Towards a better digital technology criticism

I frequently begin discussions regarding my position on new digital communication technologies by saying something like; ‘I’m really a technology guy, I love technology and use it all the time but…’ Very much like the phrase ‘some of my best friends are…’ it’s probably not the best way to begin such conversations but the issue of these technologies, particularly digital technologies, and they’re societal and environmental impacts and consequences have given me the reason for considerable pause and reflection of late. I’ve recently read Sarah M. Watson’s thoughtful meta-critique Towards a Constructive Technology Criticism and this has afforded me even more space and time to consider and rationalise my own viewpoint. Having had a paper published earlier this year in the Irish Journal of Sociology where I called for much more sociological (re)engagement with digital technology design, development and adoption processes given its significant and numerous impacts on contemporary society, my position needs more clarity on some levels. That said, as I engage and recognise the views of others in this field of inquiry I anticipate further thought and reflection over the coming months and years. So what is my position?

Firstly, in Watson’s report (and indeed title) she refers to ‘technology’ in a generic sense, but there is a rich expansive history of engagement and analysis of society-technology interactions from within the social sciences. The history of technology and its development is the history of the invention of tools and techniques and is as old as humankind itself, and philosophers and social thinkers have always challenged technological artefact orthodoxies. I suggest that what now needs much more attention and scrutiny is this new era and proliferation of digital technologies which are allowing, for example, novel and innovative means of communication to emerge at a rapid pace. Such digital technologies, enthused by Moore’s Law, are also stimulating rapid developments and advancements in automation and AI, disrupting many societal norms and conventions (my understanding of disruptive is neither negative nor positive, in a general sense; each digital technology requires to be analysed and assessed on its own merits). One particular concern that Watson expresses is the dominance of ‘Silicon Valley’s white, male, hetero engineers who are building and testing technology for themselves, potentially missing the needs and concerns of underrepresented populations. To this list, I would add Western (specifically American) culture, and I echo C.A. Bower’s concerns about many of these culturally transforming digital technologies contributing to a Western form of consciousness that is now being globalised. These are ‘making a virtue of ignoring the form of intergenerational knowledge and skills essential to the world’s diversity and cultural commons that enable people to live less consumer-driven lives [and] makes a virtue of being rootless; that is, not being long-term inhabitants of place’. This abandonment of place, I suggest, implies that this new digital world makes a virtue of mobility and not really being from any place thus encouraging people to forgo commitment to where they live, their community and society; all of which flies in the face of sustainability and our climate change obligations.

My key focus with regard to the design, development and adoption of digital technologies is determinedly on their societal and environmental effects, impacts and consequences. There are many who vouch for and speak to the economic utility of these technologies and do so in an elegant and persuasive manner. In that sense, the limited deliberations of societal consequences and challenges, and narrow consideration of environmental impacts in comparison to the economic value, troubles me. Much more attention and focus should be on digital technology’s ability to improve the quality of life for all people while being cognisant of ecological limits and the sustainability of local communities and cultures. After all, technology should exclusively be a tool for human flourishing and never impede the ability of future generations to live and sustain a good life. There are some interesting moves in this direction with projects like Tristin Harris’s The Center for Humane Technology and Anil Dash’s Humane Tech. Hence, an enhanced and expanded technological criticism is needed rather than just a purely constructive one (we can not be simply cheerleaders for the impulses and whims of whatever comes out of Silicon Valley; we should be much more reticent of what technologies are actually good for everyone in society and not just a small elite). I don’t feel the need to talk or write only in positive ways about digital technologies just for the sake of it; all disruptive technologies require the full vigour of investigation and analysis in the pursuit of creating tools that promote only the good and best of what makes us uniquely human while seeking to protect our fragile environment. In any business or industry, for any new product, you must establish a need, a purpose, and a vision. But so often new digital technologies are unconsciously tossed into society without any due diligence to their social and environmental utility. Why not, with regards to digital technologies, have a primary overarching mission of only contributing to human well-being while being aware of the limits of our ecological gift, anything else is worthless and destructive, surely!

The False Promise of the Digital Revolution

C.A. Bowers (2014) The False Promise of the Digital Revolution: How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable. Peter Lang: New York, NY, USA. 119 pp. ISBN 978-1-4331-2612-3 (paperback). €30.30

The persistent narrative of the effects of technological development in contemporary societies is uncritically accepted by policy designers, decision-makers and individuals as inevitable and determinedly positive in nature. The agenda for technology development, and in turn (re)shaping much of Western society, is primarily driven by computer scientists and strongly promoted by numerous futurist thinkers in the field. In the absence of critical awareness and dissent, many now equate any and all technological innovation and development with the rhetoric of progress. For the past 200 years or so this has been a dominant driving force in Western cultures. In The False Promise of the Digital Revolution: How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable, C.A. Bowers seeks to challenge the myth that technologies, and in particular print and digital technologies, are culturally neutral and fundamental to modern advancement. Expanding upon his previous work in this area, he argues that the Darwinian/market liberal ideology that is frequently used to justify a colonising agenda is leading to a world monoculture where data and print either ignore or replace the global cultural commons. What is being lost, he suggests, in this process is the intergenerational knowledge and experience that has provided alternatives to a cash and consumer-driven existence resulting in a transformation in the viability of the natural world and heaps growing pressures on scarce natural resources.

He focuses much of his attention on the way digital technologies gather, store and have become the prevailing mode of communication in contemporary societies reinforcing abstract thinking that is unable to grasp the complexities of local cultural and environmental contexts. Such cyber-mediated consciousness is unable to comprehend differences between ecologically sustainable and unsustainable beliefs and practices and the importance of such social interactions as face-to-face communications, personal memory and sensory awareness – a given of human existence – are essentially ignored. The connections between digital technologies and corporate capitalism, which is turning the vocabulary of environmentalists into media clichés, is considered, as is the uneven scale of influence and imbalance of power between community-centred and corporate capitalism. He argues for innovative ethnographic studies and empirical research into how the introduction of digital technologies is transforming the beliefs and intergenerational support systems in cultures right across the globe, studies which should focus more robustly on patterns of moral reciprocity and on people living more ecologically sustainable lives. Bowers also argues that a history of regarding technologies as culturally neutral and an expression of progress has led to a condition where few teachers or university lecturers possess the conceptual background necessary for engaging students in debates about the culturally transforming, and sometimes ecologically damaging, nature of various new and existing technologies.

It is crucial not to lose sight of the important improvements that technologies have brought to communities and people’s lives; such as contributing to medical advances, the provision of information on a wide range of activities including changes occurring in the natural systems, and relief from the exhausting nature of some physical labour. More recently, digital technologies have had a powerful influence in shaping consciousness in the West but much of this is based on abstraction rooted in ideologies frequently at odds with preserving the cultural commons and environmental awareness. So how did this perception take shape and become dominant over time? Implicit in Bower’s criticism that scientists and technology engineers don’t take the time away from their high degree of specialisation to inform themselves about the traditions of community self-sufficiency their inventions are undermining is the notion that social scientists are also neglecting this domain of research and appear unwilling, or indeed unable, to engage and debate with technologists at their level. Developers and engineers tend to present new technologies only in a positive light and social scientists should shoulder a portion of the blame for allowing this to occur unchallenged. Social scientists must, therefore, confront the self-serving idea that engineers and developers are purely focused on the well-being of the public and must interfere in the realities of technology innovation and development to provide a more balanced, and perhaps realistic, assessment of its impacts and consequences.

The False Promise of the Digital Revolution is a concise piece of text that challenges many assumed conventions about the new digital age. Bowers’s writing is thought-provoking and his hypothesis will not find favour with many internet utopians but it is an important, infrequently heard, critique of how digital technologies are transforming societies, not always for good. Particular attention is given to the potentially harmful ‘blind’ acceptance of online higher education and the suggested cultural and ecological weakness inherent in such courses. But I don’t share the author’s broad pessimism in this regard as online educational strategies can contribute to more critical and informed citizens, and increased public debates around the uses and risks of digital technologies can form part of many of these courses. A measured and thoughtful online educational environment affords significant benefits in terms of advancement for many disadvantaged people worldwide providing universal access to education and personal development, but such interactions should not be seen as the only or most important form of communication available.

Bower’s work complements the recent works of Carr (The Glass Cage) who explores the hidden costs of granting digital technologies dominion over our work and our leisure, Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here) who calls for more humane and democratic technological solutions, and Huesemann (Techno-Fix) who argues that technology perpetuates the same consumer-dependent and ecologically destructive practices and behaviours leading to ever-increasing resource depletion and environmental harm. There is a pressing need to debate and discuss the diffusion of technology across societies in a manner that is cognisance of environmental limits and cultural considerations. Moreover, as Bower suggests; we need to recognise that scientists and engineers frequently don’t fully appreciate, or tend to ignore, the interconnections between cultural and natural ecologies. This process is aided by the globalisation of digital technologies which reinforce Western patterns of thinking and justifies a form of cultural colonising of non-Western cultures leading to the promotion of individual autonomy, corporate capitalism and its dependence upon a money economy, and lifestyles that are increasingly based on consumerism and resource depletion. Bowers’s work needs to be more widely considered if only to provoke all the sciences into reassessing their knowledge and position on technology development and diffusion, in particular digital technologies.

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