Essays on Technology and Culture

A Statement of Purpose

Those who say that the world is moving too fast have no sense of history. This is doubly true for the world of technology. We’re in the midst of what seem like huge and drastic shifts in the ways we use technology and the ways technology can be used. I say seem, because I suspect these changes only look huge and drastic when you’re caught up in them. With time, and distance, something that seems as drastic as the Internet in your pocket is really just the next gradual step in an ever iterative process. Or, perhaps this really is a revolutionary time. I can’t claim one way or the other, because as I, too, am caught up in the ripples from the impact. We cannot see how the developments happening now stand in relationship with everything else.

There’s so much that gets wrapped up in technology, partially because so much of the visible technological innovation is happening in what is called the “consumer space”. It’s to the benefit of the companies that produce these consumer technologies to tout them as breakthrough, revolutionary, and so forth. When you hear it enough, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype cycle. Our already limited vision and perspective is being skewed further by the marketers who benefit from a small wave looking like a tsunami. And there’s never enough time to come to grips with what we’re seeing before another announcement. There’s a race to be the first to do a thing, the first to market a thing, and the first to comment on how terrible the thing is compared to what came before.

I keep coming back to the idea of “time and distance”. We don’t have either for so much of what we do. If anything has truly sped up, it’s the communication cycle. Before the instant nature of always on, high-speed Internet connections in our homes and in our pockets, media came with time and distance built in. Newspapers had to be written. Film had to be developed. Radio broadcasts had immediacy, but only if they could get power and a transmitter to where things were happening. Time allowed for things to settle, opinions to be fleshed out, and outcomes to become clearer. Maybe. Whenever you are looking back, there’s always the potential to romanticize the past—to see the high points, but not the low points. There is a value in immediacy, but not in all things.

The dialogues happening in the public space around technology far too often veer into knee-jerk, product centric flag waving. You’re either an Android user, or an iOS user, iOS 7 either sucks or is amazing, third example. The most in-depth discussion around technology in practice only comes in the wake of revealed abuses, such as the debate around the PRISM scandal, or particularly malicious forms of Digital Rights Management. Speaking as a geek, and an advocate of and for technology in our lives, these are the discussions we should be having more often, and earlier. These are discussions that do happen, and do exist, but are so often in academia or its analogues that ordinary people rarely even get to say their piece. We learn about the debate when a documented abuse explodes, when for a brief moment the door is opened and we can see the machinery. By then, it’s too late. It’s easier to stop a system before it starts. When something is in motion, there’s enough vested interest to keep it in motion.

But this goes beyond, far beyond, spying and spyware. These are questions that, in one way or another, are woven into the very fabric of technology. We need to take some time, and find some distance from the onslaught of small things that look big from forced perspective. The questions we need to ask read simply, but are hard to answer. There’s three questions that I think of when I think about technology: “How do we use it?”, “How do we think about it?”, and “How do we use it better?” The first is something we should ask of any technology we are given. It seems like a question of interface, but it’s more. Just like “Design is how it works,” asking “How do we use technology?” Is asking more about the applications towards which we apply it. “How do we think about it?” is what we should ask when we seek to explore a technology’s role in our lives. Is it accepted? Unaccepted? By who? Are the attitudes changing and why? These questions ground us, and ground the technologies we use in our lives by moving past the hype.

Finally, we must ask: “How can we use technology better?” The potential trapped in all of our tools can only be unlocked with awareness and experience. In your own life of interacting with technology, you have presumably had the “A-ha!” moment where you discover a time-saving feature in a piece of software, or stumble upon a neat thing you can do with a gadget. This question seeks to go beyond that, to understand how to bend the tools of technology to our own wills, take control, and better the lives of ourselves and others. It requires time, patience, effort, and developing an understanding of technology that goes deeper than just “how it works”.

The answers will vary for each of us. They depend on our own needs and desires, the tools we have at hand, and the time we’re willing to expend. I seem them asked in disparate places online and offline, but I don’t see them brought together often. The critiques of Google Glass in recent months have come close, but only close. These are the questions I plan to ask of myself and of the technologies in my life. I will put my answers here, along side the new questions that will inevitably arise from the attempts. I know I won’t be alone.