Evgeny Morozov’s disclosure that he physically locks up his wi-fi card in order to better concentrate on his work spurred an interesting comment-section exchange between him and Nicholas Carr. At the heart of their disagreement is a dispute concerning the malleability of technologies, how this plasticity ought to recognized and dealt with in intelligent discourse about their effects and how the various social problems enabled, afforded or worsened by contemporary technologies could be mitigated. Neither mentions, however, the good life.
Carr, though not ignorant of the contingency/plasticity of technology, tends to underplay malleability by defining a technology quite broadly and focusing mainly on their effects on his life and those of others. That is, he can talk about “the Net” doing X, such as contributing to increasingly shallow thinking and reading, because he is assuming and analyzing the Internet as it is presently constituted. Doing this heavy-handedly, of course, opens him up to charges of essentialism: assuming a technology has certain inherent and immutable characteristics.
Morozov criticizes him accordingly:
“Carr…refuses to abandon the notion of “the Net,” with its predetermined goals and inherent features; instead of exploring the interplay between design, political economy, and information science…”
Morozov’s critique reflects the theoretical outlook of a great deal of STS research, particularly the approaches of “social construction of technology” and “actor-network theory.” These scholars hope to avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism – the belief that technology drives history or develops according to its own, and not human, logic – by focusing on the social, economic and political interests and forces that shape the trajectory of a technological development as well as the interpretive flexibility of those technologies to different populations. A constructivist scholar would argue that the Internet could have been quite different than it is today and would emphasize the diversity of ways in which it is currently used.
Yet, I often feel that people like Morozov often go too far and over-state the case for the flexibility of the web. While the Internet could be different and likely will be so in several years, in the short-term its structure and dynamics are fairly fixed. Technologies have a certain momentum to them. This means that most of my friends will continue to “connect” through Facebook whether I like the website or not. Neither is it very likely that an Internet device that aids rather than hinders my deep reading practices will emerge any time soon. Taking this level of obduracy or fixedness into account in one’s analysis is neither essentialism nor determinism, although it can come close.
All this talk of technology and malleability is important because a scholar’s view of the matter tends to color his or her capacity to imagine or pursue possible reforms to mitigate many of the undesirable consequences of contemporary technologies. Determinists or quasi-determinists can succumb to a kind of fatalism, whether it be in Heidegger’s lament that “only a god can save us” or Kevin Kelly’s almost religious faith in the idea that technology somehow “wants” to offer human beings more and more choice and thereby make them happy.
There is an equal level of risk, however, in overemphasizing flexibility in taking a quasi-instrumentalist viewpoint. One might fall prey to technological “solutionism,” the excessive faith in the potential of technological innovation to fix social problems – including those caused by prior ill-conceived technological fixes. Many today, for instance, look to social networking technologies to ameliorate the relational fragmentation enabled by previous generations of network technologies: the highway system, suburban sprawl and the telephone.
A similar risk is the over-estimation of the capacity of individuals to appropriate, hack or otherwise work around obdurate technological systems. Sure, working class Hispanics frequently turn old automobiles into “Low Riders” and French computer nerds hacked the Minitel system into an electronic singles’ bar, but it would be imprudent to generalize from these cases. Actively opposing the materialized intentions of designers requires expertise and resources that many users of any particular technology do not have. Too seldom do those who view technologies as highly malleable ask, “Who is actually empowered in the necessary ways to be able to appropriate this technology?” Generally, the average citizen is not.
The difficulty of mitigating fairly obdurate features of Internet technologies is apparent in the incident that I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Morozov regularly locks up his Internet cable and wi-fi card in a timed safe. He even goes so far as to include the screw-drivers that he might use to thwart the timer and access the Internet prematurely. Unsurprisingly, Carr took a lot of satisfaction in this admission. It would appear that some of the characteristics of the Internet, for Morozov, remain quite inflexible to his wishes, since he often requires a fairly involved system and coterie of other technologies in order to allay his own in-the-moment decision-making failures in using it. Of course, Morozov, is not what Nathan Jurgenson insultingly and dismissively calls a “refusenik,” someone refusing to utilize the Internet based on ostensibly problematic assumptions about addiction, or certain ascetic and aesthetic attachments. However, the degree to which he must delegate to additional technologies in order to cope with and mitigate the alluring pull of endless Internet-enabled novelty on his life is telling.
Morozov, in fact, copes with the shaping power of Internet technologies on his moral choices as philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek would recommend. Rather than attempting to completely eliminate an onerous technology from his life, Morozov has developed a tactic that helps him guide his relationship with that technology and its effects on his practices in a more desirable direction. He strives to maximize the “goods” and minimize the “bads.” Because it otherwise persuades or seduces him into distraction, feeding his addiction to novelty, Morozov locks up his wi-fi card so he can better pursue the good life.
Yet, these kinds of tactics seem somewhat unsatisfying to me. It is depressing that so much individual effort must be expended in order to mitigate the undesirable behaviors too easily afforded or encouraged by many contemporary technologies. Evan Selinger, for instance, has noted how the dominance of electronically mediated communication increasingly leads to a mindset in which everyday pleasantries, niceties and salutations come to be viewed as annoyingly inconvenient. Such a view, of course, fails to recognize the social value of those seemingly inefficient and superfluous “thank you’s” and “warmest regards’.” Regardless, Selinger is forced to do a great deal more parental labor to disabuse his daughter of such a view once her new iPod affords an alluring and more personally “efficient” alternative to hand-writing her thank-you notes. Raising non-narcissistic children is hard enough without Apple products tipping the scale in the other direction.
Internet technologies, of course, could be different and less encouraging of such sociopathological approaches to etiquette or other forms of self-centered behavior, but they are unlikely to be so in the short-term. Therefore, cultivating opposing behaviors or practicing some level of avoidance are not the responses of a naïve and fearful Luddite or “refusenik” but of someone mindful of the kind of life they want (or want their children) to live pursuing what is often the only feasible option available. Those pursuing such reactive tactics, of course, may lack a refined philosophical understanding of why they do what they do, but their worries should not be dismissed as naïve or illogically fearful simply because they struggle to articulate a sophisticated reasoning.
Too little attention and too limited of resources are focused on ways to mitigate declines in civility or other technological consequences that ordinary citizens worry about and the works of Carr and Sherry Turkle so cogently expose. Too often, the focus is on never-ending theoretical debates about how to “properly” talk about technology or forever describing all the relevant discursive spaces. More systematically studying the possibilities for reform seems more fruitful than accusations that so-and-so is a “digital dualist,” a charge that I think has more to do with the accused viewing networked technologies unfavorably than their work actually being dualistic. Theoretical distinctions, of course, are important. Yet, at some point neither scholarship nor the public benefits from the linguistic fisticuffs; it is clearly more a matter of egos and the battle over who gets to draw the relevant semantic frontier, outside of which any argument or observation can be considered too insufficiently “nuanced” to be worthy of serious attention.
Regardless, barring the broader embrace of systems of technology assessment and other substantive means of formally or informally regulating technologies, some concerned citizen respond to tendency of many contemporary technologies to fragment their lives or distract them from the things they value by refusing to upgrade their phones or unplugging their TVs. Only the truly exceptional, of course, lock them in safes. Yet, the avoidance of technologies that encourage unhealthy or undesirable behaviors is not the sign of some cognitive failing; for many people, it beats acquiescence, and technological civilization currently provides little support for doing anything in between.
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Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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