"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Technology has society under quite a powerful spell. It may seem odd to invoke magic when mentioning machines, but as the technologies we use become ever more complex there is something fantastical about them. After all, many people do not truly understand the way that smart phones work, and even those who may know how to write code do not necessarily understand the inner workings of a computer. Rather there is something seemingly magical at work when we tap the screen and suddenly we are on the Internet! The devices themselves may not be magic, but they certainly have us wrapped in illusion.
A disconnect can easily develop between a certain wondrous love of technology and a slow realization that while we enjoy the magic show, the magician’s assistants are assembling a massive dossier on everybody in attendance. And it is through the magic of big data that we are then summarily reduced to data points to be used (at best) as fodder to dangle in front of advertisers or (at worst) as potential threats to national security. We think we’re the audience, but we’re just a source of data on audiences.
The collision between the illusion woven by technology and the reality of what is done to us through technology was on rather ironic display yesterday as the US House of Representatives voted down (narrowly) the Amash Amendment (which would have barred the government from using part of the Patriot Act as justification for it’s metadata dragnet) whilst simultaneously a bold new device in the technological battle to scoop up ever more people’s information was unveiled. The Amash Amendment failed, but all of the early indications suggest that Google’s Chromecast will be a rousing success. Which is wonderful if you’re under the spell of being able to stream media on your television; however, it’s slightly less wonderful if you prefer to keep some areas of your life free from the ever more greedily watchful gaze of Google.
Chromecast, frankly, is not particularly different from many already available devices. It is not some bold new card trick, but one that has been performed frequently already; what is different this time is that Google is performing the trick. At risk of being slightly reductive: Chromecast is just another entry into the not-particularly-crowded realm of streaming devices that aim to synchronize your various technological toys (your smart phone and/or tablet with your HDTV) and make it easier for users to treat their television like a bigger screen version of their numerous smaller screen devices. Chromecast can stream Netflix, it can connect to YouTube (owned by Google) and many other things that are already available through other devices.
There are two important differences that set Chromecast apart; however, the first is portrayed as the bigger deal but is actually wholly shrug worthy, whilst the second is much more worthy of note. The first matter is that Chromecast costs $35, which is dramatically less than some of its competitors (Apple TV costs closer to $100), but the idea of one huge corporation undercutting the price of another company is hardly new. What is of more significance about Chromecast is that it is a powerful step forward in Google’s steady colonization of ever more areas of people’s interactions with information and a further move in filtering all of those interactions with Internet content through Google’s proprietary devices and platforms.
The attack being launched by Chromecast is one that seeks to pull more users – along with their information and their money – away from the iTunes store (as is frequented through Apple TV) and get them spending their money and their information in the Google Play Store. As $35 is a much lower price tag than Apple TV it is an aggressive assault, only it is less an assault on Apple as it is an assault on users. It is a very seductive price tag, which is part of the point, and which makes it the financial opposite of Google’s expensive (and potentially unwanted) Glass. Chromecast is a very clever move, people may be showing signs of disinterested resistance towards Google Glass, but people have already decided that streaming is how they want their media. It is almost easy to view Chromecast as the latest battle between Google and Apple, but it is not a battle over market share as we might be tempted to think of it, it is a melee over monopolizing information. And you are the information they want to monopolize.
The low price and the lack of distracting sheen allow Chromecast to be seen fairly nakedly. There are many reasons to dislike and be wary of Glass, but something that lets you stream content? That’s already become so accepted as to be quaint. What is at work with Chromecast is just a move by Google to go after more, ever more, information. The NSA may want to know all about you, but even at their snooping best they’re having a hard time keeping pace with Google. After all, the NSA is trying to get the metadata of your e-mails, but Google has the metada and the content of your e-mails (assuming you use Gmail [or have sent an e-mail to somebody with gmail]), and your search information, and your location data, and…the list goes on. The NSA may make some worry about creeping authoritarianism, but it is Google executives who have themselves recognized the authoritarian potential embedded in much of the technology that they sell to a public who perform Google searches about protecting their information from the NSA.
Chromecast is less a device for streaming than it is a device for increasing domination and control over the way that people access and view media. As technology becomes ever more a piece of mass cultural identity (“I’m an Apple,” “And I’m a PC”) technology simultaneously becomes the warping window through which culture is delivered and part of mass culture as well. Here it is worth remembering, as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment, that:
“the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination. It is the compulsive character of a society alienated from itself.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 95)
In setting such a low price tag for Chromecast, Google is displaying the strength of its economic position as it works to strengthen its dominant position in the data game. The value for Google is not in selling millions of Chromecast devices (though that would certainly make them money), but in getting ever more information about users. To today’s technological firms (from the NSA to Google to Facebook) value is less and less couched in money and more and more linked to data flows and what companies are best located to gather up the most information. Chromecast acts as a sort of panoptic con, wherein the con is the low price and easy streaming that simultaneously opens up ever more of a person’s information to Google. While Google may maintain its crooked “trust us…don’t be evil” grin this just furthers the con as the company will use the information it gathers for purposes unbeknownst to many a Chromecast user (which may include passing your viewing habits along to the NSA).
Beyond the “panoptic con” Chromecast also acts as a powerful example of what Lewis Mumford termed the “megatechnic bribe” (in The Myth of the Machine volume 2: The Pentagon of Power). This bribe represents the buying off of people’s concerns for autonomy with shiny mass produced technological junk that in the guise of liberation further shackles people to technology (Google Glass is another example of a technological bribe). Mumford warned that acceptance of the bribe would result in people expecting:
“that every human problem will be solved for them, and the only human sin will be that of failing to obey instructions. Their ‘real’ life will be confined within the frame of a television screen.” (Mumford, 331)
Granted, Mumford was writing at the early (very early) edge of personal computing and many decades before the arrival of the smart phone, yet the confining of life to a screen that he describes could easily be extended to today’s abundance of screens. Yet, it is the allure of the bribe that allows it to be successful (Mumford again):
“this whole prospect seems entrancing: indeed irresistible. Like those who have become helplessly addicted to cigarettes, they are now so committed to technological ‘progress,’ that they ignore the actual threat to their health, their mental development, or their freedom.” (Mumford, 331)
This is a spot on concern when viewing Chromecast in our current technological context. How is it that people can be concerned about the informational hunger of the NSA without simultaneously being concerned about the informational hunger of Google? After all, the NSA must at least pretend to pay fealty to things like the 4th amendment, but Google knows loyalty only to its shareholders whose wealth relies on Google devouring ever more information, after which Google turns around and throws some of this money at politicians (and at least one Google executive dreamed of freedom from even the minor level of fealty his company shows). The NSA revelations showed that the government was spying on its (and other countries) citizenry through their smart phones, it is hardly even a small step to envision the government going after the data trails created through Chromecast. While there may be tools available (here are a few to consider) to avoid unwanted snooping on some of your devices, what protection might there be on Chromecast, especially when the whole point of the device is to pull users data towards Google’s maw?
The spell that technology has worked upon us is on rare display with Chromecast. As we reel and rage against the invasion of our privacy that has been executed through our technology is there not even a moment in which more information hungry technics will be held at bay? Has the machine so won out in society that we can only envision a future of better synchronization of our devices? Which in turn will just make our metadata foot prints that much easier to discern? We confront the uncomfortable observation from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization that:
“Using the machine alone to escape from the machine, our mechanized populations have jumped from a hot frying pan into a hotter fire…the shock-absorber prepares one for a fresh shock.” (Mumford, 316)
As the news regarding the actions of the NSA disappears from the front page (after all, there are royal babies and political sex scandals to cover) the knowledge of that agency’s actions steadily become further elements of which we are simply numbly aware. This spying becomes more background noise, to which we have largely been inured as we likewise grow rather accustomed to having our every moment turned into a data point to be captured by Google or Facebook or Amazon (who all might pass that data on to the NSA). Yet an inured and complacent populace is an easier one to dominate; as Mumford wrote in In the Name of Sanity:
“Our numbness is our death.” (Mumford, 165)
Now more than ever we must avoid numbness and inertia, even as we recognize that turning our fury into action requires as much of a systematic critique as it does a movement in the streets. Anger at the NSA is meaningless if it is directed solely at that agency without taking serious account of the technologies that allowed the dragnet in the first place. If we want to protect our privacy, at the very least we should stop making it so easy for our privacy to be violated.
Chromecast is just the latest in a long stream of panoptic cons and technological bribes, but there is a difference between wanting to sit on your couch and stream the film version of 1984 and inviting Big Brother to stream it for you.
Horkheimer, Max & Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.
Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt, 1970.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Chicago University Press, 2010.
Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.