Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Technology and Fun

Within the walls of Technology Review, the editors call the August issue (in the hands of our print subscribers in the first week of July), the “Summer o’ Fun” issue. Most months, we limit ourselves to analyzing emerging technologies and…

  • June 9, 2005

Within the walls of Technology Review, the editors call the August issue (in the hands of our print subscribers in the first week of July), the “Summer o’ Fun” issue. Most months, we limit ourselves to analyzing emerging technologies and explaining their commercial and economic impact. In principle, we are interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society - and, in fact, it is impossible to write well about commercial and economic matters without glancing at society - but we seldom emphasize social issues. August will be different. That’s all it’s about.

There are good reasons why we have traditionally eschewed social subjects. Wired already addresses such issues. Also, there is something about the subject that seems to encourage bad journalism: otherwise good, sober, lucid writers go all Asimov: they posit unlikely, seismic shifts in human behavior on the most slender of evidence, their prose turns breathless and hyberbolic, and, in general, everything goes to hell.

But the biggest reason Technology Review hasn’t written about the social impact of technologies so much is that our subject is emerging technologies - and until recently, emerging technologies were mostly purchased by corporations and governments. The reasons for this are simple enough. Emerging technologies constituted an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Personal computers, mobile phones, information networks - they all first appeared in significant numbers in commercial or governmental settings.

But this is changing: the spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable broadband access, WiFi, and a dozen other consumer technologies have led to a wonderful explosion of new, social technologies. Prominent among them is what we are calling continuous computing. But here’s the real deal: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools so that ordinary folks can themselves do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would never dream of trying. I suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on ordinary society much more frequently.

These social technologies have attractions for the writer and journalist. Their effects really are interesting. They are aimed at much more than increasing productivity or promoting efficiency. When a lot of diverse people pursue their idiosyncratic interests, unexpected things happen. Lastly, they are much more fun: every day, somewhere, there is a kind of revolt against the established way of doing things.

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