November 22, 2014

Bertrand Russell on the lesson of Icarus

I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly.
Bertrand Russell

November 21, 2014

Hans Jonas' greater fear

Speaking for myself, I fear not the abuses by evil power interests: I fear the well-wishers of mankind with their dreams of a glorious improvement of the race. 
Hans Jonas

For a related post, see "Larry Page and the Lathe of Heaven."

November 15, 2014

Stanislaw Lem, on solicitude to spark plugs and broken bells

"I used to be a philanthropist to old spark plugs. I would buy fragments of incomprehensible gadgets….I would turn some crank or other to give it pleasure, then put it away again with solicitude. To this day I have a special feeling for all sorts of broken bells, alarm clocks, old coils, telephone speakers, and in general for things derailed, used up, homeless, discarded.”
                                   Staislaw Lem

November 11, 2014

Some very nice endorsements for "Not So Fast," updated

Not So Fast continues to receive some very nice endorsements from some very knowledgeable people. Here's an updated selection:  

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining, Not So Fast offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”
– Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology  

Not So Fast is a really fine piece of work. Wish I’d written it. Anyone who might want to reflect on the implications of more than three generations of scholarly criticism of technology should read the book. The same goes for any scholars who have been thinking about technology and who desire to see how their work may have been more publicly appropriated – or, indeed, who may wish to deepen their own understanding of what they have been doing. Doug Hill is a solid independent scholar in the best sense: A Lewis Mumford for our time.” 
                – Carl Mitcham, author, co-author, or editor of Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy; Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology; The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics; and Research in Philosophy and Technology

“Technology is a troubling and confusing force in contemporary culture, and it’s good to see Doug Hill discuss it so calmly and clearly. His book is special in avoiding the rigorous and severe arguments of philosophers and other academics and in being both firm in its views but relaxed in its attitude. The reader hears the voice of a very well-informed writer without being bullied with all that knowledge. There's good reason to believe the book will reach an audience that has been neglected and that it will help to advance the public conversation on technology that is so necessary and so lacking.” 
               – Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana, author of Crossing the Postmodern DivideTechnology and the Character of Contemporary Life, and Holding on to Reality

"This is the technology criticism I've been waiting for – aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all – nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike."
            – Howard Rheingold, author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs and Net Smart

"Doug Hill’s Not So Fast has to be one of the five best books on technology I’ve read over the past decade.  Hill has a remarkable command of the technology creators, analysts, and critics, such as Ellul, Heidegger, Kurzweil, Gates, Jobs, Mumford, Borgmann, and McLuhan.  He approaches technology from several helpful angles.  His prose is clear, convincing, and often droll!  Not So Fastmust be part of any reflection on our culture and future." 
            – David W. Gill, Professor of Workplace Theology & Business Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, President, International Jacques Ellul Society 

Doug Hill’s Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology presents a rich history of the questions raised and reasons given for bringing more aspects of the biological and cultural worlds under technological control. I highly recommend it.  
– Chet Bowers, author of Let Them Eat Data and The False Promises of the Digital Revolution

"Almost everyone today acknowledges that serious questions surround the myriad technologies that inhabit our lives. We need a way to form our own opinions about the relentless advance of technology and the role we want our devices to play in our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of our societies. Doug Hill, a fine journalist and writer, has given us an indispensable tool for doing this. His knowledgeable and well-crafted new book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology, offers a penetrating yet ultimately heartening view of this fast and furious technological terrain, taking us back, sometimes far back, then bringing us forward to fully face our most intimate concerns about technology in the 21st century.
    Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, authors of Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics

Not So Fast reflects, in addition to Doug Hill’s consummate skill as a writer, his deep knowledge of the history and the philosophy of technology. His reflections are grounded in that knowledge and at the same time are original and profound. I've worked and traveled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years and I still learned much from this book." 
             – Allen Noren, Vice President, Online, O'Reilly Media 

“Not So Fast addresses the primary questions of the day: how can we construct a coherent story about what is happening to us? And what can we do about it? Anyone interested in the future of the human project will benefit hugely from Doug Hill’s lucid performance." 
             – James Howard Kunstler, author of Too Much MagicThe Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere 

“Never have I experienced such a probing, in-depth analysis of the push-and-pull of technology as a driver, determining force, savior or disease of our species.”
                – Roger Cubicciotti, former chair, Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology, North Carolina Biotechnology Center; Visiting Scholar, Department of Physics, Wake Forest University

November 7, 2014

A great innovation in technological convergence: the Nazi death camp

“A salient fact about the killing center operations was that, unlike earlier phrases of the destruction process, they were unprecedented. Never before in history had people been killed on an assembly line basis....As separate establishments, both the concentration camp and the gas chamber had been in existence for some time. The great innovation was effected when the two devices were fused.”
        Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews

November 5, 2014

RIP Tom Magliozzi, gentle guide for the technologically perplexed

Tom Magliozzi

Like thousands of others, I was sad to read on Monday of the death of Tom Magliozzi, one half of Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, of public radio’s extremely popular show, Car Talk

The bad jokes and worse puns of Tom and his brother Ray have been keeping us smiling on weekend mornings for years — still do, in reruns, even though they stopped doing live shows in 2012. Sure, it was interesting to hear them analyze the car problems people called in about, but the real attraction has been Click and Clack’s gregarious, wise-cracking, self-deprecating personalities. I can’t remember ever hearing them make a caller feel stupid. I doubt they ever did.

The show’s chemistry has always stuck me as paradoxical. The atmosphere seemed so easy-going, so comfortable, so normal, but it was appealing largely, I suspect, because that sort of interaction isn’t really normal any more. More than any show I can think of, Car Talk conveyed a feeling of inclusion that’s missing from the stressed out, brusque, impersonal interactions that prevail in the everyday experience of many, if not most people today, me included. For all I know, off the air Tom and Ray’s lives were filled with torment, but on the air they seem tuned to the frequency of a kinder, gentler era.

Another thing that struck me listening to Car Talk was how perfectly it embodied an apophthegm formulated by the futurist John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends: High tech/high touch.

John Naisbitt
For those too young to remember, Megatrends was a publishing phenomenon, selling something like 14 million copies. At a time when the digital revolution was just starting to disrupt life as we know it, Megatrends offered, as the paperback’s cover put it, “a roadmap to the 21st century….…a new way of looking at America’s future and a new way of understanding the jumble of the present.” 

Some of Naisbitt’s predictions were wrong, as any futurist’s will be, and others were hardly groundbreaking. Nonetheless, some of the trends he identified turned out to be not only accurate, but genuinely important. High tech/high touch, I believe, is one of them. 

The basic idea of high tech/high touch is fairly obvious. Although we’re attracted by the powers and conveniences new technologies offer, they also can convey, collectively as well as individually, a coldness that puts us off. As Naisbitt put it, “The more high tech in our society, the more we will want to create high-touch environments, with soft edges balancing the hard edges of technology.” 

Naisbitt cited gardening, yoga, and meditation as examples of the antidotes we self-administer to counteract the depersonalization of our technicized workaday grind. Whether Steve Jobs ever read Megatrends, I don’t know, but his fabled fondness for skeuomorphs in Apple design reflected precisely the people-friendly qualities Naisbitt said technology products need. 

An Apple skeuomorph design: the iBooks "bookshelf"

“When high tech and high touch are out of balance,” Naisbitt wrote, “an annoying dissonance results….High tech dissonance infuriates people.” 

That seems to sum up how the airline industry has gone so frightfully wrong today. Google tries to strike a bit of high tech/high touch balance with the animations it regularly puts on its homepage, while Facebook tries to preserve that balance by concealing how aggressively it exploits its users' personal information. Social media in general is a massive manifestation of the high tech/high touch principle. 

You might think that the car problems Tom and Ray addressed don’t qualify as “high tech,” but I’d disagree. In fact cars and computers are both technologies we depend on utterly but don’t have a clue how to fix ourselves. For most of us this was true even before the innards of our automobiles became thoroughly computerized, and it’s more true now that they are. We’re as vulnerable facing a car that won’t start as we are a computer that’s frozen. Naked we stand at the mercy of He or She Who Knows.

Which is precisely why Car Talk has always been so existentially reassuring. Click and Clack were guides we could trust to ferry us safely across the chasm of technological uncertainty. Their infectious good humor simultaneously dispelled the mystery surrounding our machines and told us we needn't be ashamed of our ignorance. 

Not all mechanics, or all IT people, are like that, although more and more tech companies are pretending to be, following Amazon’s lead. Of course, as successful as it is, I’m pretty sure Car Talk really does operate on a scale considerably closer to the human than Amazon, or Apple, or their numerous imitators. 

Tom Magliozzi, you will be missed.

©Doug Hill, 2014

September 12, 2014