Wait a minute. Let’s unpack that for a second. (And, by the way, the entire story about Pichai is worth reading.) It’s the last bit of what Pichai says that stands out to me: “I’ve always been fascinated by this thing, that every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.”
Technology, in the long-run, often seems like an equalizing force—especially when it concerns the distribution of information. Certainly, in the Internet Age, many of us have lived through this sort of shift in dramatic fashion. Twenty-five years ago, publishing was an institutional role; publishers were powerful gatekeepers. But today, many people with access to the Internet can publish whatever they want, whenever they want. (See?)
Except not everyone has Internet access. And more than 1 billion people live in countries where they’re subject to severe censorship. Pichai obviously gets that. The comment I highlighted above is part of a larger reflection from him on Google’s goals to increase Internet access in India, and the extent to which smartphones have leapfrogged personal computers in that country.
It’s understandable, of course, that a Google executive might lack some nuance in his optimism about technology. But Pichai’s comment is characteristic of a persistent narrative among technologists: Technology is unequivocally good for you. Honan’s broader description of Pichai’s communication style seems apt in considering his remark about leveling the playing field: “It all sounds vaguely good, even if it’s not very specific.” Which is also a way you could describe relentless optimism about technology, generally speaking—because there’s real danger in framing technological progress and social progress as mutually inclusive.
“Technology by itself does neither good—which is what the CEO implies in his statement—nor ill,” said Abby Rumsey, the author of When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future. “Technology is a tool, an extension of human will. Tools have only the powers that humans give them. It is an exaggeration to say that printing technology leveled the playing field.”
Consider, for instance, that it wasn’t Gutenberg’s printing press alone—remarkable though it was—that made books available to the masses; but the eventual production of books made from cheap paper and wood pulp in the 19th century. (And that occurred in tandem with, as Rumsey pointed out to me, the development of technologically enhanced distribution systems like railroads.)
“Before that, books were made from rag paper and assembled in an essentially artisanal mode,” Rumsey said. “That said, it was only in certain places that rates of literacy changed even when books got cheaper. In parts of the U.S., even where books were abundant, like the South, it was illegal for slaves to possess or read a book.”