The Technologists' Siren Song

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Internet, technology



W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author, most recently, of The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2013).

In July 1969—less than two weeks after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavorted on the moon—The New York Review of Books published a controversial essay by John McDermott, "Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals." In it, McDermott, a social scientist at the State University of New York, offered a sharp rejoinder to those who viewed the Apollo 11 mission as a harbinger of ever-more-­ambitious technological triumphs. The essay was in response to a report put out by Harvard University’s Program on Technology and Society, a grand interdisciplinary effort bankrolled to the tune of several million dollars by IBM. The Harvard report was sanguine, arguing, in McDermott’s words, that "technological innovation exhibits a distinct tendency to work for the general welfare in the long run." McDermott was having none of this "extravagant optimism."

The prevailing belief of technologists—in McDermott’s time and ours—is that technology is the solution to all problems. It is a view especially attractive to those best positioned to reap the benefits of innovation and avoid its unattractive consequences.

Technology comforts, surrounds, and confounds us. When we argue about MOOCs, hydraulic fracturing, NSA surveillance, or drone warfare, we’re arguing about technology. Unfortunately, the conversation is impoverished by the absence of a robust cadre of scholars who can engage with and critique the role of technology in society. Instead, we have the glib boosterism of tech intellectuals like the former Wired editor Chris Anderson, the media gadfly (and CUNY journalism professor) Jeff Jarvis, the British writer Andrew Keen, and the Google executive Eric Schmidt. A fairly homogenous group of white men with elite degrees inclined to champion innovation, disruption, and the free market, these tech intellectuals have usurped the role of explaining technology to policy makers, investors, and the public. Their arguments and advocacy are too often a tepid substitute for robust analysis and honest critique....




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