Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
In technological times it is easy for people to understand the concept “shut down.” It’s what one does with computers, and numerous other gadgets. When one is finished one selects the “shut down” option and the device stops. It is off. A government shutdown is a similar move from the “on” position (dysfunctional as it may be) to the “off” position. Granted, unlike a computer, once the government is shutdown it takes more than simply pressing a button to bring it back online…and while it is “off” the impact may be dire.
There is little pleasure to be found in watching the steady de-evolution of the US political system in this current display of absurdist theatrics that would make the Dadaists feel that they had finally been trumped. The madness that has overtaken the Congress of late may make some want to angrily declare “a pox on both your houses,” but it is important to remember that in a democracy the house (or the House of Representatives) is meant to be the citizens’ as well; and thus the pox inevitably infects us as well. It is in this context that one can easily understand the quasi-libertarian politics that one commonly hears espoused by the denizens of Silicon Valley (sometimes called “The Californian Ideology”).
After all, the dysfunctional quibbling of politicians and their seeming inability to get much of anything done seems to fly in the face of the tech entrepreneur’s sunny individualism. Congress may need to have a lengthy debate, but for the tech firm all that’s necessary is the basic capability. For many a tech company “because we can” acts as sufficient reason for doing something, while governments are more likely to act at a slothful (if not backwards) pace out of a terror of what might happen “because we can.” Thus the frustrated musings of a Google executive dreaming of a land where his company can experiment unbothered makes a kind of simple sense – it sets up a basic contrast between the way that things would happen in a tech company’s utopia versus the slower pace of reality.
Yet, one cannot look at contemporary democratic societies as distinct from technological societies for the two have become one and the same (indeed, the former may have been largely subsumed into the latter). The technological devices and techniques that appear courtesy of the followers of “The Californian Ideology” are easily unleashed upon a society of consumers (not citizens) and these devices and techniques can easily be exploited by governmental forces for use upon citizens.
The recent panic about privacy, amidst the ongoing revelations about the NSA, is an excellent example of the way that this dance is performed. It would be absurd to think that a bill could have made it through Congress and received a presidential signature that would require all citizens to carry devices that would track their movements, log their communications, and listen in on their conversations; and yet such devices easily have found their way into millions of people’s pockets and purses courtesy of tech companies. Or, to give an even more recent example, the topic of biometric identification is one that is quite controversial within governmental debates…and yet the era of biometric technology was ushered in by Apple’s new iPhone with none of the acrimonious public debate that would have made such a process unwieldy in proper political discourse. This marks an important shift as Lewis Mumford discussed (in The Pentagon of Power):
“In the past, every invention passed through a long period of probation…Now we are faced with just the opposite situation. The obstacles to immediate acceptance have been broken down; and the latest technical proposals, instead of having to establish its right to be recognized and accepted, rather challenges society to take it over at once, and at any cost; whilst any reluctance to do so immediately is looked upon as reprehensible,” (Mumford, 223)
The matter at hand is an example of an increasingly impotent public (those elected representatives are meant to be responsive to the public), a political sphere wherein action is increasingly systematically stymied, and a technological sphere primed to take advantage of the chaos. Perhaps, it is unfair to say “take advantage of” and yet it is not for nothing that the US political system seems unwilling to take on the privacy violations of major tech firms or dare mull the possibility of deploying trust-busting regulation to take on the tech monopolies that have emerged. Government has an important role to play in slowing “immediate acceptance” and examining the possible negative potential of a technology, a failing government fails in this respect too. Granted, the government is hardly going to eat the goose that lays the golden eggs, even though as it turns out it is not a goose but a dragon with a sizable treasure trove that cares little for the occasional egg going missing. While the whole time much of the public is simply enchanted by the glimmering gold; after all, concern about the NSA did little (if anything) to stop people from rushing out to buy new (biometric) iPhones.
The hand holding (with intertwined figures) between tech companies and the government is of a variety that the public is reduced to having little role outside of consumption (or outright refusal); while the Gordian knot of political processes ensures plenty of room for tech to play without needing to worry about an intrusive government. While it is hardly an original argument to claim that capital rules, the failure of political elites opens up more space for the elites of business and technology to hold forth, when the “elected” elites can no long provide a counter balance. Langdon Winner writes eloquently of the consequences of a public attempt to regain influence (in Autonomous Technology) thusly:
“The technocratic response would be that this notion of representation is a pipe dream by those whose pipes are already clogged…for the knowledge, power, and authority of the traditional politician are not actually necessary to make the system run. Political office becomes a collector’s item, a glorious antique.” (Winner, 147)
This is proved, seemingly daily in contemporary society where politicians prove themselves unable to even keep the government running whilst those designing shiny technical toys are constantly unveiling new devices. That the government should eventually wind up using these devices for potentially repressive purposes, is a foreseeable consequence of unleashing upon the public machines about which there was never any public debate. Furthermore, as figures like Sen. Wyden display, most elected officials have little control once certain aspects of the government (the NSA, for example) choose to make use of a certain technology. Politicians may express concern about Google Glass (or the Google car), but without actual political power these appear as little more than sound bites – the false image of critique. The breakdown of political power at the same time that technological forces of control are increasingly ascendant sets up a scenario in which the citizen is reduced to consumer who is steadily reduced into a sort of drone.
This was on a sort of ironic, if accidental, display in a recent comment by Chris Hughes (co-founder of Facebook, current owner of the New Republic) in an interview on Pandodaily. While Hughes (a big fundraiser for the Democrats) may seem not to ascribe to the Randian ideology of many of his peers, his comments about government’s role in tech (the article was titled “Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes says government has a role to play in tech”) have little in them about the way in which democratic government can curb the potentially authoritarian tendencies of technology. Acknowledging a government “role to play” when government is in disarray, is certainly not setting up government as a oppositional force. Yet – as one would expect from a man made rich by technology – Hughes scoffs at worry over technology, saying:
“The machines don’t control us. The technology and the software do not determine our future. We do.”
It is almost completely certain that by “we” Hughes meant “humanity;” however, as a comment by an extremely wealthy tech entrepreneur that “we” takes on an altogether different coloring. It may be fair to say “machines don’t control us,” far harsher technological critics than Hughes have recognized that “the machine is ambivalent,” but this is precisely why Hughes comment is so darkly amusing. For the “machines,” “technology,” and “software” do not suddenly appear out of nowhere, somebody creates them and introduces them to society, the “We” evoked by Hughes is not the “we” of the citizenry. Rather it is the “we” of those who have relegated the citizen into the role of a consumer. As a co-founder of Facebook, Hughes bears no small amount of responsibility for the way that the company that made him rich has mutilated the concept of privacy and opened the window through which the government can more easily maintain surveillance on the public. Without a government concerned primarily with the rights of its citizenry new technological firms will continue to be able to use people as playthings. The “we do” of which Hughes is a part, in other words, is not the same we as the average citizen. And in a world where the political “we” (the elected representatives in a democracy) can do not but quibble,
“the technocrats rule because no one else is capable.” (Winner, 145)
The true triumphant ideology in a government shutdown, which will not shut down repressive apparatuses like the NSA, is not that of a particular party (and certainly not for the people) but the triumph of those who always saw democratically elected governments as a stumbling block for what “We do.” A society with a crumbling democratic political structure and a surging all-consuming (and all seeing) technological structure is one wherein the latter will gradually discard the former unless the former can mount a serious defense. A functioning political system needs to provide friction against the “because we can” mindset of tech companies, and without this friction there is little to stop “because we can” from becoming “and so we did.”
It may not be 1984 yet…but it may be 1982.
And it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re staring at a screen.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power – The Myth of the Machine v. 2. Harcourt, 1970.
Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1978.