Note — Nov 21, 2021

Against Technological Inevitability – On 20th Century Critics of Technology

Seen in → No.197

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I kept expecting this piece at LibrarianShipwreck to end with a list of quotes from those 20th Century critics but it didn’t come (recognized some Ursula M. Franklin wording though). Still, an intriguing exercise to contrast last century’s critics with today’s, the fact they were critiquing technology within broader opinions about society, the use of ‘tech’ v ‘technology,’ and the historical context for many of them.

“Remember that these critics were not so much professors as public intellectuals, back when the term ‘public intellectual’ actually meant something.” Which of today’s critics of technology would you call ‘public intellectuals’?

And the crux of the essay: “In trying to make sense of where we are today, and in trying to make sense of how it is that we got here, it is worth remembering that there were many people who tried to sound the alarm.” Why didn’t ‘we,’ broadly speaking, listen to them and kept (and keep) going along so blindly and enthusiastically?

[T]o fully understand the perspectives of many of these critics it is necessary to see their technological critiques as part of their much broader critiques of society. Technology clearly mattered to them, but they did not treat technology as if it existed in a vacuum outside of other social factors. They were interested in the way that technology could shape society, but they were also interested in the ways that societies shape their technologies. […]

[T]oo often we ignore the warnings about technological systems, confident that we will be able to change directions before things get too bad, only to later shrug at the idea of changing directions because we “can’t go backward.” […]

These critics warned of technology’s capacity to surveil, they warned of people being overwhelmed by an information glut they could not sort through, they warned of how shiny technological gadgets could distract people from what was happening all around them, they warned of how a share in the technological goodies could function as a sort of “bribe” to get people to overlook technology’s downsides, they warned of the threat to democracy complex technological systems could represent, they warned that the speed of technology would overwhelm and exhaust us, they emphasized the environmental destruction that is caused by much technological advancement, and over and over again they emphasized that technological progress and social progress are not synonymous.