Taking a stand on technology

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, March 2001

Here in SuperNatural BC, we like to believe that in our connection to the mountains and the shore. At least in the big city, we tend to support what we see as the good work done by environmental organizations from Greenpeace (which originated here in Vancouver over 30 years ago) to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

At the same time, we're a proudly high-tech city. While lacking a local Microsoft, we've got a growing number of technology companies. We've got a high rate of computer ownership and Internet use, with growing numbers of subscribers for broadband connections like cable and ADSL. Most of us see technology and environmental awareness as perfectly compatible.

So what's going on when nonprofits like the Rainforest Action Network (www.ran.org) pays for advertising space in the New York Times to attack the Internet and oppose computers in our schools?

The ads, last fall, were actually placed by the Turning Point Project (www.turnpoint.org), a coalition of about 80 socially-minded nonprofits. They want to open a debate about what they refer to as 'technomania', the idea that technological progress is by definition always good, that change has to embraced without question.

They have been aided in this mission by the Public Media Center (www.publicmediacenter.org), a nonprofit ad agency, whose president Herb Chao says there's a need to counter "ideas that are simply disguised propaganda for certain economic interests".

Obviously, not everyone agrees. They've been attacked as neo-luddites, with a knee-jerk opposition to technology. Libertarian and open-source software spokesperson Eric Raymond dismisses the Turning Point ads as coming from "the spoiled rich children of all ages, confident that they and only they know the right way to live and that all change not under their political control is bad".

Don't count on governments to want to debate the direction of new technologies. During the recent campaigns both in Canada and the US, the only discussion was about which party would do more to foster high-tech growth. Locally, we got to see Jean Chretien showing how he could get down after-hours in the pub with Yaletown tech startup employees.

Turning Point is coalition between groups ranging from environmentalist Rainforest Action Network to the media watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. RAN president Randy Hayes sees a connection between environmental action and technology: "You really can't save the rain forests unless you deal with the big picture".

The result has been a US$1 million ad campaign, placing a series of five ads covering topics ranging from genetic engineering to big-business farming to globalization. And then there was the one titled "The Internet and the Illusion of Empowerment". It suggests that it is a myth that access to the Internet somehow makes us all equal, that my personal webpage somehow gives me the cloat of a media conglomerate like AOL-Time-Warner. The ad suggests that the global network aids big business more than the rest of us.

Certainly, new technologies have down-sides, often not recognized until much later. At the beginning of the 20th century, media pundits welcomed the new technology of the automobile which, they claimed would make our cities safer, with fewer runaway horse accidents, and cleaner, with less horse droppings.

Jerry Mander, who wrote much of the ad copy and is the author of "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" suggests that "technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent". He points out that the US government used to fund an Office of Technology Assessment, mandated to report to Congress on the effects of new technologies. Mid-90s budget cutting chopped it away, leaving no one to critically examine technological change.

The ads suggest technology companies of promoting technology as always positive and the answer to all the world's problems. An ad titled "Techno-Utopianism" suggests: "Descriptions of new technologies are invariably optimistic, even utopian. That's because most technology news originates from corporations who profit from it." While claiming to open debate, the ads have been as uncompromisingly negative, comparing companies promoting computers in schools to drug dealers hooking young customers with free drugs.

As a teacher, working with young people and computers, this hits me where I live. Clearly, computers in the schools are not the answer to all the problems in education. Clearly schools need textbooks and libraries and not just computer labs. But equally clearly, computers and Internet access have an important place in today's schools.

But the Turning Point ads are right. We need to discuss and debate the direction of technological change, and not blindly rush into an overly-hyped future. Perhaps the recent downturn in computer sales along with the 'adjustment' of dot.com stock prices are signs that this is happening.

Turning Point organizers say their ads have had an impact. They claim tens of thousands of responses, letters, phone calls, and yes, even e-mail. For despite the ads, these critics of technology all have their own websites.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan