Mar 18, 2024

beyond the Standard Critique of Technology

Last week I spoke to a cohort of academics at a big public university, most of them engineers, who are together planning a big grant proposal for making ethical technologies. (They had heard the Sketch Model podcast! Lovely to see.)

The group was at a familiar bottleneck that I’ve seen a lot among STEM faculty: They recognize the pitfalls of Big Tech overreach. They know what they don’t want to do. But they struggle to 1) find the language for describing their misgivings, beyond wariness about “unintended consequences,” and 2) to frame what projects they do want to pursue. In these situations, it’s so handy to have Alan Jacobs’s summary of what he calls The Standard Critique of Technology:

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.

Read the generous original to get all those formal terms linked. Alan goes on to explore ways of thinking beyond the SCT, with a substantive tour through Yuk Hui’s Daoist-framed notion of “cosmotechnics” and more. But even the first third of the article is tremendously useful for helping STEM folks resist the temptation to reinvent the wheel of tech critique, or to rely on the limpid, anemic language of “ethics and context.”

Another pitfall for engineers in these conversations is the “same page” metaphor that tends to arise in the planning phases. I saw this a lot at my old institution, an engineering school. It’s an engineer’s approach to ethics as a linear process: We need to decide what our values are, they say, get on the same page, and then move from there. The “page” is a list of clearly defined bullet points in this vision: We break this matter down into parts, gather those parts, combine and rate them, align in an order, and then — efficient work proceeds from this clarity.

But a university is a whole “city of intellect,” not a singular page touting a program. It is a multiplicity of parallel projects, not one point of view. This is why I suggest these groups build and nurture a house for critique and repair, and build an adjacency of projects as an ethics itself for working: taking up projects that depend on industry for scale alongside modest projects on overlooked subjects that will never obey corporate metrics. High-tech and low-tech, basic research and ethnography-led design research.

The SCT can provide a useful shorthand vocabulary for Diagnosing the Problem — and indeed, by use of positive terms such as “holistic” and “convivial,” it can provide some aspirational qualities for the things engineers and designers should build. But Alan moves on in that essay to “ways of living” because he knows that articulating a real horizon of the common good, from which tools and technologies might flow, remains the much harder, non-technical task.