MEME 4.02

In this issue of MEME:


Over the past few months, I participated in the creation of a set of principles called "technorealism." It's a set of declarations meant to go beyond the bi-polar visions of cyber-utopianism and neo-Luddism. In another age, this would be considered a manifesto.

Now it is an open letter, a document which, through the Internet, takes on a fluid, dynamic form. Literally anyone can sign it, pass it on, and participate. Instructions on how to do this appear at the end of this message. If you like what you read, I urge you to forward it, to friends, colleagues, and other lists where appropriate.

Without further delay, let me introduce you to Technorealism.

David S. Bennahum, New York City, March 11, 1998.

In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to maintain our bearings. The developments that unfold each day in communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? Should we welcome or fear them?

The answer is both. Technology is making life more convenient and enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. But it is also affecting work, family, and the economy in unpredictable ways, introducing new forms of tension and distraction, and posing new threats to the cohesion of our physical communities.

Despite the complicated and often contradictory implications of technology, the conventional wisdom is woefully simplistic. Pundits, politicians, and self-appointed visionaries do us a disservice when they try to reduce these complexities to breathless tales of either high-tech doom or cyber-elation. Such polarized thinking leads to dashed hopes and unnecessary anxiety, and prevents us from understanding our own culture.

Over the past few years, even as the debate over technology has been dominated by the louder voices at the extremes, a new, more balanced consensus has quietly taken shape. This document seeks to articulate some of the shared beliefs behind that consensus, which we have come to call technorealism.

Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and appropriate use.

As technorealists, we seek to expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism. We are technology "critics" in the same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art critics, or literary critics. We can be passionately optimistic about some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others. Still, our goal is neither to champion nor dismiss technology, but rather to understand it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values.

Below are some evolving basic principles that help explain technorealism.



1. Technologies are not neutral.
A great misconception of our time is the idea that technologies are completely free of bias -- that because they are inanimate artifacts, they don't promote certain kinds of behaviors over others. In truth, technologies come loaded with both intended and unintended social, political, and economic leanings. Every tool provides its users with a particular manner of seeing the world and specific ways of interacting with others. It is important for each of us to consider the biases of various technologies and to seek out those that reflect our values and aspirations.

2. The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian.
The Net is an extraordinary communications tool that provides a range of new opportunities for people, communities, businesses, and government. Yet as cyberspace becomes more populated, it increasingly resembles society at large, in all its complexity. For every empowering or enlightening aspect of the wired life, there will also be dimensions that are malicious, perverse, or rather ordinary.

3. Government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier.
Contrary to some claims, cyberspace is not formally a place or jurisdiction separate from Earth. While governments should respect the rules and customs that have arisen in cyberspace, and should not stifle this new world with inefficient regulation or censorship, it is foolish to say that the public has no sovereignty over what an errant citizen or fraudulent corporation does online. As the representative of the people and the guardian of democratic values, the state has the right and responsibility to help integrate cyberspace and conventional society.

Technology standards and privacy issues, for example, are too important to be entrusted to the marketplace alone. Competing software firms have little interest in preserving the open standards that are essential to a fully functioning interactive network. Markets encourage innovation, but they do not necessarily insure the public interest.

4. Information is not knowledge.
All around us, information is moving faster and becoming cheaper to acquire, and the benefits are manifest. That said, the proliferation of data is also a serious challenge, requiring new measures of human discipline and skepticism. We must not confuse the thrill of acquiring or distributing information quickly with the more daunting task of converting it into knowledge and wisdom. Regardless of how advanced our computers become, we should never use them as a substitute for our own basic cognitive skills of awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment.

5. Wiring the schools will not save them.
The problems with America's public schools -- disparate funding, social promotion, bloated class size, crumbling infrastructure, lack of standards -- have almost nothing to do with technology. Consequently, no amount of technology will lead to the educational revolution prophesied by President Clinton and others. The art of teaching cannot be replicated by computers, the Net, or by "distance learning." These tools can, of course, augment an already high-quality educational experience. But to rely on them as any sort of panacea would be a costly mistake.

6. Information wants to be protected.
It's true that cyberspace and other recent developments are challenging our copyright laws and frameworks for protecting intellectual property. The answer, though, is not to scrap existing statutes and principles. Instead, we must update old laws and interpretations so that information receives roughly the same protection it did in the context of old media. The goal is the same: to give authors sufficient control over their work so that they have an incentive to create, while maintaining the right of the public to make fair use of that information. In neither context does information want "to be free." Rather, it needs to be protected.

7. The public owns the airwaves; the public should benefit from their use.
The recent digital spectrum giveaway to broadcasters underscores the corrupt and inefficient misuse of public resources in the arena of technology. The citizenry should benefit and profit from the use of public frequencies, and should retain a portion of the spectrum for educational, cultural, and public access uses. We should demand more for private use of public property.

8. Understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship.
In a world driven by the flow of information, the interfaces -- and the underlying code -- that make information visible are becoming enormously powerful social forces. Understanding their strengths and limitations, and even participating in the creation of better tools, should be an important part of being an involved citizen. These tools affect our lives as much as laws do, and we should subject them to a similar democratic scrutiny.

Signed (in alphabetical order),

DAVID S. BENNAHUM, New York, New York
Editor, Meme
Contributing Editor, Wired, Lingua Franca, I.D., and Spin magazines

BROOKE SHELBY BIGGS, San Francisco, California
Columnist, San Francisco Bay Guardian online
Columnist, CMP's NetInsider

PAULINA BORSOOK, San Francisco, California
Author, "Cyberselfish: Technolibertarianism and the True Revenge of the Nerds" (forthcoming from Broadway books)

MARISA BOWE, New York, New York
Editor-in-Chief, Word
Former Conference Manager, ECHO

SIMSON GARFINKEL, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
Contributing Writer, Wired
Columnist, The Boston Globe

STEVEN JOHNSON, New York, New York
Author, "Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate"
Editor-In-Chief, FEED

Author, "Cyberia," "Media Virus," "Playing the Future," and "Ecstasy Club."
Columnist, New York Times Syndicate, Time Digital

ANDREW L. SHAPIRO, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fellow, Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Contributing Editor, The Nation

DAVID SHENK, Brooklyn, New York
Author, "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut"
Commentator, National Public Radio

STEVE SILBERMAN, San Francisco, California
Senior Culture Writer, Wired News

MARK STAHLMAN, New York, New York
Author, "The Battle for Cyberspace" (forthcoming)
Co-founder, New York New Media Association

STEFANIE SYMAN, New York, New York
Executive editor and co-founder, FEED

Technorealism is by no means an exclusive club, but rather an attempt to spread what we think are powerful and important ideas. To that end, we are inviting anyone and everyone who agrees with this document to sign their own names to it by filling out this simple form.

BROWSE an index of like-minded books, articles and essays.

COMING ON THURSDAY, MARCH 12: A FEED discussion of technorealism.

COMING ON THURSDAY, MARCH 19: A conference on technorealism at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.


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