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!