Be less technodeterminist

I read some very interesting passages (among other interesting passages) today in James Bridle’s book, New Dark Age — a stomach churning book on how to learn not to view our technologies as neutral, or even indeliberate, and while there are lots of things that might be out of our control thus far, we could still do a lot to address things.

The passages talk about the triadic relationship between hindsight, foresight and the knowledge of interpretation with regards to how we use our technologies these days. What totally gets my attention, of course, is its usage of the analogy of the characters in Greek mythology.

Prometheus had a brother: his name was Epimetheus. In Greek mythology it was Epimetheus’ job to assign unique qualities to all the creatures: it was he who gave the gazelle its speed, and compensated by giving strength to the lion. But Epimetheus, being forgetful, runs out of positive traits before he gets to humans, and it is left to Prometheus to steal fire and art from the gods in order to give them something to get by with. This power and artfulness — the Greek ‘tekhné’, from which we derive technology — is thus in humankind and the result of a double fault : forgetfulness and theft. The outcome is humans have a propensity to war and political strife, which the gods seek to rectify with a third quality: the sociopolitical virtues of respect for others and a sense of justice, bestowed directly and equally upon by Hermes.

Epimetheus — whose name combines the Greek word for learning, ‘máthisi’, and the epi- of ‘after the fact’ — is hindsight. Hindsight is the specific product of forgetfulness, mistakes and foolishness. Prometheus — pro-metheus — is foresight, but without the wisdom we might take to accompany it. It’s anticipation. It’s the white heat of scientific and technological discovery, and that desire for the oncoming rush of the future.

It is Hermes, then, who stands and points in other directions, and must be the guide for a new dark age. Hermes is thinking in the moment, rather than being bound to received visions or fiery impulses. A hermeneutics, or hermetic understanding, of technology might account for its perceived errors by pointing out that reality is never that simple, that there is always meaning beyond the meaning, that answers can be multiple, contested and potentially infinite.

It reminded me of several passages I wrote in my (ongoing) thesis about why I decided to have mixed methods for the research, in particular social network analysis (SNA) and content analysis.

As much as SNA is able to provide very proper systematic investigations from many perspectives, “network structure is not the whole story, even for “network effects” and mechanisms, and for that reason we need to supplement methods of formal network analysis with qualitative observations about what is “going on” within a network” (Crossley, 2010), and “it is not just networks or membership that matter, but also how these relationships are represented, activated or suppressed in social settings.” (Mische, 2003). This is why the research is conducted in two-fold: social network and qualitative content of the content analysis.

The book is good — although somewhat a foretell of a much much terrible future if we continue to sit down and do nothing. I have opinions about it, but I figured I should finish it first.

In the meantime, if you are a technologist / technology reporter, this should be your new year resolution: be less technodeterminist.

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