Technophile / Technophobe

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 24, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

After a few drinks, I've been known to hold forth on my theory that humans have evolved to be a mixture of 20% technophiles and 80% technophobes. The technophiles, of course, are needed for progress. But experimenting can be chancy (Gurk! So that mushroom is poisonous!), so the technophobes are needed, too, to keep the species going in the face of disaster.

I suspect that free software is unusual in being a community of technophiles. After all, the cautious are likely to stick with what the majority are using, and avoid what is rapidly evolving. However, I often suspect that a dash of technophobic caution would be as much a benefit to free software as to the human species.

The limits of technophilism
Free software seems especially prone to technophilia because of its history. Two decades ago, each upgrade meant that GNU/Linux was that much closer to being a match for Windows or MacOS. Often, an upgrade meant not only new bug fixes, but new features. And, since upgrades were free for the download, why not install them as fast as they came along? They were handy, and often came so quickly that they seemed proof of the operating system's ultimate superiority over its proprietary rivals.

These attitudes have helped free software to develop quickly, and to make the most of often limited resources. However, they come with a price. User testing, the department of second thoughts in many companies, is still generally under-represented in free software. So is the caution of system administrators, who generally hold back an upgrade or two in the name of continuous uptime.

Instead, the idea that newest is best has become the unquestioned given. Even today, when many basic apps are mature and the approximate equals of their proprietary counterparts, many reviews mention prominently the exact point release -- never mind that, increasingly, the improvements in each release are invisible to the majority of users.

These are the attitudes that make many users reject Debian. They make jokes about the long intervals between Debian general releases, placing no value on quality packaging, testing, or anything else that takes time. Having the latest version number for their apps is more important, even if very few know the differences between the last few releases, or remember them two weeks after installation if they do. Instead, they condemn it with the worst words in their vocabulary: Debian, they claim, doesn't innovate.

When worldviews collide
In fact, the extreme technophiles in the community often sound like laissez-faire capitalists talking about the invisible hand that governs the marketplace, or Marxists talking about historical inevitability.

Recently, for example, I saw a discussion on Facebook about the inevitability of Google Glass. Society may as well get use to the loss of privacy, the extreme technophiles insisted, because once a technology existed, there was nothing to do except accept it. They sounded almost mystical in their assurance.

However, like any unexamined assumption, undiluted technophilia of this sort deserves questioning. Japan successfully outlawed gunpowder for several centuries, although it eventually succumbed.

Similarly, one of the more curious developments in my lifetime has been the change from the ubiquitous reek of tobacco in public to a culture in which non-smokers can go for days without encountering a whiff of it. Yet I remember when people said with the same assurance as the technophiles that no one could hope to legislate smoking in public.

Even when technophobic impulses fail, the fact that they were expressed can mean that new technologies are used in a more humane or socially useful way.

For instance, think of the Luddites, whose name has become synonymous with ant-technological impulses. They were workers who objected to technological improvements that put some of their number out of work. The improvements had too many economic advantages to be resisted, so the Luddites are popularly dismissed as some of history's big losers.

However, the Luddites' protests helped create the demand for the series of reform bills in nineteenth century England. They also led to trade unionism, which one hundred and fifty years later, created the highest standards of living in recorded history.

Or, closer to home, remember Napster, the free music site, around the turn of the millennium? It might be a more interesting world today if free downloads had become the norm, but, given the power of the recording industry, that wasn't likely to happen. So, instead, we got sites like iTunes, with minimal charges for downloads, a compromise with technophobia that was considerably better than nothing, in that it at least let the technology survive.

I'm not arguing in favor of technophobia. If nothing else, new releases provide me with an unending supply of new topics to write about, and I appreciate getting paid to tinker. But I do suggest that neither technophilism nor technophobia is ideal in itself. Like humanity, technology sometimes needs both so that innovations can be implemented more sensibly.

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