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Humane isn't the same as human. Posted on 08/01/2002.

So, a bit back, Matt posted a frustration with the phrase "humanizing technology," rightly citing that, well, technology is what, in large part, makes us "human." That rightness notwithstanding, Matt's comments stuck in my craw, and I feel I need to make some response.

First off, some niggling factual details. As Matt's employer points out, "Cro-Magnons" were not apes--they were the earliest of the modern humans.

Continuing down this words-oriented path, it is, supposedly, our thinking that makes us human (Homo sapiens), not our making (which would be Homo faber). Take that as you will.

What I guess most bugged me about Matt's point is that it sounds right, but I believe it to be misguided. Yes, demonizing technology is misguided. But so is, I would argue, glorifying it. There's every reason to both admire and deplore the effects of technology on people.

Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day said it very well in their first chapter of (the oft-cited on Information Ecologies, in their discussion of the film Metropolis, and how it portrays the dehumanizing qualities of technology. (It also rights Neal Stephenson's misguided inversion of the Morlocks and Eloi, but, then, "In The Beginning, There Was The Command Line," is actually a remarkably weak piece of rhetoric, popular only because it assuages the superior feelings of Unix folk.)

The point is to recognize that technology, and, particularly, technological progress, while distinctly human, is often not humane. Technological progress has developed into a system without empathy--it moves inexorably forward, unconcerned with its effects. I happen to think this is okay, but it does require a check, namely, people to guide the fruits of that progress to behave humanely.

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Nice one. I think i what I was so peeved about was the sloppy, taken-as-read demonisation of technology and technologists oft-made by designers and user-advocates.

So I responded with some sloppiness of my own... thanks for the counterpoint and the factcheck, sunshine...
Posted by matt @ 08/02/2002 04:04 AM PST [link to this comment]

Incidently, there is a great passage in a Greg Egan book: 'Distress'

which confronts what we mean by 'human' and 'humane'. Recommended as a rollicking good yarn anyway.

I actually found the Egan book from a quote from it that Stephenson uses in 'command-line'.

On which subject - yes it's extreme, and yes it may be sloppy in it's appropriation of Wells - but it's a *superposition*, a deliberate provocation to get us thinking. I thought you were fond of those... ;-)
Posted by matt @ 08/02/2002 04:14 AM PST [link to this comment]

Back in 1996 Mark Helprin wrote an essay pointing out the perils of technology's inexorable march.

(It can be found here:

He ends with a plea to those who, as you said, Peter, "guide the fruits of that progress":

"The revolution that you have made is indeed wonderful, powerful, and great, and it has hardly begun. But you have not brought to it the discipline, the anticipation, or the clarity of vision that it, like any vast augmentation in the potential of humankind, demands. You have been too enthusiastic in your welcome of it, and not wary enough. Some of you have become arrogant and careless, and, quite frankly, too many of you at the forefront of this revolution lack any guiding principles whatsoever or even the urge to seek them out. In this, of course, you are not alone. Nor are you the first. But you must. You must fit this revolution to the needs and limitations of man, with his delicacy, dignity, and mortality always in mind. Having accelerated tranquility, you must now find a way to slow it down."
Posted by dave p. @ 08/02/2002 05:40 AM PST [link to this comment]

Not to quibble, but we're only aware of others' thinking through the manifestations of that thinking. So it is through the things we make, our "think-products" if you will, that we recognize our humanity.
Posted by Gene @ 08/04/2002 09:41 PM PST [link to this comment]

(aybema) a bit on the extreme side
but whilst you are near the subject of the seduction of technology

Posted by ben @ 08/19/2002 08:38 AM PST [link to this comment]

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