When Technology Goes Awry

Last month, I published a peer-reviewed essay in the Communications of the ACM, one of the major trade journals in computer science. It’s titled, “When Technology Goes Awry.” At the time of its publication, in mid-April, there were a few other things going on in the world that were distracting me, so I didn’t mention it then. I want to circle back now and briefly highlight the piece’s big ideas, as they’re relevant to many of our discussions here.

This article provides a more academic foundation to some of the themes I explore in Digital Minimalism. In it, I point out that during the 20th century the formal study of the philosophy of technology split into two roughly competing camps: technological determinism and technological instrumentalism.

As I elaborate:

“Roughly speaking, the former philosophy [determinism] believes the features and properties of a given technology can drive human behavior and culture in directions that are often unplanned and unforeseen, while the latter [instrumentalism] believes tools are neutral, and what matters in understanding their impact is the cultural context and motivations of the people that develop and use them for specific purposes.”

In recent years, in academic circles, “the pendulum of power in the formal study of philosophy of technology…has swung in favor of the technological instrumentalists.”

I’ve come to believe that this is an issue: “instrumentalism, though intellectually interesting and often quite illuminating, is ill-suited on its own to tackle some of the more pressing issues we face in our current moment of rapid technological innovation”

The problem?

As I’ve observed and reported in a lot of my recent writing, technologies often do have unexpected impacts that aren’t intentional, or predicted, or serving some useful purpose (exhibit A: what happened when we introduced email into the business ecosystem).

It’s important that we recognize this reality as a society, and that my fellow engineers, in particular, keep a wary eye on what happens when their tools are released into the wild. Human and tech exist into a highly dynamical symbiosis that requires more observation and intervention than we often realize.

Anyway, see the full article for a longer treatment of these ideas…

24 thoughts on “When Technology Goes Awry”

  1. This line at the end stuck out to me:

    “[M]y colleagues and mentors have often wondered why I maintain ‘two careers’ as a writer and engineer[.]”

    Is what you do really so unusual? Why is it viewed that way?

    • For professors at research universities peer-reviewed publications in competitive venues is everything (at least, pre-tenure), so the idea that you would devote time to anything else is a little baffling. However, as I elaborate in this piece, I see my writing as very much aligned with my academic position (I’m a technologists who also writes about the impact of technology).

  2. I am a very junior researcher in usable security with a strong interest in design and also the philosophy of science and I would like to try to publish papers that combine these fields. However, my peers so far have either discouraged me or don’t know where some suitable venues for submission would be. Given that you span quite some disciplines I was wondering if you have any pointers which journals, conferences, etc are welcoming to publications that span fields that are not traditionally seen as connected. Any help is most welcome, thank you!

    • Three points:

      (1) These efforts won’t help you get tenure, so make sure you’re focusing first and foremost on what matters for tenure (when I went up for tenure, none of my public-facing books or articles were included in my package).

      (2) Find people whose work/writing you admire, then work backwards to see where they publish.

      (3) See if there are ways to use your existing expertise as a bridge to the broader topics: look for intersections of your research areas and broader issues.

  3. Thank you for shining a light here. I would say I have been an unabashed instrumentalist. I have thought and mostly still think that worries about technology are overblown. But I now want us to be more intentional with technology and ready to deflate any unintentional consequences.

    Also, I appreciate you building a bridge to the important academic work and trusting your non-academic readers to cross it.

  4. In your book digital minimalism, you have told to go for 30 days digital detoxification and then after 30days install only those apps which are really valuable. And in that 30 days try alternate things which have high value at the exchange of those time wasting apps, i.e, high quality leisure. Now in that lockdown period, its not possible to explore the real world i.e, friends house, different places etc. Now reading books is a very good hobby but as a student one has to devote most of the time in studies and then in leisure time again reading is not a very sustainable or pleasureble thing to me. Installed ONLY whatsapp but its like constant notification is popping up. And whenever turned off internet and go back to study due to attention residue its very hard to concentrate and also hard to resist to go back and check new whatsapp massages again. Now what are the quality things a student can do in leisure time during this lockdown you suggest?

    • I have a few suggestions for you to consider Pritam. One part of the issue, as I see it, is the distraction caused by notification. This is an issue that can be fixed, simply by turning off notifications. The lesson that I learned from Cal’s book is to be deliberate about my technology use. I too have been reactive at one point, but turning off notifications helped me take hold of my attention and decide for my self when to use my phone. A strategy that helped me is to schedule when to check messaging services. You can do so for example from 12:00-12:10 and 19:00-19:10. This, of course is not a strategy that works for everyone and if you need to respond fast to certain people (partner, parents, or colleagues from work) you can decide to have their notifications show up. However, this is not something I would recommend, as if there is an emergency you could be reached by phone.
      The other side of the problem is that you don’t have enough activities that you like that take up your time so you find yourself bored at times. There are a number of hobbies/interests you can pick up that you can do at home. I would recommend taking up some physical activity (physical activity correlates with longevity and good health) such as yoga. Another one I highly recommend is meditation. Meditation is all about not giving your thoughts much credit, and that has helped me tremendously during my digital detox to let go of the idea that I constantly need to check my phone. You can learn how to play an instrument. You can learn a new skill. There are plenty of resources online for learning a large variety of skills ranging from origami to coding to cooking. With the resources we have in 2020, your possibilities for picking up new hobbies are endless. Hope this helps.

    • I’m also a student who deleted all social media apps like a week ago because of cal influence.
      I think our problem regards expectations.
      We expect that as soon as we remove these apps, we would transform into focus ninjas. My overall use of the phone decreased by much, but I often catch myself checking whatsapp for no reason.
      We should acknowledge that this is the first step towards increasing our focus and concentration, not the last one.
      As for hobbies, try something flow inducing, like drawing, coloring, it’s beneficial.
      Meditation and physical activity between my study time are helping me get through the day.
      Last note, don’t try to overdo anything. We are passing through a hard phase, and staying at balance is the best way to go.

  5. Thanks for this Cal! Really enjoyed the essay you linked.

    Here is a question that is more related to yesterday’s post: what role does failure play in your account of Deep Work? In my own specific case (similar to yours), I am thinking of something like having an essay or peer-reviewed paper not accepted for publication.

    Thanks for any insights you may have to offer.

    • For me, failure of this type usually leads me to double-down on focus and depth going forward. I had two peer-reviewed papers rejected last week. This week, my hours of deep work on CS proofs — which had been stagnant — are starting to inch up.

      • I’ve found your ideas to be quite romantic while being enormously practical. My intention is not to attack you with this question in any way but it has been a curiosity of mine for a long time:

        Action speaks louder than words, do you ever think that there is a mismatch between the hopes that your ideas provide and your own success as a serious researcher? If so, how do you deal with it?

  6. Cal, I just want to give you some serious respect for writing so many high-quality blog posts, books, etc.

    I get literally hundreds of emails a day, and most are complete drivel that I never bother to even open. Whereas you are one of the very few people whose writing I am always eager to read.

    I think your results (excellent thought-provoking writing) validate and prove your methods (deep work).

    Thank you.

  7. The essay was too long, didn’t read. It took time away from my frantic app-switching, manic skimming of the top news headlines and social media updates, YouTube surfing, and texting with my spouse who is in the other room. Next on the agenda is to spend an hour crafting the perfect email reply to a colleague.

  8. Aside from whether technologies are inherently neutral or not, human nature is marked by degrees of expanding awareness – from a brute focus on survival, to bargaining, to finding happiness by increasingly identifying with the realities of others, and beyond to scopes that don’t enter the discussion here. In his paper, “The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education, (T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research and social issues. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), Lawrence Kohlberg described a major cross-cultural study in which researchers mapped out the precise stages that children in all cultures pass through as they develop increasingly sensitive moral awareness. Kohlberg concluded that regardless of their religious affiliation, nationality, or racial background, children everywhere pass through the same six stages of development:
    1. Preconventional–Obedience and Punishment: “Do it or else!”
    2. Individualism, Instrumentalism, and Exchange–Conventional: “Do it for a reward.”
    3. Good Boy/Girl–Conformity: “Do it to please others.”
    4. Law and Order–Postconventional: “Do it because it’s proper.”
    5. Social Contract–“Do it because it makes everyone happy.”
    6. Principled Conscience–“Do it because it’s right and because it feels joyous and liberating.”

    Kohlberg, whose work has been a cornerstone for subsequent studies of children’s moral development, discovered that children evolve naturally through these progressively higher levels of moral awareness as they discover the internal rewards of unselfish behavior. This provides the strongest evidence yet that values are a built-in feature of human nature that can be encouraged by careful, systematic methods.

  9. I am a freelancer. due to this pandemic my parents are living with me. it’ s very hard to concentrate on my work becuase of the company at my house.
    Any solutions?

  10. Thanks for this piece! I am wondering if you are familiar with the concept of sociomateriality. It has been introduced by the work of Wanda Orlikowski : https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0170840607081138

    It seems to me that it offers a middle ground between determinism (techno-centered perspective) and social construction (human-centric perspective). As an alternative approach, sociomateriality considers that both sides are inextricably related and provides a very interesting theoretical framework to analyse both examples you refer to in the paper (email and likes). One of the case-study in Orlikowski’s 2007 paper is precisely email.

  11. Adding an increment to the development cycle of projects is a good way to transform the issue into relevant material in the engineering world. Just as we have manuals for testing software and getting client approval, we should have a blueprint for testing software for social impact and getting social support.

  12. Afrer i have been viewing your thoughts on how we use technology.i was a beliver in your philoshopy and i wanted to connected through you by your blog

  13. Dear Cal,
    Am a doctor and an acemedician by profession and i have seen the havoc this device , mobile device has caused in our lives our profession … and hence as soon as i read your article , i was so affected by your findings that i have decided to share these , on a public forum , with my students and other colleagues …and educate . Awareness brings better control and habits .
    Thank you for encouraging deep work philosophy and educating us in living healthily with technology , which in modern times is unavoidable , by most means.


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