Archive for March, 2015

A Technologist in Peopleland

March 24, 2015

Out of the mouth of graduate students come the most difficult questions. The Jester was recently asked not once, but several times, “So, what are you going to work on?” What these folks were asking was, “If you don’t think technology offers direct solutions to social problems, but you’re a computer scientist at a School of Information… what are you going to work on?”

That is a question the Jester has wrestled with, and… he’s still wrestling! No victor has yet emerged.

Evgeny Morozov, a jester’s jester and author of To Save the World, Click Here, points out the problem in a recent ruminative essay. In it, he suggests that mainstream technology criticism – including his own – is losing steam. He argues that tech critics “either stick with the empirical project of documenting various sides of American decay” or, they “show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with reality.” Either way, though, what we’re missing is a compelling vision of their own.

Touché and ouch! But, that is really the problem.

For the Jester, the heart of the challenge is this: The Jester grew up in Technologyland, was educated in Technologyland, and is employed by the court of Technologyland. So, what everyone expects of him is Technologyland expertise (if not propaganda). But, the very application of that expertise leads to a Peopleland conclusion: that while technology can amplify human intent and capacity, the critical bits – intent and capacity – are manufactured in Peopleland.

There are various responses a citizen of Technologyland can make to the Peopleland conclusion, the most obvious being for Technologists to collaborate with the right People so as to amplify their impact. But, a less forgiving read of the amplification theory would suggest that in a world already so abundant in Technologyland products (a world which, incidentally, also happily pays for them), why not move to Peopleland and put all of one’s efforts there?

The Jester would love to do this, but one challenge is that without Peopleland citizenship, at best the Jester can visit for a while before his visa expires. It’s possible for Technologists to collaborate with People, but understandably, people in Peopleland don’t care what a Technologist says about their problems any more than Americans care what Russians say about U.S. problems.

So, what to do? For now, the Jester’s solution is to apply for long-term residency in Peopleland. In order to make it through the system, he is collaborating with People, learning more about Peopleland, and engaging in Peopleland projects. (He’s also channeled his alter ego to write about what this means exactly in Part 2 of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, available here on Amazon, here on Barnes & Noble, and starting May 26, not quite here where you can look up your favorite local bookstore; full disclosure: the Jester shares neurons with the author.) He’s also trying the tactic of starting Peopleland projects within Technologyland itself. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do in the interdisciplinary milieu the Jester prefers – but who knows how long before the Technologyland natives grow suspicious?!