Democratizing Technology, again

14 Dec

The more we control our technology, the better we like it.

This weekend I took the advice of 17-year-old Marcus, hacker protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother (2009’s Prometheus Award winner for Libertarian SF, by the way):

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city. Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off- limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.

It’s less a subtle suggestion than a call to arms, but I was inspired anyway and messed around with Python for an afternoon—because I’m a Humanities student and very proud of the fact, I used my very limited skills to write a program that quotes Hamlet at you, substituting your name for Ophelia’s (user_reply = raw_input (“Get thee to a nunnery!”)).

It was amazing.  And Cory Doctorow/Marcus was absolutely right: every time that little program carried out a command I typed, I shouted very loudly and very excitedly with the astonishing power of even my limited abilities (very, very limited abilities).  Doctorow’s call to arms is something almost as cool as my hamlet.py program: computers are complicated, and the Internet can be frightening, but we don’t have to be passive users.

It’s democratization of technology.

We’ve probably all heard the faux-Chinese curse once or twice before: May you live in interesting times.  Interesting being dangerous, of course.  Well, this is an interesting time (Cory Doctorow: it’s one of the “best and weirdest” times in human history), and what makes it interesting—the powers, good and bad, of technology—are shared by some of the other weird and best periods in history.  Take 1850 to 1900:

Historians have a lot of names for these mid to late-1800s—Mark Twain’s designation of the period as the “Gilded Age” is probably the best known.  The second half of the 19th-century, Twain believed, demonstrated unprecedented superficiality, decadence, and extravagant displays of wealth.

But Twain seems to ignore where that wealth came from—the growth of industry in the northeast, so productive that we call it the “Second Industrial Revolution.”  This was the time of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Michael Faraday, among many, many others.  Advertisement, commercialization of the automobile (Henry Ford), and the mass production of consumer goods all began at this time.  Not to mention its affect on communication: for the telephone alone, this half-century has even been labeled the “Technical Revolution.”

Technology was changing lives, making the world smaller, and spreading ideas like never before.  Great inventors may stand on the shoulders of giants—no one’s disputing Newton here—but there are clear periods of time in which our gradual technological snowball triggers an avalanche, and everything shakes up.

The later 1400s were one of those times, with the invention of the printing press and movable type (in Europe, at least).  It was the first major democratization of knowledge in human history, and led to one of the greatest social upheavals in Western Civilization: the Protestant Reformation.

Another one of those inventive periods was the latter half of the 19th-century, the scientific and technological “revolution” that Mr. Twain called the Gilded Age.  And—in this case, I think unjustly—the quips of a great satirist like Clemens tend to stick.

There’s a competing name for that epithet, however: the Age of Optimism.  Hearing a friend or family member in your ear across thousands of miles must have seemed like magic.  Confidence in the power of technology skyrocketed.

But power can go the other way too—and when WWII’s atomic bomb proved, as Carl Sagan writes, that “scientists knew sin,” faith in technology waned a little low.  In the 1970s, Vietnam War protestors burned their draft cards in napalm, another contribution of science to the destruction of humankind.

No wonder our history books never mention that the “Gilded Age” optimism might have been warranted.

But I increasingly think that we’re in one of those technological avalanche periods—like the printing press and the telephone, the Internet has only further democratized knowledge and communication.  (Remember Bruce Sterling’s comment?  The Internet is the world’s, history’s, only “functional anarchy.”)

Newsweek shocked me this week with their feature: The Decade in Review.  At #8 on the happy endings list was the story of Martin Takleff, convicted in 1990 for murdering his parents—as it turns out, he didn’t.  It’s a brief story, literally six lines, and half of them are these:

Because of new technologies, we can prove that mistakes were made.  Technology is neutral.  It is dispositive proof of objective fact, and it brings us closer to truth.

So it’s not unbridled optimism, but that’s a pretty confident assessment of the benefits of technological advances—and the talk about “objective fact” makes me grin with the thought that postmodernism might be falling out of favor.

I think we’re starting to trust technology again.

That can be dangerous—more than ever, there’s the risk of this ubiquitous, ever-more-powerful technology being twisted to watch us, track our movements, and surveil ordinary people’s activities in the grand tradition of an Orwellian-dystopian nightmare.  But like Cory Doctorow writes—and Newsweek, surprisingly, echoes—technology is neutral, objective, and it does our bidding.  Like the printing press, the Internet has democratized information to a greater extent than ever (ever) before; it’s our technology, and if we can learn to control it, maybe that 19th-century confidence can overwhelm the cynicism.

Just mess around with Python for a couple hours.  It’s painless; I promise.

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