[Air-L] Technology as ideologically neutral?

Nick Breems nbreems at dordt.edu
Thu Jul 5 11:05:54 PDT 2012

Hi Charles:
Though probably not foundational or landmark, I have often found Stephen Talbott's writings on technology to be fairly accessible.  He has a fairly short "FAQ" on Computerized Technology and Human Responsibility" at http://www.netfuture.org/faq.html.  The complete text of his book "The Future Does Not Compute:  Transcending the Machines in Our Midst" is available online at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/. Chapter 11, in particular, can be read more-or-less on its own, and addresses the question of technology neutrality in a novel way.
A couple of quotes:

>From Question 9 from the above-reference FAQ:

Q.  Isn't technology neutral? 'Guns don't kill people; people do' 

A.  Yes, only people can do bad things. But every technology already embodies certain of our choices. A gun, after all, was pretty much designed to kill living organisms at a distance, which gives it a different nature from, say, a pair of binoculars. 
The computer takes this much further, since its whole purpose is to bear our meanings and intentions with a degree of explicitness, subtlety, intricacy, and completeness unimaginable in earlier machines. Every executing program is a condensation of certain human thinking processes. At a more general level, the computer embodies our resolve to approach much of life with a programmatic or recipe-like (algorithmic) mindset. That resolve, expressed in the machinery, is far from innocent or neutral when, for example, we begin to adapt group behavior to programmed constraints. 
So we meet ourselves--our deepest tendencies, whether savory or unsavory, conscious or unconscious--in the things we have made. And, as always, the weight of accumulated choices begins to bind us. Our freedom is never absolute, but is conditioned by what we have made of ourselves and our world so far. The toxic materials I spread over my yard yesterday restrict my options today. 

>From Chapter 11 of the book:

"...The Net can be neither liberating nor oppressive in its own right. It's all a question of what we do with it. It's not the Net we're talking about here; it's you and me. And surely that's the only place to begin. Neither liberation nor oppression can become living powers in any soil except that of the human heart.  As soon as we put the matter this way, however, we can begin to talk about the "nature" of the Net. Not some absolute, intrinsic nature, to be sure, but an established character -- a kind of active willfulness -- that ultimately derives from our character. Our technological expressions, after all, do exhibit certain tendencies, patterns, biases, and these can, to one degree or another, be read. But it remains true that what we are reading -- what we have expressed through the technology -- can only be something of ourselves. We should not ask, "Is technology neutral?" but rather, "Are we neutral in our use of technology?" And, of course, one hopes we are not. No striving for what is good, true, and beautiful -- or for their opposites -- can reasonably be called neutral."


Nick Breems
- PhD Student @ University of Salford
- Assistant Professor of Computer Science @ Dordt College (on leave)
Email:  nbreems at dordt.edu
Mobile phone:
   (from UK): 0771 822 9005
   (from US): 011 44 771 822 9005
>>> On Thursday, July 05, 2012 at 2:48 PM, Charles Ess <charles.ess at gmail.com>
> Dear AoIRists,
> I'm trying to gather both accessible and, to some degree, "landmark" or
> foundational literature that can be used to (gently) challenge a view I keep
> encountering in certain circles lately - namely, that technology in general
> and the Internet in particular is "ideologically neutral".
> Such a view was around in the U.S. in the early days of the Internet - but
> countered in at least two ways; those who took up Social Construction of
> Technology and related theory from ST studies, including discussion of
> "affordances", etc. - and then the very ideological claims (roughly:
> California libertarian technological utopianism) that went from claims such
> as "the internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it" to
> claims that the Internet embedded and fostered specially U.S. (neoliberal)
> values of individualism, freedom of expression, and free market capitalism.
> For better and for worse, however, my impression is that in our communities,
> at least, the recognition that the technologies embed and foster specific
> cultural values and communicative preferences (as I like to put it on the
> basis of the CATaC conferences) has been more or less a given for quite some
> time.  Hence, having to re-visit and re-establish these understandings for
> those for whom this recognition is apparently quite new is a bit of a
> challenge.
> Any suggestions for literature, etc., would be most appreciated.
> Many thanks in advance,
> - charles ess

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