The Joys and Fears of Technology at the Boston Book Festival

Two entertaining panels yesterday at the Boston Book Festival: “The Tendencies of Technology,” with Nick Bilton, Kevin Kelly, David Kirkpatrick, and Nicholas Negroponte,  moderated smartly by John Hockenberry;  and “Internet or Not?” with Nicholas Carr, Eric Haseltine, and William Powers, masterfully moderated by Andy McAfee.

The first panel was a diverse convergence of techno-optimists. The second,  a wide range of techno-skeptics/pessimists.

To start with, here are some definitions of technology from Kevin Kelly’s presentation:

“Technology is everything invented after you were born” – Alan Kay

“Technology is anything that doesn’t work now” – Danny Hillis

And Kelly offered this definition: “Anything useful that has been invented by a mind.”

David Kirkpatrick extolled the beautiful mind of Mark Zuckerberg and his useful creation. He argued that Facebook is a positive political and social force, creating an “empowered bottom” all over the world.  Negroponte concurred with stories of his funky laptop changing the lives of children, each laptop loaded with 100 books, creating an instant 10,000-book library in a village with 100 laptops.  He advised people who like the physicality of books to “get over it.” For today’s kids, his audience, it’s already true, as evidenced by the story he told of the three-year old who placed her fingers on a photo print, trying to “expand” it. Indeed, how you experience media, Nick Bilton said, is what will determine its future.  He predicted that books will be free in the future, generating revenues through related experiences (e.g., a discussion with the author) much as popular music today generates revenues mostly through concert performances.

To the members of the other panel, all this seems to be unwarranted giddiness.  Eric Haseltine declared that “your brain is your enemy”; William Powers told us that to keep sane we must open gaps between us and technology; and Nick Carr stated that the Internet encourages a very primitive way of thinking.  Tell this to the other Nick, Negroponte, who told us that the amount of words consumed by kids today is much greater than in the past. Or to the yet other Nick, Bilton, who showed us his high school report cards, full of Cs and Ds and numerous teachers’ comments about his inability to concentrate. For him, being the youngest of the nine panel members and moderators, “me = multitasking.” Our brains adapt, he said, calling the sentiments voiced later by the members of the second panel, “technocondria,” or fear of new technology.

But members of the other panel were not united in their technocondria. Haseltine declared that with crowdsourcing, the Internet creates a larger brain which will be the next step in our evolution. To which Carr retorted: “why should we aspire to be neurons in a global brain?” Powers chimed in, “I don’t see the next War and Peace being created on Twitter,” but Hasletine insisted that “resistance is futile.”

Or maybe not, if we know what to resist. Maybe we should resist the notion that we think with a brain, a machine that may malfunction with too many distractions, that needs an overhaul periodically, or that is simply the enemy. Instead, is it possible that we think, and create, and hopefully make progress, with our mind, which is separate from the underlying brain mechanism, allowing a Zuckerberg to invent and imagine the potential of a Facebook. Not that the mind is not vulnerable and prone to failure. But this has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the society in which we live.

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2 Responses to The Joys and Fears of Technology at the Boston Book Festival

  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    Sounds like a fascinating and mind-expanding day, in both senses of the word “mind.” Small point: I think fear of technology would be technophobia.


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