Our Faustian Bargain

All technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away…Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. —Neil Postman

The end of the year is always a time to take stock of the past year and if one is lucky enough to dream, we can slow down enough to wonder in the world of possibilities. As part of taking personal stock, it is fair to say that there are a few recurring themes in what I write.

After a cursory review, a pompous approach to our industry must be admitted. Trying to be more erudite than I actually am is a character flaw that can only be cured through abandoning an ego often running amok. Hopefully 2012 will bring more humility to bear.

Also after reviewing several of past essays, an old speech that Neil Postman gave came to mind. Neil Postman was a media ecologist and wrote about the intersection between culture and technology. The quote at the beginning is a nice summary of his work. It accurately summarizes the binding thread of my essays.

The legend of the Faustian bargain never has the devil [Mephistopheles] outlining the potential dangers of making a pact with him. That makes sense since the infernal region does not have any benefits to sell as the alternative to the supposed advantages. Any overview of our industry trades reveals an unbridled belief in the benefits of technology. Faith in our media and technological prowess has assumed similar irrational impulses worthy of the Heaven’s Gate cult. At minimum, faith in technology has assumed religious zeal.

For my part, transferring faith in a higher power to science and technology has not enriched our beings. As Thoreau said, we have an “improved means to an unimproved end.” For those blinded by their faith in new technologies, they are so enamored with their tools (means) that they rarely contemplate whether the ends are improved. They assume it, but never contemplate.

So what I set out to do in my essays is explain the other side of the Faustian bargain. Our trade publications should be promoting this dialectic. But they are too busy promoting the thesis to be interested with the harmful side of the bargain. After all, our trade publications owe their existence to interests promoting media and technology. Audiences spend ad dollars and fill trade show space. This is only one reason I have never been asked to speak at an industry event. They rather have Mephistopheles extolling the virtues of technology rather than our hubris.

Our industry is chock full of hubris. How, other than hubris, do you explain Google’s Eric Schmidt’s words when he said, “we will be able to predict what someone will search for before they search for it”? Even if it were possible, what are the hazards or costs? How much data on us would be necessary to fulfill this promise? And what costs to our privacy and personal freedom is at risk? How might this information be transferred to a government increasingly interested in our every thought?

So as we move into 2012, yours truly hopefully will strike a more humble pose yet still determined to provide a clarion call to explore how our media and technologies have another, yes darker side. I am no Luddite and believe we should not eschew technology reflexively. We just should not accept it reflexively. Let’s use our media and technology wisely. Otherwise, we will be the ones used.

Have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

About Jaffer Ali

Jaffer Ali is the CEO of e-commerce company, PulseTV.com. He is a serial entrepreneur who has touched every part of the online ecosystem since 1998. Jaffer is known as a contrarian thought leader who has contributed over 250 essays to industry trades covering every aspect of online media and marketing topics. A collection of his essays can be downloaded for free: Chasing String In The Digital Era.



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