Technorealism Principle #1

Originally published in The Clarion | August 25, 2010

After last week’s introduction to Technorealism (www.technorealism.org), we will now begin looking at its eight principles. The first principle of technorealism is that Technologies are not neutral. A quick web search of this phrase returned over twelve thousand results. While I did not examine each and every one (far from it), a quick glance shows that this is a somewhat popular subject with differing opinions. Defining what is meant by this phrase is proving difficult but I will give it a shot.

According to technorealism, technologies are not stand-alone, abstract objects. With every technology comes one, or many, side-effects or ramifications – both intentional and entirely unintentional. In considering this, an example from the pre-computing era may be beneficial. Consider the introduction of the railroad in America. Before rail tracks criss-crossed our nation, travel was limited to the horse and buggy, riding horseback and walking. Once the railroad was in place, cross-country travel was speedier and more feasible than ever before. Construction of the rails, trains and cars created jobs. Products native to one geographic region could suddenly be transported thousands of miles away to customers who never had access to them before. Trains required fuel which resulted in the creation of new mining jobs. On the other hand, the advent of the railroad resulted in countless deaths in the construction and mining industries. Mountains, plains and rivers were intruded in order to create the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the railroad.

Using this example, it should be easier to see that the advent of the technology brought with it effects – both beneficial and adverse. Skipping forward almost two hundred years, it is not hard to understand how 21st Century technologies bring with them similar effects. A modern example that many of us can relate to is eMail and Social Networking websites. These technologies were intended as means of communications and entertainment, yet brought with them adverse effects including changes in our daily routines and even, in some cases, addiction. Recent surveys have shown that time spent on Social Networking websites in the workplace is on the rise and as many as 80% of social networkers access their favorite networking sites while at work. A technology intended for entertainment has brought with it lax productivity in the workplace.

Modern technologies have also contributed to the segmentation of individuals into groups. Instead of spending time with friends, family and neighbors, Internet technologies allow people to venture only to subjects they find interesting. Just like choosing a favorite television show over a news channel whose political ideas you don’t agree with, having the ability to choose only websites that interest us has unintentionally segregated society. It has been said that maybe it would be good for all of us to watch that other television news channel or to listen to a genre of music we don’t particularly like every now and then. I’m not sure I will heed that advice, but I will admit that technorealism’s first principle seems quite accurate.



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Technorealism – an Introduction

Originally published in The Clarion | August 18, 2010

The last few years of the 20th Century were quite an exciting time in the realm of technology. Fortunately (or not?) for me I was right in the mix of the evolution of Internet technologies during this time, finishing up my collegiate coursework and beginning a career in Information Technology. Looking back, I wish I had kept some sort of notes, a diary of sorts, of my day-to-day experiences in the late 1990’s. Every day seemed to bring a new “must see” website, a new communications tool or other similar piece of technology. Still green behind the ears my daily life was one of survival, blinding me to the benefits a diary might have provided years down the road. Thankfully though there were many who wrote back then, and fortunately for us many of their publications are still available to us today.

I recently learned of an interesting term that was coined in 1998 – Technorealism. Preserved as a historical artifact in 2006 (yet mostly unmodified from the original), the ideals portrayed at www.technorealism.org give an interesting perspective of the concerns of that day in information technology, many of which still hold true over a decade into the 21st Century.

According to the website, The developments that unfold each day in communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? Should we welcome or fear them? As a college student in 1998, societal ramifications of the technological advancements around me were never even a consideration. Everything seemed to move at warp speed – slowing down to “smell the roses” would do nothing but put me behind. Today I wish I had stopped to smell at least a couple of the roses.

After several years in the industry, examining the effects of technology not only on myself but on society as a whole has proven most interesting. As a simple example, consider your daily routines both before and after work. Are they identical to what they were fifteen years ago? For most of us, the answer is a definite ‘no’. Odds are good that our daily lives have changed in various ways over the years, driven by the technologies around us. Technorealism’s principles include eight ideals that concentrate on how new technologies affect our everyday lives. While I am neither a proponent or opponent of the eight principles of technorealism, a closer look at them should prove informational and educational. After some examination, it will be interesting to see how some of the components of these principles are even truer today than when they were first published twelve years ago.

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The World Wide Library

Originally published in The Clarion | August 11, 2010

I am currently reading a book which is a collection of technology articles from the late 1990’s. One article from 1997 grabbed my attention, so much so I went back and re-read it a second time. In the article, the author proposes the need for a World Wide Library (WWL). In short, the WWL would exist either within or alongside the World Wide Web. Using the designation wwl in place of www before the domain name and using .lib in place of .com, .net etc., the proposed WWL would be inherently distinguishable and separate from the Web. All content would be “approved” and duplicate data would not exist. Content would be provided by traditional libraries and costs would be shared by the participating entities. Let’s now jump forward thirteen years.

Needless to say, the proposed World Wide Library has not come to fruition. I am sure the reasons are many and quite obvious. Such a closed structure of information goes against what the World Wide Web is all about. This is not to say that such a system could never exist – the Internet existed for many years before the Web came into being. The fact though is that Web users have grown accustomed to its openness. At any given time, a Web user can easily find a peach cobbler recipe or the full text of Poe’s The Raven. The Web, by design, does not discriminate when it comes to content. Anyone anywhere can publish any content at any time (within the constraints of copyright law of course). Because of this, an official WWL would actually be redundant to the Web, not to mention expensive and labor-intensive.

All of this considered, it is probably a good time to point out some fallacies of the Web. Unfortunately there are still people today who believe that if they read something online that it must in-fact be accurate. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good rule of thumb when using information from the Web is to take it with a grain of salt. If a piece of information seems interesting, look for additional sources to back up the claim. Also, the more reputable the source the better. Even information from popular sites like wikipedia.org is not always accurate – after all, its content is contributed by and can be edited by normal folks like you and me. All in all, a little judgment and common sense goes a long way when using information from the Web. Thirteen years after one man’s idea of a World Wide Library, I would say the World Wide Web has met and surpassed anything the WWL could have ever become.

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The Domain Name System – DNS

Originally published in The Clarion | August 04, 2010
Have you updated your http://66.220.146.32 profile recently? ‘What is that?’ you are probably asking. Your Facebook.com account of course – surely you recognize 66.220.146.32 as being the same as www.Facebook.com, right? Maybe not, and don’t feel bad. I had to look the IP address up myself. Fortunately for all of us who use the Web, the Domain Name System – or DNS – is there to save the day. With little to no thought about all the processes involved in browsing the Web, we as humans rely heavily on DNS to get to our favorite sites each and every day. Without DNS, I would hate to imagine the required systems or memory capacity (in our brains) that would be necessary for us to browse the Web. Let’s take a look at what DNS is and why we simply can’t live without it.

DNS is to the Web in similar fashion as street addresses are to a pizza lover. Take a moment and consider how difficult and confusing it would be to call up your favorite pizza joint, place an order for the most perfect combination of ingredients ever known to man, and then have to rely on the coordinates 34.6730N -86.0345W for them to successfully get the order to your door in thirty minutes or less. With modern and relatively inexpensive GPS technologies and gadgets, this may not be as difficult as it once was, but isn’t simply using 102 E Laurel Street so much easier? Our method of using street names and numbers is surely much more simple than using Lat/Long coordinates. This is really no different from what DNS does with Web and IP addresses.

The Domain Name System uses authoritative name servers to make things quite easy for the normal user to browse the Web. This system of servers is configured in a top-down hierarchy, starting at the end of the base Web address (or URL) and working back to the left. For example, the top-level domains include .com, .org, .net .edu and so on. Beneath these top-level domains are the plethora of registered names we all enjoy when browsing the Web. Examples of these are Facebook.com, Redcross.org, Microsoft.net and NACC.edu. Even further down the chain are bottom-level categories, if you will, for each domain name. The most popular bottom-level in use today is www – www.facebook.com for example. With the popularity of web-enabled smartphones, you may begin to see the letter ‘m’ used in place of ‘www’ – m.facebook.com – designed specifically for the smaller displays on mobile devices. Contrary to popular belief, a web site does not have to begin with ‘www’ and, in some cases, using ‘www’ before the domain name will get you to a dead-end street.

With this quick look at DNS, you should have a better understanding of its function and obvious importance. Thankfully, with properly-configured DNS servers the typical Web user generally does not even have to think about name resolution as he or she enjoys browsing the Web.

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