Essays on Technology and Culture

Facets 2015: People are More Important than Things

One of, what I hope is, the overarching themes in my writing on technology is the relationship we have with it. It seems like a beat that is surprisingly untrodden, at least from where I’m standing. Most technology journalism and other writing I see in my circles only touches lightly on our relationship with technology, usually in the context of a new gadget category, or the default (if righteous) outrage over governments and private companies alike collecting our data for various, nefarious purposes. It’s either “Should I buy this?” or “You should be outraged!” In the end, it so often just feel like talking about technology for its own sake.

This came in sharp focus for me while attending the recent Facets conference in Brooklyn. Facets had a strong focus on the hard tech side of things: programming, machine learning, personal privacy, and other heady topics, but it approached it from an interdisciplinary perspective with art and education, so that even a Comp Sci fail-out like me could understand and be a part of the discussion. My time at Facets felt like exploring some mysterious parallel universe of thinking about technology in a way that I only knew about through theory and inference. I want to go back and live there, because the main ways of thinking about technology in the universe I live in seem small and meaningless now.

I’ve griped before about how discussion about the business side of technology drives me batty, but that’s only one of the aspects of most tech discussion I find increasingly infuriating. A theme that ran through so many of the panels at Facets can best be summarized as “People are more important than things.” It came up first in a discussion panel on Technology as Art & Digital Curation. When discussing the problems with how the history of technology is presented, it’s often in a way that emphasizes the thing—the computer, the operating system, the network—over the people who made it, and the people whose lives it changed. And when people are emphasized, of course, it’s usually just the Great White Men who Run Companies, and we hear enough of that narrative. [1]

Which leads to another wonderful part of Facets: the diversity in the panels, with a focus on underrepresented groups in technology: women, African-Americans, LGBT people, as well as people who focus on the intersection between technology and art, not just technical practitioners. Instead of “learn to code” to get a job, panels spoke about the School for Poetic Computation, and New Inc, the first incubator space led by a museum, with a focus on art over commerce. There was discussion on technology-focused activism about espionage and data collection more nuanced than “Put a Snowden On It,” of selfies as identity politics and performative art, and a really cool live demo of using machine learning to create new electronic music instruments.

And, again, throughout each panel and discussion, the focus was on the human element: the hacker and maker to be sure, but also the artist, the citizenry, and the community—in tech and beyond it. Technology is no longer a space that is all to itself. It’s infiltrating every part of our lives, in one way or another, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. By breaking discussion of technology out of its echo chamber with a multi-disciplinary approach to the tools and what can be done with them, we can foster a larger, more robust, and more exciting discussion of technology that isn’t just the same boring things over and over.

I leave the conference wondering why this sort of discussion is so rare in the larger space around technology. I’m sick, tired, and just plain bored of breathless excitement over the latest and greatest consumer gadget. I’m also sick, tired, and just plain bored of breathless anger over the latest and greatest consumer gadget. It gets us nowhere, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. There’s a bigger picture, a bigger story to all of this that gets lost in just focusing on the gizmos, the gadgets, and the UI, and the huge numbers funding it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with occasionally looking at the tech world from that level, but right now I feel like it’s missing the forest for the fourth leaf on the middle-bottom right branch of the thirty-seventh tree to the east-southeast.

  1. A question raised in the discussion: “How many books do we need on Steve Jobs, anyway?”  ↩