bernardo parrella on Thu, 8 Oct 1998 08:33:42 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Technorealism update (a Village Voice story)

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

by Austin Bunn (Village Voice)

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 effortan 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, 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 (, David Shenk (author of
Data Smog), Andrew Shapiro (a contributing editor at The Nation), and
Steven Johnson of FEED magazine ( the midst of the
commercial explosionof 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-timefor 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. Slate and Newsweek sniped 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

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

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 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 ex-HotWired 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
ane-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 Wired contributing
editor and TR member. In addition, some members find themselves
intellectually reinvigorated. ''[TR has] made me more mindful,'' says

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

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