The church of Wired

I like Wired. I wouldn’t shout about it in polite company, just as transport wonks would hide their love of Top Gear. But I like its tone. Its excitement.  Its very short sentences. Having done more than my share of zeitgeist surfing in think-tank world, I recognise the breathless neologisms and relentless over-extrapolation of novelty. Reading Wired is exhausting. Like being punched in the face by the new.

My local newsagent, which proudly claims to be ‘Porn Free’, serves up both US and UK flavours of Wired’s technoporn. The UK version is relatively new. It borrows much of its big brother’s material, dilutes some of the adjectives and mixes in some British examples. But it just doesn’t feel right. Recent reporting about Silicon Roundabout reads as though it was written by special advisers from the department of Business, Innovation and Skills, with Steve Hilton breathing down their necks. (Hilton is rumoured to have actually said the words “I’ve seen the future and it’s in Shoreditch.”)

American Wired is a cultural artefact – it transcribes a particular culture (mostly Silicon Valley) and zealously sells it to a global subculture of enthusiasts. Its prophets and disciples, some of whom refer to themselves without irony as ‘technology evangelists’, see their job as saving souls, converting others to their particular worldview. Actor Network Theorists would not be surprised. The evangelists are doing a version of ‘heterogenous engineering’. Technology, as much as anything, does not speak for itself. Its future users need to be defined, enrolled, tamed to fit the innovation in question.

There are books to be written (probably have been. Anyone?) about the religious threads woven through US science policy. Geneticist and devout christian Francis Collins was a convenient choice to lead the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health. Influential policy reports about nano– and converging technologies are almost transcendental. And lets not get started on the Singularity

In the UK, we like our technology how we like out ministry – quiet, reliable, with tea and cakes. This is why UK Wired doesn’t work for me. It’s like Billy Graham rocking up to St Winifred’s Chigwell. But maybe this is actually what we need more of. As Anglican congregations shrivel and urban evangelical stadium worship booms, maybe we should all follow the hypesters.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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5 Responses to The church of Wired

  1. alice says:

    Tempted to disagree with analogy, though I like the UK Wired notes – for me the slick prettiness of Wired is very much a product of commercial culture, and that this is important. Maybe 19th C museums and ‘Great Exhibitions’ etc were churches to sci and tech, whereas late 20thC/ early 21st mags are something different (though a connection between religion and commercial culture is makable, one of the reasons I like your note on UK Wired). I’m not sure though – hence only ‘tempted’ to disagree.

    I don’t know work on religious threads to science policy, but there is a historical literature on the connections between pop sci and tech writing which I suspect might help you unpick this, certainly if you are considering the discourse as it overlaps with magazines.

    More pragmatically – I know some hoped Seed would be like an online Wired but with the occasional Jasanoff piece thrown in – balance the hype, or at least use it for springboard for debate (whilst also being all slick and pretty, etc). What do you think of that?

  2. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Alice

    There’s something in the combination of the commercial and the evangelical that might get us close. US religion, as we know, is relaxed about the ability of rich men to enter heaven (I guess they just buy (or invent) really tiny camels. Nanocamels).

    I had forgotten about Seed, which was of course a real magazine for a bit – bringing together science with bleeding edge design. New Scientist on crack. Like Wired, and the world of think-tanks, it embraced “Ideas”, which is why Sheila and co were allowed in. As with the project of modernity itself, self-confident technomags need to accomodate self-critique, which they largely shrug off, I would argue…

  3. I must confess to not reading Wired – either flavour – despite being deeply embedded in the tech innovation world! But I do find the analogy between technology and religion (I could even be “tempted” to say “the cult of science and religion”) an interesting one. I’m sure someone has written about this (Alice?), but if they haven’t, they should – beyond the foundations of discovered evidence versus revealed truth, much of the superstructure has a passing similarity – at least from a distance. Even down to comparisons between sub-cultures of the all-embracing, rather comfortable Anglican catholic church and the more culturally attuned but sometimes less tolerant community church movement.

  4. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Andrew. I guess I am interested in Ecunemism. But my sense of religion is that the ecumenical groups are less successful.

    This book looks interesting: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Religion_of_Technology.html?id=9PXXAAAAMAAJ

    There’s so much potential in exploring the common ground between science and religion. The scientific hardliners spend so much time distancing themselves that productive discussion becomes impossible. John Evans from UCSD recently told me about some fascinating survey work that he has done – asking religious US people why they are heterodox on evolution, climate etc. The Dawkins gang tend to treat these discussions as epistemological ones (to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail). The other side sees them as moral. Their disagreement is not with the facts, but with the imagined worldview of scientists and scientific institutions.

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