Technology, Theory, and Education - Interpolations on a Review by Geert Lovink

Via Anne Galloway at Purse Lip Square Jaw I come across some interesting reviews of Utopian Entrepreneur, a book by Brenda Laurel. Anne points to Geert Lovink’s review in particular.

It might be true that, for instance, Derrida is in need of mediation. On the other hand, why is there no self-educated working class reading Deleuze? Why has the ‘educated proletarian’ become such an unlikely, even funny figure? I know this is a weird, untimely consideration. Whereas the world of complicated research in science and technology is overpopulated with eager translators, contemporary theory lacks even basic forms of intermediate journalism. We hear it so often: why do you theorists use such difficult terms? Why can’t you talk like us, normal people? No one dares to say this to geeks or bio-technologists. They are the Gods. Everyone has to decipher their oracles. Psychoanalytic and dialectical jargons have been replaced by programming languages and complex biotech procedures.

My emphasis added above. I haven’t done nearly enough research into the history of informal education, but websites such as this make me think that something has gone missing in today’s world with regard to collective education. Sure the blogosphere is letting us all shout out our own ideas and thoughts but the connection between those thoughts and the physical neighborhoods we all live in are still being determined.

It all leads into a larger critique of education in general. A critique that I’m still grappling with. I’m making vague gestures to a better world that should be out there but I haven’t latched onto yet. It may already be there, a la Gibson’s ‘the future is already here, just not widely distributed.’ Or it may have been here, in different guises and images, in the past.

Intellectuals are the fallen Gods. I am not being nostalgic here. This is not the world of Paris, 1968 anymore. Who cares about Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx, or Hegel? Their once mighty constructs have rapidly become historical information, fading away behind the infotainment event-horizon, interesting for those specialized in hermeneutics and the archeology of knowledge. Theory has withdrawn from society and can only explain to us where we come from. Today’s theory has the tendency to denunciate the new and stress the eternal return of human imperfection. Techno consensus on the other hand will tell us that we should deduct the future, not dig into some dark Euro-centric past. Why miss out? Unless you’re not handicapped by some loser mentality, there is no ‘selfish’ reason to not be part of the corporate global world.

The disappearance of the past is exacerbated by the heroin-like high of the technological new. I love the new as much as anyone. I’m not ready to throw in the towel on my weblog, although there are times when it helps to get away from it all.

I’ve taken breaks on my own weblog here. Like many I was thrilled with the discovery of weblogs back in 2001-2. I started my own in a couple of different places. In 2004-5 I stopped most of my work on my weblog, as can be seen from a look at the archive links. Now I’m back at it again. My emotional connections to the medium come and go. What little social capital I’ve built up in the past feels gone. There are lots of reasons for this, my own reluctance to reach out to people, my sometimes overdeveloped sense of privacy.

What we need is a language and method for people to come into and out of groups.

As soon as you start to reflect on the inner dynamics of Silicon Valley, you seem to be out. Instead of calling for the development of a rich set of conceptual tools for those working ‘inside,’ Laurel reproduces the classic dichotomy: either you’re in (and play the capitalist game), or you’re out (become an academic/artist/activist, complain and criticize as much as you can). There is no sense here of a possible support line of an ‘organic’ virtual intelligentsia (in the Gramscian sense) which could cross borders between in and outside. The implicit anti-intellectualism is widespread amongst Californian New Age- infected fifty somethings. The mutual resentment between those involved in technology and business and the ivory tower humanities on the other hand seems higher then ever.

But technology as a field of endeavor is reluctantly connected to its humanist critics. The two cultures still thrive, from both sides of the aisle.

On the other hand, let’s face it. Postmodern theory and cultural criticism haven’t been very helpful either for Laurel & Company. Doesn’t matter if you take Jameson, Zizek, Butler, Habermas – they all lack basic economic and technological knowledge. As long as they confuse Internet with some offline cybersex art installation, there is not much reason to consult these thinkers. They add little to Laurel’s conceptual challenges in the field of user interface design or the criticism of the male adolescent geek culture. Cult stud armies will occupy the field only if the IT-products have become part of mass culture. This means a ‘delay’ of at least five to ten years.

Theory is running behind the facts. The Gutenbergsche baby boom generation, now in charge of publishing houses, parts of mainstream media, and in leading university positions, share a secret dream that all these new media disappear in the same pace as they arrived. Lacking substance, neither real nor a commodity, new media failed to produce its Rembrandts, Shakespeares, and Hitchcocks. The economic recession followed by the NASDAQ ‘tech wreck’ only further deepens the gap between the forced ‘freshness’ of the techno pop workers and the dark skepticism of the high art establishment.

Lovink published this review in May 2002. So the people waiting for the collapse of new media may have changed their mind, or else shifted their concerns to the creeping tide of blogosphere fascism. There’s still a lot of resistance on the part of those at the center of the media world against those on the periphery.

Laurel is an expert in human computer interface design and computer games and a great advocate of research. ‘The Utopian Researcher’ could have been a better, more precise title. She has some pretty insightful things to say about the decline of corporate research. The speed religion, pushed by venture capitalists and IPO-obsessed CEOs, has all but destroyed long-term fundamental research. “Market research, as it is usually practiced, is problematic for a couple of reasons. Asking people to choose their favorites amongst all the things that already exist doesn’t necessarily support innovation; it maps the territory but may not help you plot a new trajectory” (41). Laurel’s method, like many of her usability colleagues, is to sit down and talk to people, “learning about people with your eyes and mind and heart wide open. Such research does not necessarily require massive resources but it does require a good deal of work and a concerted effort to keep one’s assumptions in check” (84).

The connection between technology and short term gain is complex. A lot of the contemporary finance industry depends on technology to do the work, run the models, figure the risks. When people complain about the short-term time horizon of business they are, in part, complaining about the technology that enables the short-term thinking.

As a result of this industrial research has changed a great deal. I wrote a paper last winter about Bell Labs and the infrastructure that created and fostered it for fifty years. For 50 years, almost exactly in the middle of the last century, from its founding in 1925 to the breakup of AT&T, Bell Labs was the model for business research. And it worked. I don’t know of many other companies that have produced six Noble prize winners.

Laurel is on a mission to change the nature of the computer games industry, away from its exclusive focus on the shoot-‘em-up male adolescent market. She outs herself as a Barbie hater. Fair enough. She wants to get rid of the “great machine of consumerism,” a strategic cause many share. However, this goal hasn’t made much progress over the last twenty odd years – and Laurel will be the first to admit this. Laurel says: read my advice and keep on trying. I would counter this “will to action” and instead call for a break. It is time to stop and take time to go through some fundamental questions. For instance, I would like to call into question the implicit equation between utopian entrepreneurism and the very specific techno-libertarian agenda of the venture capital class.

So it’s time for a critique. Technology will help. It’s already given us a lot of power. The means of creating and distributing information are getting cheaper and more accessible. But access to the media is not enough. We need to widen the critique, take a step back as Lovink suggests, and call into question the utopian nature of entrepreneurial activity. Technology needs something more than a libertarian gloss.

Although Laurel sums up all the problematic aspects of short-term profit driven technology research, she does not propose alternative forms of research, collaboration, and ownership out of a fear to “activate the immune system.” Her fear to be excluded from the higher ranks is a real dilemma, which I don’t want to demise easily. Laurel tactically avoids a critique of the George Gilders, Wired, the Bionomics suits, and others, which Europeans, for better or worse, labeled as the ‘Californian ideology.’ The pillars of the techno-libertarian business agenda don’t seem to exist. Laurel may never have been a true believer, but she’s not saying anything about this once so dominant agenda. And this is where the trouble starts.