Technological Determinism and Human Power
All technology has embedded within it certain values.
One idea that Neil Postman has put forward early on in Technopoly follows, “…once a technology is admitted it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is – that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.”1 He points out that “playing out its hand” is not restricted to a simple series of outward events, but that technology influences and changes the very meaning of the language we use, which in turn acts upon the very thoughts and even modes of thought available to a people.
The first half of this statement, the idea that technology inevitably “plays out its hand” is built upon the belief that all technology has embedded values. Mr Postman points this out earlier, and the idea is certainly undeniable. The act of creating a pen has instilled within it the idea “there is something to be written”. To possess a pen contains the same idea. The creation of a gun is embedded with the thought “there is something to shoot at”. These tools would certainly have many other ideas built into them, such as “there is something that should be read”. Adjustments to these technologies come with adjusted ideas, with a keyboard and computer there must be a great deal more to write, and with automatic guns “there is something to shoot a lot at". To possess or use a pen or a gun is also instilled with the values “there is something to write” or “there is something to shoot”. Though the task of extracting and making explicit embedded values is certainly challenging and involved, acknowledging that technologies are embedded with values and beliefs should be readily agreeable.2
To return to the original assumption, Mr Postman seems to be putting forward that once a given technology is introduced to society or released its design will influence society in an unrestricted manner, and that the only opportunity to stay its influence is at the moment of introduction to society.
Consider that this assumption however may be based on observations of societies and human organizations in conflict, where relationships are distinguished by one aiming to assert over another, whether it be in the family, in business, in governance, education, or between nations. After all, throughout history the individual, the community, and the institutions of society have been locked in a futile struggle for power.3 4
Bahá’u’lláh however, has proclaimed an entirely different vision by which to conceive social relationships, the Universal House of Justice explains:
Animating the Bahá’í effort to discover the nature of a new set of relationships among these three protagonists is a vision of a future society that derives inspiration from the analogy drawn by Bahá’u’lláh, in a Tablet penned nearly a century and a half ago, which compares the world to the human body. Cooperation is the principle that governs the functioning of that system. Just as the appearance of the rational soul in this realm of existence is made possible through the complex association of countless cells, whose organization in tissues and organs allows for the realization of distinctive capacities, so can civilization be seen as the outcome of a set of interactions among closely integrated, diverse components which have transcended the narrow purpose of tending to their own existence. And just as the viability of every cell and every organ is contingent upon the health of the body as a whole, so should the prosperity of every individual, every family, every people be sought in the well-being of the entire human race. In keeping with such a vision, institutions, appreciating the need for coordinated action channelled toward fruitful ends, aim not to control but to nurture and guide the individual, who, in turn, willingly receives guidance, not in blind obedience, but with faith founded on conscious knowledge. The community, meanwhile, takes on the challenge of sustaining an environment where the powers of individuals, who wish to exercise self-expression responsibly in accordance with the common weal and the plans of institutions, multiply in unified action.3
Consider that, where cooperation fosters unity and collective organization, competition, which leads directly to conflict, breaks down organization and collection. A group of nations that share the same homeland compete for resources and lose their ability to act as one. A country sharing a single government with competing parties is divided into separate groups and lose their ability to rally fellow feeling and make united progress. So it is with a family, a business, an industry.
This competition and division, by its very nature, weakens social groups where they would otherwise find strength. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points out in a letter that "the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man."5 We can quickly imagine this difference in strength and ability in the case of each of these examples of differing complexity all the way down to cellular life.
In a condition of competition, a society will not be able to grapple the release of harmful social forces arising from the unfoldment of technology.
It is fitting the Postman uses the phrase plays out its hand, referring presumably to card games such as Spades. In such games, each player is dealt an equal (in number, but not in value) subset of the available cards. They then compete with one another to leave the game with the most value. The player's end value has a direct negative correlation to one another; The more value, or points, one player leaves with, the less the others will receive.
The Spades table... computer generated woodwork... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The language is fitting because games are the arena in which competition is socialized. He betrays therein his bias. Games are built by a set of organizing rules. The fact that players are restricted to their hand in these games in inherent to their competing. Because they are competing, they are restricted from using their hands together, at which point they would have full access to all available cards. The restriction humanity faces against the influence of technology once adopted is then inherent not to humanities relationship to technology, but to the rules of competition it has decided and clung to.
Bahá’u’lláh has announced a new objective and set out an alternative rules through consultation. His claim is that consultation is in fact neccessary.
No man can attain his true station except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.6
The rules are different, a group of people come together. Their priority is unity, truth, and justice, they must be like "the rays of one sun". Each of the members is to give freely their perspective and consider fairly the contributions of others. They must speak with moderation, dignity and care. They must forgo insisting on their own opinion, and finally if there is a difference of opinion vote on the decision. Beyond that, they aim for unanimity, and, it is essential, willingly obey the majority vote, never acting or even speaking against the conclusion.7
A group following these rules, a family, a nation, humanity, or even cells, maintains its own power by maintaining its oneness. Power otherwise lost when the members divide into smaller and smaller factions.
This united group is possessed of the power to overcome the values embedded in technologies and set aside harmful tools before they have run their ultimate course.
All matters should be consulted upon in the meeting and whatever is the majority vote should be carried out. I swear by the one true God, it is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong.8
Through consultation a group describes their reality. They decide on a path forward and begin acting together. After some time it becomes clear the path they have taken overlooked some detail and has shortcomings. Because they are united, they do not attack one another for the error, nor do they desert the group, the matter is revisited in consultation. Another majority decision is selected in light of experience, the group moves forward in a new direction. In a short time the group has gained many insights into the matter and made many decisions, it has gained experience and moves more confidently and with greater harmony.9
We can easily imagine the power resulting from unity in a community that has decided to adopt consultation and firmly adhere to its principles in the sphere of technology choice. They have initially adopted an internet social media platform because they decide it will allow for more rapid communication. No similar tools have existed previously. When, after a few years, it becomes alarmingly clear to the majority of the population that the tool is manipulating people, especially the young, to increase usership, they revisit the matter and decide not to continue using the platform. The community has gained plenty of experience with the platform, and decides to build themselves an alternative. After all, the social media platform wasn't all too complicated to begin with, and in the last few years dozens of similar platforms have appeared. Within two weeks they have something to try out. They are able to move to the new platform quickly, because they are united. Later, when the community finds in reflection, this time noticed by the local institutions, that some features on their created platform are reducing the quality of communication or the frequency of the joyful gatherings that distinguish their culture they take steps, gradually, but in unity arriving eventually with both the experience and technology to benefit their population.
This imaginary community contrasts brilliantly with the real situation we are in today. Social media platforms are manipulating our people. In an environment of competition one platform's harmful practices are replaced only with another's more malicious development. The platforms and those invested gain power and resources. The institutions of society, the communities, and the individuals have been virtually powerless to resist their designs. And like Postman described, these technologies just march forward with their designs, with their influence, with their embedded ideals.
Consider that what Postman and many others urgently describe is not itself an insight into the nature of humanity, but a reflection of the deficiencies of competition as an organizing approach to human affairs. The increasingly visible succumbing of mankind to the forces released through technology announce with corresponding urgency the requirement of the unity of mankind, a distinguishing feature of its collective maturity. The Universal House of Justice describes:
When Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed His Message to the world in the nineteenth century He made it abundantly clear that the first step essential for the peace and progress of mankind was its unification. As He says, “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 203) To this day, however, you will find most people take the opposite point of view: they look upon unity as an ultimate almost unattainable goal and concentrate first on remedying all the other ills of mankind. If they did but know it, these other ills are but various symptoms and side effects of the basic disease—disunity.10
And most definitely, "when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open"1, but if we are united there will be many opportunities to do so as we walk the path of human progress together.
Technopoly, p7 toward the very bottom
This topic is well documented; Technology, Values, and the Shaping of Social Reality is a great exposition.
... The first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the assembly. They must be wholly freed from estrangement and must manifest in themselves the Unity of God, for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden. Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be non-existent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught. The second condition: they must when coming together turn their faces to the Kingdom on High and ask aid from the Realm of Glory. They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden. The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority. It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness.... If this be so regarded, that assembly shall be of God, but otherwise it shall lead to coolness and alienation that proceed from the Evil One.... Should they endeavour to fulfil these conditions the Grace of the Holy Spirit shall be vouchsafed unto them, and that assembly shall become the centre of the Divine blessings, the hosts of Divine confirmation shall come to their aid, and they shall day by day receive a new effusion of Spirit. (Cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922–1932”, pp. 22-23) Consultation: A Compilation