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Myth: Technology is neutral

Myth: Technology is neutral

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

“This notebook is biased,” says philosopher Darryl Cressman, as he takes it out of his bag and puts it on the table. It may lie there looking quite innocent, but as it turns out, it completely overlooks about 10 per cent of the world’s population. “It’s made for right-handed people. I’m left-handed, so in order for me to lay down my hand comfortably, I can only use one half.” Did the designer of the notebook have a particular bone to pick with left-handed people? Probably not. “All technologies have these hidden biases that slip in unconsciously. It’s not good, it’s not bad, and it’s not neutral. All objects have their histories.”

Most people, however, are not aware of this. “When I tell people at dinner parties that I’m a Philosopher of Technology, the response I get is: ‘What is there to philosophise about, technology is neutral.’ People believe that an object is the result of logical thinking and efficiency. Or that it is about testing techniques until you have the best possible design. We have become so accustomed to certain things that we start to believe that they have occurred naturally.”

It’s interesting to see how historic, social and cultural differences are reflected in technology, says Cressman. “Take factories. Their machines are built for adults. We find this so mundane, we don’t even think about it. But in the 19th century, some were built so that only children could handle them. And people found that completely normal too. Or take the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, about which I wrote a book. It looks like we feel a concert hall should look like. However, it would never have been built like this before 1800. What we call classical music used to be regarded as quite frivolous; something to play in the background while you had dinner. The Concertgebouw design, however, is based on the idea that classical music is a serious art form. You go there to sit down quietly and listen to the music without any distractions.”

Cultural differences occur for instance in monuments. “I’m from Canada. When Europeans first came to Canada, one reason why they thought indigenous people were unsophisticated was because they hadn’t built any markers of culture. They had them, but instead of making them out of stone – based on the idea that they should last for centuries – they had built them to be part of the forest and to disappear into the forest over time. Standards and expectations with regard to what is “correct” or “right” are also translated through material objects.”

A building with only stairs is biased towards able-bodied people, the design of a clip-on microphone assumes the microphone is clipped on a man’s shirt, and cars can only be driven by people tall enough to reach the pedals. The list of examples is endless. “Biases are everywhere. That’s not necessarily a problem, but people should be aware of it. “Asking why we have the technical objects we do and how they could be otherwise.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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CommentsReacties

2017-09-25: Debbie Kellner
Dr. Cressman touches on an interesting subject of which I haven't thought much about. Very thought provoking.



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