Why Our Tech Talk Needs A Values Talk

Black and white photo of 1950s traffic jam

(Or, why we need to remove that elevated freeway to hell paved with “good” tech intentions)

That breathless hyper excitement so often celebrated in talk about technology is not new. Almost 100 years ago (about 3 generations ago) the automobile was the “Big Data” application or fancy wearable of its day. It was a product that was going to liberate people.

As before, so many who claim or are anointed as genius can at the same time be so removed from the impacts they are making. These impacts are often the knowable but less desired or negative side effects hidden from view while the desired outcome is celebrated to the exclusion of the whole impact.

Not so sure about this? Let’s look at this salutary tale about the famous Olivetti toting Italian journalist Indro Montanelli…

“During this time Montanelli conducted his first interview with a celebrity: Henry Ford— who surprised him by admitting he did not have a driver’s license. During the interview, surrounded by American art depicting pastoral and frontier subjects, Ford began to reverentially talk about the Founding Fathers. Looking at the decor, Montanelli astutely asked him how he felt about having destroyed their world. Puzzled, Ford asked what he meant. Undaunted, Montanelli pressed on that the automobile and Ford’s revolutionary assembly line system had forever transformed the country. Ford looked shocked, and Montanelli realized that, like all geniuses, Ford hadn’t had the slightest idea of what he’d really done.”

The road to hell is paved all to often with good intentions. Today, the legacy of Ford and other automakers and their lobbying efforts has come full circle, as Freeway Removal is now one of the leading urban design tactics to help undo the hell that is auto-centered cities. We joke about information “super highways” but the blind techno-determinism is only stronger today than in Ford’s day. Will 3 generations from now see the removal of current celebrated tech? Gov & Commerce Big Data Surveillance Removal projects anyone?

We have to learn from our track record as it stands and move toward wiser more holistic assessments of the value of any given technology. There have been attempts to make this practical. Neil Postman has his set of questions. Postman’s work is also getting resurfaced now in part no doubt because more people are noticing the folly of our tech world’s triumphant exceptionalism. (See this Salon post on Postman, “Meet the man who predicted Fox News, the Internet, Stephen Colbert and reality TV” it’s worth the time.)

Yes, there are always problems with broad indicators and rubrics, they lack important contextual factors for the relativism of reality, but right now we have next to no critical assessment criteria in the way we commonly look at, talk about, and make technology. Maybe we should start with these 6 questions Postman came up with

  1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”
  2. “Whose problem is it?”
  3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?”
  4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?”
  5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?”
  6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”

What other mindful values-based considerations should we regularly ask? Jacques Ellul, another media theorist in the media ecology school of thought, had his more exhaustive (and problematic) 76 Reasonable Questions to Ask About Any Technology. But simple rubrics work better to get the culture change rolling. Look at the Bechdel test for gender bias in entertainment, its assessment has 3 criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Over time Bechdel’s criteria have become more commonly referenced as a popular way to easily talk in part about sexism in media. Bechdel’s comic strip that launched this rubric has one character conclude “Pretty strict, but a good idea.” Think rubrics and tests are too much? Well if you value being mindful in your tech work then that means expending effort in developing skills to regularly step back and see the bigger picture, to get beyond self-absorption, and that’s just what this is about.

(Originally posted on Medium. Traffic jam image via Roger Wilkerson, The Suburban Legend!)