Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Vistas of Choice?

In some ways, the new worlds opening up as computer science and technology progress seem to promise an almost infinite array of choices. Multi-user online games allow you to create your own avatar by selecting from an array of virtual body features, abilities, and appearances. Type almost any search term into Google, and you have thousands of pages of information to choose from.

But in other ways, once you decide to deal with computers at all (and modern life is all but unthinkable without them), your choices are extremely limited. Suppose for some reason that you simply do not like the operating systems produced by Microsoft. Well, there are Macs, there are the various Linux machines, and an array of expensive specialized systems for various technical uses. But if you're just an ordinary consumer, not a computer specialist, and you just don't like Microsoft, you'll pay a price for your pickiness.

This paradox came to mind as I read news that Microsoft is currently shipping its new operating system for PCs called Vista. Given Microsoft's large market share, most PC users will have to switch to Vista sooner or later. Vista comes with promises that it is much more secure than the previous systems, but you can also rest assured that Vista is now the main target for writers of viruses and other mischief-making software, simply because more computers will be running with Vista than with anything else, if history is any guide.

The question of whether history is any guide to these matters engaged the attention of a historian of technology at MIT named Rosalind Williams a few years ago. In her book Retooling, she explored the ways people deal with the lockstep acquiescence to the latest software upgrades such as Vista that is so often imposed upon them. Even at a supposedly future-oriented, cutting-edge institution like MIT, she realized that new administrative software was greeted with dismay as often as enthusiasm. But she also realized that in the complex, interlocking world of information and technology we have created for ourselves, not keeping up with the program (so to speak) is simply impossible without turning one's back on the way modern professional life is lived.

Of course, there are societies that do this. The religious sects collectively known as the Amish decide which modern technologies to adopt and which to forego. Sometimes their prohibitions are not absolute. For example, a whole neighborhood of Amish will share one pay telephone, but use it only for emergencies. And I recall reading about another Amish community that experimented with a video player and a set of children's films for a while. Eventually, though, the parents disposed of the equipment, because one father noticed that "the children aren't singing anymore."

Rejection of most modern technology is certainly a choice, but not one that can generally be made on an individual basis. The Amish survive, not simply because they don't watch videos or drive cars, but because they have preserved and maintained a functioning community where everyone has rights and responsibilities that are taken seriously. I understand that once an Amish child comes of age, he or she can freely choose to leave the community. But most decide to stay.

That kind of community is foreign to most of us, possibly because we demand so much in the way of freedom of choice that we refuse to be bound by obligations that would reduce that freedom. But choice comes with a price. In a peculiar way, the market is kind of a mirror of our own collective choices. Microsoft got to the place it is by giving most PC users most of what they wanted. That entails literally millions of choices. (Has any user on earth ever tried out all of Microsoft Word's features even once?) But in order to have the choices Microsoft provides, you have to forego the privilege of choosing your operating system.

Engineered systems of all kinds offer similar choices. You can choose not to own a car in a city in the western U. S., but your choices for travel will be radically restricted thereby. While millions of people do quite well in northeastern U. S. cities without cars, it is because their citizens have made a collective choice to maintain public transportation at a level that makes it possible to live without a car. The reasons for this are partly historical, partly technical, and partly political. The one thing they are not is simple.

I hope Microsoft is right about Vista's increased level of security. As for myself, I will continue to fly under the radar of many viruses by using mainly Macs. That choice is one I have found hard to maintain at times. But I enjoy being able to make it.

The ethics of choice in engineering is not a subject that comes up frequently. But since choice is a fundamental aspect of human freedom, as more of our lives are engaged with engineered products and systems all the time, those of us who create them should consider the ethics of choice more often.

Sources: Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change by Rosalind Williams was published by MIT Press in 2002. My review of the book can be found in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 23, pp. 6-8, Spring 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely-worded post.

    I offer the following not as a criticism, but to provide a correction to a minor detail:

    It's hard to generalize about the Amish since there are dozens of plain sects called Amish, and multiple communities within each sect, each with their own Ordnung. However, in general, the Amish do not reject technology - and you'll be hard-pressed to find an Amish community that relies on pay phones.

    In general, the Old Order Amish do not connect with wires to the power grid at all, or to the phone network in the home. Only in some communities are phones allowed in Amish businesses. However, battery-powered equipment is generally allowed (a gas-powered generator recharges batteries). This includes cash registers (NOBODY seems to make mechanical cash registers any more) and cell phones. In some Amish businesses here in Lancaster PA, they accept credit cards, processing the charge through a charge machine attached to a cell phone.

    The Ordnung is not a Luddite-type rejection of technology, and violating the Ordnung is not considered a sin. Instead, it's a form of discipline they practice, to remind themselves constantly that they are to act like Christians. That's why the Ordnung varies so much from community to community. In the case of a farmer with no sons and advanced arthritis, the bishop may order him to buy a tractor instead of struggling to buckle harness, while the rest of the community uses horses.

    When I consume butter instead of margarine (avoiding trans fats) and elect to brew coffee instead of mixing a powder, that's a rejection of technology. In general, the Amish don't reject technology; they just deny themselves the use of it.