The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Technological Optimists and Pessimists

(Reading Time: 6 minutes)

Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky have been sparring this year on the Internet's effect on our lives and minds. Each writer published his own book on the subject in 2010.

Each author's view is reflected in his book's title. Carr's The Shallows takes a decidedly pessimistic, or at least cautionary, view of the Internet's effects. He argues that "we're training our brains to be more adept at skimming and scanning and surfing" at the risk of losing "more attentive, solitary modes of thinking–-contemplation, reflection, introspection, and the like" (from an interview with Open Culture).

On the other side is Clay Shirky and his book, Cognitive Surplus. He sees the abundance of information as a boon for society. Cognitive surplus, Shirky explains, is the result of "cumulative free time" intersecting with "public media." Public media like the Internet "enable ordinary citizens . . . to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about." But he admits that "our cognitive surplus is only potential" (27). What really matters is what happens when we realize that potential, when we create things in our free time using public media—things like Wikipedia or ICanHasCheezburger.

So, we have Carr the pessimist and Shirky the optimist. Carr's Internet is handicapping our ability to think deeply, and Shirky's Internet is empowering us to massively collaborate. If you combine these views, you can sum everything up with a redneck proverb: "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups."

But the labels "optimist" and "pessimist" gloss over a more accurate picture of the two perspectives. A better pair would be technological determinism and social constructivism. I came across this pair, reading an award-acceptance speech by a woman named Susan Douglas. She was addressing the question, "How do new things happen?" To answer it, she painted these two extremes as opposing views for answering the question. Here's how they would fit Carr and Shirky.

Technological determinism might be summed up in the McLuhanism, "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us." Douglas described McLuhan's Understanding Media as "one extended exercise in hard-core technological determinism." This is, in broad strokes, Carr's pessimistic outlook. As technologies develop, they make some things possible and other things impossible, some things more likely to happen and other things less likely. Radio for instance made broadcasting possible, but made seeing impossible. Air conditioning made summers in South Carolina more bearable but made neighbors less neighborly. Technology determines the capacities and limits dramatically, and in turn, change us and our society.

Social constructivism, I would argue, is Shirky's optimistic outlook. This view believes that people create change, not technology. It's man over machine, not machine over man as technological determinism would have it. Douglas writes, "scholars began to emphasize the evolutionary and collaborative nature of invention." The word "collaborative" sounds exactly like Shirky's pooled free time. Douglas sides more with the social constructivist outlook and cites examples like the bicycle and the radio as results of collaborative inventing. She acknowledges human agents like the press and ham radio operators, ideology and corporate-state interests, as having shaped technology and society. Social constructivism concludes that human agency is the primary factor in shaping society.

So this is a more in-depth way to classify the perspectives of Carr and Shirky. Carr the technological determinist. Shirky the social constructivist. But isn't it both? It would certainly seem so.

There is a third way to describe the positions which Carr and Shirky take. This one considers their views of history—that being macroscopic and microscopic. Douglas writes, "those who adopt a 'macro' view of history and society tend to give technology a much more causal role, while scholars doing more 'micro-level' analyses . . . tend to give technology itself minimal agency." She attributes this "middle-level theory" to Thomas Misa.

In this third set of categories, of course, Carr takes the macroscopic perspective, and Shirky the microscopic one. To some degree, their arguments and styles of writing reflect their macro and micro perspectives. Carr argues using scientific research and surveys—very macro. Shirky, though, argues using case studies and anecdotes—micro—the stories of ICanHasCheezburger, Wikipedia, and South Korea's beef protests.

I think both methods deserve scrutiny. Surveys certainly do point to broader trends, but they discount individual decisions and personal agency, which can be history changing (which Gladwell has shown). This is where Shirky's method deserves a hearing. But on the other hand, Shirky's case studies ignore the broader trajectories indicated by Carr's cited research. If case studies were meaningless, surveys would be prophets and biographies would be worthless. But neither one can establish a conclusive upper hand.

I think, thus, that both methods deserve critiques. As they are, each author's method talks past the other (just like Postman and Johnson, in my previous post). Comparing case studies and surveys is apples and oranges. We must instead critique each one in its own way, consider the underlying assumptions inherent to technological determinism and social constructivism, and then perhaps we may have some common ground.

In some sense, Carr and Shirky are covering new ground on old bicycles. They've dusted off psychology's nature-nurture debates and rode them around in a different field. Shirky is certain that nature is the primary agent, the people and content are the driving factors in creating change, in answering Susan Douglas's question, "How do new things happen?" Carr, on the other hand, advocates for the power of the environment—nurture—in effecting change, focusing on systems and structures as the determinant forces.

In truth, I think McLuhan's maxim wasn't too far off in answering Douglas's question: "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us." The change goes in both directions—not just one or the other. There is human agency and technological agency—and they are changing each other, and being changed. This is where Douglas has found herself after 3 decades of research and writing in this field: in the middle way. She calls this view “technological affordances.” I would prefer something like “socio-technic dialectic.”

In this dialectic, both Shirky and Carr have something worthwhile for readers. Shirky is proclaiming the power of human potential. Carr is warning of technology's rigid mold. We, the readers, must listen to Carr's warnings and Shirky's encouragement. We must understand how our tools are shaping us because we are the only side that has the sense to make a choice. Technology does not. We are also the only side for which the change matters. Thus, we must constantly consider the new hills of the likely and the unlikely, and the new horizons of the possible as well as the new impossibilities.

How Do New Things Happen?” by Susan J Douglas

Cognitive Consequences: An Conversation with Nicholas Carr” by Open Culture

Connect the Dots” my previous post on Postman and Johnson

More links

UPDATE: Shirky has his share of detractors: Alan Jacobs and George Brock.

Your mom taught you well