Traps of Ideology and Unexamined Positions

Though they are willing to deconstruct the logic and assumptions of their targets, Critics are sometimes opaque about their own biases, ideological positions, and disciplinary blind spots. This section attempts to lay out the traps of ideology and unexamined positions that underlie much contemporary criticism.

Traps of Ideology and Unexamined Positions Questions to Ask of the Critics
Technological Determinism and Progress Does this technology coerce and limit users? Or are there alterative uses?
Fear Mongering, Sensationalism, and Moral Panics How likely is this to happen? And haven’t we always worried about these concerns?
Dualisms and Zero-Sums Does it have to be either or? Does this oversimplify the issue?
Defeatism of the Critical Stance What is this criticism trying to accomplish?

Ideology Trap: Technological Determinism and Progress

Is technological determinism making us stupid? Or just making us write bad headlines? Technological determinism is a common blind spot in much of contemporary criticism. While addressing important questions, much criticism falls toward a determinist stance, blaming technologies’ social impacts on the design or the device and leaving less room for more subtle investigations of use and adoption practices. The idea that technology has a teleology, that there is an inevitability to its development and effects, removes all human agency from the equation, both in the consumption and the production of technologies.

It is compelling to think that technology does things to us. Doing so acknowledges the power dynamics at play in sociotechnical systems. Technologies do embed coercive potential in their default designs, but determinist framings perpetuate the myth that technology is the driving force shaping behavior and diminish the importance of the “socio” in sociotechnical systems. While these framings pose simple questions that generate clicks, they do little to further readers’ understanding of the complexity of the interactions between humans and human-built systems. Morozov recognizes this problematic position: “The very edifice of contemporary technology criticism rests on the critic’s reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader matrix of social, cultural, and economic relations.”90

Ideology Trap: Fear Mongering, Sensationalism, and Moral Panics

The most sensational forms of criticism offer alarmist, fear-mongering warnings about a loss of humanity. Most of what Critics put forward in opposition to technological trends does little more than appeal to readers’ existing anxieties.

It can be hard for critics, who have to clarify what is at stake in their writing, to avoid overstating their concerns. In The Glass Cage, Carr chastises the “alarmist tone” of Critics warning of a near future where robots take our jobs, yet Carr himself does not hesitate to use the buzzwords of moral panic.91 He points to the ills of depression, suicide, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that plague our age, and he ties them back to the effects of a frictionless, automated existence.

Similarly, Sherry Turkle worries for the sake of our children, about their ability to have conversations in the traditional face-to-face sense: “One teacher observed that the students ‘sit in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things together, what they are sharing is what is on their phones.’ Is this the new conversation? If so, it is not doing the work of the old conversation. The old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.”92

Throughout history, commentators have worried about the effect of technologies on vulnerable populations, namely women and children. Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist at Intel, has identified factors that prime us for moral panics: technologies that change our relationship to time, space, and each other.93 Deputy editor of The Economist and author Tom Standage has collected numerous examples of technologies that evoked strong cultural concern upon their introduction, from the novel, to the railroad, to the photographic camera.94 Throughout history, dramatic change has evoked this response, manifesting as moral panic narratives and sensationalized worst-case scenarios.

Ideology Trap: Dualisms and Zero-Sums

Mainstream criticism of technology can also tend toward polarities, thereby mimicking the either/or binaries of the technologies they examine. Technology is either making people smarter or making people dumber (see Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). People are either technophobes or technophiles (Evgeny Morozov and Kevin Kelly, respectively, by Carr’s estimation), shilling utopian or dystopian visions for the future of the world. The most contrarian technology Critics lead readers to believe that we can’t have it both ways.

Many Critics are guilty of romanticizing the past or fetishizing the real. Carr exclaims: The screen is but a “shadow of the world.”95 “We’re disembodying ourselves, imposing sensory constraints on our existence. With the general purpose computer, we’ve managed, perversely enough, to devise a tool that steals from us the bodily joy of working with tools.”96 Turkle similarly poses a zero-sum-game between digital communication and face-to-face conversation. She has recently turned her attention toward the ways technology damages interpersonal relationships by removing the ability to communicate with each other, but her work skirts over the fact that communication technologies connect people who may not share physical space. Her work today privileges the real rather than exploring the possibilities of the virtual as she has done in the past. These Critics’ arguments end up favoring the status quo, which is why it is all too easy to dismiss their critiques as conservative and anti-progress. They romanticize the past, perpetuating a dualist binary between life before and after the selfie, or between the real and the virtual.

Dualist criticism also drives readers toward binary questions rather than critical thinking. This kind of criticism offers either utopian or dystopian narratives of the near future. Author and activist Astra Taylor aptly describes it in the introduction to The People’s Platform: “The argument about the impact of the internet is relentlessly binary, techno-optimists facing off against techno-skeptics.”97 She unpacks an example in an article with technology and art writer Joanne McNeil:

In the current framework, the question posed by The New Yorker panel, “Is Technology Good for Culture?” can be answered only with a yes or no—and plotted as it is along the binary logic of 1s and 0s, it chiefly serves to remind culture critics that the Silicon Valley mindset has already won. Though they appear to stand on opposite sides of the spectrum—unapologetic utopian squaring off against wistful pessimist—the Shirkys and Franzens of the world only reinforce this problem: things will get better or worse, pro or con.98

As early as 1998, technology writers have been making the case for more nuanced rather than polarized writing about technology. A manifesto drafted by Andrew Shapiro, David Shenk, and Steven Johnson on argued for moving beyond framing technological change as either good or bad. They warned: “Such polarized thinking leads to dashed hopes and unnecessary anxiety, and prevents us from understanding our own culture.”99

Writing today, Virginia Heffernan resists the reductive binaries that publications so often employ in headlines. Technology is both good and bad, makes us smart and stupid, connects us and separates us. For Heffernan, the internet is Magic and Loss. Her aesthetics of the internet leave room for both possibilities, often at the same time. Rather than directing us to a binary conclusion, she encourages us to explore the murky spaces in between.100

Ideology Trap: Defeatism of the Critical Stance

In his defeatist salvo, Morozov never answers his own opening question, “What can technology criticism accomplish?”101 He laments, “Disconnected from actual political struggles and social criticism, technology criticism is just an elaborate but affirmative footnote to the status quo.”102 If popular discourse about technology and society is dominated by this small set of Critics currently standing for mainstream technology criticism, then Morozov’s concerns are founded: “Contemporary technology criticism in America is an empty, vain, and inevitably conservative undertaking. At best, we are just making careers; at worst, we are just useful idiots.”103

There is a place for the radical, deconstructive type of criticism Morozov practices and calls for, and he can be credited for his prolific contributions where a dearth of skepticism in the discourse about technology once existed. But intellectual, politicized work naming the neoliberal technological determinism of Silicon Valley only offers language to describe the present state, and “doesn’t provoke a lot of further development,” suggests Sarah Leonard.104 Writers like Morozov and Carr end up leaving readers only with the sense that we should worry and think twice about adopting emerging technologies. This is not a practical or productive criticism of technology.

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