What's Wrong With 'X Is Dead'

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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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.

Here's David Nye in his book Technology Matters:

From the vantage point of the present, it may seem that technologies are deterministic. But this view is incorrect, no matter how plausible it may seem. Cultures select and shape technologies, not the other way around, and some societies have rejected or ignored even the gun or the wheel. For millennia, technology has been an essential part of the framework for imagining and moving into the future, but the specific technologies chosen have varied. As the variety of human cultures attests, there have always been multiple possibilities, and there seems no reason to accept a single vision of the future.

In the details of the history, we see all the possibilities for other futures. We see the dead-ends and the false predictions, all the "inevitabilities" that never came to pass. We see the variety of systems that have existed in different places and similar ones that have existed at different times.

This is the fundamental value of having a historical sense about technology. It leads you away from making grand sweeping statements about how things must go. In July's Technology and Culture, Leo Marx traced the rise of the word 'technology,' as a way of understanding what technology has come to mean in modern society. He pinpoints exactly what makes the Andersonian worldview so compelling -- and so fraught with peril. 

We have made [technology] an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a--if not the--primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society.

If something is inevitable, if technologies want things, if destruction must occur, then there is no use in trying to preserve the things about our lives that we love. Technology (capital T) is just going to bulldoze them, no matter what.

"The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world," Anderson concludes. "Now they're doing what industrialists do best -- finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we're loving it."

But what if you don't? What if you love the open, appless web? Too bad! You're on the wrong side of the future, buddy.
 
But there is no such thing. We collectively choose the world that we want, not just as consumers, but as people who have and promote ideas.

And the great irony is that with this article, Anderson has done a masterful job of showing  exactly how and why human beings try to shape the technological narrative of their worlds. We make arguments for personal and intellectual reasons based on our experience, desires, and ideological leanings.

Anderson doesn't work on, nor believe in, the economics of content on the web, and so while he's making his case against the web generally, he's also making the specific point that print and tablet editions of Wired make sense, but its website (which he doesn't edit) does not.

That's certainly an argument that can be made, but it's impossible not to notice -- if you worked at Wired.com like I did -- that Anderson's inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn't.


Image: Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/08/whats-wrong-with-x-is-dead/61663/