I wrote this at the end of last year as my final column for BBC Future, aiming to make 2014 a year for longer essays and projects (and paying attention to my young son). It’s a reflection on a couple of years of fortnightly writing about technology, ideas, and tech’s larger place in our sense of the world.
Lecturing in late 1968, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks addressed one of the central failures of technocratic dreams. We have always hoped, Sacks argued, that “if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed.” Instead, though, even our best and brightest devices must be accommodated within existing practices and assumptions in a “world that has whatever organisation it already has.”
As an example, Sacks considered the telephone. Introduced into American homes during the last quarter of the 19th Century, instantaneous conversation across hundreds or even thousands of miles seemed close to a miracle. For Scientific American, editorializing in 1880, this heralded “nothing less than a new organization of society — a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community, to the saving of no end of social and business complications…”
Yet the story that unfolded was not so much “a new organization of society” as the pouring of existing human behaviour into fresh moulds: our goodness, hope and charity; our greed, pride and lust. New technology didn’t bring an overnight revolution. Instead, there was strenuous effort to fit novelty into existing norms. Continue reading