Vexing Ironies

What does it say about us when we use a technology to critique the same technology?

December 17, 2017Filed under Tech#ethicsMarkdown source

One of the most vexing problems in thinking and responding well to problems of ethics in information technology specifically is the way that so much of thinking and responding about information technology takes place within the context of, well, information technology. Two examples of that challenge caught my attention this evening, ironies I noticed in reading the very same article.

In “How smartphones hijack our minds”, Nick Carr explores much of the evidence for ways that use of smartphones can have seriously negative effects on our thinking in ways that are both pernicious (because we usually do not notice them consciously) and pervasive (in that they happen simply by dint of the presence of the devices). It’s a good article, and I commend it you as a helpful summary of a lot of the most current research on attention, smartphones, and the like; you should read it and think about how you use your phone.1

But the first irony was that I read that article… on my smartphone. As indeed I read many of Nick Carr’s articles. There’s something more than a little odd about considering the use of a smartphone by way of reading an article on a smartphone. But in a very real sense, there’s almost no way I could have read Carr’s article otherwise.

And accordingly, the second irony is that, although Carr, who has staked out a position as a popular-level writer tackling issues of how modern information technology affects us, certainly is published in hard copy, everything of his I’ve ever read has been in digital form. Indeed, although his books are important in their own ways, I think it’s fair to say that most people’s interaction with his ideas, including his critiques of the ways we use and indeed rely on the internet, have all happened via and only because of the internet.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of these observations. I don’t fault Carr for publishing a blog, exactly; and though I am increasingly chastened about my own at-times-unwise use of a smartphone, I don’t fault myself for having an RSS reader there. (Better than that a Twitter app, to be sure!) But there is something at a minimum odd and perhaps even something off about the ways that we tend to use the very tools we are critiquing as the medium for advancing our critiques. We implicate ourselves.

But what is the alternative? On the one hand Carr’s message—which is important!—has likely been heard and even internalized by a far broader audience because he has transmitted it digitally than it would have been had he conscientiously limited it to books (and perhaps print media articles). The efficacy of the medium for distribution is the internet’s greatest strength. Likewise, I would never have run into Carr’s writing in the first place apart from articles in my RSS feed which linked it; and I do a great deal of my RSS feed reading on my iPhone and iPad, both of which are much better reading environments than a laptop or a desktop computer. Indeed, much of what I find most helpful in my reading on technology and ethics I find my way to via articles in my RSS feed, and I often items for reading later by simply tapping a an interesting-looking link in an article I’m reading in that RSS feed.

What do we make of this tension, these ironies? Especially when our concerns begin to rise to the level not merely of prudential judgments (though that level alone is perhaps sufficient reason to do more than we let ourselves) but deep ethical worries—do we abandon the smartphone altogether, cease blogging for fear of how it only contributes to the Google-ified and Facebook-ified age we live in?

I don’t know.

  1. One of my concerns in my ongoing project is to prompt people around me—friends and family, but perhaps also blog readers!—to consider how our use of technology forms us. More on that in a future post.