The Case for Technorealism
Today, I watched this talk by Jason Silva, titled WE ARE THE GODS NOW. In it, Silva makes a persuasive—perhaps contagious—argument, and one I hadn’t encountered to date. Basically, Silva tells a bunch of overly-excited stories about the power of technology and then invites the rest of us to jump on his bandwagon of utopian, technological optimism.
I will file Silva and his work as radical, techno-optimism. I tend to take a less romantic, more realistic viewpoint than Silva, although I do share a measure of his excitement about the potential for technology to be used for good, social change. There are many reasons why I shy away from Silva’s perspective. Most important is the way he fetishizes technology and ignores the complex array of social forces from which all these magical technologies arise. (No, they do not just pop out of the replicator from Star Trek.) The other reason is his tendency to treat decontextualized quotes from influential scientists as irrevocably convincing evidence. This, latter limitation is reminiscent of the damning problems with Malcom Gladwell’s brand of intellectualism. At its worst, I’ve come to see it as little more than “enlightened delusion.”
Ironically, just after watching the video, I stumbled across (via Twitter, of course) this short video from Barbara Ehrenreich. The argument is based off Ehrenreich’s recent book Bright-Sided, in which she warns of a society where blind optimism keeps much of the public ignorant of the real problems we are facing. Hegemonic ideological forces such as nationalism and individualism, among others, popularize cultural attitudes of optimism, even in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence.
An even more polemic counter-example can be found in Evgeny Morozov’s rabid arguments in the other direction. I disagree with Morozov for similar reasons—he overplays his argument, lacks systematic analysis, and ignores counter-evidence. He also happens to be one of the most mean-spirited intellectuals I’ve ever heard of. He hurls personal insults like it’s his job. (See, for example, his review of Jeff Jarvis’s recent book, or his debate with author Steven Johnson.) Despite his infamous lack of civility, Morozov’s recent books The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here serve as a useful counterweights in balancing out the blind optimism idealized by schlock experts like Silva. Most notably, they provide countless examples how new technologies are being used to undermine the public good.
Like Ehrenreich, I am an advocate of realism over blind forms of optimism or pessimism. For example, the hard, undeniable fact of inequality—in technological access, economics, education, etc.—that spans the globe is a HUGE barrier to the kind of utopia Silva dreams of. And technology alone cannot solve it. Moreover, if technology continues to be used to replace jobs historically done by humans, it may even increase it. These considerations do not negate the powerful, disruptive potential that new technologies may hold. But they should surely temper our hopes for their revolutionary potential.
In contrast to the polemics of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, technorealism is a perspective that seeks to balance out both irrevocable positions with a realistic consideration of both “positive” and “negative” forces. As defined by www.technorealism.org:
Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and appropriate use (quoted in Vo et al.).
So, what can technorealism do for sociological inquiry? Besides offering a healthy dose of reality, it can guide us beyond mere polemics and onto a plane of thought grounded in both logic and evidence. That is the direction I hope to head going forward. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t end up being the path less traveled.
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