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Against Technological Inevitability – On 20th Century Critics of Technology

“The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it.” – Joseph Weizenbaum (1976)

 

It would be difficult to argue that there is not enough discussion of tech at the moment. Indeed: the actions of the tech companies dominate entire news cycles, tech company CEOs are household names, fiery opinions about tech bounce around social media, tech related issues are regular topics for columnists at prominent periodicals, academics across a range of specialties analyze tech’s impacts, and there is a vibrant world of tech writers/publications/podcasts that respond to all of the latest developments with either adoring praise, acerbic venom, or some strange mixture of the two. All of which is just to say, there’s a lot being said about tech these days.

Fortunately, amidst this deluge of tech discourse, it seems that critical perspectives are starting to receive more of a hearing. Of course, this does not mean that the critical voices have completely supplanted tech’s cheerleaders, or that they have successfully dismantled the dominant faith in high-tech solutions. What it generally means is that when a tech company launches a new product there will be figures pointing out the potential risks of that device/platform alongside the excited reviews, and it tends to mean that slightly more skepticism is now directed at the pronouncements from the tech companies. Not that many years ago you could not criticize Facebook without being mocked as a technophobic Luddite, but by the time Facebook became Meta a person could mock Zuckerberg’s monster without being accused of wanting everyone to live in caves.

Many factors have contributed to the space opening up for more critical responses to tech to reach larger audiences. Most notably, the malfeasance of the tech companies has become impossible to ignore, and their misdeeds can no longer be excused as the growing pains of new companies. Similarly the confidence that people were encouraged to entrust in these companies is wearing thin, as the world of constant connectivity and infinite apps proves to be a far cry from the promised high-tech utopia. While today’s tech platforms did not invent misinformation, exploiting workers, destructive extraction of resources, massive energy use, or wealthy men who believe their bank balance to be their IQ—in the present moment many of these tech platforms have become closely associated with such problems. A cultural space for critical perspectives on tech is opening up, and perhaps the greatest proof of this is the way in which “reformed” tech insiders are rushing in to occupy this cultural space while defending the idea that these companies mean well.

There is much to be said about the current state of tech criticism (and who gets to be seen as a tech critic), but what follows is not about current tech criticism. Instead, it is about older tech criticism (and critics), specifically from the second half of the 20th century. In assessing our current tech exacerbated situation it is worth bearing in mind that we cannot claim that we were not warned—it is somewhat uncanny how accurately many 20th century critics predicted our current morass. Furthermore, in assessing the current state of tech criticism, it is worth being aware of the many ways in which current critics seem to be articulating views that were expressed decades ago. What follows is not an encyclopedic account of 20th century tech critics or their idea, but some more general observations to help contextualize those thinkers and to help place them in contrast to where we find ourselves today.

Had more people listened to 20th century critics of technology, we might not find ourselves where we are today, wondering whether or not the warnings of 21st century critics will be heeded.

 

Quick disclaimers:

1) Any attempt to speak comprehensively about “20th century critics of technology” obviously involves flattening out significant differences. While many of these figures share some similarities, they are also quite distinct from one another in terms of their particular objects of focus, suggestions for action, and in terms of how much time they felt was left to change course. This is an attempt to make some general observations, and while they are being made in a way that is hopefully widely applicable, it should go without saying that the best way to really understand the perspective of a particular critic is to go and read that actual critic.

2) This is not meant as a denouncement of the state of contemporary technological criticism or of contemporary critics of technology. However, insofar as contemporary tech critics find themselves occasionally glancing back at the critics who came before, it can be useful to keep in mind some of the things that make many of the last century’s critics of technology different from this century’s critics of technology.

3) History matters. And when investigating history it is worthwhile to keep an eye out for the social critics (those who were not calmly accepting the status quo), and what they were saying. Or to state it more plainly: the history of technology and media should not ignore the history of critics of technology and media.

Onwards.

 

20th century critics of technology did not see themselves as critics of technology

To refer to a particular figure as a “critic of technology” is a convenient shorthand that identifies “technology” as the object of focus. Yet, many of these figures would have rejected that description as too narrow or reductive. They tended to see themselves as “social critics,” who took all of society as their object of criticism, and to the extent that they often focused on technological forces it was almost always in service of a broader social critique. Certainly, there might have been essays and book chapters where they devoted significant attention to a particular type of machine, but talking about technology was almost always a way of talking about what kind of a society would produce these machines in the first place, and the ways in which these machines would wind up altering the society in which they were being deployed. They were not writing product reviews, they were not providing press coverage of product announcements, they were not opining on technical specifics—they were less interested in the ways that a particular machine worked, and more interested in the ways a particular machine worked over a society.

Indeed, one of the challenges with many of these figures is that they produced such large bodies of work ranging over so many topics, that it can be perilous to generalize about a particular critics views just by looking at a single work by that author (especially if it is one that came from earlier in their oeuvre). Many of these figures wrote extensively about technology, but they also wrote at great length about religion, art, architecture, city planning, the environment, medicine, labor, political debates of their time, culture, education, utopias, and quite a bit more—in many of these cases some of their most insightful comments about technology can actually be found in books primarily about religion or art. And thus, to fully understand the perspectives of many of these critics it is necessary to see their technological critiques as part of their much broader critiques of society. Technology clearly mattered to them, but they did not treat technology as if it existed in a vacuum outside of other social factors. They were interested in the way that technology could shape society, but they were also interested in the ways that societies shape their technologies.

 

These critics were not talking about “tech”

In current discussions around technology, the word “tech” rarely actually stands for technology. Rather “tech” is a word that has come to mean a very specific subset of technologies, namely: computer and Internet technologies. Heck, it is probably overly generous to claim that “tech” even stands for computer and Internet technologies. Usually when the word “tech” is bandied about today it specifically means “a handful of specific companies and the specific products/platforms/devices associated with those specific companies.” When we talk about “tech” we mean Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook), we mean Google, we mean Apple, and so forth. Certainly, we recognize that these companies rely heavily on computers and Internet technologies, but our conversations about “tech” tend to have more to do with these top level companies than with the particular technologies on which they rely. We talk about what Facebook has done to the Internet, but most discussions about “tech” aren’t really talking about what the Internet really is. We talk about Google, but most discussions about “tech” aren’t really talking about algorithms. We talk about Apple, but most discussions about “tech” aren’t really that concerned about considering the kind of machine that is a smartphone.

20th century technology critics weren’t writing about “tech” they were writing about technology. The shift had not yet occurred by which discussions about technology would come to be dominated by talking about a very narrow slice of things that could be deemed “tech.” As a result they were forced to wrestle with a much larger and more complex set of issues and problems. After all, the types of comments that can be so flippantly directed at “tech” often seem absurd when directed at “technology.” Indeed, this is a slippery space that many worshippers of “tech” enjoy exploiting by suggesting that any criticism of “tech” should be seen as a criticism of all technology—and that anyone who is anti-“tech” must therefore be anti-technology.

Though they were talking about technology and not “tech,” many of these critics worked carefully to emphasize the wide assortment of things that were being gathered under the heading of technology. They recognized that technology (or “technics”) was an umbrella term hoisted above everything ranging from eyeglasses and bicycles to computers and nuclear bombs. Rather than try to just discuss all of these matters under the heading of “technology,” many of these critics sought to deploy terms not to further flatten out the differences between these types of technology but to more acutely draw attention to the distinctions. Thus, they spoke of “redemptive technologies,” or “convivial tools,” or “appropriate technology,” while drawing out juxtapositions between “holistic” and “prescriptive” technologies, or between “democratic” and “authoritarian” technologies. Indeed, one could fill an entire glossary with the neologisms coined by various technological critics (though that is a project for another time). The point is that they understood that a wide variety of things existed in the world of technology, but that the word “technology” was too broad for ferreting out the differences. It was precisely because they understood how easy (and ridiculous) it is to accuse someone of being “anti-technology” that they concocted new ways of talking about technology that highlighted differences instead of flattening them. To speak of “holistic” and “prescriptive” technologies is not to make a simplistic claim that “technology is good” or “technology is bad,” it isn’t even to make a simplistic claim that “holistic” technologies are always good and that “prescriptive” technologies are always bad, but it draws attention to the ways that certain classes of technology are embedded with certain values.

These critics weren’t talking about “tech,” they were talking about technology. And when they were talking about technology they knew to be careful around the way that broad terms could make it seem like eyeglasses and surveillance cameras were the same thing. Thus, they did not simply talk about technology (as such), but instead pushed their readers to consider whether particular technologies were “convivial,” or “appropriate,” or “holistic,” or “democratic.”

 

Many of them were not academics (strictly speaking)

A common critique that is often directed at many of these figures, especially from contemporary academic circles, is that their writing and thinking does not meet rigorous academic standards. They are accused of making generalizations, of speaking too abstractly, of using strange examples, of being too self-referential, of being overly enamored with grand narratives, and of jumping too quickly from discipline to discipline. In truth, such criticisms are not without merit. Furthermore, insofar as much contemporary tech criticism comes from people within the academy or from people holding many credentials from the academy, it is understandable that such earlier critics would be looked at askance for their failure to adhere to the rigorous standards of a peer-reviewed journal. Yet, even as they often hovered at the fringes of the academy, many of these critics were not primarily concerned with securing their own advancement through the tenured ranks.

Within academic circles there is a frequent tension between work that is seen as being aimed “at the field” and work that is seen as being aimed “at the broader public.” Many a university is quite happy to see its professors achieving higher public profiles by publishing widely in more public facing places, and yet when it comes to advancement within a field what tends to matter most are peer-reviewed publications in academic journals and books published by academic presses. To be clear, some of these contemporary standards for academic advancement and the standards for academic advancement sixty years ago are not identical. Nevertheless, the point to be made here is that many of these earlier critics were primarily interested in writing for a general public rather than an academic readership (or an even more narrow academic readership just within a particular field).

They were writing primarily for the general public, and what’s more they were trying to sound the alarm for that public readership. To the extent that some of their writing can seem somewhat hyperbolic, it was in keeping with an attempt to awaken those around them to approaching dangers. Of course, this does make some of these figures a bit challenging for many contemporary academics to address. Can they really be called historians? Are they really doing philosophy? How to square a critic’s actual academic background with the critiques they were writing? All of those questions can be answered in multiple ways. However, a good way to approach those questions, and these critics, is to remember that these critics were not so much professors as public intellectuals, back when the term “public intellectual” actually meant something.

 

Many of the technological systems we take for granted today are the ones they were warning us about

When it comes to contrasting criticism of technology from the 20th century with criticism of technology from the 21st century it is hard not to focus on the very different ways in which computers were talked about then versus the way that computers are talked about now. Technological critics of the 20th century were quite interested in computers, and were writing at length about computers long before the 80s and 90s (the decades in which, arguably, personal computing really exploded). Granted, much of what they were writing about computers was not particularly positive. Throughout their work, many of these earlier critics warned about technological systems of totalizing control, and even in the early decades of computing they saw signs that computers would be the key technologies through which that totalizing control would be made possible. At a point when computers still took up entire rooms, and at a point when computers were still primarily used for calculating purposes, many of these critics looked upon these massive machines and shuddered.

There is certainly no shortage of critical work on computers being done today (much of it quite excellent), but something that importantly separates these earlier critics from our present situation is that these critics were still writing in a time when people could imagine doing things without computers—because they had not become so accustomed to doing everything with computers. In the present moment the suggestion that we turn even some of our computers off is seen as absurd; however, before we reached this point many of these critics were trying to warn against turning so many of them on in the first place.

Something about which many of these critics were acutely aware is that it is easiest to oppose a large technological system when that system is still in its early stages. Once a large technological system has been in operation for long enough, once people have become dependent on that system, and once people have come to see themselves as being beneficiaries of that technological system, it become significantly harder to get them to abandon the system. These critics worked to warn people of where certain technological systems would wind up taking them, in the hopes that these warnings would push societies to opt against hopping on board. Alas, too often we ignore the warnings about technological systems, confident that we will be able to change directions before things get too bad, only to later shrug at the idea of changing directions because we “can’t go backward.”

Nevertheless, in considering earlier critics of technology, it is important to be mindful of the technologies that they were warning about but which had not yet taken hold of society at the time of their writing, but which have taken hold at the time of our contemporary reading. There is a big difference between criticism that warns against something, and criticism that is written in a period when that something has become an essential part of many people’s daily life.

All criticism has a certain timeless quality to it, and all criticism is simultaneously very much couched in the time from which it emerges. And in assessing past critiques of technology it is essential to remember that their technological world and our technological world do not look exactly the same. There are many technological systems that we have a hard time imagining doing without, and many of those past critics warned us that when we can no longer imagine doing without a technological system it means that system has won.

 

They had reasons to be pessimistic

In reading many of these past critics today it is hard not to be struck by the gloominess of their tone. Certainly, many of these figures expressed hope that people would realize where they were going, and change course, before they reached their grim destination—but such hopes for renewal often seemed like afterthoughts after hundreds of pages discussing decline. During their lifetimes many of these figures grew accustomed to being denounced as “prophets of doom,” and though one can certainly disagree with that label, one can also see why it was so often applied to them.

And yet, in considering why these figures so often seemed pessimistic it is worth remembering what they had lived through, and worth recognizing the significant impact those events had on their lives.

Many of us today know the history of World War II, including about the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, and similarly many of us know about the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Yet the experience of World War II (in particular) is something that fewer and fewer of us have directly personally experienced—even if we may have heard firsthand accounts of it from previous generations in our own families. For many of these critics this was not just something they read about in a book. Many of these critics had been forced to flee fascism themselves, had watched as people they knew were unable to escape fascism in time, watched much of the world ignore the rising tide of fascism until the world was drowning in blood, knew people who died fighting in the war (or had fought in it themselves), directly knew people who had died in the death camps, and had watched as on top of the ashes of that war a new period of development of weapons of mass destruction occurred. Obviously, various critics experienced these things in their own personal ways, and yet for many of them World War II was a constant reminder of humanity’s capacity for barbarity and proof to them that increased technological power enabled increased death and destruction. The work of many of these critics was permanently haunted by World War II.

The technologically exacerbated horrors of World War I led many of these figures to initially hope that humanity would learn from the lesson of that war and turn the immense power of science and technology towards less destructive ends. Yet this hope was smashed by World War II, which demonstrated that humanity was still quite capable of using its technological potential for horrific ends. And when the war ended with mushroom clouds over Japan, and the announcement that human ingenuity had now concocted weapons of even more destructive might, many of these critics felt certain that humanity lacked the wisdom to control this power.

These critics were perpetually looking at the dark side of technological progress, because they refused to forget the dark times that they had lived through. And they were quite aware that those dark times could return.

 

They hoped they would be wrong

Whenever grim pronouncements are made or dire warnings are issued, one of the retorts to those making these predictions is to accuse them of secretly wanting the bad thing to happen. After all, so the accusation goes, that way the particular prophet can stand on the hillside while the desperate refugees stream past shouting at them “I tried to warn you! But you wouldn’t listen to me!” This repartee is a common way of responding to bad news, and it is a clever tactic that manages to twist attention off of the content of the warning and onto an attack on the character of the person making the warning. Yet when you dig into the work of these critics of technology one thing that you find over and over again is a desperate hope to be proven wrong. They knew that it would be infinitely preferable to be viewed as a dour fool, than to be viewed as prescient. For they knew that if they were proven wrong it would mean that something had changed, and the reason they were writing, the reason they were speaking out, was precisely because they hoped to contribute to that change.

If you are convinced that things in your society are leading towards collapse, and you want to see that collapse happen, the best thing to do is simply put your feet up, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, and sit back and watch as the world falls apart. But to devote yourself, your time, and your reputation to speaking out against the impending hazards in an attempt to rally those around you to head off those dangers—that’s what you do when you do not want the bad things to happen.

There are always some who suggest that merely be acknowledging the possibility of bad things happening that you make them more likely. Yet a sober historical analysis suggests that the best way to ensure bad things will happen is to refuse to take seriously the possibility that they might.

These critics wanted to be wrong.

 

And yet…they weren’t wrong

Grading predictions is a very tricky thing to do. Especially as it can be very difficult to get all of the specifics perfectly right. Thus, an attempt to grade the predictions of these past technological critics is largely going to depend on the precise grading rubric being applied to their predictions. Did these critics literally predict Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook)? No, not really. Did these critics literally predict NFTs? No, not really. Did these critics literally predict that a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic would push school to be conducted through computers for millions of students? No, not really. Did these critics make use of the exact terms we use today for discussing certain problems? No, not really. However, were the broad outlines of many of their critiques fairly spot on? Yes, and that isn’t even a particularly generous reading.

These critics warned of technology’s capacity to surveil, they warned of people being overwhelmed by an information glut they could not sort through, they warned of how shiny technological gadgets could distract people from what was happening all around them, they warned of how a share in the technological goodies could function as a sort of “bribe” to get people to overlook technology’s downsides, they warned of the threat to democracy complex technological systems could represent, they warned that the speed of technology would overwhelm and exhaust us, they emphasized the environmental destruction that is caused by much technological advancement, and over and over again they emphasized that technological progress and social progress are not synonymous.

It is all too common today to see technological critics couching their critiques of technology in apologetic statements about how much they love technology. Such statements are a depressing sign of the extent to which contemporary critics of technology find themselves on the defense. Earlier critics of technology did not waste time professing their love of technology, because they recognized that doing so allows the high-priests of high-technology to set the terms for debate. Just as someone who dislikes McDonalds does not hate food, so someone who dislikes Google does not hate technology; and just as a someone who thinks we should stop eating meat is not saying that we should stop eating altogether, someone who thinks we should stop being so reliant on computer technologies is not saying that we should go live in caves.

Critics are not going to be right about everything. And not everyone is going to agree with every element of every critic’s critique (or proposal of solutions). But in trying to make sense of where we are today, and in trying to make sense of how it is that we got here, it is worth remembering that there were many people who tried to sound the alarm.

As we hear the alarms going off all around us today, it is worth listening closely. For if you do, you’ll be able to hear the echoes from the alarms that were set off decades ago. And which have never stopped.

 

Related Content

They Meant Well, or Why It Matters Who Gets to Be Seen as a Critic of Technology

The Magnificent Bribe (on Lewis Mumford)

An Island of Reason in the Cyberstream (on Joseph Weizenbaum)

Theses on Technological Optimism

Theses on Technological Pessimism

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “Against Technological Inevitability – On 20th Century Critics of Technology

  1. macurcher
    December 2, 2021

    Thank you for this blog and your writing, both posts and poems. Will there be a further post where you identify some of the authors and writers that are alluded to in this post? I am assuming some names, amoung them Mumford of course, probably Postman as well, may even Illich. Some way of tracing back threads would be useful.
    Thank you again for your work.

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