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<nettime> Technorealism
David S. Bennahum on Thu, 12 Mar 1998 07:27:13 +0100 (MET)


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<nettime> Technorealism


see also: http://www.technorealism.org/

WHY TECHNOREALISM?

In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to 
maintain our bearings. The developments that unfold each day in 
communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One 
understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? 
Should we welcome or fear them? 

The answer is both. Technology is making life more convenient and 
enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. But it is 
also affecting work, family, and the economy in unpredictable ways, 
introducing new forms of tension and distraction, and posing new threats 
to the cohesion of our physical communities. 

Despite the complicated and often contradictory implications of 
technology, the conventional wisdom is woefully simplistic. Pundits, 
politicians, and self-appointed visionaries do us a disservice when they 
try to reduce these complexities to breathless tales of either high-tech 
doom or cyber-elation. Such polarized thinking leads to dashed hopes and 
unnecessary anxiety, and prevents us from understanding our own culture. 

Over the past few years, even as the debate over technology has been 
dominated by the louder voices at the extremes, a new, more balanced 
consensus has quietly taken shape. This document seeks to articulate 
some of the shared beliefs behind that consensus, which we have come to 
call technorealism. 

Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools 
and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to 
this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of 
technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually 
a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout 
history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, 
television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the 
institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as 
substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's 
emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected 
consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and 
appropriate use. 

As technorealists, we seek to expand the fertile middle ground between 
techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism. We are technology "critics" in the 
same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art 
critics, or literary critics. We can be passionately optimistic about 
some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others. Still, our goal 
is neither to champion nor dismiss technology, but rather to understand 
it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values. 



PRINCIPLES OF TECHNOREALISM 


1.     TECHNOLOGIES ARE NOT NEUTRAL

A great misconception of our time is the idea that technologies are 
completely free of bias -- that because they are inanimate artifacts, 
they don't promote certain kinds of behaviors over others. In truth, 
technologies come loaded with both intended and unintended social, 
political, and economic leanings. Every tool provides its users with a 
particular manner of seeing the world and specific ways of interacting 
with others. It is important for each of us to consider the biases of 
various technologies and to seek out those that reflect our values and 
aspirations. 


2.     THE INTERNET IS REVOLUTIONARY, BUT NOT UTOPIAN

The Net is an extraordinary communications tool that provides a range of 
new opportunities for people, communities, businesses, and government. 
Yet as cyberspace becomes more populated, it increasingly resembles 
society at large, in all its complexity. For every empowering or 
enlightening aspect of the wired life, there will also be dimensions 
that are malicious, perverse, or rather ordinary. 


3.     GOVERNMENT HAS AN IMPORTANT ROLE
       TO PLAY ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER

Contrary to some claims, cyberspace is not formally a place or 
jurisdiction separate from Earth. While governments should respect the 
rules and customs that have arisen in cyberspace, and should not stifle 
this new world with inefficient regulation or censorship, it is foolish 
to say that the public has no sovereignty over what an errant citizen or 
fraudulent corporation does online. As the representative of the people 
and the guardian of democratic values, the state has the right and 
responsibility to help integrate cyberspace and conventional society. 
Technology standards and privacy issues, for example, are too important 
to be entrusted to the marketplace alone. Competing software firms have 
little interest in preserving the open standards that are essential to a 
fully functioning interactive network. Markets encourage innovation, but 
they do not necessarily insure the public interest. 


4.     INFORMATION IS NOT KNOWLEDGE

All around us, information is moving faster and becoming cheaper to 
acquire, and the benefits are manifest. That said, the proliferation of 
data is also a serious challenge, requiring new measures of human 
discipline and skepticism. We must not confuse the thrill of acquiring 
or distributing information quickly with the more daunting task of 
converting it into knowledge and wisdom. Regardless of how advanced our 
computers become, we should never use them as a substitute for our own 
basic cognitive skills of awareness, perception, reasoning, and 
judgment. 


5.      WIRING THE SCHOOLS WILL NOT SAVE THEM

The problems with America's public schools -- disparate funding, social 
promotion, bloated class size, crumbling infrastructure, lack of 
standards -- have almost nothing to do with technology. Consequently, no 
amount of technology will lead to the educational revolution prophesied 
by President Clinton and others. The art of teaching cannot be 
replicated by computers, the Net, or by "distance learning." These tools 
can, of course, augment an already high-quality educational experience. 
But to rely on them as any sort of panacea would be a costly mistake. 


6.      INFORMATION WANTS TO BE PROTECTED

It's true that cyberspace and other recent developments are challenging 
our copyright laws and frameworks for protecting intellectual property. 
The answer, though, is not to scrap existing statutes and principles. 
Instead, we must update old laws and interpretations so that information 
receives roughly the same protection it did in the context of old media. 
The goal is the same: to give authors sufficient control over their work 
so that they have an incentive to create, while maintaining the right of 
the public to make fair use of that information. In neither context does 
information want "to be free." Rather, it needs to be protected. 


7.      THE PUBLIC OWNS THE AIRWAVES;
        THE PUBLIC SHOULD BENEFIT FROM THEIR USE

The recent digital spectrum giveaway to broadcasters underscores the 
corrupt and inefficient misuse of public resources in the arena of 
technology. The citizenry should benefit and profit from the use of 
public frequencies, and should retain a portion of the spectrum for 
educational, cultural, and public access uses. We should demand more for 
private use of public property. 


8.      UNDERSTANDING TECHNOLOGY SHOULD BE 
        AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP

In a world driven by the flow of information, the interfaces -- and the 
underlying code -- that make information visible are becoming enormously 
powerful social forces. Understanding their strengths and limitations, 
and even participating in the creation of better tools, should be an 
important part of being an involved citizen. These tools affect our 
lives as much as laws do, and we should subject them to a similar 
democratic scrutiny. 


Signed in alphabetical order: 

DAVID S. BENNAHUM, New York, New York
Editor, MEME
Contributing Editor, Wired, Spin, Lingua Franca, and I.D. magazines

BROOKE SHELBY BIGGS, San Francisco, California
Columnist, San Francisco Bay Guardian online
Columnist, CMP's NetInsider

PAULINA BORSOOK, San Francisco, California
Author, "Cyberselfish: Technolibertarianism and the True Revenge of the 
Nerds" (forthcoming from Broadway books) 

MARISA BOWE, New York, New York
Editor-in-Chief, Word
Former Conference Manager, ECHO

SIMSON GARFINKEL, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
Contributing Writer, Wired
Columnist, The Boston Globe

STEVEN JOHNSON, New York, New York
Author, "Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way 
We Create and Communicate"
Editor-In-Chief, FEED

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, New York, New York
Author, "Cyberia," "Media Virus," "Playing the Future," "Ecstasy Club."
Columnist, New York Times Syndicate, Time Digital

ANDREW L. SHAPIRO, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fellow, Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Contributing Editor, The Nation

DAVID SHENK, Brooklyn, New York
Author, "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut"
Commentator, National Public Radio

STEVE SILBERMAN, San Francisco, California
Senior Culture Writer, Wired News

MARK STAHLMAN, New York, New York
Author, "The Battle for Cyberspace" (forthcoming)
Co-founder, New York New Media Association 

STEFANIE SYMAN, New York, New York
Executive editor and co-founder, FEED 

You can add your name to the list of signers by visiting the 
Technorealism site, at http://www.technorealism.org/form.html  The 
editors at Feed have also created a "Feed Dialog" where we can participate 
in a discussion on Technorealism, at 
http://www.feedmag.com/html/dialog/98.03dialog/98.03dialog_master.html

If you are near Boston on March 19th, 1998, we will be presenting 
Technorealsim at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard 
University, from 3-6 pm, in Austin Hall North on the Harvard Law School 
campus. Details are at http://cyber.harvard.edu/technorealism.html.

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