Being in/Being and Technology

As I write this on a laptop connected to a local wi-fi, I am sitting in a coffee shop, listening to global house music through a streaming site (Spotify). When I look around, I see other people focused on their phones, tablets, a laptops. People may be enjoying themselves, but they are not idle. The baker and manager are nearby, at the counter, reviewing a spreadsheet that is probably connected with orders and sales. Minutes ago I updated my car’s parking payment through an app on my phone. This is a moment profoundly shaped by digital technology.

Thinking about technology – what it is, what it means, what it is doing – is an increasingly difficulty problem. It is a truism to realize that technological changes are changing our lives and the pace of change is picking up. Where does one start? And how do we come to understand what is happening to us and how we feel about it? Having reliable concepts and means to wrestle with technology is essential to understanding how we live today and how we might live tomorrow.

Traditional ways of conceptualizing technology are familiar: technology as progress, technology as threat, technology as tool, and for those academicians out there, technology as the product of disciplinary advances through the intersection of economic and social forces. Some stories and tropes humanize tech: the eccentric innovator, the garage start-up, and practical problem-solver. Other stories are darker, with tech emerging from faceless corporations and conspiratorial agencies. Tech’s pervasiveness and exponential growth, leave this lacking. I’ve been mulling over new conceptual frameworks, looking to experts for their thoughts.

Alone TogetherShelly Turkle, the MIT’s Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, might help me understand my coffee shop moment by examining on my social isolation. In her well-received book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle writes that technology is the architect of our intimacies. Turkle study provides many examples of how people in a wide range of situations interact with and through technology. Fundamental questions about humanity and meaning drive her narrative. Her thinking is grounded in sociology and psychology.

Alone Together consists of two sections that sit somewhat awkwardly next to each other. The first part of the book, “the robotic moment,” looks at humans and the machines that we invest with something more, something different. Turkle shares studies and experiments, ranging from child psychologists who give children robotic toys to nursing homes that use robots to provide assistance to the infirm. Robots exist in a space that is “more than machine.” Turkle voices caution and is satisfied posing the difficult questions that social machines generate. She does not present answers.

The second part of the book, “networked,” examines the dramatic surge in connectivity through the web. Again, caution is the refrain as Turkle focuses on web-related pathologies. She writes about Facebook addictions, texting replacing face-to-face conversation, and the disassociative nature of sites like Second Life. In fact, a fear of disassociation – the loss of humanity that exists through authentic interaction – emerges as the driving anxiety in Turkle’s work. She is a humanist who has something of an approach-avoidance relationship with new technologies. It is a trait that many of us share.Rewire

On the other hand, MIT’s Director of the Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman, is interested in the ways that technology can radically connect humans in profound and meaningful ways. In his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Zuckerman examines how the potential of connectivity rarely delivers – and why this is so. Zuckerman has been living “digitally” since the early days of tripod.com. He is an idealist, too, deeply committed to Africa and the value of global awareness. Notably, Zuckerman very much tries to walk the walk when it comes his ideals, using technology to understand others.

Rewire is more a collection of case studies and reflections than a structured argument. Zuckerman, though, sticks to his theme of technologically enhanced cosmopolitanism and xenophobia. He is particularly sensitive to our bias towards the local and the supportive. Truly understanding one another is quite hard work. Zuckerman highlights the challenges and emphasizes that these alone should not deter us. He very well might be most interested in the possibilities for communication found in my coffee-house moment.

RewireFor a different perspective, yet again from MIT, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies might examine my coffee-house blogging as a confluence of tremendous potentialities. Penned by Erik Brynjolffson, director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business and Andrew McAfee, a researcher at the same center, this book paints a generally positive picture of the consequences of relentless technological innovation. It is particularly strong on explaining why the rate of technological change has been speeding up and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Using Moore’s Law – the complexity for minimum component costs will roughly double each year – as a yardstick, Brynjolffson and McAfree take time to explain the power of exponents. Digital advances have faithfully followed Moore’s Law for since 1965. In other words, the pace of change has been relatively constant, doubling every year. That rate does not follow a straight line. Instead, it charts dramatically upwards. This means that the overall impact of how are lives are changing is extreme.

The Second Machine Age is also particularly strong on thinking through the consequences of this transformation. The authors boldly predict that as the economy changes, not only will many jobs disappear, the need for many jobs will be gone. They imagine a future in which the value of labor will have to be radically re-thought. The authors fall short, unfortunately, in considering technology from anything other than an innovation paradigm. The power of politics and government is ignored, as are the various ways that political and economic power can create environments for innovation or for stasis.

Three good books about technology from authors all housed at the same fine institution – and three very different perspectives. No simple answers, but with more investigation and some serious thought, I am confident that we will be asking better questions. As for the conclusions. . .  . a bit too early to tell.

David Potash

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