Whose Technology Is It Anyway?

I wasn’t planning on posting much about Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, but I did. And now I find myself posting about it again. Thing is, I’m a sucker for historical analogy, and Clay Shirky yesterday posted a good one that compared the disruptive effects of mechanized cloth production to today’s internet.

Yes, that’s actually the birth of the Luddite movement, or at least where it got its name. And, though I was aware of the story, Shirky’s study offered details I’d not know previously.

Most interesting was the news that the handweavers largely opposed only the mills that sold their textiles cheaper than the handweavers did. And mills that sold their products at artificially high prices and used the efficiency of the mechanized looms to earn exorbitant profits weren’t opposed by the handweavers.


Now back to Keen. **Keen “doesn’t oppose all uses of technology, just ones that destroy older ways of doing things.”


But Keen is wrong. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat — possible, but utterly beside the point.

The criticism here is that Keen wants technology to be controlled, and the value enjoyed exclusively by the establishment.

The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.

Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way — lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.

(Emphasis added.)