Course: Critical thinking about technology

Most people feel that in order to say anything critical about technology they need to first dive into how the technology works, which puts them off. However, there is another path.

Together with the SIOO foundation I developed a 5-evening course that teaches people how they can see through hype and promises around new technological innovations. The program focusses on methods of narrative deconstruction from the humanities, and builds on academic research from the fields of psychology, sociology, history and media studies.

We can analyse the tech itself, or the promises it comes wrapped in.

It touches on a number of useful mental tools and concepts such as:

  • The distinction between technological determinist and social constructivist lines of thought.
  • The Californian Ideology and its historical context.
  • The narrative tropes that “technology gurus” and futurists employ.
  • The psycho-social desires that narratives around technology hook into.
  • Critical thinking about technology in practical, real-world social situations.
  • The need to go one step up in conceptual complexity when dealing with loaded language. Specifically the narratives around ‘freedom’ as well as data ownership are deconstructed and revealed to be well meaning but overly simplistic.
  • How words such as optimism might be reclaimed and reframed from meaning “trusting that the implementation of technology will fix societal ailments” (shallow optimism) to a more mature “trusting that with careful consideration and proper regulation new technologies can be made to bring advantages while foreseeing and limiting the downsides” (deep optimism).
Technologies are a canvas onto which we project our dreams of a better world. For many of us technology equals hope, which is why critical thought may too quickly be branded and discarded as pessimism.

What the course shows is that with a little bit more knowledge, most promises around (the inevitability of) innovation can be quickly unmasked as expressions of very human desires, cultures and politics. For example, the very act of framing new innovations and “revolutionary” or “inevitable” is a clever way of subverting the agency of regulators and policymakers. If they start to believe these stories, then this can create (and has created) a self-fulfilling prophesy, where new technologies are giving too much space to “creatively disrupt” society. In reality, technologies can reach their full societal potential not despite, but because of mature deliberation and regulation.

Building on the work of Rein de Wilde to point to our “almost willfull historical amnesia” when it comes to failed predictions.

The program is a mix of (guest) lectures and break-out sessions. It also builds on many interactive tools and creations. For example, it starts out with the quiz I developed for SHERPA. It also refers back to the website I originally built for the Masterclass Net Politics.

Thanks to

The program was greatly enhanced by guest presentations from / conversations with Wouter van Noort (journalist with NRC Handelsblad), Marleen Stikker (director of Waag Society) and Hans de Zwart (civil society privacy specialist at HVA).

The project was made possible by the SIOO Foundation. I had been a ‘teacher’ for a number of years there when I suggested developing this course. Thanks to director Jesse Segers and special thanks to producer and co-developer Marguerithe de Man.