Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Technology poses many questions. This inquisition occurs at multiple levels, there are the questions that it clearly asks of us: name, password, birthday, credit card number, address, where your friends live, relationship status, what you’re looking for, and the list goes on. Yet, just as important, if somewhat less visible are the things it asks of us without directly posing these inquiries as such, consider: what are you willing to share, how much do you value your privacy, can you afford to keep pace with the rate of technological change, are you willing to mediate ever more of your life through technological means, have you agreed to the social transformations made on your behalf by modernity’s machinery?
Technology asks a great deal of us. It poses many questions. It is important to ask questions back.
So, why do you need to question technology?
Frankly, you are already questioning technology. Or, to put it better, your life already suggests particular answers to technological questions. Do you send e-mail or do you write letters and drop them in a mailbox? Do you prefer text messages or Facebook messages to e-mail? Do you take notes by hand or on your tablet? Do you buy albums and movies at stores, download them in legal or questionably legal ways, or just stream them? Do you look at your smartphone to find out what time it is, or do you wind your watch every morning?
Technology – particularly the digital technologies of the consumer variety – have become steadily integrated into our daily lives. What has not become integrated is the recognition of the full system these represent: the server farms where “the cloud” lives, the cables through which signals are routed, the factory where our devices are built, the landfill where they wind up, the government database that has a copy or your e-mails. Our daily lives are testament to the answers to technological questions, to the changes they have wrought. Yet we are often unaware of the shift, as the philosopher Don Ihde put it (in Technology and the Lifeworld):
“We do not even experience the existential sense of what those changes have been.” (Ihde, 163)
But the questions posed by Apple or Google or Facebook, and the answers that they readily supply, are – shall we say – rather biased. Must you renounce your privacy to Google and Facebook, or do they need you to do that so that they can profit? Must you replace your iPhone every two years, or does Apple need you to do that as it is part of their business strategy? Technology, and its evangels, has a set of modern questions and a ready-made set of answers arrayed in alluring advertisements for your consumption. Yet, let us endeavor to put the human before the machine. Instead of letting the machine interrogate the human, let us interrogate the machine.
Questioning technology is not new – it has a genealogy that stretches back over centuries. Indeed, this project is itself a response to Neil Postman’s “Six Questions of New Technology” – though this project aims to project the questions not into the future but into the present. For the technological integration of our day – in which some look longingly towards a moment of even greater integration – makes it clear that now more than ever we need to be ready to ask questions.
So, is this a Neo-Luddite subterfuge, an anti-capitalist manifesto, a reactionary diatribe? No, it is not. Instead it is meant as a thinking exercise to empower humans (like you) to critically engage with the machines in their lives. It is, to quote Charlie Chaplin, to recognize that:
“More than machinery, we need humanity.”
6 Questions to Ask of the Technology in Your Life
1. How many hours a day do you spend directly or indirectly interacting with this piece of technology?
To gauge the importance of a piece of technology in your life you need to reckon with the matter of how many of your hours are bound up in chains of 1s and 0s. Do not worry if the answer makes you feel embarrassed you do not have to tell anybody if the answer is “when I’m awake.” Contemplating this question allows you to assess which technologies play larger roles in your life than others and therefore informs the other questions. Life in civilization entails interacting with technology (consider: the wheel), but which technologies do you interact with the most, upon which are you most reliant? The difference between “direct” and “indirect” is of particular importance – after all, even if you are not always using your smartphone (“directly”) if you have it with you/near you and turned on (“indirectly”) it can interrupt you at any moment. Even waking you from dreams. The greater the presence of technology in your life (be it “direct” or “indirect”) the more important it becomes for you to engage with it.
2. When you use this piece of technology do you conform to its demands, or does it conform to yours?
Consider the popular service Twitter, it allows users to send messages in 140 characters. Certainly, photos and videos can be uploaded as well as links to articles longer than 140 characters, but to use Twitter requires conforming to the limitations it imposes. This is true – if often less obvious – across technological systems. Software updates, terms of service agreements, the “apps” that can be downloaded – the freedom that is provided by technological systems is that of an enclosed garden: it may be pleasant, but there is still a wall. Some technologies are more open than others, but how often is this truly obvious? After all, many technologies aim to reduce “friction” such that the limitations can easily go unnoticed. Which is not even to say anything of the larger conforming demand: technological society demands that all adjust to its new strictures, case in point – it’s pretty hard to apply for a job, or school, or for governmental assistance without Internet access. While there may be more “open” alternatives (such as “open source” software) the very fact that such systems appear as “alternatives” instead of standards speaks to the conformist biases of major proprietary systems.
3. What are the costs associated with using this technology?
Before a person comes to own a particular piece of technology, their first engagement usually involves a direct question of cost: “how much money does this cost?” However, there are always new costs that appear: updates, software, apps, cases, headphones, insurance, and these are just the financial costs. What of the cost associated with all of the “free” technologies we use? What is the cost of saving money on Amazon? What is the cost of using Gmail? What is the cost of using Facebook? Often the price we pay is access to our information, which can then be sold to advertisers or vacuumed up by government agencies. What of the other “costs” – sore eyes from staring at a screen, sleepless nights from a phone that keeps buzzing, paranoia over who might be watching. And what of the unseen costs in the after life of a device when the machine is decommissioned to the landfill? Just because you didn’t receive a bill, doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to pay.
4. Who made this piece of technology?
Who hasn’t heard the stories of the charmed life of employees at the campuses of major tech firms? While the device in your bag, on your counter top, or in your pocket may have been designed and programmed by happy tech-workers in Silicon Valley…who actually put the device together? Do the factor workers live the same charmed existence as the designers? Or, to frame the matter differently, consider “fair trade” items at the grocery store or “cruelty free” cosmetics – could the pieces of technology you use in your daily life earn similar labels? Was your phone made in oppressive conditions? Were the metals inside mined in conflict zones? Are those who enjoy the benefits of shiny new technologies the ones who have to make those devices? If this supply chain information is hard to come by – that in and of itself is significant. If you care about the conditions under which other products in your life are created (food, clothes, etc) would you be able to apply the same ethical criteria to your smartphone?
5. What politics and ethics does this technology embody?
Technology does not just “happen.” The devices with which we interact are the result of intersecting streams of economic, social and political power. What does that actually mean? It means that the devices you use have political and ethical implications upon you and your world. A platform that insists on “openness” and changes its terms of services to that end is making an ethical decision for its users (and getting your information out of a system is harder than getting it in). Likewise, the regime of proprietary, profit driven, tech companies and platforms push ever more areas of our lives into controlled technological spheres. When you send an e-mail, who else reads it? When you buy an e-book, do you really own it? Are the tech companies with which you interact truly disinterested parties only committed to not being “evil” and being “open” or are they interested in their own profit and control. If you are unsure consider the rash of corporate mergers, Wall Street backed IPOs, as well as campaign donations and lobbying by tech firms. As the philosopher of technology, Langdon Winner put it (in The Whale and the Reactor):“What appear to be merely instrumental choices are better seen as choices about the form of social and political life a society builds, choices about the kinds of people we want to become” (Winner, 52). Do your devices encourage you to be the kind of person you want to become, or the type of consumer tech companies want you to become?
6. What would happen if you were unable to use this piece of technology?
Imagine that you are out and about, you drop your phone, the result of the drop is that it is now a glorified paperweight. What do you do? Probably replace it relatively quickly. But what if you could not, what would you do? Without your e-reader would you lose your library? Without Facebook would you not have a way of contacting your friends? Without Internet access would you be lost as to how to get the news? Could you do your job without a computer? When was the last time you wrote somebody a letter – do you even know their mailing adress? Does the thought of your various devices not working fill you with anxiety and dread…or, perhaps oddly, with hope? Return to the first question, think of the devices you use constantly, has your life become so reliant on modern technology that you can scarcely imagine how to get by without it? Does that seem to represent a good balance to you…or something worth reconsidering.
And, of course, you should feel free to add your own questions as you see fit.
* * *
Let us agree on something – technology plays a major role in our lives. People may disagree as to whether or not the level of influence is good, bad, or neutral; but regardless of how one feels about technology it is hard to avoid the influence of these machines. Likewise it is foolishly naïve and counterproductive to dream of some pre-machine Eden, as Don Ihde put it:
“one cannot now turn off all televisions or rid the world of computers” (Ihde, 187)
And who’s to say that we should categorically “turn off all televisions” and “rid the world of computers?” Not I.
We live in a historical moment of tension and ruptures: threats of environmental degradation, deepening economic inequality, a future that looks increasingly precarious…in moments like this it is tempting for people to revert to a sentiment (a la Heidegger) that “only a god can save us” – and many of us have taken to investing ever more faith that technology will act as a savior, we have come to love our devices. Yet here it is helpful to offer a rejoinder from the historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford (from Art and Technics):
“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.” (Mumford, 81 – Art and Technics)
The challenges and problems that we face today – many of which have only been exacerbated by technological systems – will not be solved for us by a mechanical savior. Instead:
“we must more than ever see to our own fate, by deeply and even caringly looking after our technologically textured world.” (Ihde, 163)
So, why question the technology in your life? Why question the new technologies you hear about or read about? After all, it is not as though you do not have a choice. We can always accept that the questions posed by technology companies are good ones and then accept the answers that they provide. But, in so doing we may be falling victim to what Lewis Mumford called “the megatechnic bribe” wherein:
“the willing member of megatechnic society can have everything the system produces—provided he and his group have no private wishes of their own, and will make no attempt personally to alter its quality or reduce its quantity or question the competence of its ‘decision-makers’.” (Mumford, 332 – The Pentagon of Power)
The ecstatic thrill of a new device (its “cool” factor) may keep us from pondering the device.
To question technology, to engage critically with the machines in your life, is to reassert and to recognize your agency. When you question the devices in your life, even if you reach satisfactory answers, you are able to reestablish that there is a space between the digital and the human. If you look forward to the day when the two are even more closely integrated that is your decision; provided that it is actually your decision. Have you been bribed? Have you been mislead? Have you fallen in love with the machine? Only you know the answers to those questions.
Machines do not question, machines do not engage in complex thought, machines do not have agency they have programming…but you are not a machine. And as Charlie Chaplin exhorted:
“More than machinery, we need humanity.”
The text of this post is available in a convenient double-sided pamphlet/zine which you can easily print, staple and distribute if you so choose. It is the first part of the LibrarianShipwreck Pamphlet Series — tools for every Guerrilla Librarian! The link: QuestioningTechnologyPamphlet_PrintVersion
Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 2000.
Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture. v. 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964) pp. 1-8.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1970.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage, 1999.
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago University Press, 1986.