Kevin Kelly on Reasons to Diminish Technology

Kevin Kelly has a new post in which he attempts to summarize the views of everyone who opposes technology. Excerpt:

I believe we have a moral obligation to increase the power and presence
of technology in the world, but not everyone believes that – to put it
mildly. Many believe the opposite: that we have a moral obligation to
reduce the power and presence of technology. I want to fully understand
those arguments so I am collecting them in order to confront them as
well as I can. I am interested in valid reasons to diminish technology,
but also in mythical reasons as well. Things people believe about the
technium which may not be true, but motivate them. Here is my first
cut. Please comment on alternative reasons I missed.

I think there are four basic arguments against technology, with many
sub reasons. In summary: Technology should be reduced as much as
possible because it is contrary to nature, and/or to humanity, and/or
to technology itself and finally, because it is a type of evil and thus
is contrary to God.

[Followed by description of each of the four arguments.]

Link: The Technium: Reasons to Diminish Technology.

I left this comment:

By asking only about people who are morally opposed to technology, you exclude many important and more pragmatic critics of technology.

That said, I'll suggest a couple more, but I'll call these reasons to question technology rather than oppose it:

Contrary to productivity: adding technology is often a disruption or counter-productive to work.

Contrary to awareness: technology distracts us from living.

Addendum: Irony! It took me several tries to actually post that comment because of a buggy "captcha" system. Either that or I'm losing my mind (or am non-human) and am not reading this captcha correctly…



Twitter on the primary school curriculum

From the you've-gotta-be-kidding department (aka is it April Fools already?): The Guardian reports that a new plan for the UK school curriculum will add twitter and Wikipedia and drop the requirement to study Victorian history and WWII. Excerpt:

Children will no longer have to study the Victorians or the second
world war under proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum,
the Guardian has learned.

However, the draft plans will require children to master Twitter and Wikipedia and give teachers far more freedom to decide what youngsters should be concentrating on in classes.

proposed curriculum, which would mark the biggest change to primary
schooling in a decade, strips away hundreds of specifications about the
scientific, geographical and historical knowledge pupils must
accumulate before they are 11 to allow schools greater flexibility in what they teach.

emphasises traditional areas of learning – including phonics, the
chronology of history and mental arithmetic – but includes more modern
media and web-based skills as well as a greater focus on environmental

The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jim Rose, the
former Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the
primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month.

Link: Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary shake-up.

See also BBC: Pupils "should study Twitter".

Is twitter really that hard to learn? From personal experience, I'd say: Hard to learn? no. Hard to understand the point of? maybe.

I signed up recently (karthur), mostly because it seems like a lot of interesting people whose blogs I read are now posting there instead (particularly in the design/UX world I follow for work-related stuff). I don't know if I'll start tweeting much myself.

The experience has been interesting so far, and slightly useful. It's a quicker way to keep up with the buzz in the webosphere than by trying to follow the 300+ blogs I've subscribed to in Google Reader. I feel like I'd have to be constantly connected to really get it, though, instead of just reading it once or twice a day like I'm doing. The format is a little unfriendly — so many blind tiny-urls!

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.

Bioethics in the Age of New Media (and Robo-Pets)

I love this cover (the book sounds interesting too). Bioethics in the Age of New Media by Joanna Zylinska, forthcoming in May:

Bioethical dilemmas—including those over genetic
screening, compulsory vaccination, and abortion—have been the subject
of ongoing debates in the media, among the public, and in professional
and academic communities. But the paramount bioethical issue in an age
of digital technology and new media, Joanna Zylinska argues, is the
transformation of the very notion of life. In this provocative book,
Zylinska examines many of the ethical challenges that technology poses
to the allegedly sacrosanct idea of the human. In doing so, she goes
beyond the traditional understanding of bioethics as a matter for moral
philosophy and medicine to propose a new "ethics of life" rooted in the
relationship between the human and the nonhuman (both animals and
machines) that new technology prompts us to develop.

After a detailed discussion of the classical theoretical perspectives
on bioethics, Zylinska describes three cases of "bioethics in action,"
through which the concepts of "the human," "animal," and "life" are
being redefined: the reconfiguration of bodily identity by plastic
surgery in a TV makeover show; the reduction of the body to
two-dimensional genetic code; and the use of biological material in
such examples of "bioart" as Eduardo Kac's infamous fluorescent green

Zylinska addresses ethics from the interdisciplinary perspective of
media and cultural studies, drawing on the writings of thinkers from
Agamben and Foucault to Haraway and Hayles. Taking theoretical
inspiration in particular from the philosophy of alterity as developed
by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Bernard Stiegler, Zylinska
makes the case for a new nonsystemic, nonhierarchical bioethics that
encompasses the kinship of humans, animals, and machines.

The cover reminds me of this (Artificial Intelligence: A Beginner's Guide by Blay Whitby). I wonder how many other robo-pet book covers there are.


One more (yes, I'm a bit too obsessed with book design): Introducing Artificial Intelligence by Henry Brighton.


Polity’s Digital Media and Society Series

Dms1Dms2I'd seen a couple of these books before but didn't realize they were part of a series. All 8 books sound excellent. Here is the blurb for the recently published Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais:

Search engines have become a key part of our everyday lives. Yet
while much has been written about how to use search engines and how
they can be improved, there has been comparatively little exploration
of what the social and cultural effects might be. Like all
technologies, search engines exist within a larger political, cultural,
and economic environment. This volume aims to redress this balance and
to address crucial questions such as:

  • How have search engines changed the way we organize our thoughts about the world, and how we work?
  • What are the 'search engine wars', what do they portend for the future of search, and who wins or loses?
  • To
    what extent does political control of search engines, or the political
    influence of search engines, affect how they are used, misused, and
  • Does the search engine help shape our identities and interactions with others, and what implications does this have for privacy?

members of the information society must understand the social contexts
in which search engines have been developed, what that development says
about us as a society, and the role of the search engine in the global
information environment. This book provides the perfect starting point.

Link: Digital Media and Society. The site also has a blog and some links to resources and course syllabi.

Sven Birkerts resists the Kindle

Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, has an article in The Atlantic about the Kindle-izing of books. It is probably a disservice to snippet him, but here are some excerpts:

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer—a skeptic
if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning
of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger
value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a
certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that
we are replacing, never mind improving upon.


The Kindle is just a device and the Kindle experience is still mainly
about text and reader (and convenience and cost-savings)—I know that.
But we should not forget that the sum of reader-text encounters creates
our cultural landscape. So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe
less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are
called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive
as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we
will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will
also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the
causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We
may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to
detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven
narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access
versus context.

Link: Resisting the Kindle.

I think he has a point, and Birkerts is a valuable voice to have on this issue, but I feel like his arguments against e-books are getting more and more tenuous. He's not so much warning us of a negative effect now as warning us about change itself and the uncertainty it brings.

Regarding the loss of context, I'm tempted to recommend George W. S. Trow's Within the Context of No Context, but honestly I haven't retained a thing from reading that book besides the title… maybe it's relevant, maybe not. I'm clearly failing at literary-luddite comprehension today.

Update: Here's a smarter post by Scott Esposito on the same topic: Sven Birkerts Still Harping on Context.

The End of Books by Uzanne and Robida

Albert Robida was a 19th century French artist and writer of satirical science fiction. I first heard of him last year when I read about him in Maggie Jackson's Distracted. Jackson described some of Robida's surprisingly accurate predictions from his 1882 novel The Twentieth Century, which is the only work of his that's currently in print in English translation. Robida was a contemporary of Jules Verne but is much less known today, at least in the English-speaking world.

I was searching for more information on Robida and came across a short story from 1894 called The End of Books, written by Octave Uzanne and illustrated by Robida. It's a pretty amusing read in light of the ever-present fretting over the death of books, the threat of audio books (see Kindle), and the invention of things called "video books" (see Jeff Jarvis). Uzanne and Robida predict (and to my ears make fun of) this very same stuff. Below is one of Robida's illustrations of a future reader, enjoying a book the modern way — by listening to and viewing it.

Links to the story and related material:

  • The University of Adelaide has an English translation: The End of Books.
  • An excellent summary of the story in English by Michael Ward, with links to the French text and illustrations: abstract.
  • Gutenberg has the French text and illustrations: Robida. (They have a link to a supposed English version but it's actually the French.)
  • An article by Edward Tenner about Robida: "World Greatest Futurist" (see the pdf).