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cultural technology

After once again booting into the Copy4Freedom GNU/Linux Live CD this evening, I am once again ending thinking about technology and its role in culture and society and, probably this is a place as good as any for writing down some thoughts on that topic… Basically, after being into all this computer and “IT” stuff for quite a bunch of years now, I am still fascinated by all the possibilities and features modern technology like computers, cell phones, the internet and all the like is able to provide. But, even beyond a merely “technical” interest in all that, I am more and more aware that the true challenge about those technologies isn’t about, well, the technology itself but about what they mean to our society, how they afflict culture, art and communication in our everday life.

Seems that technical progress is rapidly gaining speed right now, with the result that, each and every year, we are capable of doing things we did in no way whatsoever think about before. And, in all those cases, culture is influencing the way how we handle those technologies:

  • Nowaday, with a recent cell phone including a digital camera of some sort, and with having access to MMS or internet using our phone provider, we are able to immediately publish pictures and text using our mo(bile we)blog. We now can be sort of “spare time reporters” posting messages on current events in our environment, or we can use this technology to post saturday night’s party shots – culture influences what we use it for, and it’s up to us to decide…
  • Peer-2-Peer-networks (also referred to as “filesharing”, though being far more than that) enable us to sort and share information of all kind in a decentral yet organized manner. This is something we either may use for sharing information even in a society where there is censorship of information and communication (like in China, unfortunately), we may use this technology to share the works of the creativity of independent artists, or we may (ab)use it for illegally sharing copyrighted material without the consent of the copyright owners. Again, technology just offers the capabilities of doing things; culture and our environment will decide whether we use them for something “good” or for something potentially “bad” (even though “good” and “bad” are probably bad terms in this context).
  • RFID-tags provide incredible solutions for, say, easing shopping or store-keeping processes within supermarkets, and maybe they also provide good concepts for creating new access-control systems within computer networks. But they also enable people to control other people, keeping track of movements an in other ways spying on citizen, like the new German passport is about to do. Technology is there for the using; culture, society and probably politics will decide for what it is going to be used.

Overally, it seems easy: Being created within research laboratories of universities and companies, technology in itself hardly is “good” or “bad”. But what we will use it for, in the end, surely is. The decision of how a certain technology will be used, however, is a decision a society has to make. And that’s where the problem is:

There always are certain lobbyists, be them in companies or in politics, with quite a clear idea of what they want technology to be used for. There are politicians right now trying to create good surveillance systems in the dubious idea of creating “security” in the days after 9/11. There are marketing departments of big companies trying to push “lifestyle” technologies for all those who just happily want to consume without a second thought and who never hesitate adopting technology if it just seems to be “hip” or in-fashioned or whatever. There are patent and copyright lawyers trying to regulate new technologies and concepts with old laws that in no way probably fit them…

And, on the other side: There are just few. There are way too few people trying to see the chances of technology for a living, human society. There are too few people promoting free-as-in-freedom software, infrastructure, standards. There are way too few people speaking up for different models of copyright and content licensing like CreativeCommons and the like. There are too few people interested in getting open, non-commercial networks for example based on Mesh ideas to working in order of enabling people to communicate with each other without being forced to use some proprietary communication carrier for that.

Why? I don’t completely know. On one side, I see people who are into technology being just without any interest for what those technologies actually do in society. On the other side, I see people into politics and culture who either aren’t interested in technology, who don’t know about recent technological developments or who even oppose any sort of new technology as “useless” or “waste of time / energy”. This is sad, because this will not help us getting new technologies, being them about information / communication, medicine / biology or physics (nano-tech), used in a way which is good for most of the society.

We shouldn’t just let some things happen. We should take responsibility.

6. November 2005

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english , gnu , net