Technological Determinism is a reductionist theory which considers technology as the major force for social and cultural change. It is extremely simplistic and generally not accepted. An argument against it is made in the book “Why Things Bite Back, - The Revenge of Unintended Consequences”, written by Edward Tenner (Vintage, 1997) . But there are still many who believe that technology should be allowed to run free, especially among successful people with technical backgrounds. The May 2012 Wired Magazine cover features a picture of Marc Andreessen, overlaid with “The Man who Makes the Future”, the title of the featured article in the issue. The subtext on the cover reads “Marc Andreessen invented the browser. He was the first to the cloud. He’s the most influential VC in Silicon Valley. Here's what he sees on the horizon".
In the interview, Andreessen makes his admiration for technology plain. When discussing his time at Netscape, he says “the idea we had then, which seems obvious today, was to lift the computing off of each user’s device and perform it in the network instead. It’s something I think is inherent in the technology—what some thinkers refer to as the “technological imperative.” It’s as if the technology wants it to happen.’ Later when predicting more computing in the “cloud”, he admits to bandwidth limitations, but says “If you have infinite network bandwidth, if you have an infinitely fast network, then this is what the technology wants. But we’re not yet in a world of infinite speed, so that’s why we have mobile apps and PC and Mac software on laptops and phones. That’s why there are still Xbox games on discs. That’s why everything isn’t in the cloud. But eventually the technology wants it all to be up there.”
The technology wants it? Hopefully, it is not technology making decisions, but rather humans. During my time in the Stanford STS program, I had the time to read and think about technology in more depth than I had before. I found that periodically, especially in capitalistic countries such as the U.S., technology is given such a free rein that it overshoots, and fortunately, there has always been a backlash to re-direct it back to where it serves us, rather than inconveniencing us and wasting resources. Sometimes a long time is required. Nuclear “weapons” may have once served a purpose (speeding the end of World War II, but even that is debated). But slowly people are realizing that the words “nuclear weapon” are an oxy-moron, because any country actually using them will be shunned by the rest of the world, so to use them is to lose. “Nuclear bargaining chip” is more accurate, and eventually they will disappear because they have no useful function, although perhaps not until most countries have them and realize they can’t use them.
We now realize the down sides of many once miraculous developments, such as the petroleum-fueled automobile, air conditioning, strip mining, and computer games. And it seems to me that the backlash toward the “information economy” and the products involved in it is well underway. Typically, the May 27th New York Times had a cover article on a large and clever scam based on identity theft, and a critical column entitled “The Facebook Illlusion”. There is increasing concern about issues of privacy and identity theft, I find the information on the web is becoming less useful as it increases in volume, and of course there is increased pesky advertising and data manipulation such as that described by Eli Pariser in his book “The Filter Bubble – What the Internet is Hiding From You (Penguin Press, 2011). Perhaps it is time to agree that the digital revolution is here and miraculous, and focus more on the quality of the products involved (be they hard or soft).