Some time ago, I confessed my deeply rooted Arcadian disposition, and I added, “The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.” This phrase prompted a reader to suggest that the critic of technology is preferably neither an Arcadian nor a Utopian. This better sort of critic, he wrote, “doesn’t ‘mourn what is lost’ but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.” The reader also referenced an essay by the philosopher of technology Don Ihde in which Ihde reflected on the role of the critic of technology by analogy to the literary critic or the art critic. The comment triggered a series of questions in my mind: What exactly makes for a good critic of technology? What stance, if any, is appropriate to the critic of technology toward technology? Can the good critic mourn?
First, let me reiterate what I’ve written elsewhere: Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology. I stand by that.
Secondly, it is worth asking what exactly does a critic of technology criticize? The objects of criticism are rather straightforward when we think of the food critic, the art critic, the music critic, the film critic, and so on. But what about the critic of technology? The trouble here, of course, stems from the challenge of defining technology. More often than not the word suggests the gadgets with which we surround ourselves. A little more reflection brings to mind a variety of different sorts of technologies: communication, military, transportation, energy, medical, agricultural, etc. The wheel, the factory, the power grid, the pen, the iPhone, the hammer, the space station, the water wheel, the plow, the sword, the ICBM, the film projector – it is a procrustean concept indeed that can accommodate all of this. What does it mean to be a critic of a field that includes such a diverse set of artifacts and systems?
I’m not entirely sure; let’s say, for present purposes, that critics of technology find their niche within certain subsets of the set that includes all of the above. The more interesting question, to me, is this: What does the critic love?
If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. (We might also grant that a certain variety of critic probably loves nothing so much as the sound of their own writing.) But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?
What does the critic of technology love that is analogous to the love of the music critic for music, the food critic for food, etc.? Or does the critic of technology love anything at all in this way. Ihde seems not to think so when he writes that, unlike other sorts of critics, the critic of technology does not become so because they are “passionate” about the object of criticism.
Perhaps there is something about the instrumental character of technology that makes it difficult to complete the analogy. Music, art, literature, food, film – each of these requires technology of some sort. There are exceptions: dance and voice, for example. But for the most part, technology is involved in the creation of the works that are the objects of criticism. The pen, the flute, the camera – these tools are essential, but they are also subordinate to the finished works that they yield. The musician loves the instrument for the sake of the music that it allows them play. It would be odd indeed if a musician were to tell us that he loves his instrument, but is rather indifferent to the music itself. And this is our clue. The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake. Ihde is right in saying that the critic of technology is not, in fact, should not be passionate about the object of their criticism. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that no passion at all motivates their work.
So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. Returning to where we began, I would suggest that the critic may indeed mourn just as they may celebrate. They may do either to the degree that their critical work reveals technology’s complicity in either the destruction or promotion of that which they love.
Criticism of technology, if it moves beyond mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.
In this they are not altogether unlike the music critic or the literary critic who is excepted to make judgments about the merits of a work of art given the established standards of their field. These standards take shape within an institutionalized tradition of criticism. Likewise, the critic of technology — if they move beyond questions such as “Does this technology work?” or “How does this technology work?” to questions such as “What are the social consequences of this technology?” — is implicated in judgments of value and worth.
But according to what standards and from within which tradition? Not the standards of “technology,” if such could even be delineated, because these would merely consider efficiency and functionality (although even these are not exactly “value neutral”). It was, for example, a refusal to evaluate technology on its own terms that characterized the vigorous critical work of the late Jacques Ellul. As Ellul saw it, technology had achieved its nearly autonomous position in society because it was shielded from substantive criticism — criticism, that is, which refused to evaluate technology by its own standards. The critic of technology, then, proceeds with an evaluative framework that is independent of the logic of “technoscience,” as philosopher Don Ihde called it, and so they become an outsider to the field.
“The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature’ in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature.’ Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic.’ That is simply not the case with science or technoscience criticism …. The critic—as I shall show below—is either regarded as an outsider, or if the criticism arises from the inside, is soon made to be a quasi-outsider.”
The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves: what they consider to be of highest importance. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.
Such underlying commitments are often veiled within certain rhetorical contexts that demand as much, the academy for example. But debates about the merits of technology might be more fruitful if the participants acknowledged the tacit ethical frameworks that underlie the positions they stake out. This is because, in such cases, the technology in question is only a proxy for something else — the object of the critic’s love.
This essay originally appeared in The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age and is reprinted with permission.