Does technology have a life of its own?

Natalya Goncharova Cyclist - 1913

It's not often that I highlight the journal Foreign Policy, but the current issue contains a cover story on futurism and technology from IdeaFestival 2011 presenter Parag Khanna, "Technology Will Take on a Life of Its Own." Khanna:

Predicting the future is not about locking yourself in a room, staring into a crystal ball. It is, in a sense, reporting -- getting to the people and ideas on the bleeding edge. Through persistent travel, site visits, interviews, and embedding themselves like journalists, the Tofflers used their imagination to piece together an elusive future. The Tofflers didn't make any scientific discoveries, invent a new technology, or launch a brand-name business, but they pioneered a new vocabulary to capture how such activities intersect.

A generation later, it is time to revive the Tofflers' methodology as we try to understand an incipient future in which technology has insinuated itself into every sphere and nook of human activity...

There is no adequate word in English to capture this complex entanglement of humans and technology. The German word Technik comes closest: It means not just technology, but the mastery of the methods and processes that shape and steer it. In today's emerging world, Technik can be something of a broad index of preparedness for the future Hybrid Age. It rejoins the scientific and mechanical dimensions of technology with a necessary concern for its effect on humans and society. So while today we talk about promoting democracy, tomorrow we will realize we should be promoting good Technik.

"Promoting good Technik?" I lingered over the sentence for a few moments. A concern about the relationship of technology to society has a particular resonance and history in America. Hosting European objectionists, for three hundred years it has offered refuge for distinct groups like the Shakers, Amish and Mennonites who, if they didn't (and don't) deliberately shun some technologies, thought (and think) at length about how they should be applied. Over time, Kentucky's sylvan and prairie roots lands have lent a certain resilience - some might say stubbornness - to its inhabitants, and our own Wendell Berry has written skeptically and at length on the subject of society and machine. Like him or not, we need his voice.

Similarly, part Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, part Main Street, Gary Shteyngart's dizzyingly profane (you've been warned) and touching novel Super Sad True Love Story amps up the trends and spins off a dystopian near future of "entangled humans and technology" that will make you cringe and nod knowingly at the same time.

I'm looking forward to hearing how Khanna would run the world at IdeaFestival 2011. I hope to see you there.