Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (8)

It was a remarkable experience to read Winner’s sixth chapter, “Mythinformation,” in the light of some recent online debates. Continuing his attempt to think in a seriously political way about technology, Winner is here concerned with the technological uses of the language of revolution:

It seems all but impossible for computer enthusiasts to examine critically the ends that might guide the world-shaking developments they anticipate. They employ the metaphor of revolution for one purpose only — to suggest a dramatic upheaval, one that people ought to welcome as good news. . . .

If technophiles were to consider the “computer revolution” in light of “social upheavals of the past,” especially those caused by the Industrial Revolution, then they might be able to think more seriously about their own language and its political implications. But, Winner says, “a consistently ahistorical viewpoint prevails. What one often finds emphasized, however, is a vision of drastically altered social and political conditions, a future upheld as both desirable and, in all likelihood, inevitable.”

Well, some of this hasn't changed at all in the past twenty-five years. Celebrants of technology still aren't very historically aware, they still emphasize the inevitability of technological development, they still see it almost wholly as progressive.

But the political implications of technology are getting more serious and thoughtful consideration these days, and that may well lead to deeper conversations on other fronts. Just consider the vigorous and fascinating debate going on right now between Evgeny Morozov and Cory Doctorow. Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion offers an exceptionally strong critique of the common belief that social media promote freedom and democracy; that argument has been getting some equally strong pushback from, among others, Doctorow, whose longest and most thoughtful response may be found here.

This is a debate I may have more to say about later, but for now let me just note that if Langdon Winner wanted serious debates about the political implications of technology, we’re getting just such a debate now, though focused perhaps too narrowly on the role of social media. But couple that with the recent Wikileaks debate . . . we’re getting somewhere.


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