I picked this treatise on how far off our predictions about the consequences of technology are on a recommendation while reading danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, and I found it echoing some of the conversations I remember having as a programmer in the mid-80s. We kept hearing about the joy of what would soon come to be, the paperless office. Meanwhile, my fellow coders and I were surrounded by stacks of what felt like four foot by eight foot greenbar paper, searching endlessly for flaws in our code.
I once searched three days for a missing period. It was on a COBOL read statement, for the old-timers in the crowd.
So I understand where this work comes from – aside from a corporate desire to spend less money on paper – and why Sellen and Harper carefully document (they were Microsoft employees when they wrote this in 2002) just how far off that prediction was. They don’t make grand predictions at the end of the book about the implications for this sort of imprecise prediction (they work for a living after all, and aren’t academics), but at the time they wanted to reassure their comrades that despite all this paper things were actually moving in the direction we thought they were.
The reassurances they offer feel sort of off in a world that fifteen years later is actually moving much more quickly to a paperless environment.
My temptation, of course, is to argue that both their original research *and* the reassurances they give are symptoms of a larger disease – our failure to understand the implications of all this technology that we develop. I might note that, in fact, their reasons for writing this book speak to the inherent fragility of our understanding of technological development, our desire to constantly put linear markers and timelines on it when in fact technological development is not moving in any sort of well thought out path, that there are no wizards in the booth driving the process. The fact that they both document their findings (for instance, office usage of email increases paper consumption by about forty percent) and write a calming missive at the end of the book makes clear that they occupy a world in which technology is developing as it should, whether or not we mere peons understand that movement. The subsequent reduction in the use of paper simply points to what in the linear-technological-development movement might look like a fix of a glitch.
I might simply counter that once again we do not understand the implications of our use of technology, that Postman and his comrades are right, and that amusing ourselves to death is perhaps the best we can expect. This conclusion isn’t wrong, I think.
What my counter-argument misses, though, is the ways in which people actively wrestle with the implications and consequences of technology by engaging in this culture. I’m very tired of the headlong rush to celebrate Maker Culture, but the offshoots of that movement (the indie version!) are way more interesting than the standard doom and gloom about what technology is *doing* to us. Yes, Maker Culture fetishizes the alpha male tech culture lampooned in Silicon Valley and made terrifying in The Circle (and a bunch of other novels – Eggers owes a huge debt to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling among others), but when I read stories like this I realize that there are folks who are dancing along those margins of maneuverability that Andrew Feenberg identified, refusing to be cowed by the enormity of the machine, corporate, personal, and ideological.