Introduction to The Best Technology Writing 2010
By Julian Dibbell
First published in The Best Technology Writing 2010, Yale University Press, September 21, 2010.
Dear reader: You hold in your hands a technology as transformative as any yet invented, and no, I don’t mean the Apple iPad or Amazon Kindle on which you may, for all I know, be reading these words. Nor for that matter do I mean the sort of content-delivery system you’re more likely looking at just now—the traditional ink-and-paper book, its familiar design essentially unchanged since the time of Augustine. No, what I am talking about is a technology to which the book, electronic or otherwise, has always been and always will be merely a peripheral device. I’m talking about writing itself.
Writing has been with us now for so long that we’ve lost the habit of thinking of it as an invention. But in the earliest Western civilizations, not yet fully adjusted to the arrival of the written word, its technological origins and implications were keenly felt and hotly discussed. In ancient Egypt, for example, the discovery of writing was ascribed to the god Theuth, “inventor of many arts”—a sort of hacker deity also credited with geometry and board games, among other ancient forms algorithmic tech. Theuth’s arguments with his fellow god Thamus over the merits of this new invention were the stuff of Egyptian myth. Or so, at any rate, reports the philosopher Socrates, in a famous passage of Plato’s Phaedrus. The passage pits Theuth’s claim that writing can only be a boon to the intelligence of mortals (“This . . . will make [them] wiser and give them better memories”) against Thamus’s retort that, on the contrary, it will only lure its users toward a false and superficial sort of knowledge (“They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”). The debate was evidently a live one among Athenians as well as Egyptians. Socrates himself, who saw text as a lifeless replica of speech and much preferred to philosophize in the interactive real-time of his famous dialogs, made no pretense of neutrality: He was Team Thamus all the way.
We moderns, of course, take it for granted that Socrates picked the losing side of an argument now long since settled. But the terms of that same argument will sound almost uncannily familiar to anyone acquainted with the public conversation currently roiling around the arrival of another, equally disruptive new invention: digital technology. And if it’s no coincidence that that same conversation happens to be where most of the texts selected for The Best Technology Writing 2010 live and breathe, then it’s also no surprise to find the animating spirits of the enthusiastic Theuth and the doubting Thamus woven through their midst. Steven Johnson’s warm, Theuthian appreciation of Twitter’s bite-sized contributions to collective human intelligence is a strong response to the latter-day Thamuses who dismiss as “tiresome company” and worse its millions of tweet-happy users. But often as not, in fact, both sides of the argument can be heard to echo in the same, conflicted text—Sam Anderson’s giddy but troubled survey of the incursions of tech-driven distraction, for example, or Vanessa Grigoriadis’s probing assessment, wistful but wary, of Facebook’s growing role in our personal lives—and these echoes resonate all the more fully for it.
New technologies are often controversial, to be sure, yet in the end what links these two technological watersheds—the invention of writing in ancient times and the invention of digital processing in ours—is something more, and much more meaningful, than their sheer novelty. We forget too easily that the digital signal is not reducible to 1s, 0s, and electrons any more than the written word is reducible to ink, paper, and ABCs. Engineers have been known to build functioning digital computers out of clockwork, water pipes, Tinker Toys, just to show they can. Nor is it only in the case of computers or in the two-bit binary code of modern computing that digital technology, in its strictest definitions, can be found. The telegraph, for example, runs on a trinary digital code, the dot, dash, and space of Morse. Our genes use a quaternary digital system, the A, C, T, and G of genetic code, to program our DNA. There’s even a hexavigesimal digital code—our own twenty-six-symbol variant of the ancient Latin alphabet, which the Romans derived in turn from the quadrivigesimal version used by the ancient Greeks. Or in other words: yes, the very same form of writing that got Socrates’s toga in a twist was already, strictly speaking, a digital technology. And if that’s true, then so is the flipside: the digital coding systems that so excite and trouble today’s tech watchers do so not only because they transcend traditional writing but because they extend it, radically amplifying what was already exciting and troubling about it. In short, the modern debate about the digital doesn’t merely echo the ancient argument about writing: it continues it. And so does The Best Technology Writing 2010.
Whatever else this peculiar affinity between writing and computers may account for, however, it begs a question that has gone unanswered since the creation of this series five years ago: Why should a collection that in name, at least, declares itself to be about technology in the broadest sense remain, year after year, so overwhelmingly focused on the digital in particular?
Of course there are selections in this volume, as in every one before it, that bring news from beyond the digital pale. Steve Silberman’s investigation of the placebo effect in pharmaceutical testing, for example, deals like many a biotech story with consequences arguably more weighty than anything the microchip has wrought. Jill Lepore, writing on the politics of breastfeeding gadgetry, and Burkhard Bilger, tracking efforts to build a better cook stove for the developing world, both contemplate technologies more viscerally important than the iPod to vast swaths of humanity. Tad Friend’s profile of electric-car developer Elon Musk delivers almost the only attempt even indirectly to address what is hands-down the most momentous technological question of our time: How to change our tools and our relationship to them so as to head off environmental catastrophe?
But again, as in every previous year, the nondigital stories are a distinct minority, and if you’re thinking it’s because the present guest editor, like all four of his predecessors, made his career writing largely about digital subjects, you are only partly right. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying that this year’s search committee didn’t find more stories about buildings and food and prosthetics and fuel cells. We beat the bushes, we called in chips, and in the end I can only conclude that the reason we found so much more of the digital stuff is, simply, that there’s so much more of it to be found. As for why that should be so, I suspect the likeliest explanation is an equally obvious one: The digital story just happens to be the best one technology is telling at the moment. Which, again, is not to say the stakes are any lower in the quest for sustainable energy or the reengineering of the human body. It’s just that, for the purpose of grabbing and holding a reader’s attention, the story of digital technology has at least one clear advantage: We identify with its protagonist more closely than with any other technology yet contrived. From the moment the first computers were built right up to the latest attempts to design a more brainlike microchip (explored in Douglas Fox’s illuminating account of “neural supercomputing”), we’ve been wondering where and how to draw the line between digital processing and human thought. Meanwhile the proliferation of digital devices (iPods, smart phones, Web sites, game gear) renders the question increasingly moot, infusing our cognitive, imaginative, and social lives with such a mess of auxiliary tech that we might as well admit we’re all cyborgs now. More than any other technology, the digital is us.
Yet for that very reason, the digital is also something more. As the technology we most intimately relate to, it has become, additionally, a lightning rod for our feelings about technology in general. Whatever else draws us to the digital story, then, what compels us ultimately is that it focuses the more diffuse intensities of what Kevin Kelly, in his own contribution to this volume, calls our technophilia. By this he doesn’t mean the sort of tech-boosting utopianism usually connoted by that phrase—the claims, as old as Theuth, that technology can make us better, smarter, cooler—but something quieter and deeper, beyond ideology or faith or any expectation of a payout. It’s a feeling, Kelly suggests, that’s as rooted in us as our inborn love of nature and as fundamentally a product of our evolution. “Our transformation from smart hominid into Sapiens was midwifed by our tools,” writes Kelly, “and at our human core we harbor an innate affinity for made things. We are embarrassed to admit it, but we love technology. At least sometimes.”
Of course what also needs to be said at this point is that technology doesn’t love us back. Not really. In fact it’s often hardest on those who love it most, sometimes even on those who devote their lives to it, and if you doubt that, consider another awkward reality that year after year haunts this tech-besotted series: technology’s ongoing and very probably fatal assault on the same print-based publishing models—the magazine, the newspaper, and the book—that have made possible not only the Best Technology Writing series but the professional lives of many if not most of its contributors. Every year, some selection or another in these pages has at least alluded to this trend, and this year never mind allusions: New York Times-man David Carr joins us with a full-throated elegy to the dying world of predigital publishing, Daniel Roth reports on an emerging class of digital publishing piecework jobs that makes rag-picking look like a viable alternative, and Clay Shirky’s “Thinking the Unthinkable” delivers the most cogent, bracing argument yet written for the inevitability of the commercial newspaper’s demise.
But the truly awkward part is this: Most technology writers, perhaps especially the professional ones, take genuine solace and even delight in the thought that commercial publishing’s decline makes way for an explosion of passionately amateur online writing, an explosion not just imminent but fully under way. And yet, in each Best Tech Writing collection to date, the guest editor has felt obliged to note, with varying degrees of sheepishness, that most of the writing collected in it still comes from well-established print publications and not from the blogs and tumblrs and other deprofessionalized online forms to which we look for glimpses of publishing’s future. Now it’s my turn. This year, in fact, the awkwardness is starker than ever: Another negligible selection of noncommercial online texts combines with our highest concentration yet of articles from two perennially well-represented publications—Wired and The New Yorker—that happen both to be owned by the same media corporation. Let a hundred flowers bloom, indeed.
How to explain it? As it happens, my predecessor Clive Thompson already did, having pointed out in his introduction to the third collection that it is difficult to transplant the best online writing into print with its bloom still intact. Though much maligned as exercises in solipsism, blogs, for instance, are in fact defined by dialogue more than monologue; embedded in a conversational universe of links and comments, they are closer in many ways to what Socrates imagined to be the heart of true knowledge. As such, they do not sit well on the printed page. They are antsy and want to play, and for the purposes of an anthology like this, that won’t do. When we set out to collect these texts, we knew we were looking for something that knew how to present itself in print, at length and on its own. Print journalism, and especially magazine journalism, tends to succeed in those ways, and it has hit upon certain formulas for that success: a reliance on narrative to engage the reader, an allegiance to the essay as a traditional rhetorical form, an attention to language that is just sufficient to bring the words to life without letting them stand between the reader and the idea. But though we made a point of looking at magazines for sources, we made a point as well of calling for submissions from every type of writing form out there: blogs, forums, comment threads, gadget reviews. We looked everywhere, honest. But you find what you look for, and what we were looking for is still mainly to be found in traditional print media—and perhaps more than ever in the bastions of that tradition upon which the best practitioners of long-form journalism now converge, like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe.
But if it’s true that the newest forms of publishing don’t, as a rule, translate well into print, it’s also true that every rule has its exceptions. And this year, I am pleased to say, the exception comes as close to redeeming the rule as an exception can. This year, we are printing The Best Technology Writing’s first Twitter selection, and for my money it’s the series’ most eloquent encapsulation yet of our contemporary relationship to technology in all its dimensions: This lone tweet sent from the International Space Station by astronaut Mike Massimino leaps from the most intimate of our digital tools (the iPod, Twitter itself) to the most epic of our technological achievements (the domestication of outer space) in the space of 140 characters. And by the time it’s done it proves that even a technology as old and familiar as writing can still take us altogether by surprise.