I recently attended 2013 SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX. The conference offered four days of sessions, parties, meetups, keynotes on a variety of themes covering art and inspiration, community and activism, design and development, entrepreneurialism and business. From the events I attended, I picked one that made the most impression on me and thought it would be fun to share in the blog post.
Ironically, for an interactive festival of that caliber, “What can we learn from the Unabomber?” was probably the only session that focused on a critical discussion of technology. In the sea of designers’ enthusiasm about introducing new technology to solve all kinds of world’s “problems” — I thought as session began — we simply are too excited about tech’s potential to think about the implications of our work. The debate-like session consisted of two professors of philosophy, Peter Ludlow and David Skrbina, laying out their views of whether there is something to learn from the presently-incarcerated Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. Kaczynski mailed a number of home-made bombs as a revolt against modern technology between 1978 and 1995, killing three people and injuring 23.
Dr. Skrbina argued that although he does not support the way the Unabomber carried out his revolt, he does agree with some of the ideas that the Unabomber put forth. Specifically, that industrial technology enslaves people with its dehumanizing mechanical, attention-controlling, and nature-destructive ways. And because people seem to lack control of the technology that is perpetually taking over their lives, causing psychological, physical distress and ecological disasters, we should “kill the system” altogether, and return to more simple ways of existence. That said, he agrees that it would be impossible to just “get rid” of technology, as it penetrates all aspects of our lives and a lot of us just have to use it to maintain a certain social position (Skrbina needs to use email to keep his teaching position). But possible or not, the way to deal with it, in Dr. Skrbina’s and the Unabomber’s opinion, would be to eradicate it.
The other debate participant, Peter Ludlow, instead of defending technology argued that there is nothing to learn from the Unabomber. In his opinion, the Unabomber’s arguments are weak and the only reason we are here (sadly) is because of our popular culture’s fascination with serial killers (Dexter, Hannibal Lecter).
He did, however, agree that our technological system is not benign and that radical measures do need to take place, but we can hardly learn anything from the Unabomber’s fallacious “jump to conclusion” arguments to completely eradicate technology.
Referring to Skrbina’s arguments, Dr. Ludlow pointed out that the increasing numbers of people diagnosed with various attention deficit and autism disorders, along with speculation about the harm of Facebook, should not be directly interpreted as a negative consequences of technology, and surely not enough to conclude that we should eradicate it altogether. He argued that instead treating technology as this mysteriously controlling and dehumanizing power, we should more actively engage with it by better understanding what it is and how it works as opposed to passively using it.
After the session, there was some time allocated for Q&A. The line at the microphone kept growing with worked up technologists lining up to to defend their profession. Most people at the microphone where there to express skepticism and even a bit of irritation on what Dr. Skrbina had to say. He was, after all, suggesting that what these people so lovingly do for living, i.e introducing more technology for the betterment of people’s lives, might have a less noble and romantic side to it. Lined up technophiles questioned his position with something along in the lines of the following:
— What do you mean technology is bad? I am creating authentic digital experiences for people, I am making their lives richer.
—But you use technology yourself, don’t you? How can you argue against it?
—We have been using technology from the time we picked up a stick, so how can we say that we are better off without it?
Aside from emotional reactions to “let’s get rid of technology”, the audience (including myself) was intrigued, but not quite prepared to discuss the flip side of our profession. Inspite of our varying degree of excitement about technology, we can all agree that there is something alarmingly strange about the way it is increasingly a part of the socio-cultural fabric. Yet we still don’t know where the strangeness begins and where it ends—we lack insight and sensitivity to the degree, intricacies, and implications of our interconnectivity with technology.
To many of us, technology is like that funny and confident friend (from way back when we were little kids) who everyone is so excited to be around. It seems that anything that friend says (sometimes the unthinkable!) amuses everyone and we all go along with it. And just because this friendship seems like a harmless adventure and “everyone is doing it”, we rarely stop to think about our friendship’s nuances and what it means to us beyond its immediate utility, convenience, fun, and feeling of “being there” along with the rest of the kids. And to Ludlow’s point, our friendship with technology is not benign—as it does not simply serve us in improving our well-being, but very much shapes who we are as humans. And if we are concerned at all with who we are becoming, I think we have to be more sensitive to the relationships that are shaping us. To me, being more sensitive means being critically reflective, or being able to step back— not from technology itself, as Dr. Skrbina and Unabomber might suggest—but from our immediate interactions with it, and look at the bigger picture of our friendship.
I think for creators of technology it might mean not only engaging in meeting user needs and wants with technological solutions, but also in research that focuses on articulating and helping others understand what is that we are becoming as a result of this relationship with technology. I don’t think that this research should necessarily be practical in nature and could very well be considered art. Nonetheless, it should be present and it should address the otherwise unnoticed—what all of our everyday interactions with technology (and strangeness that comes with it) amount to? This research could be hypothetical design explorations (“what if?” scenarios) or critique of the current technology and design industry trends (cloud computing, context-aware services, device agnosticism, etc).
No matter what shape this critical discourse takes, what is important is that our big picture understanding of our relationship with technology becomes more nuanced and that we could more clearly, and with less strangeness perhaps, see what it is that we are becoming.
Peter Ludlow slides (Scribed)
Slides via debate moderator Jeff Young (Scribed)