Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Have no doubts
about the one
who tells you
he is afraid
But be afraid
of the one
who tells you
he has no doubts
– Erich Fried
Somewhere between the first page and the tenth page of most books that advance some form of critique of technology you will likely come across “the disclaimer.”
This carefully worded warning generally consists of a few sentences in which the author declares in no uncertain terms that, even though they have some criticisms of certain technological trends, they are in no way shape or form “anti-technology.” Indeed, the author will often go to great lengths to sing the praises of how much they actually love technology, and may even trot out their list of technical bona fides to prove that they could not possibly be opposed to technology. Yes, they continue, they think that things could be improved, but no one should confuse their text with an anti-technology manifesto or of advancing a neo-Luddite position. Such disclaimers have become so commonplace as to have become almost cliché. And, lest there be any doubt, a reader will find such oaths of allegiance among academic works as well as those aimed at a more general readership.
To put it frankly, these disclaimers are absurd.
Not because such authors truly are “anti-technology” but because the very “anti-technology” accusation against which these authors are trying to insulate themselves is itself ridiculous.
Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to understand why many writers feel the need to include such disclaimers. After all, to have one’s work, or one’s self, denounced as “anti-technology” is for many individuals a frightening prospect. For being labeled a “technophobe” or a “Luddite” is perceived as being akin to a sort of banishment from whence one’s ideas can never safely return. Though calling someone “anti-technology” or “Luddite” is not in and of itself an actual argument – it’s just a classic manifestation of the logical fallacy of attacking the advocate – these are still dishonors which many writers seek to avoid having pinned to their persons. And thus, one can understand why many authors feel the need to openly declare that they are in favor of technology. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that those who are happy to turn terms like “Luddite” into an epithet are generally going to remain unmoved by the fact that an author took the trouble to state that they were not “anti-technology.”
This is an important part of the reason why such mea culpas are not worth the page space they occupy: they convince no one.
Those who are already pre-disposed to interpret any (any!) critique of a particular technology or technological system as evidence that one is actually planning on smashing all (all!) technology to smithereens is not going to be swayed by a person insisting that their opposition to a particular technology is not the same as opposition to all technology. If a group, or individual, has assumed a religious devotion to all things technological than they are going to interpret any alternative interpretations as heresy most foul. While, on the other hand, those who recognize that one can criticize certain facets of a big category of things (and technology is a big category of things) without being wholly opposed to all of those things will likely wonder why such declarations are necessary. Or worse, they may conclude that this means that somewhere there genuinely is an army of “anti-technology” individuals – even if this particular writer is not among them.
When writers include the “I’m not anti-technology, I swear” passage they are playing the game according to rules set by those who will call these same writers “anti-technology” regardless. And even if a rare writer succeeds in truly insulating themselves with such a disclaimer they simply wind up helping to disseminate the myth that there are “anti-technology” bogeymen lurking around every corner – just waiting to grab the smartphone from your unsuspecting hand, smash it, and then drag the unsuspecting victim back to living in the stone age.
Or to put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter how many times (or how loudly) Sherry Turkle declares that she is “so pro-technology” or that she is “not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation” – those who are going to deride her will do so regardless of these declarations on her part.
Technology is a rather imprecise term. It encompasses a huge range of things. Eyeglasses are technology, as are telescopes, as are Snapchat Spectacles, as are VR headsets. There is a reason why the historian Leo Marx, in a classic essay, noted that technology is “a hazardous concept.” Simply put, the term includes so much that using it often causes more trouble than it is worth. Certainly, the term works as a convenient shorthand but this can wind up generating further inconveniences due to the unartful deployment of this term. Case in point: when a criticism of a particular technology or technological system is taken as evidence that one is actually criticizing all technologies or technological systems. If a person argues that Snapchat Spectacles or Google Glass are bad it would be silly to conclude that this same person is therefore also opposed to eyeglasses. Yet, oftentimes, such absurd conclusions are drawn.
Different technologies are different. That point is so obvious as to be banal, but it winds up getting lost in many discussions in which the word technology gets slung about carelessly. This is particularly a problem when the word technology winds up undergoing a transformation into something like “technological innovation.” In such cases the absurdity continues to unfold as opposition to a specific “technological innovation” becomes treated as opposition to all “technological innovation” which becomes treated as opposition to progress/the future…and down the ridiculous rabbit hole we go.
Most people would agree that a person who chooses not to eat certain things is not “anti-food.” Similarly, few would argue that people who say “eating that will be bad for you” or “you should read the ingredient label” or “I’m trying to eat less red meat” – are “anti-food.” Or, on a related note, a person who says “I don’t like coffee” is unlikely to find themselves denounced as “anti-beverage.” Those who write about the food-system do not include disclaimers in the front of their works declaring that they are not “anti-food.” Of course, when it comes to food, we are more likely to use more specific terms than to just speak of “food.” The quick retort may be offered that humans need to eat and drink. This is true. But humans also need to live in a world shaped by technologies – whether those technologies be waterwheels and thatched roof cottages, bike wheels and solar panels, or buffering wheels and high rises. But people can choose what they eat and drink, and so too can people choose which technologies they want to live with and amongst.
Unfortunately, when it comes to things technological – we are more likely to wind up just using the term technology than something more specific. Case in point: this very piece of writing.
Oftentimes, at present, when the term technology is evoked (particularly by those worshipping at its altar) the term is meant as a stand-in for a particular set of things that are in some way or another related to the Internet. Smartphones, tablets, Internet of Things devices, wearables, search engines, streaming platforms, video game platforms, social media companies, “gig” economy platforms, self-driving cars – these are the types of things for which the term “technology” has come to stand.
A person can critique some of those things, indeed a person can actually be flat out opposed to some of those things, without it meaning that they are opposed to “technology” as such.
When technology is discussed today it is done in a way that tends to flatten differences between wildly different kinds of technology. And this is a type of confusion on which those who hurl the term “anti-technology” capitalize.
Inevitably the question turns to the matter of whether or not there genuinely are any “anti-technology” people out there.
Quite frankly, the answer does not matter – though it is more than likely that the answer is a pretty resounding no. The actually existing individuals who are opposed to genuinely “all” technology are so few in number as to be statistically insignificant. And those who are most likely to be held up as exemplars of “anti-technology” sentiments (such as anarcho-primitivists) are more likely to be in favor of radically eco-centric technologies as opposed to genuinely wanting zero technology. Granted, those likely to denounce others as “anti-technology” are unlikely to have taken the time to have actually read any of those individuals.
But getting back to the larger point. Yes, there are lots of people who oppose particular technologies being deployed in particular contexts, but do they oppose all technology? No.
This is not in any way shape or form meant to take away from these individuals’ critiques. But, to give an example, those who argue in favor of “convivial tools” or “democratic technics” or “green technology” or “alternative technologies” (or even “Neolithic technologies”) – are still arguing in favor of a certain set of technologies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and there is also nothing inherently “anti-technology” about that. Generally speaking, those who are arguing for a particular set of technologies that, may well be, in opposition to the dominant set of technologies in a given society are forced to develop a nuanced understanding of technologies and technological systems. After all, to argue for a different set of technologies is to have reached the recognition that technological systems have a powerful shaping effect upon a society. The technologies used in a society have a powerful influence on what is possible (for good and for ill) within that society, and have a large influence on how people in that society will interact with each other and with the planet. Thus, if you want to see a radically different kind of society, it’s worth thinking about the types of technologies that might work in that radically different society – and what kinds of technologies are at work in the present society. Or, to put it differently, if you dream of “fully automated luxury space communism” from whence will you get the rare earth minerals?
Thus, the “anti-technology” figure is really nothing more than a bogeyman – or better put, a straw man. Hoisted up by the celebrants of the current techno-social situation the straw-stuffed “anti-technologist” is meant to stand in for a position which pretty much nobody actually takes. And yet…it is still a straw man argument that many people feel that they must reply to. Hence the earlier mentioned disclaimers. And thus, this straw man is kept alive, insofar as it winds up getting treated as a legitimate argument. Yet this figure is desperately needed by those who deploy it as it allows them to deflect criticism while pretending to actually have an argument. When someone criticizes, for example, the growing consolidation of power by a handful of tech companies denouncing this critic as “anti-technology” is far easier than actually engaging with any point of their critique. It’s a sort of bait and switch, whereby a perfectly rational critique winds up being warped into something completely different. Similarly, if someone says that the problem of e-waste and the mineral sourcing of materials in high-tech devices demands closer attention it is far easier to simply say “why don’t you go live in a cave?” then to try to pick through this tricky morass of issues. When someone says “there are issues with smartphones” it is far easier to say “well than you shouldn’t have one” than it is to begin the thorny discussion of how we square our values with technologies that we recognize may actually be inimical with them.
So, why does this actually matter?
Frankly, because it demonstrates the way in which the terms of the debate are being defined by those who have no interest in there being any debate. It means that an absurd straw man argument has been allowed to grow so large that now much of the criticism of technology occurs within the shadow of this mythological monstrosity. There are certain technologies that are quite problematic today and they need to be criticized, lambasted, and argued about before they can be allowed to run wild in society. But when this discussion is reduced to a comical back and forth between being “pro-technology” and being “anti-technology” the nuance that is necessary to reckon with “this particular technology” gets lost.
Yet, perhaps more problematic than any particular technology is the unthinking ideological devotion to all things “technological” or “innovative” that treats the solution to every problem as connecting it to the Internet. When critics take the bait of explaining that they are not “anti-technology” they are forfeiting their ability to take on this ideology, because they are accepting one of its core components: that any criticism of technology is the same as being “anti-technology.” And it is time for critics of technology to stop playing this game by this set of rules. Especially, as composing a paragraph where you state “I am not anti-technology” will do nothing to keep you safe from being denounced as “anti-technology.” There is a sort of odd humor to the fact that the ideological devotees of all things Internet connected have managed to turn their defensiveness into a weapon which has forced all of their critics onto the defensive.
There is something that is lost when critics are forced to swear that they are not “anti-technology” – for it helps to create a self-censoring norm in the discourse that gives more power to those who already have a great deal of it. And it can give rise to a situation in which the fiery critiques are banished to the margins where they are sure to be laughed off as “anti-technology” screeds. But the very fact that such works wind up being attacked and that their authors wind up being denounced reveals the way in which such works are perceived as threats. For, at their best, they serve to reveal the fault lines created by our current technological situation – and such works can help generate the types of conversations that can move such discussions into the mainstream. At risk of an over generalization, most people who have used a smartphone or a social network have had experiences that have given them cause to question these things, but too often the fear of being derided as “anti-technology” has led them to keep these concerns to themselves. But these are things which should be discussed openly and without reservations.
Discussions about the impacts of technology should concern everybody who is effected by these impacts. Namely: everybody. More of these conversations are needed, and in order for that to happen we need to get beyond the absurd idea that it is somehow “anti-technology” to criticize technology. And one of the groups that needs to take an important step in this matter are the critics themselves – who can deal a serious blow to this ideological rubbish by refusing to dance to its tune.
The “anti-technology” figure is a straw man.
It doesn’t need more straw, it needs a flaming match.