Technological Optimism & Software Preservation

I’ve been going through Phillip Rogaway’s recent paper “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work,” and the section on technological optimism was particularly striking. He writes, “Technological optimists believe that technology makes life better. According to this view, we live longer, have more freedom, enjoy more leisure. Technology enriches us with artifacts, knowledge, and potential. Coupled with capitalism, technology has become this extraordinary tool for human development. At this point, it is central to mankind’s mission.”

Later, he continues, “If you’re a technological optimist, a rosy future flows from the wellspring of your work. This implies a limitation on ethical responsibility. The important thing is to do the work, and do it well. This even becomes a moral imperative, as the work itself is your social contribution…a normative need [for the ethic of responsibility] vanishes if, in the garden of forking paths, all paths lead to good…. Unbridled technological optimism undermines the basic need for social responsibility.”

My first thought was a series of jokes about Max Weber. Someone more thoughtful than I needs to write a piece on the Protestant work ethic, capitalism, and the current shape of the tech industry. Maybe I will just write it when I am feeling more thoughtful, but that is for another day. As much as it would be fun to discuss how long-standing American mores affect the current shape of innovation, industry, and ethics in Silicon Valley, I am going to focus today on a topic that more closely relates to my current work at the National Library of Medicine.

One may not think that there is a direct connection between software preservation and the current prevalence of technological optimism. Preservation, of software or any other material, is simultaneously obsessed with the past and the future. A preservationist works for a future client, trying to ensure accessibility to those who may not be born yet. At the same time, the preservationist concerns herself with the past. Currently, I am digging through a pile 5 1/4 floppy disks from the private papers of a researcher. I use 30 year old manuals to try to fix hardware from the 1980’s. I’m sitting in pile of historic refuse, trying to ensure it will be usable in 2040. My relationship with time is a strange one – my thoughts, actions, and goals straddle the past and the future but barely touch the present.

The technological optimist, on the other hand, exists only (or at least mostly) in the present. If their work, as Rogaway argues, becomes a moral imperative in itself, then the past and future of that work does not have as much weight as the current status of the work itself. If all technology helps mankind and technological work is good, then why is it necessary to understand past technologies? Why is it necessary to understand theĀ  future ramifications of our current technology? Outside of improving present technology for future use, the present-tense becomes the dominant focus when technology becomes its own moral good. Our understandings of time and how we fit into larger historical narratives effect how we relate to the world and, most importantly, the people in it. If we assume constant positive technological innovation, we assume many things about the lives of the people all around the world. If the iPhone improves my life, does the existence of the iPhone improve all lives? How will we weigh what these inevitably variant experiences?

Of course, the technological optimist, as Rogaway understands her, does not concern herself with these types of questions. Technology is progress and progress is good. Yet, as people begin to look more closely at the ethical and philosophical issues intrinsic in technological invention and use, there will need to be a historical record of technology. Software preservation is a key aspect of that historical record. Understanding software as an important historical object encourages the preservationist both to preserve software and the variety of documentation that software development and use relies on. Without documenting our technological history, we are far more likely to remain entranced with a world view that fails to consider the ramifications and nuances of technological innovation.

To be clear, this is not simply a question of understanding history so you are not doomed to repeat it. There is truth to that statement, but it is not the point. It is easy to disregard documenting software because software is intended for use. We use software until the next thing comes along and then we throw it away. However, with each piece of software we throw away, we also throw away ideas and innovations that may not have fit into contemporaneous understandings of technological progress. While a new version of a piece of software may be available, it does not mean that all aspects of that new version are actually improvements. We lose intellectual histories by disregarding software. With the loss of those histories, we also lose the ability to better discern what constitutes true growth and the role technology plays in that growth. If we are to create an understanding of technology free of the technology optimism that Rogaway describes, we need to preserve our software.