What follows is a response to Michael Sacasas, who recently posted an interesting short essay on his blog The Frailest Thing, entitled, “10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers.” As with everything Michael writes, it is very much worth reading and offers a great deal of useful advice about how to be a more thoughtful tech writer. Even though I occasionally find myself disagreeing with Michael’s perspectives, I always learn a great deal from his writing and appreciate the tone and approach he uses in all his work. Anyway, you’ll need to bounce over to his site and read his essay first before my response will make sense.
Lots of good advice here. I think tech scholars and pundits of all dispositions would be wise to follow your recommendations. But let me offer some friendly pushback on points #2 & #10, because I spend much of my time thinking and writing about those very things.
In those two recommendations you say that those who write about technology “[should] not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.” And you also warn “That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.”
I think these two recommendations are born of a certain frustration with the tenor of much modern technology writing; the sort of Pollyanna-ish writing that too casually dismisses legitimate concerns about the technological disruptions and usually ends with the insulting phrase, “just get over it.” Such writing and punditry is rarely helpful, and you and others have rightly pointed out the deficiencies in that approach.
That being said, I believe it would be highly unfortunate to dismiss any inquiry into the nature of individual and societal acclimation to technological change. Because adaptation obviously does happen! Certainly there must be much we can learn from it. In particular, what I hope to better understand is the process by which we humans have again and again figured out how to assimilate new technologies into their lives despite how much those technologies “unsettled” well-established personal, social, cultural, and legal norms.
To be clear, I entirely agree with your admonition: “That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.” But, again, we can agree at least agree that such acclimation has happened regularly throughout human history, right? What were the mechanics of that process? As social norms, personal habits, and human relationships were disrupted, what helped us muddle through and find a way of coping with new technologies? Likewise, as existing markets and business models were disrupted, how were new ones formulated in response to the given technological disruption? Finally, how did legal norms and institutions adjust to those same changes?
I know you agree that these questions are worthy of exploration, but I suppose where we might part ways is over the question of the metrics by which judge whether “the changes were inconsequential or benign.” Because I believe that while technological change often brings sweeping and quite consequential change, there is a value in the very act of living through it.
In my work, including my latest little book, I argue that humans have exhibited the uncanny ability to adapt to changes in their environment, bounce back from adversity, and learn to be resilient over time. A great deal of wisdom is born of experience, including experiences that involve risk and the possibility of occasional mistakes and failures while both developing new technologies and learning how to live with them. I believe it wise to continue to be open to new forms of innovation and technological change, however, not only because it provides breathing space for future entrepreneurialism and invention, but also because it provides an opportunity to see how societal attitudes toward new technologies evolve — and to learn from it. More often than not, I argue, citizens have found ways to adapt to technological change by employing a variety of coping mechanisms, new norms, or other creative fixes.
Even if you don’t agree with all of that, again, I would think you would find great value in studying the process by which such adaptation happens. And then we could argue about whether it was all really worth it! Alas, at the end of the day, it may be that we won’t be able to even agree on a standard by which to make that judgment and will instead have to settle for a rough truce about what history has to teach us that might be summed up by the phrase: “something gained, something lost.”
With all this in mind, let me suggest this friendly reformulation of your second recommendation: Tech writers should not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today. But how people and institutions learned to cope with those concerns is worthy of serious investigation. And what we learned from living through that process may be valuable in its own right.
I have been trying to sketch out an essay on all this entitled, “Muddling Through: Toward a Theory of Societal Adaptation to Disruptive Technologies.” [update: Here it is!] I am borrowing that phrase (“muddling through”) from Joel Garreau, who used it in his book “Radical Evolution” when describing a third way of viewing humanity’s response to technological change. After discussing the “Heaven” (optimistic) and “Hell” (skeptical or pessimistic) scenarios cast about by countless tech writers throughout history, Garreau outlines a third, and more pragmatic “Prevail” option, which views history “as a remarkably effective paean to the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.” That pretty much sums up my own perspective on things, but much study remains to be done on how that very messy process of “muddling through” works and whether we are left better off as a result. I remain optimistic that we do!
As always, I look forward to our continuing dialog over these interesting issues and I wish you all the best.