By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 1998

I signed on to a cause a few weeks ago: a crusade for rational thinking about technology and its role in human affairs.

Oddly and amazingly, just that statement alone has proven controversial. For those who see me as a pro-technology utopian, or who are devoutly pro-technology themselves, it sounds like I’m about to explain why technology stinks, and why it should be monitored, curtailed, or eliminated. But to those who absolutely object to technology and its increasing implementation, the same statement looks like an excuse to stick more of this dangerous stuff in schools and homes, where children will be needlessly exposed to pornography and workers endlessly exploited by robots. (I have the emails to prove it.)

This is the very problem that Technorealism (, a new branch of technology criticism, seeks to address. According to the original document, posted on the Internet and announced at a Harvard University conference last week, it’s an attempt to “expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism.”

If anything, I’ve always been somewhat closer to the utopian end of the spectrum. Because I see technology as an extension of human nature, and because I think human beings are basically well-intentioned, I have maintained faith that as technologies empower real people, the world will get better. Our technologies will help us evolve towards better ways of relating to and taking care of one another.

Back in the early 80’s, when I was spending my time with hackers and other free thinkers, I saw governments as the enemies in all this. They were the ones who would arrest hackers, control access, even assign IP addresses and domain names. The object of the game was to keep government out.

What so many of us didn’t realize back then was that government doesn’t only limit the activities of certain individuals – it also serves as a regulator of commercial forces. With government out of the way, companies from Wired Ventures to Microsoft were free to declare the Internet a business zone. Wired and other libertarian organizations did it with philosophy: pushing concepts like the “long boom” of economic growth, “change is good,” and “push technology” itself, this centerpiece of the digital revolution purposefully drew cyberculture towards supporting the goals of business and the laissez fair right.

Meanwhile, companies like Microsoft set about using the ubiquity of their software to make it less flexible. Windows is opaque, fat, and expensive. By exploiting our need for compatibility, Microsoft can strongarm us into buying new versions of software that require upgrades of computers, and so on.

Worse yet, without any government presence, the civic spaces on the Internet are collapsing without contest. Usenet faded into oblivion, as discussion groups became crowded with commercials. Universities and other institutions offering free access to information are in constant need of funds as they race to upgrade their systems to new standards set by industry. The airwaves themselves are auctioned to the highest bidder and private corporations – not science foundations – profit from the registration of domain names and addresses.

This is why I’ve found myself, perhaps a bit reluctantly, joining forces with the kinds of people I formerly thought of as “policy wonks.” It’s government who, in former eras, built and maintained things like public libraries and public parks. Perhaps they can do the same for the Internet. It’s worth a try, anyway. And as long as their efforts are supported and directed by people who treasure freedom of expression and from oppression, those who might tend to abuse their power can be kept in check, too.

Indeed, I think that Technorealists speak for the vastly unreported majority who believe, quite correctly, that technology will augment human evolution if it is managed in a rational and humane fashion. The simple points outlined on the statement – that information is not knowledge, that wiring schools in itself will not save them, that government has a role to play on the electronic frontier – all seek to affirm common sense, and dispel blind utopianism along with anxious paranoia.

But however painfully obvious such conclusions, the Technorealist statement has met with angry, snide, and essentially content-less critique from many corners. The New York Times, unable or unwilling to consider any of the Technorealist points in their own right, instead interviewed John Barlow and Esther Dyson about this “attack” on their viewpoints. The Times, apparently, only understands the kind extremist, polar arguments that this document was created to replace.

Michael Kinsley, editor of Microsoft’s online paid-subscription magazine, Slate attacked the Technorealism statement – which he admits never having read – based only what he could glean of its writers’ intentions from the New York Times piece. This, again, is precisely the baseless, reactionary grandstanding so prevalent on the Internet that Technorealism hopes to curb. Maybe that’s why Kinsley and others are so upset.

Technorealism exposes the centrifugal force with which the Internet tends to polarize all debates into extremist rants. Like the post at the middle of a roundabout, it gives all of us something solid to hang onto while the world spins faster and faster.