Helplessness in Face of Technology's Inexorable March a Familiar Feeling
by Gary Chapman
Well, here we are on the other side, so to speak -- the other side of the 1900s, of the Y2K problem, of a century that appears, in retrospect, turbulent and violent like no other. Perhaps we're on the other side of reflection about what the 20th century meant for humankind and now we face our hopes and fears about what the future holds.
The news media have been filled with both retrospective ruminations and bold predictions, and nearly all of these have been about technology, the defining force of our time. We live in an age of innovation, which stretches back to the 19th century and will doubtlessly continue for as long as we live. We nearly always contemplate the future in terms of what technological innovations we can expect, hope for or dread.
Writing about technology in this era is difficult, especially when one's feelings are . . . profoundly ambivalent. Such ambivalence may be a feature of middle age, when experience has worn away youth's certainty. But it's also likely to be a product of technology's very mixed blessings.
I am admittedly fascinated with technology -- especially as it deals with information. I constantly tinker with my several computers and push myself to learn new techniques in programming and Internet use. I have used the Internet every day, with enthusiasm, for 15 years. I have mild withdrawal symptoms when I can't get to my e-mail. I have strong opinions, bordering on the obnoxious, about which software programs and hardware are superior.
But like many people I know, I am past the point of saturation with topics such as e-commerce, Internet start-ups, rocketing stock options, computer games, special effects, rich and young digital yuppies and, most certainly, the gleeful wonder of technophiles who sing in their choirs about the glories of the information revolution.
My annoyance with these ubiquitous and by now tiresome topics leads to some mild feelings of guilt. Am I just too jaded or cranky to appreciate a really good time to be alive?
But most people I know seem to feel the same way. Yes, we love our gadgets, couldn't live without them. But we feel there's something vaguely wrong, something missing, something even surreal about the incredible volume of Panglossian techno-hype we hear every day.
It's even more vexing when the talk only about what the next millennium will look like is about what technologies might appear. Aren't there other ways we can improve the human condition in the next thousand years?
These kinds of doubts have, in fact, been a common critique of technology in the U.S., particularly in the 19th century. It was more than 100 years ago that Henry David Thoreau wrote, "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." The people who wrote eloquently over the last 200 years about their ambivalence toward technology, such as Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Samuel Butler and others, typically admired craft and expertise, but felt skeptical or even contemptuous about technologies that fostered decadence, arrogance and relations of dependence and superiority.
Thomas Jefferson molded the original American myth of the self-sufficient "yeoman" democrat, a man so omnicompetent and independent that he could speak his own mind and live with the consequences. But technology killed this ideal, first by concentrating people and production in industries and cities, then by making farmers dependent on machines, chemicals and urban markets.
By the end of the 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party openly questioned whether American democracy could coexist with a modern economy of unaccountable corporate trusts, dirty urban industry with its nearly enslaved workers, and a powerful class of idle and haughty rich. Public debate a hundred years ago was about whether technological progress had led to an economy incompatible with traditional republican values, such as equality and independence.
Now, a hundred years later, this kind of public debate is not only dead, it's perhaps even unthinkable. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has said, "This rate of change is scary, but it's not something we can vote on to stop." It's not the rate that is scary -- the current rate of technological change was matched during the 19th century. Instead it's the fact that few people today believe that there is anything we can do about technological change except enjoy the ride -- even when we know there will be some big potholes in the road ahead.
This may be the source of our modern uneasiness and ambivalence. We can't imagine a world without advancing technology. We know we aren't likely to control it to any great degree, yet we also feel that "technology out of control" is deeply at odds with our ideal of democratic citizenship.
Technology makes us more comfortable, wealthier and healthier. It can also make us presumptuous, dependent, sedentary, stratified and, most of all, continuously covetous of more technology. Such vices erode our ability to think clearly. Being hooked on something has debilitating effects, even when the addiction is what makes life tolerable. We are hooked on technology, for better or for worse.
A historian of technology, Melvin Kranzberg, has wisely observed, "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral."
This Zen-like aphorism comes from the realization that technology is inextricably bound to human virtues and defects, to aspirations for power and control both noble and base.
The danger of our time is that we may come to regard technology as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. Our best safeguard against this danger is constant skepticism, ambivalence, critique and democratic dialogue. That's what needs more attention these days, and the beginning of a new millennium seems like a good time to start paying attention.
Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
This column, first published in The Los Angeles Times is reproduced here with the author's permission.
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