In his essay Authoritarian and Democratic Technics historian Lewis Mumford gives wonderful clarity to typical discussions about technology.
The article is here, but I will summarize for those who want the quick version.
Typically people will say, “Technology is neither good nor bad, but can be used for good or bad ends.” That is, technology is value-neutral, and entirely so.
Mumford disagrees. No technology is inherently good or bad. But products are designed to be used in certain ways, and they enter into a human context that is always moral. Basically, Mumford argues that
– Some kinds of ‘technics’ are designed to be used in such a way that enhance our humanity, which he calls ‘Democratic,’
– Some, as we use them, will inevitably take away from our humanity, which he calls, ‘Authoritarian.’ For Mumford, the Industrial Revolution produced much of this.
His categories really help cut through debates surrounding technology. With the recent passing of Steve Jobs and focus on his legacy, a question arose in my mind.
Jobs was notorious for his insistence on control of every aspect of product development. Apple products are essentially ‘closed’ systems that have definite boundaries of how they can be used.
And yet, Apple products are wonderfully accessible. What’s more, they have a simple elegance about them. Jobs took aesthetics quite seriously. He created beautiful products.
Do Apple products fall within the ‘Authoritarian’ or ‘Democratic’ side of the Mumford’s analysis?