On 11 July 2016, Netopia launched its book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote at the Place de Londres Café in Brussels.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who seemed to have all the answers about digital technology, and who, with a smirk on their face explained how they understand digital so much better than you so your opinions don’t really count, or if you have the feeling something is not right, but you can’t really put your finger on it: this book is for you.
Digital technology offers many opportunities, but none of them are inevitable; they are options for us to use. On the scrap pile of history are tons of useless technologies that never made it because we didn’t like them or because they had no use, sometimes unfairly, like the airship, Hindenburg, that set such a bad example for Zeppelins in general but which are perfectly safe when filled with helium, not hydrogen, and sometimes justly, like the autogyro – a cross-breed of airplane and helicopter that had no practical function. Some technologies can be used for good or evil depending on how we choose to use it: splitting the atom in a bomb or for power; powder in guns or fireworks.
The word myth is useful as a tool to identify and see through some of the self-interested claims that masquerade as technological inevitabilities or benefits for the human race
And technology is inspired by art: without William Gibson’s Neuromancer the Internet as we know it would have been something different. Arthur C. Clarke described communication satellites in the 1930s, long before the first launch into space. The idea that technology drives change is often called ‘technocentrism’. It takes technology out of context, sees it as a force unto itself. Only based on that idea can a book title, like Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, make any sense. Technology is invented by humans, used by humans, discarded by humans. It is what we want to do with it, how it helps our lives and societies that determines which technologies fail or make history. These points are obvious, almost moot. And yet we often find ourselves in conversations like these, where technology is disconnected from humans as if it’s something you are expected to ‘understand’. This would be harmless if it weren’t for the fact that behind technocentrism lie powerful interests that want to harvest our data, share income between fewer and fewer people, disconnect from legal authority and democratic procedure and disrupt our economies.
But the real problem is that we seem to accept the hype of technocentrism – despite many critical voices – and the idea that digital is a value in itself, a yardstick to decide which country is ahead in the competition, a template for reform embraced by policy-makers. We think it’s a favour to us. If technocentrism were only an idea in the minds of some quirky inventors with propeller hats, that would just be cute, but today it is the modus operandi for the world’s highest valued companies. If you see a risk in that: this book is for you.
The word myth is useful as a tool to identify and see through some of the self-interested claims that masquerade as technological inevitabilities or benefits for the human race. I have 21 myths that I come across often, but this list is by no means complete. Neither is 21 the absolute number of myths, but just one possible collection; feel free to add your own. You can read this book from cover to cover, or use for reference when the digital myth alarm starts to sound in the back of your head. I hope that I can offer some new ideas, cases and arguments to help you call digital’s bluff. And yes, you can love digital gadgets and be open-minded about technology without being a technocentrist. Or a Luddite, for that matter.
Purchase the full book here
Read each individual myth here.
Watch the replay of the book launch event here.