Hello 2015

Work_dangerThis is an archive of Question Technology, a blog that existed from about 2005-2011. It’s currently dormant but perhaps will live again. Back then (almost) nobody was critical. Now we have more critics…

This header illustration was copied from a site I can no longer find. 🙁

Mark Slouka on the humanities vs. “mathandscience”

There’s a good, contrarian piece in the September Harper’s by Mark Slouka called “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.” It’s certainly not the first plea for the continuing importance of the humanities in a society that no longer values them, but it’s a well argued one, I’d say.

(It’s print or subscription only, thus no link.)

Sorry for not blogging much lately. I blame Twitter, partly, for leaving me with less blogging energy. (Find me there as @karthur.)

Kranzberg’s Laws of Technology and History

In his CHI 2008 keynote, Bill Buxton mentioned Melvin Kranzberg’s Laws of Technology.  These are from a 1986 article in Technology and Culture called "Technology and History: Kranzberg’s Laws" (available here for $10 and probably elsewhere).  These are the laws, via Wikipedia:

  1. Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
  2. Invention is the mother of necessity.
  3. Technology comes in packages, big and small.
  4. Although technology might be a prime element in many public
    issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy
  5. All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.
  6. Technology is a very human activity – and so is the history of technology.

I don’t think these are terribly useful without further explanation and context.  Here is an interview in which Kranzberg expands a bit on the first and fifth laws: Missionary: An interview with Melvin Kranzberg.  The same site has excerpts from Kranzberg’s papers.

Melvin Kranzberg was a historian and one of the people who founded the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) in 1958.  He was also SHOT’s first president.  The image above is from special posters that were made for SHOT’s 2007 meeting that celebrated the society’s 50th anniversary (a two-year celebration that continues at this year’s meeting in October in Lisbon).  The above links are also from the 50th celebration pages.  There’s a lot more on that site, too, though the navigation is a little lacking.

SHOT is worth joining, even if you’re not a historian.  It’s relatively cheap and comes with a print subscription to Technology and Culture, their quarterly journal.  I joined it a couple years ago for this reason.  Most of the articles are quite readable to a layperson like myself, and T&C attracts material from a wider group than just historians, such as sociologists and people in science and technology studies.  (Sadly, they don’t have all their archives available to subscribers yet, which is why I haven’t read the "Kranzberg’s Laws" article — well, that and other priorities).

Libraries and Denial

Over at Library Juice, Rory Litwin has started an interesting discussion about the mission of libraries today.  He begins:

I would like to propose that the current era in librarianship, which
is normally characterized as a “period of rapid change,” is perhaps
better described as a period of denial. It is a period in which
librarians are scurrying to disassociate themselves from their own
profession as it tends to be thought of, with a sense of desperate

What am I talking about? I’ll exaggerate a bit to make my point. I’m talking about librarians who say,

We’re not about books! We’re about computers! Don’t associate us with
books! We don’t want to be saddled with that! When people hear the word
“library,” we want them to think words like “Future,” “Hi Tech,”
“Information Age,” and “Shiny Gadget!” Fellow librarians, don’t even
use the word Book! It’s a no-no! Bad word! Hurts! Pretend you don’t
even know what one is!

Link: Librarian: Accept Yourself

Here in the Bay Area I just noticed that my local library is pushing a new campaign called Free2, which seems like a big effort to rebrand the library as pretty much anything but a place to borrow books (it’s a "21st century community center").  The blurb:

This campaign is designed to raise awareness of libraries in the Bay
Area (at least initially). It encourages you to visit more often,
whether that means stopping by your local branch to check out the
latest video game or accessing the online catalog or participating in a
program or activity.

It challenges stereotypes of dusty
bookshelves and shush-happy librarians. It promotes how libraries sit
in the heart of our communities. It recognizes that our libraries are
among our most revered public institutions. It honors their great
legacy of innovative partnerships. And it demonstrates an important
fact in the Digital Age — that our libraries are the number one point
of Internet access for millions without connectivity at home, school or

Indeed, the question is not whether libraries are
relevant today. But whether they can keep pace with the increased
demand for their services and materials. With your help, they can.

And if you can come up with a good slogan for the campaign you could win an iPod or a video camera!

To their credit, I did find some mention of books on the site.  The video on the front page is of library users saying what they like about their library — turns out some of them go there for books (who’d have thought?).

The YouTube Debates

Jon Stewart had a good bit on Tuesday’s Daily Show about the silliness of last week’s YouTube debate by the Democratic candidates.  Watch the video here

Elsewhere, Jeff Jarvis expresses his disappointment that CNN chose the questions: "CNN selected too many obvious, dutiful, silly questions. […] The candidates gave us the same answers they always give." (BuzzMachine).

Jose Antonio Vargas at the Washington Post (July 23, July 29) and Andy Carvin at learning.now cover the digital divide angle — what about the millions of American citizens who can’t post to YouTube?  How is this more democratic again?

Valleywag tells us the perks Google served up for the press.

More at Google Blogoscoped.

What Things Do

Dan Saffer, whose excellent book about interaction design I recently read for reasons related to my day job/life, has posted a seven-part review of Peter-Paul Verbeek’s What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, And Design, a book I bought a while back but haven’t yet gotten around to reading.  Saffer begins his review:

What Things Do sets out to establish a new way of thinking about the role objects play in human life and activities, and what effect objects have on human existence. To do this, the author Peter-Paul Verbeek, begins by looking at how several philosophers have thought about this issue in the past. He starts with Karl Jaspers’ existential approach to technology.

Jaspers take on technology can be boiled down to this: technology
alienates people from their "authentically human" selves, turning them
(us) into accessories of mass culture. As Verbeek describes it:
"technology suffocates human existence." Although technology for
Jaspers is seen as neutral (more on this in a second), the byproduct of
technology plus population growth, is to turn human beings into cogs in
a vast machine. The human race is utterly dependent on technology now
to survive, and to maintain that technology is a tremendous burden.
Technology creates more needs than it fulfills, and simply the
operation and maintenance of the machines that keep us alive requires
huge organizations and extensive bureaucracies. "Everything must be
planned and coordinated with everything else," Verbeek writes. "The
tightly organized society that results, according to Jaspers, itself
has the character of a machine." Jaspers calls this technological
society (that is, the world we live in now) "The Apparatus" and it
"increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives."
Human beings stop becoming individuals, but are instead interchangeable
parts in The Apparatus.

Link: Review: What Things Do (Part 1).

Saint Nate’s Blog: Modern Day Alchemists Part II: Immortal Begrudged

Few topics seem to get the Technorati database a-bloating like "Aubrey de Grey", and so I get a surge in visitors (like 2) when I mention him.  I like to browse through the other blog posts I’m listed with.  It’s depressing: perhaps not surprisingly, bloggers love their Aubrey de Grey!

So I’m shocked if I find anything that’s critical of transhumanism, never mind a post like this one in Saint Nate’s blog that’s incredibly thorough and well-written.  Brief excerpt:

Maybe someday immortality will be achieved, and maybe someday scientists will learn how to rearrange the molecular structures in lead to turn it into gold. But I’m not buying any lead mines in anticipation of this day, and I question the ethics of telling anyone over 40 indefinite lifespans are possible.

What scares me about the immortality group is the way they dismiss any
thoughts or ideas that imply they could be wrong while clinging
tenaciously to tenuous theories that only hint at a distant
possibility. I’m also frightened by their inability to question the
logical and ethical concerns of their wishful thinking, deflecting all
such comments with the ardent shouting of a cult follower. The whole
thing shows confirmation bias, selective thinking, wishful thinking,
and a complete disregard for the evidence-based model of medicine as
well as willful ignorance of historical lessons. As far as I’m
concerned, the quest for immortality has all the hallmarks of bad
science now and always has in the past.

Link: Saint Nate’s Blog: Modern Day Alchemists Part II: Immortal Begrudged.