The feedback cycle that exists between technology and society is an interesting one. I took a Philosophy of Science course in university, and one of our two textbooks discussed the “evolution” of technology and whether it is accurate to say that certain technological innovations are inevitable consequences of previous ones. While I agreed with the book’s author when he dismisses technological development as deterministic, it is so interesting to see how a society’s response to technology drives further development of related technologies. This is a key idea in Technocreep, where Thomas P. Keenan looks at how the fact that digital technology is getting exponentially faster, smaller, and cheaper influences the ways in which we use it.
First off, I love that Keenan is Canadian and that he references a lot of Canadian examples in this book. Although I am accustomed to wading through examples of how something affects the United States, it is refreshing to see the names of Canadian politicians or public servants show up in a book like this. (Don’t worry, Americans, he also mentions the US a couple of times, so you won’t feel too left out!) Keenan himself seems like a good figure to write a book like this: he has extensive computer science experience since back in the 1970s when smaller computers were making the rounds on university campuses. This makes for more “savvy” approach than someone who is more of a journalist and less of a programmer or computer expert might take.
Despite these expert credentials, however, Keenan keeps the book quite accessible. This is the kind of technology book that anyone can read. He doesn’t use many buzzwords, and those he does use, he defines. There are some beefy endnotes too (though no index, sadly), so readers who like further reading will be able to track down all the contemporary references and happenings that he mentions.
To summarize the topics Keenan covers here: he’s basically outlining how advances in hardware and software allow organizations to observe, track, and store data about people more efficiently and cost-effectively. This has many consequences for individuals and for businesses. For us, it means that we have less control over what corporations and governments know about us (this is a dimension of, though not the entirety of, privacy). For businesses, it means there is an economic incentive to collect and act on this data, because if they don’t, they might fall behind. Personalized everything is the logical endpoint of an individualist technocratic capitalism.
Keenan is not serving us up pipe dreams or science fiction, however. He does cite futurists like Kurzweil on occasion (but with an adequate degree of skepticism, I would submit). For the most part, though, each chapter focuses on what organizations can do right now with technology, and what that means they might be able to do in the near future. He delves into the consequences, and points us in the direction of the right questions to ask. For example, if companies like Facebook and Google are developing better and better facial recognition, what does this mean for our privacy? Keenan reminds us that even if these companies promise not to misuse the data (hah), governments could still compel them to turn it over. In the chapter “Physible Creep”, Keenan asks us to consider how 3D printing of illicit objects, such as guns, might alter our society. People have already 3D printed guns—the plans can be found online—and while such items aren’t yet commonplace, 3D printers themselves are more common. Since this book was published, my local library has one! (I suspect they won’t let me print a firearm, thankfully.)
Perhaps my key takeaway from Technocreep is this: the rise of digital makes technology increasingly inscrutable to newcomers and laypeople. In his preface, Keenan mentions the IBM 1620 computer that set him on this journey into computer science. Back in those days, programming and hacking on such devices could be excruciating and unforgivable (or so I understand, never having done it), but the barrier to entry was also fairly low. These days, the “stack” just seems so darn intimidating. Personally, my desire to program and code for the web has never been lower. I’m really disheartened by all the hoops we’re supposed to jump through these days. And now I look at children and teens who might be interested in taking up coding, and I wonder what they will see.
Digital makes our technology opaque to us. If your machine wasn’t working, you used to be able to take it apart. You might be able to fix it yourself, or maybe you knew someone who could fix it on the cheap. These days, DRM means that your car or your tractor can often only be fixed by the manufacturer. If they go out of business? Too bad, guess you need to buy a new vehicle…. The same goes for many of the technologies we use. The nature of software-based innovation means that obsolescence and obscurity are now far more prominent in the devices we use. I’m all for digital technology, of course. But I want to use it while acknowledging the problems and pitfalls it brings.
One word of warning: Technocreep is short, yet it took me way too long to read it. Partly this was the result of a busy week, but it’s also because these short chapters are remarkably involved. And you don’t want to read a lot of them in one sitting. If you do, it feels repetitive, perhaps even soporific. This isn’t so much a problem on Keenan’s end as it is the nature of the book format and the short chapter length. So don’t be deceived by its slim form factor, and set aside the appropriate amount of time to digest this.
Despite being two years old already, Technocreep holds up remarkably well. There are a few contentions or predictions that I find dubious (he describes personalized medicine at a Woodstock of 2019 that I doubt we’ll have by then), but by and large, Keenan discusses issues that remain relevant in 2016, if not more so. It’s hard to believe that Snowden’s leak was already three years ago. Sadly, I don’t think we’ve had the conversation that people like Keenan were hoping we would have in the wake of the revelations from those documents. Maybe reading this book will provoke a few more people to think more deeply about the ways in which digital technology provokes and accelerates change in our society. That change can be good or bad, but it’s up to us to drive that direction.