdon  Winner   Autonomous  Technology  
  13. 13. Winner:  learning  from  Frankenstein’s  monster   •  We   are   vulnerable   as   a   society   to   what   Winner   calls   our   “technological   somnambulism,”   i.e.,   our   semi-­‐conscious,   sleep-­‐walking   agtude   toward   technology   •  That  is,  once  we  release  technologies  into  the  world,  we  then  promptly  forget  our   responsibility  to  them   •  He   means   here   our   responsibility   to   manage   them,   to   ensure   that   we   have   the   poli=cal  and  cultural  means  to  debate  and  manage  them,  e.g.,  cellphones  and  the   lack  of  e=queae   •  In  this,  we  repeat  the  mistake  made  by  Dr.  Frankenstein  in  the  original  1812  novel   of  the  same  name  wriaen  by  Mary  Shelley   •  In  the  movies  –  usually  starring  Boris  Karloff  –  the  monster  is  usually  seen  as  the   villain,  and  there  is  a  general  theme  of  technology  “run  amok”  reliably  expressed   there   •  But  in  the  original  novel,  the  villain  is  Dr.    Frankenstein  –  the  monster  is  unnamed  –   who  upon  the  minute  the  monster  comes  to  life,  runs  off  to  Geneva  and  leaves  his   creature  alone   •  For  Winner,  the  fact  that  we  make  the  monster  a  villain  in  the  movies  reflects  how   we  as  a  society  avoid  the  ques=ons  of  our  remarkable  neglect    to  think  through   what  a  technology  does  and  how  it  changes  us  
  14. 14. • Donna  Haraway  is  a  social  cri=c  at  the   Exhibit  #4:   University  of  Santa  Cruz  in  California   Donna  Haraway   • Among  her  major  books  are  included:    Primate  Visions:  Race  and  Nature  in  the   World  of  Modern  Science    Simians,  Cyborgs  and  Women:  The   Reinven/on  of  Nature    The  Companion  Species  Manifesto:  Dogs,   People,  and  Significant  Otherness   • She  is  famous  for  a  1991  essay  she  wrote   called  “A  Cyborg  Manifesto”  in  which  she   documents  the  terms  in  which  all  human   beings  can  be  considered,  in  a  technological   environment  in  which  we  are  immersed  and   on  which  we  are  dependent,  cyborgs   • She  doesn’t  mean  this  cyborg  iden=ty  on  a   merely  metaphorical  basis,  but  sees  it  in  more   literal  and  objec=ve  terms  
  15. 15. “A  cyborg  is  a   cyberne=c  organism,   a  hybrid  of  machine   and  organism,  a   creature  of  social   reality  as  well  as  a   creature  of  fic=on.”   Haraway   A  Cyborg  Manifesto  
  16. 16. Haraway:  get  to  know  your  inner  cyborg   • Haraway  argues  that  the  cyborg  is  not  a   nega=ve  development  in  society,  but  a   recogni=on  of  significant  changes  to  what  it   means  to  be  human  in  a  world  in  which  we   are  so  in=mate  with  technology   • Cyborgs  are  primarily  important  to  us   because,  as  models  of    21st  century  humanity,   they  signal  the  breakdown  of  fundamental   dis=nc=ons  in  culture  that  were  intact  for   centuries    Machine/human    Culture/nature    Physical/non-­‐physical  world  (e.g.,  maaer   and  consciousness)   • Rather  than  lament  the  dehumanizing   effects  of  technology,  cyborgs  see  technology   as  something  that  has  extended  and  evolved   our  humanity  
  17. 17. Lessons  from  the  technological  realists   Mumford:   •  The  best  defense  against  the  “myth  of  the  machine”  is  a  strong  and  confident   technoculture.   BoorsPn:   •  Technology  has  to  be  made  compa=ble  with  history  and  with  diversity  in  ideas  and   experience  to  be  con=nuing  value  to  people.   Winner:   •  We  have  to  manage  and  debate  the  terms  of  our  rela=onship  with  technologies   before  they  become  en=rely  embedded  in  our  lives.   Haraway:   •  Technology  has  forced  a  reinven=on  of  what  we  consider  to  be  our  humanity.  The   cyborg    recognizes  this  fact,  and  gives  us  permission  to  think  about  and  work  with   it,  rather  than  lament  the  loss  of  our  humanity  in  a  technological  world.