Are we all agreed, then, that technological change is the true destiny of the human species? As I read the books and articles her-alding the new millennium, there seems almost uniform consensus that the twenty-first century will be characterized exclusively by technical advances and the quick adaptation of society to their requirements. If there are other sources of hope and renewal in the works, we seem less and less able to imagine them.
Most remarkable about these technology-centered visions of the future is their use of outmoded language of inevitability. Commentators speak straight-faced about ineluctable forces, historical laws, and irrevocable impacts, employing imagery reminiscent of late nineteenth century romanticism. In his book The Future of Capitalism, for example, Lester Thurow depicts technological change as a “tectonic force” that we must obey but can never hope to master. The best we can do, Thurow says, is to read these forces and position ourselves for maximum advantage. In a similar vein, Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly enlightens us with a list of twelve “laws” for the era of digital electronics-laws that he says are bringing “an upheaval in our commonwealth, a social shift that re-orders our lives.”
In reports about specific kinds of technical development, proclamations of inevitability often lapse into fatalism. The weekly news magazines have told their readers about how workplace surveillance, online monitoring, and electronic networks generate data trails that erode our privacy. While these stories sometimes offer advice on how to protect the security of personal information, they typically assume that privacy-destroying electronics are so deeply entrenched that systematic remedies are impossible. In “No Place to Hide,” a report in Forbes on the tracking devices that surround people’s every move, Ann Marsh agonizes that new information systems may “bring on Orwell’s 1984, making us all slaves of the state.” Does this mean we’ll need new legislation and stronger citizen action to counter this threat? Not at all. Marsh concludes that “the damned thing is practically here. Let the chips fall where they may.”