Technology and hyperbole

Drawing by Travelin Librarian
Drawing by Travelin' Librarian

I’m a little creeped out by the messianic quality of a lot of talk about technology and society. Take the TED talks. Don’t they have a weird, hucksterish vibe? I love me some social networking and whatnot, but spare me the long-tail-tipping-point-world-is-flat-crowdsourcing-flashmobs rhapsodizing.

I went to a low-performing high school in the heart of Silicon Valley, so I feel I came by my skepticism honestly. We students were treated to a parade of wunderkinds, usually from the business sector, who promised that Internet connectivity, corporate partnerships, and sketchy “pilot programs” were the key to our upward mobility. Meanwhile, the photocopiers were out of paper, there was a lake in the cafetorium, and the graduation rate was dismal.

This is not Thomas Friedman’s fault, but I can’t help but see a similarly flippant disregard for the dirty mechanics of everyday life, as well as a weirdly naive faith in the equalizing power of technology. It’s not just about access to computers; it’s about bigger patterns of inequality. History suggests that these inequalities go a lot deeper than is in Facebook’s power to fix. Frankly, I think that historians’ piecemeal adoption of electronic tools has something to do with the glib enthusiasm of the tools’ exponents.

Technology does change things. The Internet has changed my world in ways I never would have imagined. But the material facts of history — the questions of who has power and who doesn’t — have remained remarkably stable.

There’s a lot of excitement among digital humanists about digitization, text-encoding, reference software, and other neat tools. I share that excitement, I really do. But I’m also trying to remember that these are just tools, and it’s the facts on the ground that really matter.

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