"More than machinery, we need humanity."
As the sun set on March 7th a diffuse band of marathoners began an arduous trek: the “National Day of Unplugging.” From sundown on the 7th to sundown on the 8th these brave participants would aim to accomplish a feat both laughably modest and absurdly difficult: unplug for a day (though “unplug” is left rather vague). While the “National Day of Unplugging” may emphasize a particular day of action, the idea is clearly for the ethos of “unplugging” to become more of an aspect of daily (or weekly) life than an annual stunt.
Coincidentally, March 7th marked the beginning of another event emphasizing the relationship between people and technology in our technological society – though this event was less a monastic expression than a bacchanal. Directly contrary to the “National Day of Unplugging” with its suggestion of a mild asceticism the other event invited people to completely submerge themselves and be baptized in the electric waters. For March 7, 2014 – in addition to marking the start of the National Day of Unplugging – also marked the beginning of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Fest.
Since its founding SXSW has grown dramatically and in many ways the shifts in the festival act as a testament to larger cultural shifts. What started as a music festival has transmogrified into an event where there is still music (and film) but where the main event may very well be the festival’s “Interactive” component. After all, was there a single musician or film at SXSW in 2007 that has had quite as much cultural impact world as Twitter (which gained a lot of excited attention in 2007)? The bands and films one encounters at SXSW (or hears/reads about) may be quite excellent – but increasingly it seems that the dramatic changes ushered in at SXSW are taking place in the Interactive festival. It has become a site for the launching of new technologies, social networking platforms, start-ups, and a level of vaguely-futurist techno-utopian dreaming that would be comical if most of those writing about the fest did not save their ire for recycled jokes about unfashionably fashionable twenty-somethings attending the music fest.
While an easy criticism of SXSW is to decry the fact that the festival has become more corporatized by the year, the conference is still a “here first” environment. Those paying attention to SXSW are encouraged to pay attention to the upcoming bands and upcoming films as these are the artists that will be “breaking out” before long, meanwhile the technologies being touted (not to mention the technology being used) fits in the same category. One can easily imagine SXSW proudly using a slogan like “first here, second everywhere else” but such a slogan has different meaning when it is compared to a band as opposed to a given technology. Similar to the aforementioned example of Twitter it may well prove that the most significant cultural shift coming from SXSW this year will not be a band or a movie but the flood of new “wearable” technology being paraded about – the band of people (the cast of characters) gaining the most attention at SXSW may well be those walking around Austin wearing Google Glass.
That a huge conference/festival with tens of thousands of attendees, myriad corporate sponsors, and a stance towards all things Interactive that can be summed up (a la Oliver) with an enthusiastic “Please sir, I’d like some more” should be a site where the latest in technology is on display should come as no surprise. Yet in the midst of all of the talks about monetizing user data and developing compelling pitches for start-ups, SXSW boasted a particularly odd event: an interview (conducted by video chat) with Edward Snowden. There was something rather absurd about this, a certain dissonance, it was as if for a brief moment SXSW seemed turned into a Marx Brothers’ film wherein the very halls of power act as a backdrop for their subsequent slapstick demolition – granted the conversation that actually transpired was not particularly remarkable (which is not to say it was not interesting) and consisted of Snowden assuming an expectedly cordial tone. Even as Snowden accused the NSA of “lighting the Internet on fire” he remained respectful of those in attendance praising them as “firefighters.”
Which raises an important question: are those attending SXSW “firefighters” in the sense that we conventionally think of that term (those who put out fires) or was Snowden perhaps being provocative and referring to the “firefighters” of Fahrenheit 451 (who set the fires under the belief that they are serving the public interest). I would say with almost total certainty that Snowden meant the former, but it is worth considering if the latter meaning might be more appropriate.
SXSW is a conference filled with excited people committed to “technical innovation” but in their rush to innovate they may be setting new fires and pouring gas on older ones with greater aplomb than those who are seriously trying to fight fires. To have Edward Snowden speaking about government surveillance in a conference that is gleefully unveiling the next wave of corporate surveillance tools is really rather bizarre. Those sitting at SXSW watching Snowden through their Google Glass may be as much a part of the problem – if not more so – than the surveillance state. After all, the capabilities of government surveillance have been massively expanded thanks to advances in consumer technologies – and what is one of the sites where those same consumer technologies are cheered as “the next big thing?” Give yourself a point if you said “SXSW.”
Or, to give an example of such glaring obviousness as to make it almost unnecessary to even have to point it out: one of the “major” sponsors for the Interactive component of the SXSW conference was none other than AT&T. And yes, that is the very same AT&T that has happily complied with the NSA’s demands for your data. You know: the very dragnet of data that Edward Snowden has become famous for unveiling. Thus SXSW becomes an impressive ouroboros: AT&T helps facilitate surveillance, Snowden reveals the surveillance, Snowden is eventually invited to speak at SXSW, SXSW has as one of its major sponsors AT&T. It is a snake devouring its own tail (and its own tale). Or, to put it in the terminology of Jacques Ellul (in The Technological Society):
“One cannot but marvel at an organization which provides the antidote as it distills the poison.” (Ellul, 378)
Is Snowden’s presence (Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange also spoke at SXSW by video conference) part of a mea culpa on the part of SXSW? A quiet acknowledgement that SXSW has helped cheerlead the public into the tech enabled surveillance situation in which we now find ourselves? Doubtful, it’s holding out these individuals as the “antidote” while the convention simultaneously brews and serves up the next batch of poison. While it may be the case that SXSW occasionally invites a dissenting voice or two to the conference to disagree with the techno-utopian-mythology that drips from the convention center walls (a role filled by David Skrbina in 2013) the conference is not about to deeply wrestle with its underlying ideology. The role of such Cassandras is to act as objects of derision, straw men against whom mindless barbs like “what do you suggest? That we go live in a cave?” can be thrown. By turning would be opposition into a caricature the technological toga party can go back to praising Dionysus confident that those outside the convention will have to deal with the hangover (and clean up the mess). SXSW inviting Snowden was more a stunt than anything else: a way of injecting some ethical flavor and rebellious spirit into a conference that has become staid corporate territory.
This is very problematic. One hopes that the reasons why are obvious. Nevertheless, to give a quick recap as to the “why:” SXSW has served as a launching pad (or promotional site) for many of the same companies that have been so thoroughly implicated in the actions of the NSA, and the conference receives major sponsorship from a telecom that played a prominent role in the surveillance. At the same time the convention continues to merrily trumpet the arrival of new devices without delving into the potential consequences. If the NSA is “setting the Internet on Fire” it stands to reason that the NSA had a lot of help, and a lot of that help came from SXSW.
At this point it should be beyond obvious that we desperately need to have a serious conversation in this country (in the whole world in fact) about technology. We need to have an honest discussion in which we can reckon up the risks along with the benefits of technology and acknowledge that those risks and benefits do not fall evenly upon all people. We need to learn from the NSA revelations that concerns about how a device can be used against us are not things to worry about after a device has become widely disseminated but beforehand (Google Glass anyone?). And we need to recognize that a forum filled with tech companies, sponsored by tech companies, and serving as a gleeful chorus for tech companies is not going to be where a conversation like this takes place. SXSW is not a conversation about technology – it is a concert hall so filled with screaming technology fans that nobody can hear the band on stage, and thus nobody can recognize that the band is playing out of tune, that they’re playing a song we’ve heard before, and frankly that the song is derivative drivel.
Yet, to be fair, SXSW is not the only place where this problem is visible. Similar issues were recently made clear at RightsCon – a conference that put a much clearer emphasis on issues of human rights and ethics in technology than what one sees at SXSW. RightsCon was a several day affair that also discussed issues of surveillance at length and while they may not have had Snowden as a speaker they did secure sponsorships from companies including Google and Facebook. Again: pause for laughter.
Thus we return to the problematic posed by SXSW – when the groups that are profiting from problems that they have exacerbated are sponsoring the conferences where these issues are discussed is this really the type of discussion that will bear fruit? Granted the answer is “of course it will bear fruit” but the fruit will probably just be a new Apple product that stealthily introduces biometric technology into our daily lives. Events like SXSW Interactive are the mega churches of the new religion of technology (and there are certainly many who believe “technology will save us”) but this is a faith that is misplaced sold, as it is, by hucksters who speak of deliverance while their true interest is delivering your information to the government and turning your information into a source of profit. It’s a moment where some of Lewis Mumford’s wit is helpful (from Art and Technics):
“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.” (Mumford, 81)
And those points could be expanded to also suggest that if you encourage others to “fall in love with a machine” or suggest that others “worship a machine” there too is evidence of something deeply wrong. We have all heard the clichés about the blinding power of love and faith, and this is clearly on display at events like SXSW. Technological civilization has lit many fires – maybe the Internet has been ignited as well – and some of those fires may provide warmth and comfort even as others threaten to roast us. The flames are licking our toes, and excitable folks decked out in Google Glass are skipping towards us carrying “fire buckets” pledging that they “know just what to do!”
But what is in the buckets they are carrying?
Do you know?
Do they even know?
Or do they just think they know because somebody told them they were “firefighters?”
After which point they strolled back into the exhibitor hall for a demonstration of the sleekest, coolest, fastest, flamethrowers around.
Generally speaking arsonists and pyromaniacs make for poor firefighters.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 2000.
Image Note – background image “Sixth Street (6th St.) nightlife during Austin South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival and Conference” by Marlon Giles, accessed by wikimedia commons.