“Technology Review” just doesn’t get it

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.

This month’s issue on “social technology” drives the point home. In the introductory essay, the editors of TR note that “Traditionally, Technology Review hasn’t written that much about society.” Absolutely correct! But their reasoning for this absence is misplaced:

Our subject matter is emerging technologies, and they have historically been purchased by corporations, universities, and governments. That’s because emerging technologies used to require 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. Thus the personal computer, the local-area network, the Internet itself were all first used in commercial, government, or academic settings.

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. To think that the Internet did not/does not have social importance simply becuase it was born in a government/academic setting is laughable at best.

The editors try to redeem themselves:

But this is changing. The spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable Internet access, Wi-Fi, and a dozen other consumer technologies has led to a wonderful explosion of new social applications for them. But here’s the really interesting thing: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools that let ordinary folks do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would be hesitant to try. We suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on society much more frequently. Besides, social technologies are more fun.

This, too, misses the point. 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.

I think the editors should spend a day over at MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS).

Jason Pontin, editor of Technology Review, has posted a response on his blog, The New Commonplace.

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