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Technology as Magic by Richard Stivers

Richard Stivers argues that recent technologies mostly provide wish fulfillment. Many individuals want speed and quantity to distract. Machines deliver that. Unlike Marxism and Social Darwinism, techno-utopianism remains popular. Yet, all three are deterministic, alleging to know the end result of the world.

 

Stivers writes that almost any technological change gets labeled as progress whether it is or is not. In management fist shaking leaders are out. Modern managers manipulate by pretending to be a friend, using slogans--"sense of community" and "shared decision making"--to hide realities not shared. Stivers believes two methods of manipulation are too common in business: Bad statistics and "dramatized information." The placebo and Hawthorne effects are also rampant in management "science," as is regression to the mean.

The promoters of technology, asserts Stivers, turn the world in to a big play land, and personal relationships go to hell. Family members, research indicates, are not deeply involved with each other, until one member becomes a pain in the butt. Relationships are shallow and passionless. Deep convictions, and the reasons behind them, are rarely expressed. Most current conversations consist of superficial chitchat, representing little more than an attempt to relieve psychological pressures.

Some technologies restrict moral freedom and creativity. We require a vigorous symbolic language for freedom and creativity. Machines of distraction, Stivers argues, inhibit vigor and rigor. Most college students never read a serious book after graduation, research hints, and they may not read any while in college. Research suggests serious pursuits are among the first abandoned when time shrinks due to techno-distractions.

In the information society, information arrives free from anxieties, which is not a boon for education. To become educated, Stivers claims that we must struggle with ideas initially beyond our grasps.

He observes two trends in language: An increase in precise technical terms and an increase in vague, emotion inciting non-technical terms. Justice, freedom, equality, and other abstract words become vacuous. They only mean more. The flight to vagueness was assisted by the bombardment of advertisements and public relations propaganda. Individuals often think in slogans and buzzwords rather than in strings of ideas. Jargon spreads because citizens wrap jargon in technological prestige. Jargon creates group feelings among users and has an aura of mysteriousness. But it often hides the truth.

The media turned issues into barrages of melodramas-of-the-minute. Visual and aural noise produces mediocre minds. Noise helps us avoid self-awareness and self-understanding.

Love was redefined to mean providing toys. Duty and affection were downgraded. Stivers thinks children serve vicarious and sentimental purposes. Consumption of images, products, information, and personalities is a norm.

 

Serious conversations about death, immortality, and moral actions are rare. Stivers argues, surprisingly, that pop culture is a collectivistic and individualistic mix. Mental illness and "social problems" have replaced evil. Problems are rarely considered moral problems, only political or scientific.

This work features the murky, rambling humanities-professor-writing-style I abhor, a style that places more emphasis on esthetic criteria than logical criteria. If you do not know what I mean, read back issues of Harpers magazine, especially essays written by Lewis Lapham, though Stivers is no where near as bad as Lapham. Stiver's conclusions come in bunches, and they are not all well-supported. Technology as Magic is not the feel-good book of the year, though worth reading. It has dozens of complex, original, first-rate ideas.

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 21, 2009

 

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