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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Do We "Get" the Social Impact of Tech?

Michael Zimmer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, has posted an interesting critique of our August 2005 issue. That issue was devoted to describing the social impact of some new technologies -…

  • July 15, 2005

Michael Zimmer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, has posted an interesting critique of our August 2005 issue. That issue was devoted to describing the social impact of some new technologies - but Zimmer believes we don’t “get” the relationship of technology and society.

He writes,

“Technology Review just doesn’t understand the complex relationship between technology and society. I’ve been a reader of MIT’s flagship magazine for a few years now, and have had mixed feelings about its contents. At times, they’ve provided thoughtful insights into emerging technologies and trends, but too often, they seem to ignore many of the social impacts of the technologies they exault. In short, TR too often engages in technological utopianism without properly assessing the social, value and ethical implications of our emerging technologies.”

My guard was immediately up - because it is grossly unfair to accuse Technology Review of utopianism. We are, if anything, aggressively skeptical about new technologies. We worry about whether novel technologies will work as advertised, and we fret about the unintended consequences of such technologies when they do work. We are not fools: we also know that all new technologies are human artifacts and are good and bad in so far as we make them so. As I wrote in a column last December,

“Scientific knowledge… is a kind of absolute good. No one can reasonably object to understanding cellular disease. But… technology… is morally neutral. Any technology must exist in a fallen world of methods and ends, about which men and women can disagree.”

But Zimmer was only getting warmed up. In our leader to the August issue, we explained that emerging technologies (our subject matter) almost always appeared in an academic, government, or commercial setting - that is, inside institutions, and not within society at large - because emerging technologies are expensive and at first have a very narrow application. But this point annoys Mr. Zimmer. He writes,

To state that TR has kept clear of the social issues related to technology simply because it deals with expensive emerging technologies ignores the fact that all technologies at all stages of development interact with society and have social consequences.

I take issue with this last point. Of course, we know that technologies are created by social beings responding to social stimuli; and of course we know that all technologies, sooner or later, have social consequences. We have never been opposed to writing about technology and society. It was simply not our focus. Consult our mission statement: we like to say that:

“Technology Review describes emerging technologies and analyses their commercial, economic, social, and political impact.”

Zimmer also misconstrues the purpose of the August issue’s cover story by Wade Roush. There, we described those new techologies - predominantly associated with Web 2.0, wireless, and social computing - that were specifically designed to alter the way we connect with one another. Most particularly, we were interested in what we are calling continuous computing.

Zimmer doesn’t like the focus of our cover story. He writes,

“They seem to think that the only technologies that have social implications are those “social technologies” such as wi-fi, cellphones, blogging, etc. And only now that such “fun” technologies have become ubiquitous will TR delve into the social impact of technology? Unbelievable.”

It must be noted at once that our August issue on the social impact of new technologies also covered a variety of social subjects other than “social technologies”: We also wrote about the uses of technology in the kingdom of Bhutan. We reported how the revolution in genomics might change human diet. And we even asked Dr. Sasha Shulgin, the “stepfather of ecstasy,” to explain the social uses of psychedelics.

Finally, the August issue contained lots of fun stuff, too. It was our beach issue. Mr. Zimmer needs to lighten up. After all, in our August issue, we did.

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