Technologies Have Biases

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in This Will Make You Smarter on 14 February 2012

People like to think of technologies and media as neutral and that only their use or content determines their effect. Guns don’t kill people, after all; people kill people. But guns are much more biased toward killing people than, say, pillows–even though many a pillow has been utilized to smother an aging relative or adulterous spouse.

Our widespread inability to recognize or even acknowledge the biases of the technologies we use renders us incapable of gaining any real agency through them. We accept our iPads, Facebook accounts, and automobiles at face value–as preexisting conditions–rather than as tools with embedded biases.

Marshall McLuhan exhorted us to recognize that our media affect us beyond whatever content is being transmitted through them. And while his message was itself garbled by the media through which he expressed it (the medium is the what?), it is true enough to be generalized to all technology. We are free to use any car we like to get to work–gasoline-, diesel-, electric-, or hydrogen-powered—and this sense of choice blinds us to the fundamental bias of the automobile toward distance, commuting, suburbs, and energy consumption.

Likewise, soft technologies, from central currency to psychotherapy, are biased in their construction as much as in their ir:nplementation. No matter how we spend U.S. dollars, we are nonetheless fortifying banking and the centralization of capital. Put a psychotherapist on his own couch and a patient in the chair and the therapist will begin to exhibit treatable pathologies. It’s set up that way, just as Facebook is set up to make us think of ourselves in terms of our “likes” and an iPad is set up to make us start paying for media and stop producing them ourselves.

If the concept that technologies have biases were to become common knowledge, we could implement them consciously and purposefully. If we don’t bring this concept into general awareness, our technologies and their effects will continue to threaten and confound us.