The Trouble with Technology
April 2000

It is still fashionable among some pundits to label anyone who does not mindlessly accept a non-stop, ever-accelerating pace of technology as a "Luddite". The assumption with this point of view is that if you dare question any new technology, any new product, or any marketing spin about the importance of getting the "latest version", then you're obviously an imbecile, a paranoid freak, or a Unabomber wannabe. This extreme form of typecasting makes any civilized discussion of "good" technology versus "bad" technology difficult. The battle lines are cast in concrete before the sides have even been introduced!!

Although Microsoft products are not the only example of this nonsense, it is too easy to label anyone who prefers DOS or Windows 3.1 as a Neanderthal. How much more for anyone who does not even use a PC! The not-so-subtle implication of the technology-or-bust mentality is that all technology is good, or at least morally neutral. But there is a different, more-subtle, and clearly more dangerous belief attached to the myth of monotonic, painless progress....

This subtlety comes from the fact that it is easy to ignore the origins of technological advances and new products. Technology does not come to us in a vacuum, pre-packaged, or perhaps blessed by some technological Moses from a craggy peak in the desert. No, technology comes from people, and we should all be mature enough to realize that *** People Have Agendas ***. Technology is never values-neutral, because the people who invent, market, and profit from it are not values-neutral.

Think about it. Does Mr. Gates of Microsoft, Mr. Ellison of Oracle, or Mr. Gerstner of IBM have solely a profit motive to what he does? Sooner or later a man reaches a margin of diminishing returns, whether the man has $50 million or $500 million or $50 billion. After a while, it's not about money any more. It may be about control, or winning, or attempting to influence how history will be written, but sooner or later it's no longer about money. And even when it was about money, did that make the technology being sold morally neutral?

Is the pursuit of profit at all costs -- a rampant and voracious mode of Capitalism -- a morally neutral and harmless, agenda-free framework for technology? I think there is little room to argue in favor of such a historical interpretation. Native Americans, pollution victims, and war dead would beg to differ, were they still alive to speak.

Having come to accept that fact that technology comes from people who have agendas, we should now recognize that to Question Technology, is no more a form of ignorance than to Question Authority. In fact, the ability and the willingness to question technology, in a balanced, rational, and thoughtful manner, is more a sign of moral and mental maturity than it is a sign of irrational fear or intellectual weakness. If we do not question the authority of technology, then by what right do we question the moral integrity of those who mindless acquiesced to participate in the Crusades, the Holocaust, and Communism? Just because these agendas were more obvious and less fragmented than the multitudinous sources of technological "progress", does that make questioning the motivations and the consequences of technology any less a responsible course?

In reality, there is a middle ground between the mindless hucksterism of the New Economy and the mindless Luddism of the old. However, occupying this middle ground requires becoming informed and staying up-to-date not only with technology but with the people who are pushing it. It also requires constant mental exertion. This kind of effort is never easy. Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." When it comes to watching for technological tyrants instead of merely ideological ones, these words still maintain their value.

Most recent revision: April 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.