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-- b i o --
Craig Saila works at CANOE, as an online editor for The Financial Post and Money. He also is a member of the International Advisory Board for the Canadian Institute for New Media, Research and Development.

He was the Managing Editor of Canada's first daily magazine devoted to the new media, The Convergence, and he's written for The Toronto Star and Toronto Life.

Technorealism
"The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian"
by Craig Saila

It's been said revolutions move in stages, at first there are the visionaries — those that show the exciting possibilities laying in wait — and then there are the realists.

"I think that's where we're at now [with the digital revolution]," said Data Smog author David Shenk. "Lots of people appreciate the possibilities, but want to integrate it back into their own life."

And that's the impetuous behind technorealism. It's a middle ground between the techno-Utopians (John Perry Barlow and former Wired editor Louis Rosetto being examples) and the neo-Luddites exemplified in the extreme by Ted "The Unabomber" Kazincki and his manifesto.

"Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life," wrote in the introduction. Like other technologies — the telephone, the car — the benefits of information technology come at a price. Technorealism is about realizing and accepting that.

Since the original Overview and Statement of Principles was posted online on March 12, over 1,300 people from around the world have signed in support of ; there was a conference held at Harvard this spring (attended by EFF co-founders Barlow — a technorealism critic — and Mitch Kapor — now a technorealism supporter) and another, unaffiliated with the group, is in the works; it's been praised in articles and columns printed in, among others, The New York Times and The Nation.

But technorealism has not been without it's critics; much of it comes from writers and thinkers who've been online longer than much of today's Net population.

R.U.Sirus wrote a scathing satire breaking down the different eras of Technoculture declaring Technorealism dead after just one week. According to Sirius, Technorealism was created when:

...a small group of intellectuals bent on truth and a book contract had a brilliant... er... um... at least sobering idea: .... What if we were to lay claim to digital reality itself, defining it in language so stilted, with ideas so mind-numbingly simplistic and obvious, so soporific that a dazed cyberpopulis, already rendered doofus from data shock, might just sign on?
(In reality, the seeds were sown in last summer when Andrew Shapiro and Shenk began discussing how they neither loved nor hated new technology, but believed in its power.)

Other critics focus less on the points themselves, but rather on the need for such a declaration. HotWired columnist Jon Katz wrote:

The principles of technorealism, though they tend toward the self-important, are quite sensible. But they are not exactly stirring, nor likely to send the masses out into the streets. It isn't clear why such moderate, even tepid, philosophical and political stands require a manifesto in need of fearless co-signers, let alone a conference at Harvard.

"It's not that we think this idea is hugely innovative. We're just putting a name to — and slightly focussing — the thinking that's already out there," said Shenk. "We didn't expect everyone in the world would [think this is new or interesting]."

With almost 100 people signing the document every week, it's clear there is strong suuport for the ideas embodied in the orginal document. Shenk and the other co-founders, however, are wary of technorealism becoming a dogma. After all the time for visonaries is past.

So as the support for technorealism grows, they plan on letting the site evolve, too. Already in the works are:

  • a FAQ clarifying some of the ideas
  • an annotated document with a variety of small essays (expanding on what has been done on FEED)
  • a mailing list to discuss what's happening with technorealism
  • a quarterly journal to be sent out starting this fall, providing a venue to discuss the ideas in greater depth

Now that the possibiliites have been seen, the co-founders of technorealism hope people will move to adopt the tenets of tecnorealism into their own lives, adapting them as necessary, knowing this next stage is in their own hands.  Copyright © 1998, Craig Saila

The writer of this article welcomes your comments:  craig@mindjack.com