Why I Am Not A Technician

A few weeks ago, a piece of computer hardware arrived in the mail: a device which makes it possible to replace a laptop’s CD drive with a hard drive. I unpacked the box, flipped my laptop belly-up, and went to work. About thirty minutes later, I screwed everything back together and switched the computer on again—minus one CD drive and plus one auxiliary hard drive. Everything worked correctly, and the six-year-old laptop gained a few more useful years. It was all very satisfying.

Most of my work consists of disassembling and reassembling sentences, paragraphs, citations, arguments, metaphors, and critiques. When I get a chance to disassemble and reassemble #00 screws and SATA ribbon cables, I’m reminded of a choice I more or less unconsciously made sometime around the middle of high school: to spend my life dealing with people and politics and ideas rather than with machines and numbers. I think the closest I ever got to formalizing this decision was when school administrators decided to group students into thematic ‘Academies’ for guidance-counseling purposes. I had to declare an allegiance: would I salute the flag of Math, Science, and Technology—or Arts, Humanities, and Communication? I think at the beginning of tenth grade I still belonged to the former kingdom. By the end of high school, I had defected to the latter.

Earlier on the day of the hard-drive replacement, I had spent a few hours reading obtuse journal articles by scholars whose leaden, self-referential ambitions, encased within layer upon layer of evasive rhetorical bluffs, left me feeling confused and infuriated. In the pleasing glow of a technical job successfully executed, I wondered, as I have often done, whether I had cursed myself with a poorly-considered decision fifteen years ago. What if I had concluded back then that I would serve a more useful purpose to society by fabricating machines or lines of code rather than by fabricating journal articles and assertions of truth?

Later that same week, I picked up a copy of the MIT Technology Review (which appears in our mailbox by whose command I cannot say). The cover story was on ‘Innovators Under 35,’ and it was a reminder of why I find myself so repelled by the field which goes under the misleading name ‘technology.’ Intermixed with a few interesting people who are inventing interesting things, the Review served up a thick slurry of self-promoters and hand-waving impresarios: people for whom technology is a reliable path toward profit and celebrity. Sharing the list with these all-too-slick gadget purveyors were other technicians who seemed to take little interest in the consequences of newness: the type of people who might invent a nuclear bomb and think only of its innovative approach to particle physics. I am being unfair, of course, but just a little. The complicated nexus of hot capital, inward-looking research institutions, and flashy publications like the Technology Review has allowed the world of ‘technology’ to indulge in a fantasy of self-importance—a fantasy in which utility, fairness, justice, beauty, and wisdom fade away in the blinding intensity of novelty and suavity.

I was reminded of this again today because Vox has launched a column called ‘New Money,’ and by its own description it is a very high-grade distillate of exactly this kind of techno-charlatanry. By the third sentence, New Money has already made an adoring reference to ‘disruption,’ and is well on its way to a full-scale celebration of the Internetification of Everything. The technologists’ go-to confused foray into local politics makes its tired appearance, with a sentence about housing deregulation in the Bay Area. And it goes on to conclude that covering both Apple produce releases and federal monetary policy in the same beat is not only not ridiculous, but actually insightful: for such a column will at last “connect the dots” between a view of the world which sees everything in terms of dollars and cents, and a view of the world which sees everything in terms of ones and zeroes.

Of course technical change and a consequent reworking of systems of economic order are very real—and very important—features of today’s world. But there is nothing new about this. From Fertile Crescent irrigation ditches to the spinning jenny and beyond, the tools which we use to manipulate the world and the tool which we use to manipulate one another have been in a close correlation with each other. The great folly of the technologists is that they act as though these processes are unhitched from history, and they jabber about ‘adding value’ to things whose value has not yet been scrutinized.