What's Wrong With 'X Is Dead'

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Technologies die violent deaths less often than we think.

This is the basic problem with the Chris Anderson-anchored Wired cover story, "The Web is Dead." If you think about technology as a series of waves, each displacing the last, perhaps the rise of mobile apps would lead you to conclude that the browser-based web is a goner.

But the browser-based web is not a goner. It's still experiencing substantial growth -- as BoingBoing's Rob Beschizza showed with his excellent recasting of Wired's data -- and that should be one big clue that the technological worldview that says, "The new inevitably destroys the old," is fundamentally flawed.

My objection is not to the idea that the web could become of relatively lesser importance at some point in the future. That could happen, sure. And maybe magazines will end up making (a big chunk of) their money through closed-system apps instead of on the wild-and-woolly Internet. We don't have much evidence to support that thesis yet, but we know the web is a tough place to do business, so maybe apps will end up being how a very particular kind of content ends up packaged. That would certainly make Conde Nast and Wired (if not Wired.com, where I used to work) happy.

The problem is Anderson's assumption about the way technology works. Serious technology scholars long ago discarded the idea that tech was just a series of increasingly awesomer things that successively displace each other. Australian historian Carroll Pursell, in reviewing Imperial College London professor David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, summarized the academic thinking nicely:

An obsession with 'innovation' leads to a tidy timeline of progress, focusing on iconic machines, but an investigation of 'technology in use' reveals that some 'things' appear, disappear, and reappear...

Edgerton has the same flair for the flashy stat that Anderson does. For example, to illustrate the point that newer and older technologies happily coexist, he notes that the Germans used more horses in World War II than the British did in World War I. More prosaically, some of the electricity for your latest gadget was probably made in a power plant that's decades old. Many ways to bind pieces of paper -- staplers, binders, paper clips, etc -- remain in common usage ("The Paperclip Is Dead!"). World War I pilots used to keep homing pigeons tucked inside their cockpits as communication tools (see above). People piloting drones and helicopters fight wars against people who use machetes and forty-year old Soviet machine guns; all these tools can kill effectively, and they all exist right now together.

But that's not how Anderson presents technology in this article. Instead, technologies rise up and destroy each other. And there's nothing you or I can do to change the course of these wars. This is the nature of technology and capitalism, and there is not much room for individual decisionmaking or social influence in the algorithm.

"This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control," Chris Anderson writes. "A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time."

He mentions that the electric power industry consolidated in this way, but doesn't mention that the US government encouraged and protected the oligopoly as industry fought public power companies tooth and nail. Or that other countries do things differently, and the structure of their power industries [pdf] reflect that. Or that in states like California, smaller independent power producers have been the ones building the plants, thanks to regulatory changes. Or that in the future, it's possible that smaller-scale, lower-carbon energy sources will generate increasing amounts of power.

Later, Anderson writes, "This is the natural path of industrialization: invention, propagation, adoption, control."

I wonder how many historians of technology would agree with him. It sure seems suspiciously like a "tidy timeline of progress," tinged with a little libertarian cynicism. I don't think that scholars represented in journals like Technology and Culture and by Edgerton, Pursell, David Nye, Thomas Hughes, and Erick Schatzberg would agree that these things happen "every time." Too much scholarship has shown that technologies and systems are (messily) shaped by social movements and events and governments, political ideas and freak accidents. The kind of logic that says, "This was all inevitable," is impossible with that data in your hands.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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