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The human drive of tech

This article appears in the issue May 2011, [Volume 20, Issue 5]


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I've been thinking a lot about technodeterminism these days, for two primary reasons.

First,  I've seemed to side pretty heavily, in my "career," with the technodeterminists, that is, with those who think that the Internet has an effect on us, and that that effect has a certain inevitability. If you say, for example, that the Internet will change business or politics, you are saying that technology itself has a determining effect, and you are a technodeterminist. I have been that person.

Second, technodeterminism is quite possibly quite wrong. If it means that we are helpless pawns in the hands of our tech, it is certainly wrong. If it means that technology has the same effect on all people regardless of their culture, socioeconomic class or personality, then it is certainly wrong. If technodeterminism means that our technology once spawned will overcome all obstacles, we are now witnessing the terrible disproof of that as we hand our Internet to providers who want to turn it into something tame, dumb and lucrative for them.

The fact that technodeterminism is a false doctrine (#2) has made me feel fairly foolish for my earlier espousal of it (#1). But I realized something obvious recently that makes me think the focus on technodeterminism itself is misguided.

I came to this obvious realization because someone asked me to write something about how The Cluetrain Manifesto-a book I co-authored with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke and Doc Searls-is standing up 12 years after the Cluetrain.com site went up. Ever since the 10th anniversary, the authors have been asked that question with some regularity, so I've got an answer down. It includes an early acknowledgement of the book's technodeterminist triumphalism.

But, this time I realized that I don't fully believe that criticism. Sure, technology is just a tool, and you can use an oar to propel a boat or to fuel a campfire. But the real question isn't whether the Internet taken by itself forces certain effects on us, but whether the Internet (plus we users) has determinative effects.

The answer to that question is, I believe, still yes. But the determinative power of the Internet does not come from its technology. It comes from the humans who use it. That's in fact what Cluetrain-and much else I've written since-says. It's also why I love the Internet: It provides an opportunity for some frustrated and worthy human traits to flourish.

Technology already reflects our interests, of course. For example, the uber-geeks who created the Internet built it as a protocol for the movement of bits without discrimination among the bits because they thought that would help fulfill the human need for open information and the human urge to innovate. If they had had in mind a different set of human needs and limits-say, to protect copyright owners-they would have created a different piece of technology. So, tech already reflects ideas about who we are and what we want.

Of course we can use tech in ways its creators did not envision, just as Pringles cans turn out to be pretty handy for focusing and directing Wi-Fi signals. But that's just to say that the tendencies we build into technology can be overcome by the determination of humans.

But are humans determined? As President Obama once said about the question of when life begins, that's beyond my pay grade. Nevertheless, there are some broad generalizations about us that seem not only to be generally true, but that are good to believe because they move us toward better policies and more happiness. For example, I'd be OK saying that we humans are social creatures, that we are all interested in what happens to us and to our fellow creatures, that we are explosively creative, that language is fundamental to who we are, that we all have an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

From these truths- assuming for the moment that you accept them, and if you don't, I have no Plan B for convincing you of them-come few determinant actions. But, they let us make some general statements about how we'll use the Net. We'll use it to be social, to pursue our interests, to engage with others, to be creative. If that's determinist, it's not because the technology is forcing us to use itself one way and not another. The determinism comes from the human side of the equation. And that's also exactly where the hope comes from, too.   


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