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Column: The Wrong Way to Discuss New Technologies

  • Children look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's Kodak camera in a photograph taken between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress photograph)

    Children look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's Kodak camera in a photograph taken between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress photograph)

  • German intellectual Theodor Lessing led a movement to quell industrial noise in Vienna. (Oldenburg University Press photograph)

    German intellectual Theodor Lessing led a movement to quell industrial noise in Vienna. (Oldenburg University Press photograph)

  • Children look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's Kodak camera in a photograph taken between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress photograph)
  • German intellectual Theodor Lessing led a movement to quell industrial noise in Vienna. (Oldenburg University Press photograph)

There are many awful ways to respond to technological change, but succumbing to technological defeatism is certainly one of the worst. Technological defeatism — a belief that, since a given technology is here to stay, there’s nothing we can do about it other than get on with it and simply adjust our norms — is a persistent feature of social thought about technology. We’ll come to pay for it very dearly.

Technology pundit Kevin Kelly exhibits this defeatist mind-set when he writes that “we can choose to modify our legal and political and economic assumptions to meet the ordained (technological) trajectories ahead. But we cannot escape from them.” According to such defeatist views, the world works very much like it was described in the motto of Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair: “Science Finds — Industry Applies — Man Conforms.”

The reasons to oppose technology defeatism are simple: It downplays the utility of resistance and conceals the avenues for seeking reform and change. As a result of technological defeatism, concerns and anxieties about various technologies are recast as reactive fears and phobias, as irrelevant moral panics that will quickly fade away once users develop the appropriate coping strategies and upgrade their norms. But is anxiety about technological change such a bad thing? And does it always imply technophobia?

Such conflation of anxiety and technophobia has a long history. Historian Berhard Rieger has studied ambivalent reactions to new technologies in early-20th-century Britain and found that such ambivalence was rarely an obstacle to innovation. Instead, he argues, “ambivalence should be understood as an integral element of British public debates, and one that supported a culture conducive to innovation.”

In fact, ambivalence about technology was probably a fully rational and healthy reaction, because the actual functioning of the new devices was beyond the grasp of most laypeople. Thus, Rieger writes of a certain tension that “existed between demands for rational conduct in the face of innovations and the fact that many contemporaries could only very partially found this conduct on an informed, or scientifically grounded, knowledge of new technologies.” It’s an attitude that we would do well to rediscover today.

As for the perennial reassurance that we just need to wait until our norms adapt to the new technological environment, here, too, the situation is far more complex. One example beloved by technology pundits — Jeff Jarvis is especially fond of it — is the story of how the spread of cameras at the end of the 19th century begot a generation of amateur paparazzi — also known as Kodakers — and triggered the first big debate about the death of privacy. A few decades later, the argument goes, such fears had mostly receded into the background as the public learned to live with the new device. Here, as Kevin Kelly would put it, the public noticed the ordained trajectory of the camera technology and modified all of its assumptions accordingly. And if we did it with the camera, why can’t we do it with “the Internet”?

But how representative is this story of smart public responses to technology? Why should it be the template for future action? Adapting our norms is just one of the many possible responses; in some cases, such adaptations may not actually be the result of a conscious choice but only the outcome of failed collective action. History also has many examples of effective collective action that, combined with smart policy and an assortment of technological fixes, made it unnecessary to change our norms in the face of technology.

Compare the story of Kodakers with the noise-abatement campaigns of the early 20th century. As the cities industrialized, noise appeared to be everywhere: Trams were beginning to screech, factories were beginning to buzz, and drivers were beginning to sound the horn (not to mention that the decadent middle classes were beginning to beat their rugs outside and play the piano at night). Various social movements — with names like the Anti-Noise League and the German Association for Protection From Noise — were formed to fight the noise menace. They tirelessly campaigned to institute laws that would prohibit the making of certain sounds while also introducing the public to numerous anti-noise innovations: noiseless typewriters, floating floors, quietly running electronic motors, silenced breakers, pneumatic railcars.

As Dutch historian Karin Bijsterveld points out, in the United Kingdom various campaigns by the Anti-Noise League led to the 1934 amendment of the Road Traffic Act, which prescribed a silencer to reduce exhaust noise, prohibited the sale of motor vehicles that caused excessive noise because of defects or lack of repair, and banned the sounding of motor horns between 11:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. in built-up areas. In New York, the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise ensured the creation of silence zones around hospitals and schools, successfully campaigned for a law against unnecessary horn signals in shipping, and even reduced fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Vienna is perhaps the most interesting example. Whenever the anti-din advocates — led by German intellectual Theodor Lessing — called for individual reforms, they were mostly unsuccessful. However, their struggle was not in vain, for through public debate they turned quietness into a leading indicator of urban life quality and firmly established it as a challenge for city councils. Or, as historian Peter Payer notes, “by changing public awareness of the acoustic environment, their endeavors influenced not only the way that urban space was to be restructured, but also how this space was to be perceived and used by the people living in the city.” And even though many of Lessing’s proposals sound eccentric — he wanted a professional, centralized rug-beating service to do all the work in some restricted area and for people to play musical instruments with their windows closed — many others sound quite reasonable even today, such as “the use of rubber tyres and quieter paving materials to dampen the cacophony of vehicular traffic, the careful packaging of freight shipped through cities to cushion it from rattling and banging, and the construction of schools in public gardens and forest preserves to ensure the tranquil atmosphere needed for learning.” Lessing may have failed in advocating for particular measures, but he did feed and sustain the reformist imagination (not least because his early anti-noise activism was also tied to his two other favorite causes, socialism and feminism).

This is not to suggest that there were no technological defeatists at the time; many, like today’s Internet pundits, with their tales of inevitability, argued that noise was here to stay, and the Viennese simply had to live with it. If only the Viennese could listen to the voice of technology — not an easy thing to do, given all the noise — they would accept the situation with no qualms. As Peter Payer explains, “Opponents of the anti-noise campaign criticized Lessing and his supporters as hypersensitive fanatics resisting progress. Their refusal to put up with noise was seen as a neurotic sign of weakness, an inability to adapt to modern life. It was claimed that people could get used to noise if only they tried.” In other words, the new norms were missing.

Noise, of course, hasn’t disappeared from our cities entirely, but one can only imagine what it would be like if none of the measures advocated by the anti-noise campaigners had actually passed. Of course, some norms may have changed — being surrounded by noise has also made people more tolerant of it — but a combination of collective action and smart policy was far more effective. Why can’t this be the template for our debates about “the Internet”? Why assume that Kodakers/privacy metaphor is the best way to think about our response to some of the recent problems unleashed by digital technologies? Clearly, if we went with a different historical analogy — that of noise suppression — we would end up with a very different set of responses to today’s challenges.

We will only succeed in challenging technological defeatism if we refrain from using big words like technology and the Internet. Instead, we need to uncover and set aside whatever cultural, intellectual and political biases they introduce into our debates. We’d be far better off examining individual technologies on their own terms, liberated from the macroscopic fetishes of Silicon Valley.

This essay is adapted from Evgeny Morozov’s latest book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.