Discover more from Tender Buttons by Rebecca Mqamelo
On being a technologist
Notes from sabbatical
I have been thinking lately about what it means to be a technologist, for two reasons. The first is that I spent the last few years disproportionately surrounded by people who identify as technologists and have a penchant for being meta about the whole business – curators of book clubs, zines, bi-weekly calls, retreats in the woods and such, all philosophizing on the deeper implications of this way of life.
The second is that two months into my sabbatical, I’ve found myself feeling unusually negative about being a technologist. I went from designing crypto-enabled local currency systems to whiling away my South African summer with meditation, long walks, unhealthy volumes of Russian literature, ambitious culinary adventures, and embracing new hobbies like trail running and pottery. I am living a life of which Ernest Hemingway would be proud – a montage of cold plunges in the sea, gin at noontime, hearty lunches, and languid hours lazing in the afternoon sun.
Moving fast, let alone breaking things, is the last thing on my mind.
Who is a technologist?
Firstly, I’ll admit that I only loosely identify as a technologist. I mean, I’ve worked in tech for my entire [very short] career. I studied computer science and economics (although, truth be told, I was in that bucket of folks who chose CS for no reason other than not wanting to graduate broke). While I’m not an engineer, I’ve done technologist sort of things, like building infrastructure for people in Oakland to get self-custodial crypto wallets or running crypto-based cash transfer programs in rural Kenya. I’ve also spent a great deal of my career scrolling through tech Twitter. Do these things make me a technologist?
Most of my friends would point out that I am indeed a technologist; that my doubts highlight a representation problem that narrows our public imagination of who gets to call themselves a technologist i.e. people working very technical roles who tend to fit a certain demographic.
The first resource I ever came across discussing what it means to be a technologist was Letters to a Young Technologist, a series of essays written by a few friends who noticed a glaring lack of public discourse around the term.
For example, the Wikipedia entry for Technologist is left blank. A Google search for “What is a technologist?” spews up a mixture of oddly specific and unhelpful dictionary definitions (“an expert in a particular field of technology”) and SEO content pieces (“Technologists are team leaders and have more knowledge regarding the use of various types of technology”; “Technologist means a professional that has undertaken an accredited or recognised three-year engineering technology degree”).
It seems we must instead turn to the OG philosophers of technology – Martin Heidegger, Ivan Ilych, Ernst Kapp, et al. (For what it’s worth, I implore anyone reading this to please recommend some non-male, non-white philosophers of technology. My friend Jasmine thinks I’m better off looking at fiction, for example in the works of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. God forbid that we have only excommunicated catholic priests and card carrying members of the Nazi party to guide modern discourse on the relationship between society and its tools.)
What is a technologist?
Technology is firstly, a means to an end, and secondly, a human activity.
Technologists, then, are people who are very skilled at finding and implementing the best possible means to the ends they most desire. Technologists are instrumentalists.
And since technology is not value neutral, to be a technologist is to be inherently opinionated about how the world ought to be. Each act of creation is a statement about one particular means to an end being the best possible means. As Saffron Huang writes, “[b]ringing something into existence is in fact endorsing that thing itself. As we hurtle along one path, we necessarily reject all others.”
Contrast this to art, where at least in theory we engage in the creative process for its own sake. To be a technologist, on the other hand, is to adopt a strictly instrumental view of the world.
While the above may not be entirely true, let’s assume for a second that it is. I find this quite profound and a little scary. It echoes the thinking of philosophers like Ernst Kapp who said that a core characteristic of being human is leveraging tools – in which case, to some degree, we are all technologists.
But this feels too close to the line of thinking that says all human beings are artists. Sure, in a nice birds-eye philosophical “everyone’s a winner” sense we are. But while we are all born with creative potential, there’s certainly a wide spectrum of how intentional we are with it.
So perhaps a technologist is someone who is conscious of and strategic about their creative power and puts this to work to mold the world around them.
And here I stumble once again on that block that makes me not like being a technologist very much. I don’t want to be so instrumental about everything.
The philosophical tension
A big part of my personal process while on sabbatical is intentionally rejecting a hyper capitalist, instrumentalist approach to daily life. I have no schedule. I read for hours on end. I cook for people. I’m not earning any money. The only thing I’m “optimizing for” right now is sincerity and kindness.
While this isn’t as hardcore as running off to live a hermit life in the woods, after some time you do have a tangible feeling of having stepped away from something that everyone else is very much steeped in. Like emerging from water, you suddenly realize that something is no longer there. And you like it a lot better. The thought of jumping back in seems like sheer madness.
The insincerity, the rampant performativity, the illusion of urgency, the obsession with constructing futures at the expense of the present – for better or worse, these are all things I associate with being a technologist. And when I speak to my technologist friends, most of them share the same inkling that something is amiss.
Far too many of us go down the CS-degree, tech job route only to discover somewhere in our mid twenties that shipping products and obsessively designing a better future can have the paradoxical effect of eroding rather than enhancing our sense of meaning.
I support the growing call for better technological literacy – the study of not just how to use tools, but why we use them, and how they in turn use us.
Technology has already eaten the world. We are now all experiencing the digestive discomfort and awkward gaseous action that makes us question what we’re putting into out bodies. But rather than pause, we continue to chomp as the buffet grows ever larger.
For the time being, you’ll find me fasting.
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