Against Technological Determinism

I do agree that the printing press was ultimately conducive to democracy and better governance. But I do not believe that the advent of printing press technology or any technology makes it inevitable that democracy and better governance will result. Democracy and better governance came about because enough people chose to use the printing press in a manner that led to these outcomes, and because people also fought successfully in enough places against laws and modes of governance that sought to constrain the printing press’s potential.

The Internet in its current form – that is, in a still relatively decentralized open form on which it is still possible to be anonymous if you make a concerted effort and if the NSA has not trained all its resources against you specifically – is indeed conducive to democracy and better governance. But the technical setup of the Internet can change in any number of directions. Its technical architecture and capabilities can be changed in ways that will make it less democracy-conducive than it currently is. Many members of the U.S. defense establishment, not to mention the governments of numerous other countries, are making the case very aggressively for eliminating anonymity, for example. Commercial services that collect inordinate amounts of data about people, making government’s surveillance job easier, aren’t helping either. The promise of technology does in my view not absolve human beings of moral and ethical responsibility.

Near the end of my book I discuss the danger of technological determinism, the assumption that technology will inevitably lead human history in a particular direction:

Technological determinism is as dangerous as historical determinism, the worldview underpinning the philosophies of Marx and Hegel, who believed that history was inevitably and inexorably moving the human race toward a certain endpoint. Marxist revolutionaries believed they were in the vanguard of the historically inevitable. Karl Popper, in Volume Two of The Open Society and Its Enemies, his seminal 1945 defense of liberal democracy, warned that historicism “is in conflict with any religion that teaches the importance of conscience.” Real human progress, he argued, can be achieved only “by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice.”

Certainly we can and should use technology to do precisely that.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.