So Technology Changes the World? What World?

The pleasures and challenges of capturing -- accurately -- technology's impact on our lives

Humans interacting with fire technology, which has dramatically reshaped the world (Campfire at Turtle Creek, 1936, courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr)

It is the prerogative of curious people to attempt to make sense of the world around us. What is different today than it was before? In what direction are things moving and what is driving that change?

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It is all too easy to finger technology as that driving force, perhaps because it is the most visible of all the forces that do shape our society  -- ideas, leaders, institutions, laws, the economy, happenstance.

Today, writing in The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs has a delightful little rant of a piece, taking issue with claims such as "Technology is shifting our way of seeing the world" or "The internet really has changed the world completely." Jacobs writes:

Pray tell, what is "the world"? Seriously, I want to know what people mean by this. If "the world" has been changed completely, why does the silver maple outside my window still stand as it has for decades? Why is the gazpacho at Emilio's as good as it was when I first tasted it, twenty-five years ago? Why does the prose of Sir Thomas Browne still delight me as it did when I first encountered it at age nineteen? Why do I still love my wife?

If you answer, "Well, that's not what they mean by 'the world,'" I counter, "Then what do they mean? Because all those things I just mentioned are in the only world that I know."

And if it's "technology" that is changing everything, which technology is that? Drugs that treat AIDS? Unmanned bomber drones? Sous vide machines?

Oh, it's none of those? It's "the internet"? That seems like an abstraction about as vague as "the world," given that "the internet" allows people to find out how those AIDS drugs work, to purchase sous vide machines, and to manipulate drones remotely.

This isn't to say that technology changes nothing, a caricature so foolhardy it cannot be taken seriously. But homing in on what changes as technology advances, weeding out what doesn't, and describing -- accurately -- how technology interacts with all the other forces that shape society, that's a project requiring a level of precision impossible to achieve with terms as broad as "the world" and "the Internet."

Jacobs's prescription, which I whole-heartedly agree with, is to bear down on the specific examples, to examine -- closely, rigorously -- actual cases of technology use (and let's construe that to mean more than consumer electronics, because, as Alexis has written here, it's technology all the way down) and to try to understand, writ small, what a given technology enables and what it prevents. With case study after case study, we can fill in a picture of what the world (without quotes this time) looks like.