averting the techno-apocalypse

by Sebastian Benthall

I was worried when I wrote this that I was exaggerating the phenomenon of literati denouncing technical progress. Then I happened upon this post by a pseudonymous Mr. Teacup, which echoes themes from Morozov’s review.

(At a company Christmas party, we exchanged Secret Santa gifts drawn from each other’s Amazon wish lists. I received Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and was asked by the Ivy-League educated hacker founder what the book was about. I explained that the book’s lost cause was Enlightenment values, and he was totally shocked by this because he had never heard that they were even in doubt – a typical example of hackers’ ignorance of intellectual trends outside their narrow fields of engineering expertise. But this naivety may explain why some parts of the public finds Silicon Valley’s pseudo-revolutionary marketing message so compelling – their hostility to the humanities has, for good or ill, spared them the influence of postmodernity, so that they are the only segment of society that unselfconsciously adopts universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Admittedly, this rhetoric is misleading and conceals a primarily capitalist agenda. Nonetheless, the public’s misrecognition of Silicon Valley’s potential to liberate also contains a moment of truth.)

All of this is true. But it’s also a matter of perspective. The “narrow fields of engineering expertise” require, to some extent, an embrace of Enlightenment values and universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, the humanities, which have adopted a kind of universal-problematic rhetoric (in which intellectual victory is achieved by labeling something as ‘problematic’), are themselves insulated. Can it be truthfully said that such rhetoric is an ‘intellectual trend’ outside of the narrow fields of high brow wordslinging?

I wouldn’t know, as I’ve been exposed enough to both sides to have gotten both bugs. And, I’d guess, so has Mr. Teacup, who writes in what I believe is an hyperintellectualized parody:

The reader will find in these pages a repository of chronologically-arranged personal writings on topics at turns varied and repetitious, circulating around certain themes: the Internet and the problematics of New Media; Capitalism; Anti-Capitalism; Psychoanalysis; Film; the works of Žižek, Lacan and others; etc.

…while the author is in fact a web professional living in this century.

I think Mr. Teacup does a good job of diagnosing some of the roots of technophobia. The technophobe denies that the technologists are in fact transforming society because they believe change is possible and are terrified that it will occur, while the technologist is happy to say that Things are Changing–but just as they Always Have, though perhaps much more significantly in their era. (Isn’t the rate of technological change “increasing”? Isn’t that a natural consequence of Moore’s law?)

Those who domesticate social change are telling us that nothing is going to happen: “Yes, things will change, but don’t worry about it! Society will adjust and everything will go back to normal.” This is true conservatism. But some are afraid, because they believe change can really happen. (For example, the Tea Party is the only political group that believes in socialism, while progressives continually deny that it is a possibility.)

What if the converse is also true: those who believe in change are afraid, and this is not the same as opposing it. The technophobic nightmare scenarios of machines spinning out of control is not a delusional fantasy. On the contrary, it gives us an extremely accurate psychological representation of what genuine social change entails. The radical step is to simply endorse it. From the standpoint of the old ways, the birth of the New must be subjectively experienced as an apocalyptic event.

So, Morozov‘s loathing of the Hybrid Reality Institute is due to what again? A legitimate fear that technological change will usher in an autocratic regime that is run by technocratic industrialists without democratic consent. Mr. Teacup writes:

This reveals the general problem with deconstructing the human-technology binary: it frequently undermines legitimate grievances about the coercive uses of technology. People are not that stupid, they don’t oppose technology because they don’t realize they are always-already technologically mediated. They oppose technology because they do realize it – this is what makes it a crucial site of political resistance.

The problem, though, is that technophobia, however entertainingly it is articulated, will do nothing to stop technical change, because (as it’s already been conceded) the people responsible for technical change don’t bother reading expansive critiques informed by the intellectual trends in the humanities. Rather, it seems that technologists are developing their own intellectual tradition based on theories of the Singularity and individual rationality. A more mathematized, libertarian, and pragmatic great-grandchild of Enlightenment thought.

The question for those concerned with the death of democratic politics or the rise of technocolonialism, then, has got to be: how do you do better than whining? Given that technological change is going to happen, how can it be better steered towards less “problematic” ends?

The difficulty with this question is that it is deeply sociotechnical. Meaning, it’s a question where social and technical problems are interleaved so densely that it requires expertise from both sides of the aisle. Which means that the literati and digerati are going to have to respectfully talk to each other.

Advertisements