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Technology Alone

I read the transcription of a talk by Daniel Seigel called The Lost Medium that describes how computers as a medium are under-utilized in the world of ideas. It’s a worthwhile read, but there’s something about it that really bothers me.

My annoyance stems from the Marshall McLuhan quote used pervasively throughout the talk:

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

The talk’s content is centered around this idea with respect to computers. By the end, it is asking some grandiose questions, such as, “What if, while reading an article, you could annotate it, challenge the assumptions and share your insights with the world?” and “What if you could collaborate with a computer in a symbiosis between man and machine?”

What I got from the talk was an interpretation more akin to

We shape our computers and thereafter our computers shape us.

That is, the only thing considered in this shaping is the computer. It is more techno-utopian/deterministic than I’m comfortable with. I come away from this (and similar) talks with the impression that the speaker is imagining a scenario where a closer collaboration between computer and man opens up a wonderous as-yet-unimagined future. Unfortunately, it strikes me that the speaker is imagining only the computer.

I don’t doubt that there are wonderous things to be had from expanding technology where it becomes, perhaps, part of the “self”, whatever that exactly means. But it is folly to believe that technology alone is sufficient for such a future.

Oddly, the talk chides those who develop technology without contemplating the bigger question of technology as a medium, then deftly avoids any mention of how you explore that medium. At the same time, it argues that by not exploring the medium it has put us into a development rut.

This “technology alone” kind of thinking doesn’t fill me with confidence. I remember the heady days of the Internet when claims that easy access to information and the ability to connect people would usher in a new era of human cooperation. To that extent, it was certainly true. But it also simplifies the creation of high-volume echo-chambers, which has led to a disturbing rise of populism.

I agree with Seigel: we should be exploring technology as a medium. But let’s not be so naive as to think by simply doing so, good things will happen. Nasty stuff can happen too. The medium of technology alone is not sufficient for a prosperous future.

January 24, 2017

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