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.
To start, thank you for reading my blog post. I am confused about why you cite it as evidence of the jealousy of the literati, since as you point out, I am not a member. My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, the program I’m in now is in the College of Engineering, and I have never taken a literature class. My entire professional career thus far has been working for Silicon Valley startups or dot-coms — a childhood dream! — and benefiting from the ascendancy of design in the industry.
If these factors don’t qualify me for membership in the digerati, then I don’t know what could. So the balance of power is shifting in my favor, and if I was interested in power, I could capitalize on it. Instead, I defected, and allied myself (intellectually, at least) with an idea that’s in decline. It is true that I designed my blog as a kind of caricature of a 19th century literary intellectual. It was designed, among other things, to troll people who’d otherwise like to tell me that what I write about is obsolete.
So, I think it’s pretty hard to cast doubt on my motives. The same goes for Evgeny Morozov. He was the Director of New Media for an NGO, and now he is a relentless critic of cyber-utopians, a group that lavishes praise and flattering on that work. Neither of us of is a lit geek who’s mad because we’ve been made irrelevant – just the opposite, we’re disillusioned digerati.
Thank you for your response. I very much enjoyed your writing!
I acknowledge your digerati credentials and I respect your defection. I’m sympathetic to it. However, you may consider yourself counter-trolled by a post taking your 19th century literary intellectual persona at face value.
The problem as I see it with the literary/intellectual resistance to techno-…(techno-what? technocratic? no… technologistic?) power is that it winds up alienating the base of people most capable of and/or responsible for steering things in another direction. The “I read something you didn’t, so you are dumb” line is part of a vestigially aristocratic intellectual tradition that celebrates leisure time as a means of personal edification.
Writing about this sort of this is fun! Skewering ideologues is fun! But what bearing does that have on the real issues at stake?
I have a lot of respect for Morozov. That said, “Director of New Media for an NGO” sounds like exactly the sort of place where one would enter with high expectations and become disillusioned about the power and progress of technology in the face of social complexity. It’s good that he is critiquing cyber-utopians. But the perspective of a disillusioned technology user and a disillusioned technology builder are different. The eagerness with which the former attack the technology production industry feels to me like an angry user calling the support line. “What do you mean, your product doesn’t solve world hunger?” “Well, wait for version 2.0…”
You’ll get no argument from me about the pretensions of the intelligentsia. If we’re making this about personal characteristics, I wouldn’t even object to the idea that the digerati are, on the whole, nicer people.
The difference is that, insofar as the literati are exclusive, cliquish and self-aggrandizing, they are betraying they ideals they represent, which is the universality of thought. The same charge does not apply to the digerati. Self-aggrandizement is intrinsic to a culture, like Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture, dominated by people trying to become members of the 1%. It is incredibly competitive, attention-seeking, focused on status and being part of the cool crowd, being a “thought leader,” and brazenly hierarchical about the “smart people.” This is a culture that ranks people by how many Twitter followers they have, and created Facebook’s solution to blog comments called “Sort by social rank.”
And this is apparently all fine with everyone. It’s a meritocracy! Your position in the hierarchy is determined by your value – if you don’t like it, you’re probably just jealous. This is what passes for thinking in Silicon Valley, which wouldn’t be so bad if they would just admit that this is a weakness, and respect and learn from disciplines that address those issues. There’s nothing wrong with having a narrow field of expertise, but software engineering culture is remarkably blind to its limitations. It is extremely insular and hostile to outsiders, but has a willingness to impose its culture on others. You use the word technocolonialism, and this is quite apt.
I dunno, man. Let’s slow this down.
First, I’ve never worked for a Silicon Valley company. But I have worked at tech companies. I don’t think the two should be conflated. Mark Zuckerberg was a horrible influence on a whole generation of hacker entrepreneurial types, but I’ve had the pleasure of working with and getting to know people from an older school of thought where the point is to build an enduring business that does something useful.
And, I think it’s really wrong to conflate Silicon Valley culture with software engineering culture altogether. Lots of software engineers just work happy day jobs at places that are already established. Others are FOSS consultants. Startup culture is just one part of the tech economy.
So, while everything you say about self-aggrandizement, “thought leadership”, hierarchy, social rank by Twitter followers, etc. is culturally noxious, I don’t think it applies to everyone we might be talking about here.
As for the literati…some of them seem to be just about that sort of thing as well, no? Insular and hostile to outsiders, occasionally, perhaps?
Your point on “universality of thought” is really interesting, especially when compared with the accusation of technocolonialism of software engineering culture. Isn’t the promotion of a culture that’s based on natural laws of computation just an attempt to achieve universality of thought on some true matter? How does that differ from the expectation that if only everybody read the same books, they would see things the same way?
Probably better than point fingers at insularity of either caste is looking for communities amenable to bridging. Know any folks interested in that?
I know that what I’m describing doesn’t apply to all software developers. Or even to all of Silicon Valley. It doesn’t (didn’t) apply to me, for example. And it also applies to people in the orbit of Silicon Valley, but aren’t devs.
But I don’t think my points only apply to startup culture. FOSS culture also has these tendencies: pseudo-liberatory rhetoric of openness, but practically speaking, the power to influence software design (in the sense of product design) is far from democratic. If you don’t like a decision, you are free to fork the project — a false freedom because it is impossible for a non-developer. Even for a developer, you can’t fork a project’s community and momentum.
False forms of freedom like these permit authoritarianism, the famous “benevolent dictatorship” model of open source governance, and is directly analagous to justifying worker exploitation by claiming they are free to quit at any time.
I do agree with you that despite all of this, one has to concede that the culture of software engineering contains a moment of truth because it maintains fidelity to universality. In other words, techno-colonialism (or even techno-libertarianism) are not inherent to software development. I think in principle, a more radical form is possible, and bringing it about is one of the most important things that could be done. All of the problems with the field make it a “lost cause,” but one which we should return to, to reactualize its subversive kernel.
But one thing I firmly believe is that the emphasis on advancing technology for its own sake has to be jettisoned. Technologists argue for special status because the tools they build are innovative, creative, democratizing, etc. and I think these are ideological claims. Hacker News is fairly hostile to economic justice arguments, but recently on the front page there was an article about how satellite imagery can reveal income inequality. This reveals that hackers are willing to expose inequality, as long as the method for doing that (satellites) implicitly justifies their high salaries. It’s a common strategy, where any alleged social benefit that a technology brings to the many is used to shore up the elite status of the few who build it.
Saving the subversive kernel means creating a division within the field. It’s difficult to say at this point what that would be, but probably something along the lines of reconceiving technological progress in a democratic-egalitarian way, so that those who try to seek elite status and personal enrichment are seen as traitors.
I think a lot of what you are saying here is good. But I take issue with your characterization of ‘false freedom’ in open source. What are you basing these claims on?
One way that non-developers can influence product design is by contributing to the project. This can be done through documentation, through contribution of wireframes, through filing of software issues, and through participation on a users’ list. Another way to influence product design is to find funding and pay developers to move the project closer to that intended direction.
These options are available in well-run open source projects. Encouraging non-technical contributions to a community is part of good community management. RedHat, for example, excels at this.
I agree that forking a project without the skills to take the project forward is a non-starter. I don’t think it’s fair to call that exploitation, though. What makes “worker exploitation” as you describe it a problem is when economic conditions make conditions of unemployment inhumane. (Being free to quit at any time is not inherently a bad thing if Exit (a la Hirschman) is a viable option.
The fact that when you don’t get the community momentum when you fork a project is just a facet of the falseness of technological determinism. People working within functioning open source communities know that the strength of the community (frequently run by consensus, by the way) is what makes a project successful. Forking is a last resort, which forces even a ‘benevolent dictator’ to remain benevolent–ruling by community consent. Really I can’t think of a better model of social governance. Can you propose something better?
I’d highly recommend Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source Software for best practices around community management.
I think you make an interesting point about the relationship between technology and justice, the enrichment of engineers, and the potential for re-envisioning technological progress in a social-democratic way. But I’m skeptical of the viability of a revolutionary program that is purely ideological and does not promise some kind of reward to those that enact it. Even if such a thing existed, the proponents of such an ideology would be rewarded with social status and opportunity for their role in the movement. So, insisting that such a thing has to be rooted in altruism seems unnecessary and probably hypocritical unless the agent of change was a truly anonymous saint.
Wouldn’t it be more practical to align self-interest with social interest? Is it really a problem if those that improve social welfare by contributing to others’ freedom and equality reap some rewards in the process? In Marxist terms, we would expect that the next stage of history would have a ruling class. It may be an imperfect one, but it could be better than rule by the bourgeoisie. Who is to say that ours in the penultimate stage of history?
Open source is a false kind of freedom because writing code is out of reach of the vast majority of users. Its freedom for developers. The question I ask is, in what sense is open source software open to non-developers? Yes, non-technical participants can do tasks that developers tend to avoid, like documentation, design and testing. But the mantra is often “scratch your own itch” and that’s obviously not going to empower those who don’t have the right skills to make meaningful decisions.
Projects may be great at getting work out of non-technical contributors, but the decision-making power mostly remains with a core group of lead developers. The popular “benevolent dictator” model of open source governance instutionalizes an anti-democratic process. What would be better than this? A democratic project management process, one that puts direction of a software project in the hands of the end users. I think that would be a little better.
“Wouldn’t it be more practical to align self-interest with social interest?”
But this is just called capitalism. You are restating Adam Smith’s views in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The question of altruism and self-interest is also not an issue for me. If you start from the assumption that capitalism creates a just distribution of resources, then any improvements would be seen as some version of altruism – the rich giving away what is rightfully theirs to help the poor. But this is circular reasoning – if you start with the premise that capitalism is just, you’re likely to conclude that capitalism is just. The concept of self-interest suffers from a similar problem, and a few others. The majority are exploited by capitalism, so it is not in their self-interest. Capitalism does not allow unfettered self-interest, there have always been constraints elevated to moral principles (lying, cheating, theft, fraud, greed, etc.) to prevent excesses that might cause the system to spin out of control.
In pre-capitalist societies, if you pay people higher hourly wages, they tend to reduce their work hours, which means the traditional logic of incentives and self-interest as universal principles of human behavior breaks down. Why is it in my self-interest to maximize wages, and not maximize leisure time? The difference between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies should indicate that people’s motivations aren’t eternal truths, but products of the societies they live in.
On your more substantive question of how can we do better than whining. The point that I try to make is that the problems of technology are really problems of capitalism, so the important issue is why we are not able to contest capitalism. This isn’t a sociotechnical problem, and I don’t see how technical expertise can contribute to the debate.
You talk about needing expertise from both sides of the aisle, humanities and engineering. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard it in response to my writing, and seems to be rooted in the assumption that there are two kinds of people, and you are either one or the other. This assumption doesn’t fit me, but I think it’s strange that people assume that because I am critical of technology, it must mean I have no educational background in engineering.
This obviously reflects the widespread tendency of engineers to ignore the social impact of their work, and an expectation that criticism should come from outside the field. The burden is placed on other people to prove that our work has a negative impact. To me, this is irresponsible and unacceptable.
I agree that many of the problems of technology are really problems with capitalism. I disagree that capitalism is not a sociotechnical problem.
Let’s take it as a given that human life is always-already bound up in technology. Society is structured around technology. The economy is structured around technology. What is feudalism without the plow and the castle? What is capitalism without factory production and banks?
If this is true, then one way we can contest capitalism is by changing which technology exists and how it is available. I think that one of those ways is by developing open source software. Another way would be to develop decentralized infrastructure for social connectivity that could be operated by civil society groups. And so on.
The possibilities of this kind of technology are essential to the question of whether or not there is anything for society after capitalism. As you know, defenders of capitalism will say that capitalism represents the culmination of natural law regarding human social relations. It is the most efficient social information processing system, it is the best at finding and empowering merit, and so on. One can ask: what if different technology is available? Can we build something better?
That is where technical expertise can contribute to the debate.
I agree that the assumption that there are only two kinds of people, ‘social’ and ‘technical’, is a frustrating assumption. I didn’t mean to imply that you as a complete human are either one, though I would wager that your 19th century literary persona Mr. Teacup is a non-technical chap. I was impressed when I looked into your Conversationalist app, since that looks like the sort of thing that would actually help society. I couldn’t get it to work though. Out of curiosity, is it open source?
I have mixed feelings about the critique that engineers should consider the social impact of their work. Mostly, I think engineers have a hard enough job engineering, and that predicting social impact is extraordinarily difficult. So, any actionable request to engineers to change what they are doing for political reasons is going to have to come to them in form of simple heuristics. Ideally, these heuristics are also justifiable in terms of their self-interest, as I think it’s too much to request altruism from everyday working people. I think open sourcing ones work is a heuristic that could be applied in this way–justifiable both from a social perspective and the perspective of somebody selling their labor.
I’ve written at length about the open source ideals on my blog: http://www.mrteacup.org/post/peer-production-illusion-part-1.html
I guess you could say I’m skeptical of its potential.
Your view of capitalism seems too much like technological determinism. You ask if technology can build something better. But it already has — technological progress over the last few centuries has exploded. When is it supposed to start challenging capitalism? The wealth that’s created by technology continues to be concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, and it doesn’t seem like that will change by inventing even more types of technology.
It seems like you are treating open source as a technology, but I think it is more accurate to say it is a legal and social arrangement for building software. That’s certainly more in line with what I think is necessary, I just don’t think the open source movement really does that. But the only reason we can even think of it that way is because it makes a critique of other social and legal arrangements, not because it invents any new or superior software.
My project isn’t open source right now, but I’ve considered it. I do think it’s beneficial to society, but again, not because it is technically interesting or solves any “hard problems.” The whole project is guided by an idea of what communication ought to be and it privileges certain types of interaction: thought over action, deliberative discourse over reaction, and so on. That all came from reading Habermas, and I think of the project as being built on those ideas, even more so than on ruby and postgresql.
To a certain extent, I do think that technology can change the world for the better, but not because it can let us do things that have never been done before, or do things much faster and more efficiently. I guess because I am a designer, I look at technology in the same way as I look at a book or a film or work of art, as expressing a point of view, or having certain rhetorical qualities. Software solicits us to engage with it to produce certain effects that its makers think are valuable. By using the software, we are in some sense agreeing with them.
To me, a technology is almost like a materialization of an idea. That’s why it matters what ideas motivate the construction of software in Silicon Valley. I don’t point out that hackers fail to pay attention to important intellectual trends because I want them to feel dumb. I point it out because it means that they are blind to the way their work reproduces capitalist ideology, or other forms of domination. As Marx said, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The lack of thinking about ideas means that they are taking the ruling ideas for granted.
I’ve read part I of your thoughts on open source, and look forward to reading the others soon.
Let me clarify some of my positions. First, technology doesn’t build technology; people build technology. However, certain social relations depend on the technology available, and new technologies can result in new social relations. There is no contradiction here. Society and technology evolve together over time.
I’m focusing on the moment of the dialectic where the engineer builds a new technology that influences the rest of the society because I think it is the moment with the greatest promise of agency. As you say, implementing a technology is a materialization of an idea. If that idea is a new economic order, then it could be more powerful to express that idea as technology rather than in, say, natural language.
While I think you make a good point on the matter, I think ultimately the question of whether or not open source is a social order around technology or a different kind of technology itself depends on the false dichotomy of society and technology. I think it’s fair to point to the Internet infrastructure, Linux, Apache, and now the whole world of open source web infrastructure (including the software used by this blog and your blog) as a sociotechnical movement.
Does this movement have anti-capitalist potential? You write: “technological progress over the last few centuries has exploded. When is it supposed to start challenging capitalism? The wealth that’s created by technology continues to be concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.”
I would argue that open source is economically transformative not because it is peer-produced, but because it counters the concentrated accumulation of capital. Software, like many other forms of technology, is a means of production and therefore itself a kind of capital. Openly available software is un-private capital. In particular, it is not privately held by those that invested in its production (whether or not they be corporations). It is, among other things, also still “owned” to the extent that it is owned at all by the people that wrote it. This means that labor used developing open source software is not alienated as in other modes of capitalist production.
All of this means that with the open source movement, there is a new kind of capital floating around that is very corrosive to capitalism as we know it. It is, presently, having its corrosive effect.
I’ve tried to put together an argument to accelerate that corrosion. The argument is that the class of people whose livelihood depends on building this new kind of capital are united by class interest. If they recognized that, they could collective act to further the economic transformation. The argument is unfinished here on github. I would love any thoughts or collaboration. Feel free to fork:
I applaud your Habermasian project. If successful, perhaps it would help people engage in rational constructive discourse faster than before. That would enable people to identify their class interests and decide on collective action faster and better. That’s a hard problem though ;)
I’ve taken a crack at a similar sort of thing before with no success. Maybe it’s because I’m not a designer. I’ve been working with a friend on a toolkit that I hope will make others’ projects along these lines easier. It might interest you. It’s not even had it’s first release yet, but I hope we’ll push one out by the end of the summer.