Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

nobody is in favor of technology

This is the kind of thing that drives me to distraction: a post by Kevin Kelly on what he would call the opposition to technology:

I believe we have a moral obligation to increase the power and presence of technology in the world, but not everyone believes that – to put it mildly. Many believe the opposite: that we have a moral obligation to reduce the power and presence of technology. I want to fully understand those arguments so I am collecting them in order to confront them as well as I can.

We have “a moral obligation to increase the power and presence of technology” — just any old technology? Does it matter what technology it is? Also, are there really any people out there who are against technology tout court? Consider the original Luddites: they destroyed mechanical looms not in order to eliminate technology altogether, but in order to restore a simpler technology that required more physical human direction and gave scope for more human control. Neither the Luddites nor the textile barons were simply for or against technology: instead, the conflict was between a technology of cost-saving efficiency and a technology scaled to the labor of the individual artisan.

Of course, opponents of certain technologies often make the same mistake that Kelly makes here. Everyone needs to stop talking this way. The real debates are not about technology per se but rather technological innovation — the replacement, as Wendell Berry put it in his famous essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (not available legally online), of one tool by another. Berry argues that in determining whether to employ a technological innovation he employs the following criteria:

  1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
  2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
  3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
  4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
  5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
  6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
  7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
  8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
  9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

If Kevin Kelly really wants to promote “the power the presence of technology in the world,” he should start by describing what technologies he has in mind, and then should respond to serious critiques like Berry’s, not abstract and generalized straw men.

(By the way, one of the wittiest and most provocative things ever written about the Luddites is by Thomas Pynchon.)

1 comments:

  • Interesting essay by Pynchon. I'm a bit confused by his conclusion, though I wonder what it was about his moment that gave him the idea that computers were somehow different from previous technological shifts? No Luddite reaction to artificial intelligence? Obviously, Terminator hadn't come out yet...

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