Technology Criticism and Notions of Progress

What makes the pessimistic stance of much technology criticism so persistent? And why is it so hard to imagine an analytic meaning of technology criticism?

For many people, technology is associated with the teleological ideal that history moves toward progress. Technology exists to make things better: It is a means to an end with the goal of improving. We understand technology to be an element of modernization along with developments in science that improve societies over time. So in criticizing technology, criticism seems to be against progress.

The negative and anti-progress associations of technology criticism are long established. Science and technology studies professor Langdon Winner articulated this tension in his 1986 introduction to The Whale and the Reactor:68

This is a work of criticism. If it were literary criticism, everyone would immediately understand the underlying purpose is positive. A critic of literature examines a work, analyzing its features, evaluating its qualities, seeking a deeper appreciation that might be useful to other readers of the same text. In a similar way, critics of music, theater, and the arts have a valuable, well-established role, serving as a helpful bridge between artists and audiences. Criticism of technology, however, is not yet afforded the same glad welcome. Writers who venture beyond the most pedestrian, dreary conceptions of tools and uses to investigate ways in which technical forms are implicated in the basic patterns and problems of our culture are often greeted with the charge that they are merely “antitechnology” or “blaming technology.” All who have recently stepped forward as critics in this realm have been tarred with the same idiot brush, an expression of the desire to stop a much needed dialogue rather than enlarge it. If any readers want to see the present work as “antitechnology,” make the most of it. That is their topic, not mine.69

In other words, because progress, and by association technology, resist criticism, the task of constructing thoughtful technology criticism is especially difficult.

For this reason, it is all too easy to dismiss Critics of technology when they focus only on the drawbacks of a dominant system. Philosopher and ethicist Evan Selinger explains the unfairness of the dismissal: “‘Paranoia’ has connotations of irrationality and delusion. It’s an unfair association . . . It’s particularly troubling because versions of the rhetoric are routinely applied to technology critics to unduly strip their skepticism of legitimacy.”70 This may partially explain the hesitation so many writers and journalists expressed when asked if they consider themselves Critics of technology.

Even the word “Luddite,” often used to connote the anti-progress bent of technology critics, has a more complicated history than a simple progress/anti-progress perspective would allow. Author Nicholas Carr has written about the Luddites as the unfortunate strawmen of history, who have been reduced and simplified to stand for anti-progress—“caricatures, emblems of backwardness” smashing looms and advocating for their labor rights. Carr acknowledges their more complicated history and sets them as a model for us all. It’s a bold move, given the reductive associations the “Luddite” epithet has developed, but his point is well taken: “The Luddites . . . understood that decisions about technology are also decisions about ways of working and ways of living—and they took control of those decisions rather than ceding them to others or giving way to the momentum of progress. They stepped back and thought critically about technology.”71

Moreover, approaching technological change with skepticism and scrutiny need not be inherently pessimistic. Historians of technology and science, as well as science and technology studies scholars, have done a lot of work to unpack the assumption of the inevitability and benevolence of progress. Technologies’ effects are not universally good, bad, or even neutral. Some technologies fail. Others are not widely adopted. Other technologies live on long after they are considered innovative. And still others follow completely different paths than intended by their creators. Criticism of technology can and should address all of these possibilities, but most mainstream technology criticism still only offers contrarian opposition.

Robinson Meyer offers a resolution for the progress/anti-progress love/hate tension that criticism wrestles with: that the critic might be best understood as “deeply loving the world, as well as seeing ways that it could improve.”72 Meyer points to a guiding principle from early theorist and technology critic Neil Postman that he often returns to, the “loving resistance fighter”:

You must try to be a loving resistance fighter . . . A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control . . . In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.73

Yet despite the possibilities for a critical stance that transcends the progress/anti-progress duality, why do negative associations still drown out the potential for more considered and skeptical forms of criticism when it comes to technology? In part, this is because the criticism that major media outlets elevate is so often riddled with problematic styles, tactics, assumptions, and ideologies. Matt Buchanan laments: “It sucks that the word ‘criticism’ has been ruined.”74 And there are a number of ways mainstream criticism and Critics have failed us so far.

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