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Technology as ecology


Cover of the first issue of Radical Software.

In 1970, a handful of video artists started a magazine called Radical Software in New York. The Internet didn't exist yet (its predecessor, ARPANET had only started a year earlier) and computers were still mostly big mainframes. But theRadical Software editors saw technology's future as decentralized, personalized, mobile, and interactive--"technology as ecology." They were way ahead of their time, and in some respects, still are.

I find their politics particularly inspiring. At a very early stage, they saw the emancipatory potential of digital technology while avoiding the pitfalls of techno-utopianism.

Here's an excerpt from the first issue's opening editorial:

As problem solvers we are a nation of hardware freaks. Some are into seizing property or destroying it. Others believe in protecting property at any cost including life or at least guarding it against spontaneous use. Meanwhile, unseen systems shape our lives.

Power is no longer measured in land, labor, or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it. As long as the most powerful tools (not weapons) are in the hands of those who would hoard them, no alternative cultural vision can succeed. Unless we design and implement alternate information structures which transcend and reconfigure the existing ones, other alternate systems and life styles will be no more than products of the existing process.

Fortunately, new tools suggest new uses, especially to those who are dissatisfied with the uses to which old tools are being put. We are not a computerized version of some corrupted ideal culture of the early 1900's, but a whole new society because we are computerized. Television is not merely a better way to transmit the old culture, but an element in the foundation of a new one.

Our species will survive neither by totally rejecting nor unconditionally embracing technology--but by humanizing it: by allowing people access to the informational tools they need to shape and reassert control over their lives. There is no reason to expect technology to be disproportionately bad or good relative to other realms of natural selection. The automobile as a species, for example, was once a good thing. But it has now overrun its ecological niche and upset our balance or optimum living. Only by treating technology as ecology can we cure the split between ourselves and our extensions. We need to get good tools into good hands--not reject all tools because they have been misused to benefit only the few.