August 2, 2015

An Interview With Yours Truly

The author, relaxing at home

I received a nice invitation recently from the popular blogger, Joseph Ratliff. Having read my book (Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology), he asked if I would care to respond to a few questions regarding my views on the world of machines.

I said sure. Here’s our “interview," as posted July 23 on The Ratliff Notepad.

Thanks, Joseph. 

Think Technological Progress Is Always Something To Praise? Not So Fast…
As I’ve written before, I get a chance to interact with some pretty fascinating people.
One of those people you will be introduced to today is Doug Hill, who has some very interesting thoughts about technology (very similar to mine).  He had published a book on Kindle titled Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology. 
Currently, that book isn’t available for reasons Doug will provide at the end of this post, but I did get a chance to ask him 5 questions via email about it.
The result was a “mini-interview” that should broaden your perspective about technology, Silicon Valley, techno-utopians, and our lives.
Enjoy, my questions in bold, Doug’s answers in standard text…
  1. You start in the introduction by introducing a hero of yours, Lewis Mumford, and his “bird’s-eye view of technology.”  Can you please give the readers of this interview a brief summary of what Mumford’s “bird’s-eye view” was?
I’m not sure how familiar your readers will be with Mumford. I’m no Mumford scholar but I’ve been profoundly influenced by his three monumental works on technology: Technics and Civilization, Technics and Human Development and the Pentagon of Power (the last two comprise two volumes of a collective work entitled The Myth of the Machine).
Those books are informed by an incredibly deep and broad knowledge of history, combined with equally remarkable powers of critical perception. Mumford’s “bird’s eye view” of technology is a product of that combination. As a longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine, Mumford wrote well, but what’s most important are his observations regarding the fundamental characteristics of technological development.
I also quote in my introduction the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, who said that we can only begin to appreciate the nature of technology by looking at “the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern,” just as we can only begin to understand its influence when we recognize the “normal totality” of technology’s presence in the world. That normal totality has created a massive forest/trees problem that afflicts everyone who lives in the technological society. You have to get a certain distance to be able to appreciate the degree to which technology has shaped and continues to shape our daily experience, which in turn has shaped and continues to shape who we are. That’s what Mumford meant by taking a “bird’s eye view” of technology.
  1. In chapter 1 you have a focus on “technological utopianism,” or the general idea that we can use technology to move closer to a “utopian” future. You focus on several thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Eric Drexler.  Can you please share a brief version of your own view on this “technological utopian” viewpoint?
Technological utopianism is a way of describing the belief that technology will deliver us, soon, to some version of Eden. The two most commonly promised features of this machine-made paradise are universal plenty and endless leisure. Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists have added to the list of gifts technology will soon bestow infinite cognitive power and the eradication of death.
We hear a lot of utopian promises coming out of Silicon Valley today, and it’s startling how closely they match the promises of technological deliverance that have accompanied technological advance literally for centuries. (I quote some then and now examples of these parallels in my book, and it’s fun to see them side by side.) The utopians uniformly fail to recognize that they’re telling an old story, which testifies to the narrowness of their vision. They also fail to adequately acknowledge the myriad ways in which technological advance has taken us in the opposite direction of Eden, however you define it.
These qualities make the technological utopians truly dangerous, rather than simply annoying, because the fantasies they promulgate are so seductive. Yes, they tell us, the world is a mess, but relax: the engineers know how to fix it, and pretty soon, if we stay out of their way, they will, at which point everything will be really cool! It’s a sales pitch that drowns out recognition of technology’s dangers, thereby undermining the possibility that we might proceed on the basis of more realistic expectations. A more measured approach could celebrate the contributions of science and technology to the betterment of the world without stimulating the pursuit of gold, glory and distraction that so dominate the technical arts today.
  1. My favorite part of the book is chapter 7, “The Nature of Technology.”  In that chapter you explain the 4 characteristics of technology’s nature.  Can you share a summary of those characteristics here?
I’m happy to hear that you liked that chapter, because that’s one I expect will rub some people the wrong way. The suggestion that machines collectively can be said to have a nature – a set of inherent characteristics that produce a consistent pattern of “behaviors” – might, at first blush, seem pretty wacky. My hope is that reading my analysis of those characteristics will allay that initial skepticism. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with my arguments, I think they can help you think about technology in a way you might not have before.
My argument about the nature of technology is set up by the book’s previous chapter, in which I review some of the definitions of technology that have been proposed by a variety of scholars over the years. My own view aligns with those who define technology broadly – systemically – a view that for me means that technological systems incorporate the human beings who run, manage, use or are used by them. At a certain stage of development – as the size, reach and ubiquity of the technologies in question increase – dehumanization becomes an inevitable result of that incorporation. Charlie Chaplin spinning on the massive gears of the factory in Modern Times is an expression of that view. Commercial air travel entails an especially immersive absorption in the technological web most of us are familiar with today. Many people have jobs that make them feel as though they’re cogs in a machine, and from technology’s point of view, they are.
The four characteristics that identify the nature of technology are:
  1. Technology is by nature expansive.
  2. Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
  3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
  4. Technology by its nature strives for control.
I won’t go into detail here about what I mean by those characteristics except to emphasize that together they lead to two of the most important points of my book:
1) That to see technology accurately is to understand it as a collective entity rather than merely a set of discrete artifacts, and…
2) That in its collective effects technology embodies a force in the world that is similar to but separate from the force of nature, and in opposition to nature.
A lot of writers disagree with that last point in particular. They argue that the opposite is true, at least as far as human beings are concerned: that human nature is inherently technological. I agree we have a tendency to bond with our machines, but again, as the size, reach and ubiquity of our technologies increase, the law of diminishing returns applies. As Jacques Ellul often said, at some point a change in quantity becomes a change in quality.
  1. Then, in chapter 8 you bring up the possibility of humans losing control of technology.  Please explain?
That’s the chapter in which I talk about the question of technological autonomy. To suggest that we don’t control our machines is another unpopular point of view that becomes more convincing upon examination. If we’re in control of our technologies we should be able to choose whether or not we want them in our lives. We simply don’t have that choice. That’s true in part because technology becomes a form of embodiment. As I said above, we’ve defined our physical world (academics would say our “surround”) and therefore our existence, by the technological structures we’ve put in place. We’ve also lost control of the impact our machines have on the environment. Global warming is the ultimate demonstration of that. We know they’re killing the planet and yet we’re incapable of taking the necessary steps to stop the damage because we can’t undo our commitments to technology.
My argument in the book is that we live today in a state of “de facto technological autonomy.” What that means is that although it is theoretically possible to live without technology, practically speaking you can’t. To reject technology is to find yourself excluded from any meaningful participation in the culture. Try applying for a job without using the internet, for example. Try getting elected to Congress without using television. Getting by without a car is possible, but not easy; if you don’t drive, you’re marginalized. In all those examples some measure of choice is involved; they don’t account for the countless exposures to technology over which we have no control. Again, global warming is the ultimate example. The lives of Inuit fishermen in Alaska will be profoundly disrupted by climate change even though their carbon footprint is negligible.
A reasonable response to these sorts of arguments is to say, sure, there are some problems associated with technological development, but there are also innumerable benefits. On balance, we’re ahead. To that I’d say, maybe – I would never argue that technology is all bad, and I’m well aware that I personally wouldn’t survive a week in the wild without it. My own way of life is as committed to technology as anyone else’s (or almost as committed – I still don’t own a smart phone). The point of the argument about technological autonomy is whether we can choose which technologies we want to live with and which technologies we can choose to live without. Is it really an all or nothing proposition? The nature of technology suggests that it is, and the consequences of that are disastrous, for a multitude of reasons.
  1. Throughout the book you refer to Jacques Ellul, as I have in many of my own essays on technology.  What are some of your favorite ideas about technology that Ellul explored?
Without question Ellul has influenced my thinking about technology more than anyone else. His work is brilliant, passionate, uncompromising and, I admit, occasionally over the top. A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe intended to introduce general readers to Ellul; it’s here. I agree with what Albert Borgmann said when I interviewed him for that piece: It’s easy to dismiss Ellul as a bringer of bad news, but what makes him important is the comprehensiveness of his explanation of the technological phenomenon coupled with his powerful moral concern.
The essence of Ellul’s argument is that technology is a unified force that imposes demands that erode and ultimately destroy the fullness of what it means to be human. He used the word “technique” rather than “technology” to make the point that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices, but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that drive technological systems as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. The central goal and overriding value of that mentality is efficiency.
Here’s a representative quote from Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in French in 1954 and in English a decade later:
“It is mere vanity to wish to distinguish a technique as good or bad according to its end. Whether technique acts to the advantage of a dictator or of a democracy, it makes use of the same weapons, acts on the individual and manipulates his subconscious in identical ways, and in the end leads to the formation of exactly the same type of human being…the well-kneaded citizen.”
Here’s another:
“Technique worships nothing, respects nothing. It has a single role: to strip off externals, to bring everything to light, and by rational use to transform everything into means…Far from being restrained by any scruples before the sacred, technique constantly assails it…The mysterious is merely that which has not yet been technicized.”
One more:
“It is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure.”
How can readers get in touch, and what is the status of your book?
The short story is that I’m a journalist who has studied the history and philosophy of technology for more than twenty years. My blog is The Question Concerning Technology. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@DougHill25) dedicated to my thoughts on technology.
I haven’t been very active on any of those fronts lately, due to the pressures of a new job, but I hope to resume regular communiqués soon. My book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, is currently in the review process at a major publisher and not currently available, but I hope it will be soon.
I will keep you posted.

June 19, 2015

Wyndham Lewis on Truth, Clearness, and Beauty

Truth, Clearness, and Beauty naturally are public matters. Truth or Beauty are as much public concerns as the water supply.
                  Wyndham Lewis 

May 25, 2015

Lewis Mumford on change and "alterations"

“Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations to the human personality, while still more radical transformations, if this process continues unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead.” 
Technics and Human Development, 1967

April 24, 2015

Carroll Pursell, on technology and American aspirations

As many of the founding generation feared, a technology not subordinated to our highest political aspirations has become a bulwark of our worst.
                  Carroll Pursell, The Machine in America 


April 13, 2015

John Lachs on responsibility and experience

Psychic distance is a direct result of the lack of direct experience. It shows itself in our unwillingness or even inability to appropriate actions that are clearly ours. It is reinforced by the fact that intermediate men tend to hide from us the immediate and even many of the long-range consequences of our acts. Without firsthand acquaintance with his actions, even the best of humans moves in a moral vacuum: the abstract recognition of evil is neither a reliable guide nor an adequate motive…..Our psychic distance from our deeds renders us ignorant of the conditions of our existence and the outcome of our acts.”    
              John Lachs, Responsibility and the Individual in Modern Society 


April 8, 2015

Silicon Valley Exercises Its Political Muscle. Should We Be Worried?

Herbert Hoover, Engineer in Chief

That the masters of the tech universe jumped so forcefully into the middle of the Indiana gay rights imbroglio was, as many have noted, a marked change from business as usual in Silicon Valley, where the digerati had previously been reluctant to involve themselves in political issues not directly related to their bottom lines.

As Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of the cloud computing behemoth, Salesforce, told the New York Times, “We’re wading into territory none of us is comfortable in, which is social issues,” he said. “But it was crystal clear that, by all of us going in together, it was going to be OK." 

Only time will tell, of course, whether this turns out to be a harbinger of political activism to come, and, if it is, whether or not that's a good thing. History suggests we need to be careful what we wish for.

The engineers of Silicon Valley are far from the first of their kind to have been relatively disinterested in the nitty gritty of political engagement. In the early decades of the twentieth century the growing powers of industrialism bestowed upon engineers — previously thought of as the guys with greasy overalls whose expertise extended only as far the workshop door — a new measure of power and prestige. Academia responded with a massive increase in engineering programs. The number of American engineering graduates increased from 100 a year in 1870 to 4,300 a year in 1914. What had been a trade became a profession. 

Engineering students, 1890

Engineering students, 1915

Meanwhile technological advances were producing growing political, economic and social complexities that politicians seemed increasingly unable to handle. What was needed was better planning and efficiency, which is what technicians did best. A rising chorus of opinion suggested it was to time to let the engineers take the helm of the ship of state, and some engineers agreed. One of them was the engineer, editor and manufacturer Henry Goslee Prout, who in 1905 reminded Cornell’s first class of civil engineering graduates of the great mission they had taken on.

”My proposition is that the engineer more than all other men will guide humanity forward until we come to some other period of a different kind,” Prout said. “On the engineer and on those who are making engineers rests a responsibility such as men have never before been called upon to face, for it is a peculiarity of the new epoch that we are conscious of it, that we know what we are doing, which was not true in either of the six preceding epochs, and we have upon us the responsibility of conscious knowledge."

Thorstein Veblen

Among the more forceful technocratic voices to emerge during this period was that of the economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen. Best known today as the man who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," Veblen relentlessly attacked the wastefulness of American business. Overproduction and over-selling of useless goods were ruining the country, he argued. The solution was to turn policy and administration over to "skilled technologists" who would exercise "systematic control" over the economy.

Somehow the ascent of the engineers that Veblen and others envisioned never materialized. Despite their growing professional confidence, they seemed reluctant to pursue broader political power. Veblen was disgusted. "[B]y settled habit," he fumed, "the technicians, the engineers and the industrial experts, are a harmless and docile sort, well fed on the whole, and somewhat placidly content with the 'full dinner-pail,' which the lieutenants of the Vested Interests habitually allow them.”

Robert McNamara

The idea that engineers could successfully run government, even if they wanted to, took a beating with the presidency of Herbert Hoover, the nation’s first and so far only Engineer in Chief. A further blow to engineering credibility came several decades later when uber technocrat Robert McNamara unleashed mountains of precision analysis against the pesky guerrilla fighters hiding in the jungles of Vietnam. In 1962 McNamara returned from his first tour of the Asian theater brimming with confidence. “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning this war,” he said.

It’s likely that the hacker mindset — rebellious, but narrowly focused —  explains why the programming elite of Silicon Valley haven’t been, heretofore, especially active politically, which isn’t to say that faith in technocracy isn’t alive and well there. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen are among those who believe that technology is quite capable of solving all our problems, if only government will get out the way, and government increasingly shows signs of agreeing with them.

Eric Schmidt, Condoleeza Rice, Jared Cohen
In a February article in the London Review of Books, the historian Jackson Lears described the career trajectory of Jared Cohen, a Condoleezza Rice protégé who stayed on at State under Hillary Clinton. Cohen subsequently co-authored a book with Eric Schmidt (The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business), who hired him to head Google’s “Ideas” division, which Google describes as “a think/do tank that explores how technology can enable people to confront threats in the face of conflict and repression.” Cohen’s career reflects, Lears said, “the new intimacy of Washington and Silicon Valley.” 

It’s hard to know what the offspring of that intimacy will grow up to be. Republicans will be more comfortable than Democrats with the fact that many in Silicon Valley consider Atlas Shrugged the definitive political text. At the same time, the socially progressive inclinations of CEOs who live and work in northern California and Seattle are at odds with the fundamentalist convictions of the heartland.

What’s clear is that we can no longer assume the engineers will be satisfied with serving as the “lieutenants of the Vested Interests.” They are the vested interests.


(Note: I’m grateful to the historians William Atkin, Edward Layton Jr., Thomas Hughes and Henry Elsner Jr. for information on the technocracy movements of the early 20th century. Also note that an earlier version of this essay was posted on Salon on April 6, 2015.)

©Doug Hill, 2015

March 5, 2015

Walter Benjamin on the secret resistances of things

“Warmth is ebbing from things. The objects of daily use gently but insistently repel us. Day by day, in overcoming the sum of secret resistances—not only the overt ones—that they put in our way, we have an immense labor to perform. We must compensate with our warmth if they are not to freeze us to death.”
Walter Benjamin