Not So Fast

Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology

By Doug Hill, University of Georgia Press, 2016. 221 pp.

Doug Hill is a journalist and independent scholar who has studied the history and philosophy of technology for more than 25 years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Atlantic, Salon, Forbes, Esquire, and his blog “The Question Concerning Technology.” Over the past 50 years, I must have read more than 100 books on technology and its impacts on individuals, organizations, communities, businesses, schools, nations, and the world. Jacques Ellul, Albert Borgmann, Langdon Winner, Carl Mitcham, and many others have probed the technological depths — or the specifics of various technological domains or problems — but we always need helpful introductions that are comprehensive in scope, deeply researched, and written in an accessible, illuminating style. The late Neil Postman did this in his Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992). And now Doug Hill’s Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology (2016) will serve well as today’s essential introduction to the subject. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

We all experience how pervasive are today’s technological devices. There is no escape. Communication media, transportation, entertainment, manufacturing, robotics . . . we are totally surrounded, invaded, dominated. Much of this is welcome and positive of course. My wife’s hip and shoulder replacements are incredible gifts. I value Facebook for helping me stay in touch with over a thousand of my former students and colleagues from across the globe. But Doug Hill steps back and helps us see the shape and nature of “forest” when often we only see the “trees” and not the overall pattern, linkages, and commonalities. His discussion proceeds in five stages.

In Part One, Hill shows how technological optimism and technological concern (sometimes fear, resistance, criticism) have long coexisted. Today’s technological optimists, evangelists, and dreamers like Ray Kurzweil, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Nicholas Negroponte represent a tradition going back through Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor, Francis Bacon, and some of the ancients. And all along there have been critics, questioners, and prophets from Theodore Roszak and Wendell Berry to Heidegger, Thoreau, the Luddites, and many classical thinkers and commentators. “Ambivalence” is an appropriate term for recognizing that technology has its positive, upside —but comes with downside trade-offs, hidden costs, unpredictable consequences, and cumulative effects. Getting some long-term historical perspective on technology is really essential for both creators and users.

In Part Two, Hill asks what exactly is “technology?” It is not just “applied science.” It is not just machines, tools, and devices. Not just IT. A “narrow, internalist” definition focuses on things, objects, hardware, and engineering stuff. The “broad, externalist” school views not just all of that but also the “users and the broader social and political contexts in which they’re used” (p. 49). For Jacques Ellul, perhaps Hill’s favorite philosopher of technology, it is about “technique” — the broad system and milieu driven by the search for effective, efficient “means.” It is not just about tools but about a method (rational, scientific, quantitative) approaching all of life. Science itself, today, depends on (not precedes) technology for its means and achievements. Hill argues that the basic “nature” of technology is to be expansive, rational, direct, aggressive, controlling, and linked or converging with other technologies. Traditional moral values “good” and “evil/bad” are replaced by “success” and “failure” in the technological milieu.

We could add “speed,” “predictability,” “replicability,” and “power” to that list of core technological values. Technology today is not quite “fate” or deterministic but it moves ahead autonomously, with little or no human or moral resistance apparent. Technological problems require and lead to further technological responses; more and “better” technology. A major challenge we face today is to be so absorbed in (and overwhelmed by) all of our particular technologies that we fail to see the whole. We take for granted the atmosphere in which we live and breathe. Hill quotes the old joke about a fish being asked “how’s the water?” — and replying “what’s water?”

In Part Three, Hill explores human relations in an era of technology. Rather than toward quality (a combination of caring and attention) our technology inclines us toward distraction and disengagement. This affects our human interrelationships but also our relationship to our machines and to our work (including the loss of craftsmanship, participation, and attention, alongside huge productivity gains). Another characteristic is absorption — excessive focus, even addiction, to our technologies. Hill worries also that we are being drawn into a dreamworld of virtual reality that blinds us to flesh-and-blood reality. The borders between reality and technological fantasy are increasingly blurred. How does such a citizenry make good political choices? Finally, Hill warns us about the tendency toward abstraction — distance from the subjects, products, and impacts of our actions. Medical machines and instruments can provide amazing assistance to doctors and nurses, but they can also create distance. The doctor knows the test results but not the actual patient. Distant targets of drone warfare are abstractions, easier to kill thoughtlessly. How does technology in its various forms affect the way I relate to my colleagues, friends, and loved ones? How does it affect my work, play, and rest? These fundamental questions must be faced and discussed and Hill’s book is a provocative, thoughtful opening statement for such reflection and discussion.

In Part Four, Hill discusses the ways technology crosses traditional boundaries between humans and machines and between humans and animals. There is no doubt that environments affect and modify humans. The food we eat modifies us. Exercise modifies our muscles and organs. Prostheses can improve our lives. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010) shows how our brain physiology and chemistry is modified by information technology. Some of the technological impact on humans is intentional, some unintentional. The technological dreamers like Ray Kurzweil dream of intentionally, radically merging humans and machines. Do we just watch passively as these efforts and experiments proceed? So, too, the boundaries between humans and animals have been crossed, but are there limits or guidelines?

Finally, in Part Five, Hill cautions about leaving our future to risk-taking gamblers. He recalls how high profile technology leaders Norbert Wiener and Bill Joy came to have second thoughts and express great caution about the vast destructive potential of advanced technology. Every technological development entails risk as it amplifies effects and links together with other technologies. We, the public, are the guinea pigs impacted by these risks. Shouldn’t we have some say about experiments that could have catastrophic impacts on our lives? Techie hubris, even arrogance, combined with (1) a desire for career power, wealth, and fame, (2) a general lack of broad education in history and the humanities, and (3) an absence of real membership in responsible, accountable human community beyond the tech world leads to risk on a catastrophic scale.

In conclusion, Hill asks not for a rejection of technology but for appropriate restraint and caution. He also asks for some reconsideration of our purposes and ends in life, not just as individuals but as professions, as societies and nations. What are the “Ends” we wish to pursue and achieve in light of which our technological research and development must be judged. As Ellul often said, our technological “means” have taken over and become the “End.” They are uncritically accepted and self-justifying. Thoreau warned that we could become “tools of our tools.” Hill’s book title means everything in this argument: “not so fast”! Yes, let’s keep moving; there are many positive achievements and promises of more. But slow down and take seriously some “second thoughts” and opinions as we proceed. The stakes are too high not to do so.

Not So Fast is a joy to read because it is such beautiful writing — but I don’t just mean beautiful as literary artifice. It is a content-rich, page-turner, drawing readers forward in a life-enhancing “thought experiment”: What if we looked at our various technologies that have changed our lives (so positively in many cases — and so frustratingly and aggravatingly in others) as a whole ensemble? What if we tried to see what all these technologies have in common and how they join together as a system with a kind of philosophy and set of common values? What if we dipped back into history to see the origin and development of our technological world and could hear from the past and the present, from those who loved and promoted technology and from those who resisted, worried, and cautioned about it?

Hill pulls it off and walks us through this thought experiment. He doesn’t go down every byway possible. For me, two additional questions are (1) how might faith traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism provide constructive guidance and community leverage vis-a-vis technology, and (2) how best can we prepare for a rapidly-arriving world of automated joblessness, the vastly increased wealth disparities that come with it, and the personal and social chaos of a world without (adequate) work?

But this is asking too much of Hill’s already abundant argument. Get it, read it, then form a book discussion group around it. Make it an assigned reading in your courses. Not So Fast was published by a smaller academic press and could be overlooked so let’s get the word out to our networks.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

David Gill, PhD, is an ethics writer and consultant based in Oakland, California. He recently retired from a 40-year career as professor of ethics in business school and theological seminary graduate programs. He was co-founder with Al Erisman of Ethix magazine and is currently co-authoring a book on technology with Al. This review is also being published in The Ellul Forum 60 (Fall 2017): 19–20.