Saturday, 14 March 2015

Counteracting alienation with technological arts and crafts

The alienating effects of modern technology have been discussed a lot during the past few centuries. Prominent thinkers such as Marx and Heidegger have pointed out how people get reduced into one-dimensional resources or pieces of machinery. Later on, grasping the real world has become increasingly difficult due to the ever-complexifying network of interface layers. I touched this topic a little bit in an earlier text of mine.

How to solve the problem? Discussion tends to bipolarize into quarrels between techno-utopians ("technological progress will automatically solve all the problems") and neo-luddites ("the problems are inherent in technology so we should avoid it altogether"). I looked for a more constructive view and found it in Albert Borgmann.

According to Borgmann, the problem is not in technology or consumption per se, but in the fact that we have given them the primary importance in our lives. To solve the problem, Borgmann proposes that we give the importance to something more worthwhile instead – something he calls "focal things and practices". His examples include music, gardening, running, and the culture of the table. Technological society would be there to protect these focalities instead of trying to make them obsolete.

In general, focal things and practices are something that are somehow able to reflect the whole human existence. Something where self-expression, excellence and deep meanings can be cultivated. Traditional arts and crafts often seem to fulfill the requirements, but Borgmann becomes skeptical whenever high technology gets involved. Computers or modern cars easily alienate the hands-on craftsperson with their blackboxed microelectronics.

Perhaps the most annoying part in Eric S. Raymond's "How To Become A Hacker" is the one titled "Points For Style". Raymond states there that an aspiring hacker should adopt certain non-computer activites such as language play, sci-fi fandom, martial arts and musical practice. This sounds to me like an enforcement of a rather narrow subcultural stereotype, but reading Borgmann made me realize an important point there: computer activities alone aren't enough even for computer hackers – they need to be complemented by something more focal.

Worlds drifting apart

So far so good: we should maintain a world of focal things supported by a world of high-tech things. The former is quite earthly, so everything that involves computing and such belongs to the latter. But what if these two worlds drift too far apart?

Borgmann believes that focal things can clarify technology. The contrast between focal and technological helps people put high-tech in proper roles and demand more tangibility from it. If the technology is material enough, its material aspects can be deepened by the materiality of the focal things. When dealing with information technology, however, Borgmann's idea starts losing relevance. Virtual worlds no longer speak a material language, so focal traditions no longer help grasp their black boxes. Technology becomes a detached, incomprehensible bubble of its own – a kind of "necessary evil" for those who put the focal world first.

In order to keep the two worlds anchored together, I suppose we need to build some islands between them. We need things and practices that are tangible and human enough to be earthed by "real" focal practices, but high-tech enough to speak the high-tech language.

Hacker culture provides one possible key. The principles of playful exploration and technological self-expression can be expanded to many other technologies besides computing. Even if "true focality" can't be reached, the hacker attitude at least counteracts passive alienation. Art and craft building on the assumed essence of a technology can be powerful in revealing the human-approachable dimensions of that technology.

How many hackers do we need?

I don't think it is necessary for every user of a complex technology to actively anchor it to reality. However, I do think everyone's social circle should include people who do. Assuming a a minimal Dunbar's number of 100, we can deduce that at least one percent of users of any given technology in any social group should be part of a "hacker culture" that anchors it.

Anchoring a technology requires a relationship deeper than what mere rational expertise provides. I would suggest that at least 10% of the users of a technology (preferrably a majority, however) should have a solid rational understanding of it, and at least 10% of these should be "hackers". A buffer of "casual experts" between superficial and deep users would also have some sociodynamical importance.

We also need to anchor those technologies that we don't use directly but which are used for producing the goods we consume. Since everyone eats food and wears clothes, every social circle needs to have some "gardening hackers" and "textile hackers" or something with a similar anchoring capacity. In a scenario where agriculture and textile industry are highly automated, some "automation hackers" may be needed as well.

Computing needs to be anchored from two sides – physical and logical. The physical aspect could be well supported by basic electronics craft or something like ham radio, while the logical side could be nurtured by programming-centered arts, maybe even by recreational mathematics.

The big picture

Sophisticated automation leaves people with increasing amounts of free time. Meanwhile, knowledge and control over technology are held by ever fewer. It is therefore quite reasonable to use the extra free time for activities that help keep technology in people's hands. A network of technological crafters may also provide alternative infrastructure that decreases dependence on the dominant machinery.

In an ideal world, people would be constantly aware of the skills and interests present in their various social circles. They would be ready to adopt new interests depending on which technologies need stronger anchoring. The society in general would support the growth and diversification of those groups that are too small or demographically too uniform.

At their best, technological arts would have a profound positive effect on how the majority experiences technology – even when practiced by only a few. They would inspire awe, appreciation and fascination in the masses but at the same time invite them to try to understand the technology.

This was my humble suggestion on a possible way how to counteract technological alienation. I hope I managed to be inspiring.


Tapio Peltonen said...

Have you thought of publishing a selection of your essays as a book? It appears that you have written quite a few things about the humanity/technology interface, broadly speaking. Your essays have been very interesting and I think they might be more accessible (not to mention easier to cite) in book form.

viznut said...

Yep, one of my goals is to create a book that covers these topics. I've been regarding these essays as a kind of preparation for a longer and clearer presentation, but yes, I guess an essay collection could be a good intermediate step.

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