From this week’s readings, I find Norbert Wiener’s article “Men, Machines, and the World About” especially compelling. While the other authors speak of the human-computer connection, Wiener’s discussion is the only one that includes ideas about considering humanity and social justice when we think about technology. (In the introduction to Licklider the mention of uneven distribution of internet technology is mentioned but not realy discussed). Admittely, I am not well read in the technical side of computers and the internet, but even in the articles I have read concerning the user side of technology, questions of social responsibility rarely appear. In the society in which we live there is a constant push for better, faster, or newer technology. Of course, we just saw this last week with the iPad. While technology like this is often focused on it’s “awesome” factor or its “fun” factor in pitching it to willing consumers, there is always an undercurrent that when we apply this technology, not everyone will have it or not everyone will use it as it was intended. Of course, companies like Apple hope that they revolutionize the computer industry, one because of their profits, but two, because creators of technology are most often (in my experience) the biggest promotors and users of it. The iPad seems harmless enough of technology to promote, but when we connect the origins of computer and internet techology to the the military-industrial complex, it takes on meaning beyond that of harmless consumer product. In my opinion, creators and users of technology need to be aware of the potential global and human effects of their technology, beyond is it going to make my individual life easier. How will the iPad change internet access distribution, especially considering its relatively low price? Does Apple have ethic practices in the factory that will physically build the computers, which is most likely in China? What about the e-waste created from discarding old computers to make way for the new?
I don’t mean to sound like a ludite, or anti-Apple, but perhaps as someone trained in interdisciplinary work, it is in my nature to ask larger questions. Just because we are able to do something doesn’t always mean that we should. I don’t advocate being anti-technology, and in fact I love technology, but I want to know the impact of what I do on others. Perhaps we should follow Wiener’s lead and ask creator’s of technology what think the social impact of their work is, as a part of normal practice.
Along those lines, I heard an interesting interview with Jaron Lanier, one of the inventors of virtual reality, who is now more skeptical about Web 2.0, and has written a book called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. His concerns about social networking limiting creativity or self re-invention are particularly interesting.