Tech Utopia, Tech Determinism

So, I’m going to do my best to pick out the pieces of this that I most want to comment on, but I do recommend actually reading it all the way through for all the information and the general flavor of it. So here’s the link, and whichever you choose, let’s carry on.

This is going to be a long post.

“The tech utopia nobody wants” by JR Hennessy

Okay. You guys. I have serious thoughts on this.

The Agency of the Consumer

We’ll start with conflict.

“This conflict – between consumers of technology and the geeks who pull us forward into uncharted sociocultural territory – is starting to become more pointed. We trained ourselves to value Facebook’s “open society” without privacy; we accepted the furtive mobile phone check as appropriate punctuation for a face-to-face conversation; we even put up with 3D cinema for a time. But this is too much.”

I think this is framed too simplistically.

The future of tech isn’t going to be all of society getting swept into the wake of these “geeks” forging forward into a tech revolution no one wants.

There’s definitely a danger in our ability to create things outpacing our ability, on a societal level, to decide how to deal with those things. Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction (so hard not to link to Amazon, there) makes a point that I think is very related to to this. Information communication technologies (ICTs) “have greatly outpaced our understanding of their conceptual nature and implications, while raising problems whose complexity and global dimensions are rapidly expanding, evolving, and becoming increasingly serious” (7).

We can only get from technology what we’re going to put into it, though. I would definitely argue that “consumers of technology” are not passive victims with no agency. We still do try to keep pace and figure out how to handle innovations – and we influence the course that they take. It’s not a one-way street of following the leader.

But that, perhaps, is what this article is actually getting at. The agency of the tech consumers, and the backlash that some of them are leading when it comes to not letting tech rule the world.

“The backlash against Glass is the implied rejection of the kind of casual sociopathy which leads a person to become a surveillance camera, to put a computer between themselves and their every interaction with other people. The philosophy of Glass is inward looking. It improves the life of the wearer at the expense of those around them. . . The internal lives of the tech elite, centred on the labour-saving innovations of Silicon Valley, are at odds with semi-atavistic conceptions of how people interact.”

What tech utopia?

It is the conclusion of the piece that I feel most conflicted about.

“A simple fact remains: there is something intrinsically repellant about a world in which our food, jobs and personal relationships are replaced by digital proxies in the name of ultra-efficient disruption. The geeks, with their ready willingness to abandon social norms, are pulling us toward a utopia nobody wants.”

The part of me that agrees does think that there is something to be said for not replacing all of the everyday interactions of life with new inventions for the sake of efficiency, or novelty, or any other reason. For all of our amazing inventions, humans are still very social, tribal creatures who should be communicating – at least sometimes – without digital proxies. And we certainly should actively resist a world where real food, human interactions, and other things are luxuries available only to a few (yes, I know this is already a problem – and I think this article is making a good point that anything which makes that problem worse is something we should not be okay with).

However, it still strikes me as reductionist and slightly inflammatory.

By and large it seems like the negative reactions to things like Soylent and Google Glass is not a problem with the technologies themselves – but the things that some subsets of people want to do with them. What we take issue with is not that Soylent exists, but the willful ignorance of the person who suggests that we could use Soylent to make poor people healthier and more productive (and on a related side note: seriously??? What planet do you live on?). Underlying the trouble with Google Glass are fears about privacy, alienation, and security. These are human things, not tech things. And guess what: the human side is something we can, and should, talk about.

Tech geeks (most likely) are not mad scientists inventing things for the sake of unleashing an unparalleled wave of technological advances on an unsuspecting public to benefit an elite class, and we shouldn’t be treating them as such. We should be discussing that human side, and our reactions to tech, and how we can use them in ways that are beneficial to the society around them. We should be discussing how to respond to people who would use these advances in a negative way. How to listen and learn from the people who are really super excited about what these changes can bring. And how those ideas about benefiting society can affect what gets invented next – and how we react to that in turn.

Maybe then we’ll be a few steps closer to a “tech utopia” that people actually do want.

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One comment

  1. […] who are traditionally excluded groups, like the poor and minorities). BUT (as I said in my earlier post on tech) we also have an obligation to foster the human side, to not blindly jump in because everyone is […]

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