Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Should we embrace neophilia?

Thanks to the "futuramb blog", I found a provocative story by Simon Jenkins published today in The Gaurdian. His point is that we often overestimate the advancement of technology. I wrote a brief reaction (inspired by Dale Carrico). It might be relevant to a possible discussion of climate change.

Jenkins' take on technologic "progress" (or its lacking) is clear. But what about social progress? "We watch the future", he writes, "and have stopped watching the present." Insofar as I accept his claim that "we" (whoever "we" are) are making a mistake, I offer another opinion: We watch the technical, and fail to watch the social, the political, and the civil. We watch the technology of the elite, and have ignored that of the marginalized, the impoverished, and the victimized. Jenkins rejects neophilia, but does he also reject the rampant injustice of the "old" and especially of the present? His rhetoric inches treacherously close to reverence for our present material conditions. Yet the material basis of our present civilization is on the brink of failure! Jenkins is welcome to wallow in the nostalgia of primitive, dirty twentieth century technology. But if that sort of discourse gets in the way of demanding a brighter, greener world--one in which renewable energy can power the prosperity of billions, one where digital networks can transform our cultures and economies, and where democracy and human rights can flourish with the help of collaborative communication and institutions--then critical neophilia (or, better yet, a simply progressive attitude) is a sorely needed riposte.

Jenkins grabs our artifacts, holds them before us, and tries (with debatable success) to tell us they haven't changed much and they haven't changed us much. My point is that they obviously haven't changed enough; the moral crisis in which we find ourselves should, indeed, compel us to make cleaner, more humane artifacts. (Of course, as I imagine Jenkins would agree, we should also use the ones we now have more wisely.) My hope is that improving our things--our machines, gizmos, products--will position us to more easily improve our selves and our social lives.

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