Looking beyond the gadgets

If you read this site regularly, you’ll know that I do tend to be a bit wide-eyed and ZOMG!!! about new technologies and gadgets. I also describe myself as a futurist, which is a word with a highly contentious set of meanings, but can be broadly described as a person who tries to peer ahead into the coming years to see not only where we are heading as a species, but hopefully what obstacles (or power-ups) lie around the next corner, too.

It’s a natural outgrowth of reading a lot of science fiction, I think, combined with the fact that I tend to be a long-term optimist (if admittedly a short-term pessimist, if I haven’t just contradicted myself out of existence). I certainly don’t have an awesome set of educational qualifications, nor any experience in major cutting edge industries, but I like to think of myself as an observer of human culture. Half a year of frivolous-becoming-serious blogging has exposed me to the rapid flow of ideas and technological changes – I know what’s on the streets now, and what’s likely to be there in the next few years, and what the pundits think will be here in the next fifteen. And I am aware, as a wise man and great author once said, that ‘the street finds its own uses for things’.

And so my commentary on the bleeding edge of technoculture tends to be rather ‘hey, check this cool thing out’. But after reading Jamais Cascio’s new essay for Futurismic (yes, I know, I’ve mentioned it before), I’ve realised that this isn’t really the worthwhile tack to take – I (and others) need to be talking more about the social and cultural impacts and influences of new things, and less about the features list of the thing in question. Allow me to quote the article:

“This is a more important issue than you might think. If you doubt the relevance of social values when thinking about the future, ask yourself: how would an intelligent machine built by computer scientists in China differ from one built by computer scientists in the United States? Or, perhaps more pointedly, how would one built by Microsoft differ from one built by FOSS programmers? How would the design decisions going into a molecular manufacturing system vary if it came from a university program rather than a government lab? Or an electric car design coming from computer industry veterans rather than a Big Three carmaker?”

Indeed. As he says elsewhere (and I paraphrase), technology is not a neutral driver of change, but a material manifestation of social values. It’s time to look beyond the gadgets.

For example, I’ve talked a lot about the impact of the internet and computers on information access, but I’ve hardly ever mentioned the widening power gap that it is creating between the rich and the poor, not only on a world-wide scale, but at a local scale too. As a library employee, that’s virtually inexcusable, as I see it every day – that big mass of bored and disenfranchised people waiting for their half-hour slice of free internet access, that rarely comes across as more than a tedious part of my job, is actually a well-deserved mockery of my singularitary-utopian flagwaving.

Technology itself is not solving the world’s problems, though it undeniably has the potential to do so. No, at the moment it is merely creating a new set of problems, all of which are modelled on the old ones of class and cultural divides, of have and have not, of implementation and design philosophy, of attitudes to scarcity and abundance.

However, it would do no good to veer into a Luddite stance and decry technology as the enemy of the species. On the contrary, technology used appropriately is most likely the tool that will save our planet and ourselves from ourselves. But there’s a lot of work to be done, and making new mobile phones that play better ringtones isn’t going to help. As a writer who claims to believe in a long-term future for the human race, albeit one with a very small readership, it is my responsibility to address the bigger issues that surround the new inventions and devices that flood into our world, seemingly by greater numbers every day.

This Pitchfork article makes the claim that no-one is writing well about technology because no-one really knows how to – that’s why there are no strong critical voices like the much-missed Hunter Thompson working in the field. That’s a big pair of metaphorical shoes to even consider filling, but I think I can see what they mean. Writers need to recognise that there’s more to technology than the ability to do nebulously ‘cool’ things. Technology affects us and our culture more deeply than most commentators on it dare to discuss.

Much as I’d love to say otherwise, I’m no Hunter Thompson (alas), but maybe I can learn to get beneath the skin of my era in the same way that he did; to feel the pulse of things, to appreciate, observe and occasionally lament our increasing rejection of the world around us in favour of the light from our LCD screens. It’ll take the breaking of a long-held habit, namely my profane worship of material technological progress. But I think I see a reason to do so now, as well as a need. Let’s see where I can go with this.

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