Technoreality Check

The story behind the splintering of a 21st-century philosophy

Just six months ago, the 12 founding Technorealists were clamoring for the chance to talk. Now, it's tricky to find one willing to go on the record. At least three of the founding members (including one of the original creators) have abandoned the group's electronic mailing list--its sole organizing body--and many of the remaining folk attest that the list itself has been silent for months. The movement, says one member, ''is in shambles.'' Another testifies bitterly, ''I felt had. I don't join groups and this reminded me why.'' A third member calls the effort an example of ''how not to start an intellectual movement.''

On March 12, both The New York Times and USA Today wrote about the launch of technorealism.org, a site propounding the need for a ''fertile middle ground'' between techno-utopianist thinking and neo-Luddism. The site offered a document that sketched out eight points of the Technorealist (TR) philosophy, like ''technologies are not neutral,'' ''wiring schools will not save them,'' and ''the government has an important role to play'' in cyberspace.

But what attracted the most attention were the names of 12 signatories--this TR group, largely journalists, represented a broad collective of some of the most established younger thinkers in the Internet industry: Marisa Bowe of Word (word.com), David Shenk (author of Data Smog), Andrew Shapiro (a contributing editor at The Nation), and Steven Johnson of FEED magazine (feedmag.com).In the midst of the commercial explosion of the Net, TR was the first coordinated social critique of the medium and its effects. Since its launch 1500 people have signed up. (Disclosure: not only do I work part-time for FEED, but many TR members are my close friends.)

Just what was TR? It was a working paper, a ''document.'' But if it was simply a document, then why were people expected to sign their names? It seemed like a protest petition in search of a conflict--well-intentioned, but inert. (I didn't sign it.) With a curious public whose attention was now piqued, the organizers made available an online discussion board at FEED to open a conversation about their philosophy, or ''framework,'' or whatever it was exactly. Meanwhile, the 12 scrambled to clarify their positions. ''I spent a frantic week after it came out writing e-mail to everybody I knew saying, 'It's not a manifesto,' '' says Johnson.

What were they after? Dialogue, they say. But almost immediately the conversation about TR became flooded by a backlash of skepticism and suspicion. Slateand Newsweeksniped at the document, the latter calling it ''a vapid, muddled treatise.'' Many considered TR a clumsy bid by the founders to catapult themselves into Washington think tanks or work their names into Rolodexes at the Times. It seemed to prove pundit Esther Dyson's adage true: the Net is great for conspiracy but terrible for propaganda.

In late March, Todd Lappin, an editor at Wired highly critical of the TR document, created an alternative mailing list called GetReal, ''because everyone was talking past each other,'' he says. But the scrutiny and savaging there was brutal. ''I got off the GetReal list because everybody seemed so mean and I'm so tired of people being mean,'' recalls Douglas Rushkoff (author of Media Virus).

Unbeknownst to some members, Lappin joined the internal TR mailing list. When they found out their staunchest critic was among them, they were ''stunned,'' recalls one. Lappin was asked to leave the list on April 8 because, as he describes it, ''I was insufficiently supportive''--though he had never posted a word. Angered, he wrote a nasty send-off and signed off.

Days before, Technorealism had had its first real-world unveiling--or drubbing, depending on whom you ask--at the prestigious Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. The afternoon of panel discussions, moderated by law prof Larry Lessig and the center's executive director Jonathan Zittrain, was ''bullshit,'' says Rushkoff. ''They were strutting around . . . trying to catch us on tiny technicalities [of the theses] and we were saying our purpose is to open this debate.'' To wit, another professor, Charles Nesson, introduced the group with a slide that read ''Is TR a pile of shit?'' (Transcripts are available at http://cyber.harvard.edu/ technorealism/ panel1.html.) Paulina Borsook, a journalist and TR member, recalls, ''I went expecting [Fresh Air host] Terry Gross and what we got was the McLaughlin Group. . . . I was totally fucking horrified.''

In the months afterward, the group began to splinter over a course of action. ''One of the root causes behind our problems is that we didn't have a plan,'' explains Johnson. Jon Lebkowsky, the two-time president of EFF-Austin and currently a board member of its spinoff, EF-Texas, had asked to join the TR list because he respected the ideas and wanted to support it. But he left and rejoined multiple times (he's now left for good) because he felt frustrated by the ''lack of energy and understanding'' about where to go after the initial announcement. ''I ultimately felt like I had spent a lot of time defending the intents and purposes of the group and the group wasn't giving me much to defend.''

Even planned activities were effectively stillborn, say some. Until two weeks ago, Brooke Shelby Biggs, an ex­HotWired employee and current fellow at the Berkman Center, had been attempting to set up a conversation about TR in the community area of Netscape's Netcenter. Few of the people on the TR list could find the time to help, she says. ''There never seemed to be any momentum.'' The silence on the TR list to her proposal, says one member, ''was deafening.''

But in late July and early August, the TR list took a serious hit when David Shenk--one of the original conceivers of the document--signed off the list over ''very strong differences of opinion'' between himself and Mark Stahlman, a consultant and founder of the New York New Media Association. According to Stahlman (who says he now ''owns'' the mailing list and is planning its future activities), there were two distinct TR movements all along: a ''wide-ranging'' effort to study the role of technology in society, and a political endeavor to use TR to ''boost a policy platform.'' ''TR wasn't intended to advance the careers of the people involved in it,'' he says.

For other members, it was Stahlman's own strident and garrulous voice on the TR list that disrupted the group. Many of the members had become so overwhelmed by Stahlman's monologues that they turned on e-mail filters (also called ''bozo filters'') to keep his messages from filling their inboxes. The list had become a ''demonstration of the kinds of smoke-filled misunderstandings endemic to the medium of mailing lists,'' writes Wired contributing writer and TR member Steve Silberman in an e-mail. ''The last thing I need is more mail . . . with otherwise savvy people trying to explain what they *really* meant to say in their last five messages.'' Silberman dropped off the list August 7.

Now, Technorealism seems to consist in wondering whether it exists. As Biggs comments, ''it's not dead at this point, it's just reached a 'come to Jesus' moment.'' Stahlman points to two upcoming activities as proof of the life of the group--an academic panel discussion about TR and an electronic journal--coedited with David Bennahum, a Wiredcontributing editor and TR member. In addition, some members find themselves intellectually reinvigorated. ''[TR has] made me more mindful,'' says Rushkoff.

But the opera of TR's ambitions has diminished significantly since March. Many of the group now consider themselves restored to ''free agent'' status. This relaxation from dogma might be just a natural correction, says Bennahum optimistically. ''There is this element of impatience because everything on the Net happens so fast, you think social grouping on the Net should happen with the same velocity,'' he says. He's right--perhaps now is precisely when TR will become interesting, when it's no longer about egos or accolades or hype. ''Who knows what the accretion of e-mailing will lead to?'' Bennahum continues. ''Why can't we wait and see?''

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