The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Technology's Sleight of Hand

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

"Why do we praise technology's advances in the short term and demonize them in the long-term?" This was the dangling question I asked after my previous post. I didn't have an answer.

Jacques Ellul has helped shed some light though. In The Technological Society, Ellul explains how and why every technician shuns responsibility of technology's negative effects:

"A single technique and its guarded application to a limited sphere is the starting point of dissociation," Ellul writes. "No technician anywhere would say that he is submitting men, collectively or individually, to technique. . . . Thus, since no technician applies his technique to the whole man, he can wash his hands of responsibility and declare that the human being remains intact."

In other words, the technological developer (or "technician") intends for his technology to have only a limited application, to a limited group of people, and to a limited portion of a person's life. He doesn't intend to complete reconfigure the whole man, or his environment.

So, for example, the person who invented email will point out that s/he simply wanted to make communication faster and easier for people. Her vision is very narrow and specific. Of course, as we see it now, the technician's intent was quite narrow, but email's effects were quite far-reaching. It had implications for postal mail, became a source of distraction in the workplace, contributed to the decline in letter writing, and on, and on.

Can we blame all these effects on the person who invented email? No. A technician does not intend to change the environment of people's lives. They are much less ambitious than that. They simply want to make written communication faster and easier.

In other words, a technician's intent is microscopic, not macroscopic. The intent is to change one dimension of society, not a whole society. The intent is to augment an individual's written communication, not completely reorient communication.

Yet, a microscopic intent can translate into a macroscopic result.

This micro/macro distinction, I think, is one way to answer the dangling question about why we have short-term hopes while also having long-term fears. In the short term, we see the limited, micro-level intentions of the developer. But having seen enough of technology's macro-level shifts historically, we recognize that technology's impact in our lives will be much broader and more fundamental than we intend.

It's like a magic trick. It's technology's sleight of hand. When a new technology is created and promoted, our attention is drawn to the developers' intentions. We're distracted by those bright hopes, when in fact we should be pay attention to the technology. We're watching the magician instead of the magic.

At the same time, we like magic. This reminds me of something else Ellul wrote. It seemed exaggerated when I first read it, but now it makes more sense. He wrote, "Our modern worship of technique derives from man's ancestral worship of the mysterious and marvelous character of his own handiwork." Magic is delightful.

Media ecology throws the damper on all this. Media ecology is like that cynical uncle at family reunions who watches the trick and then ruins the magician's secret. We want to experience wonder and he has to go and ruin it. We want to enjoy technology with hopeful innocence, but we're also scared of the boogie man.

This micro/macro distinction for short-term intentions and long-term transformations hearkens back an older post I wrote: "The Technological Optimists and Pessimists." In it, I outlined two views of technology: technological determinism and social constructivism. Technological determinism says that societal change is foremost affected by technology. Social constructivism attributes the most influence to people and their choices.

I correlated a number of synonymous concepts to these two perspective. Along with technological determinism, I associated pessimism (expectations) and macro-level analysis (sociologically). Now, I would add the long-term fears we see in the movies. Along with social constructivism, I associated optimism and micro-level analysis. To this side, I would add the short-term intentions of developers.

As I said in "Optimists," there is wisdom is scrutinizing both perspectives, while at the same time listening to both sides—a "socio-technic dialectic," I called it. I've found the Amish to be some of the best examples of this approach—using new technology on a trial basis and thoughtfully considering its effects in light of their own explicit values before adopting or rejecting it.

I wonder if they like magic.


Last week's post: "Technology's Two Futures"

Previous post: "The Technological Optimists and Pessimists"

Your mom taught you well