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Technological Realism

Technological Realism July 21, 2021

Views of technology range from technological pessimism, which focuses on the negative impacts of technology, to technological optimism, which focuses on new possibilities. While the former view often channels fears into dystopian visions, the later can channel hopes into utopian scenarios. One of the main themes of this blog is the role of such narratives in inspiring as well as inhibiting our technological imagination. These narratives can help us imagine and create a better world, or they can hinder understanding and paralyze agency.

Wherever you are on that spectrum, you should read Your Computer is on Fire. Although it claims to be aimed at those “lulled into complacency by narratives of technological utopianism and neutrality,” this collection of essays has something for everyone. Collectively, the contributors to this book challenge naïve hopes about technology (“technology alone will save us”), uncritical acceptance of technological neutrality (“technology is just a tool”), technological determinism (“resistance is futile”), and even technological passivity (“just opt out”).

The book opens with the declaration that we “can no longer afford to be lulled into complacency by narratives of techno-utopianism or technoneutrality, or by self-assured and oversimplified evasion” (4). It ends with this admonition:

Human life may soon be forfeit as we know it, and still, not all is wrong with global computing and new media: to retreat into either crude Luddite self-righteousness or burn-it-all rage would solve nothing except dispensing aspirin to the panged conscience of those of us privileged few who can choose to live with less technology in our lives.

For a helpful review of this book, see LibrarianShipwreck’s (as well as subsequent posts on “Theses on Techno-Optimism” and “Theses on Technological Pessimism”): “While techno-optimism and technological pessimism are belief systems that influence the way we interact with the world, they are both at base about stories … [but] Real life, and the real world of technology, is too complex to attempt to force it into two opposed narratives.”

Your Computer Is on Fire is an exemplar of how humanists and social scientists can challenge what Mar Hicks labels “idealistic progress narratives” (152). About the value of history in particular, Hicks writes:

To shape the future, look to the past. For all its horrors, history also contains hope. By understanding what has come before, we gain the knowledge we need to go forward (24).

Rotating bar overlooking the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas (2021)
Rotating bar overlooking the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas (2021)

In a recent essay Shannon Vallor claims that, “Right now the technological imagination is sterile.” Our greatest challenge, she explains, “is the continued rise of a technocratic regime that compulsively seeks to optimize every possible human operation without knowing how to ask what is optimal, or even why optimizing is good.” The intellectual resources of the arts and humanities “can take us beyond sterile, impoverished visions of futures.” She concludes:

There is no future for humanity without technology, and there’s no reason to think that AI can’t be a part of a human future that is more sustainable and just than the future we are passively hurtling toward. Good—or at least better—futures are still possible. But to find our way to them will require rebuilding today’s technological imagination, and infusing it with the full legacy of humane knowledge and creative vision.

A recent essay by Linda Kinstler in the New York Times, “Can Silicon Valley Find God?,” highlights the work of AI and Faith (of which I am a founding member) and points to the resources of various faith traditions for reflecting on technology:

As we confront the question of what makes us human, let us not disregard the religions and spiritualities that make up our oldest kinds of knowledge. Whether we agree with them or not, they are our shared inheritance, part of the past, present and future of humankind.

Whether one’s tendency is toward technological optimism, pessimism, or ambivalence, to confront our present information apocalypse we need to become—individually and collectively—technological realists. This requires critiquing current narratives about technology and constructing better ones. For that, we need to draw from every source of wisdom that can enhance our technological imagination and realism.

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