From Tech Critique to Ways of Living

Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis: “Neil Postman was right. So what? In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of thinkers, beginning with Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan, began to describe the anatomy of our technological society. Then, starting in the 1970s, a generation emerged who articulated a detailed critique of that society. The critique produced by these figures I refer to in the singular because it shares core features, if not a common vocabulary. What Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Albert Borgmann, and a few others have said about technology is powerful, incisive, and remarkably coherent. I am going to call the argument they share the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. The one problem with the SCT is that it has had no success in reversing, or even slowing, the momentum of our society’s move toward what one of their number, Neil Postman, called technopoly.

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but they also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The Standard Critique of Technology as thus described is cogent and correct. I have referred to it many times and applied it to many different situations. For instance, I have used the logic of the SCT to make a case for rejecting the “walled gardens” of the massive social media companies, and for replacing them with a cultivation of the “digital commons” of the open web.

But the number of people who are even open to following this logic is vanishingly small. For all its cogency, the SCT is utterly powerless to slow our technosocial momentum, much less to alter its direction. Since Postman and the rest made that critique, the social order has rushed ever faster toward a complete and uncritical embrace of the prescriptive, manipulatory technologies deceitfully presented to us as Liberation and Empowerment. So what next?…(More)”.