Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

05 Jun 2011, 10:39 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2011 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

When I was getting my bachelor's degree at the University of California at Berkeley, I took a few courses studying technology in the context of history and political science. The other day I discovered that I still owned a thick "reader" for one of those courses, photocopies of a bunch of articles and book chapters, and settled down to skim through the thing. Sitting on the living room floor with the couch at my back, reading a ream of academic prose and taking notes, I vividly remembered my undergrad days -- except now I have Wikipedia to look up terms like "reverse salient".

I wonder why I found so many of the texts stale. Did I learn it that well the first time around? Were those articles insipid to begin with? Or have the ten intervening years of thinking, conversation, and experience given me so much background knowledge, and intellectual facility with the major issues, that those course materials feel shallow to me now?

(I wouldn't envy a teacher trying to create an equivalent course today, and I'm demonstrably not the target audience. But the Atlantic Tech Canon would be a cool place to start, and there's a bunch of interesting conversation to be had in more specialized courses.)

A few bits that still had the power to knock around my brain:

Hans Jonas: "And here is where I get stuck, and where we all get stuck." From "Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics". To irresponsibly simplify his point: since we can now do different kinds of things, do we need a new system of ethics?

It's always worthwhile remembering the history of technology. Oh the multivariate effects of barbed wire in the North American West! You already know how US telephone companies initially hated "trivial" social use of the telephone, right? Partly because it tied up scarce lines, and partly because the people selling the phones just couldn't grok the importance of ambient intimacy and community connection, a prejudice that probably included some sexism. (If I read Scott Rosenberg's history of blogging, Say Everything, that might prove an instructive comparison.) For a fun medley of related lessons, check out the "Simpsons Already Did It -- Where Do You Think the Name 'Trojan' Came From Anyway?" talk from last year's The Next HOPE.

Cybernetics has the concept of "requisite variety": a well-designed system must have a variety of responses commensurate to the variety of events, stimuli, and situations it will encounter. Do you?

The freshest, funniest voice in the whole collection was Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology, 1977.

But in almost every book or article on the subject the discussion stalls on the same sterile conclusion: "We have demonstrated the relationship between Technology X and social changes A, B, and C. Obviously, Technology X has implications for astounding good or evil. It is now up to mankind to decide which the case will be."

Poor mankind. Although freshly equipped with the best findings of social science, it is still left holding the bag.

Slightly more quotable Winner: "Technologies are structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments." Yep. The last few times I was looking for a job, I half-fancifully decided, if my workplace is not killing an entire industry, the job's not worth doing.