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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.


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 to hide realities not shared: "sense of community" and "shared decision making." Two common methods of manipulation in business: Bad statistics and "dramatized information." Regression to the mean is rampant in management junk science.

The promoters of technology, asserts Stivers, turn the world into a big play land, then personal relationships go to hell. Family members, research indicates, are not deeply involved with each other, until one member becomes a pain. Relationships are shallow and passionless. Deep convictions, and the reasons behind them, are seldom 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.

Media turned issues into barrages of melodramas-of-the-minute. Visual and aural "noise" produce mediocre minds, helping us avoid 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 seldom considered moral problems, mostly political or scientific.

This work features the murky, rambling humanities professor writing style, 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 many are unsupported. Technology as Magic is a feel-bad book of the month, but is worth reading. It has dozens of complex, original, first-rate ideas.

book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 21, 2009


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