A Response to Doctorow’s ‘Outquisition’

This is all about a particular BoingBoing post which I found particularly irritating. I would have posted something in the comments, or on the site itself, but in either case:

  1. I don’t fancy debating this with some of the more extreme foam-lipped loons who seem to inhabit either forum.
  2. The sheer volume of commentary in either forum would drown me out (yeah, I’m a selfish egoist; this is my blog.) and I shake with fear at the thought of the tsunami of follow-on emails.


The Outquisition idea glosses over a lot of intractable real-world economic and social problems, and, as many, many commenters observed, is vastly arrogant in its assumptions about ‘knowing better’ than everyone else.

A more honest, somewhat less arrogant take would be to create a ‘technology evangelism movement’.
This leaves out the naive and pompous idea that new technology can solve everyone’s problems, or that blogging tech-groupies are somehow smarter than everyone else.

Instead, it focuses on the traditional role of the religious missionary: to take some dogma and shiny beads and go use the beads to spread the infectious memes, even (especially?) where they’re not currently wanted or needed. The engadget/BB-gadgets crowd already do this without really thinking about it.

Consider, if you will, a yuppie with a new iPhone, traveling out of his trendy urban home to visit his parents and their friends, trumpeting the virtues of his new toy from the rooftops at every opportunity. The yuppie can list a dozen reasons why an iPhone will change your life and solve all your problems, and he has the technological shiny-beads to dazzle his listeners with.

The dynamic is just the same: the new dogma brings with it a world of complication and ritual which ultimately costs the new converts more than it gives them, destroys their existing skill-sets, culture and traditions, and leaves the newcomers as second-class citizens in the promised land anyway. Those who refuse to adopt the new ways are abandoned, spurned.
The new community absorbs things like access to work and traditional support networks, leaving the outsiders to fend for themselves, often effectively driving them out of town.

To be fair, I would have to point out that I am a devout follower of the cult of tech. As a sysadmin I may even qualify as some kind of clergy. I draw the line, however, at gratuitous evangelism. I find the idea of missionary crusades downright offensive.

This kind of evangelism smacks of insecurity, a desperation to thrust ones own interests on the world and make them mainstream, thus avoiding the question of whether they have any merit.

Just because I’m into it doesn’t make it right.

5 thoughts on “A Response to Doctorow’s ‘Outquisition’

  1. Dude, I know this is only for comments on your post, but I dont have my own blog, so I’m gonna be annoying and post my rant here 🙂

    Yes, after reading the offending article I am inclined to agree with your point. But u only need to get thru the first 2 paragraphs of “The Outquisition” before finding another point.
    Like so many “solution for society” ideas (mostly political models) it fails to take into account certain aspects of the human psyche and social interaction. Post apocalyptic world, the people who survive have had their secure, comfortable reality destroyed. I’m this state of mind, very few people are receptive to further change, idealism, or trust. Any members of a technological “Outquisition” would be set upon by nearly every person they encountered.
    At best, these self righteous pricks would be slaughtered by the first tribe of survivors they tried preaching to. At worst, they would be forced to use they technological advantages in defense/attack in order to survive, and would quickly transition to Inquisition mode (power corrupts).
    Maybe if they waited a few generations before launching such a process, they might find better luck with the more relaxed descendants, but by that time most of the technological enthusiasm would probably have died out too

  2. Hmm, the more thought-through variants of this time the effort at one or two millennia, probably due to recent history (Roman Empire — today). For instance, B5’s The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz or Asimov’s Foundation series.

    That’s probably a more realistic time-frame.

    Of course, such a thing is moderately likely to lead to another Inquisition; the most obvious setup for this is “protect the knowledge”, which will tend to protect it against improvement as much as deterioration. Indeed, to some extent that’s what the original Inquisition was. We are not good at setting up institutions that recognise the achievement of their own goals and wind themselves down (or scale back to monitoring and maintenance).

    Whether such a thing leads to a cyclic history or eventual rise to a higher plane is a matter of the author’s taste and disposition; possibly even both, with hundreds of cycles each higher than the last.


  3. I sincerely hope that all of this isn’t going to turn out the way you imagine that it will. If after a year it becomes clear that your a priori allegations were valid, then we will deserve your ridicule! I have no desire to lead a cadre of self-appointed saviors. We can do better than that.

  4. As flames go, it’s pretty mild: I’m being attacked because I haven’t said anything formally disprovable! Oh, no, I’m logically invalid!

    The contempt I express is for the implicit attitude inherent in the idea of the Outquisition. As such, my contempt is unchanged by the success, failure, justification or humiliation of the Outquisition in any sense in which it may ever come to exist.

    I find the whole approach offensive and imbecilic. It makes me embarrassed to call myself a technophile or a geek. YMMV, Mr Pfeiffer, and clearly does. Good for you.

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