The Wrong Way to Discuss New Technologies

Over at Slate, Evgeny Morozov gives us another way to think about technological determinism–he calls it technological defeatism.

Technological defeatism—a belief that, since a given technology is here to stay, there’s nothing we can do about it other than get on with it and simply adjust our norms—is a persistent feature of social thought about technology. We’ll come to pay for it very dearly.

Morozov helpfully points out that anxiety about technological change isn’t always a bad reaction and it doesn’t necessarily imply aversion to all technology. His case studies for this point are the various anti-noise movements that sprung up in response to urban industrialization during the early 20th century. These groups campaigned to protect the public acoustic environment through legal action and through encouraging anti-noise technologies such as noiseless typewriters and quieter electronic motors.

One such example is Theodor Lessing:

Whenever the anti-din advocates—led by German intellectual Theodor Lessing—called for individual reforms, they were mostly unsuccessful. However, their struggle was not in vain, for through public debate they turned quietness into a leading indicator of urban life quality and firmly established it as a challenge for city councils. … And even though many of Lessing’s proposals sound eccentric…many others sound quite reasonable even today, such as “the use of rubber tyres and quieter paving materials to dampen the cacophony of vehicular traffic, the careful packaging of freight shipped through cities to cushion it from rattling and banging, and the construction of schools in public gardens and forest preserves to ensure the tranquil atmosphere needed for learning.”

This is not to suggest that there were no technological defeatists at the time; many, like today’s Internet pundits, with their tales of inevitability, argued that noise was here to stay, and the Viennese simply had to live with it. If only the Viennese could listen to the voice of technology—not an easy thing to do, given all the noise—they would accept the situation with no qualms. As Peter Payer explains, “Opponents of the antinoise campaign criticized Lessing and his supporters as hypersensitive fanatics resisting progress. Their refusal to put up with noise was seen as a neurotic sign of weakness, an inability to adapt to modern life. It was claimed that people could get used to noise if only they tried.” In other words, the new norms were missing.

A major lesson in this case is that the much-maligned ‘anxiety’ that technological change engenders may not actually be such a bad thing. Lessig and others were able to insist on certain restrictions on the implementation of technology which created a more friendly acoustic environment. What similar restrictions might we bring to public discourse today in reference to new technologies like Google Glass that challenge the way we think about privacy?

The full text of Morozov’s article is available at Slate: The Wrong Way to Discuss New Technologies, which is adapted from his recently published book on a similar subject: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.

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