"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Lurking in the background of most inquiries into the technologically wrought future is an oft-unasked question regarding who exactly gets to determine the shape this future shall take. From a position couched in, shall we say, the democratic tradition one might assume that the answer might be a notion akin to a widely defined “citizenry.” Granted, in modern societies descending from that democratic tradition it might be more appropriate to parse “citizenry” to mean “the people as they express their opinions through the market” (which is another way of saying “consumers”). Such a shift incorporates a subtle recognition that some other group will first determine that which people get to consume.
Thus, the original question still lurks in the background: who gets to determine the shape this technological future will take? Bear in mind “this technological future” is more-or-less synonymous with “your technological future.” To honestly assess the state of the world is to recognize that technological shifts have brought with them a variety of societal change, and to devote even passing attention to the news is to be made aware of the further technological changes that are on the horizon. To be frank – technology matters, and by extension it is worth being aware of who it is that gets to make decisions that will have such far ranging impacts.
The question of “who decides” was recently revealed with amusing clarity in a New York Times piece (more of a graphic than an article) with the ominously exciting title “A Vision of the Future From Those Likely to Invent It.” Along with some pleasingly non-threatening cartoonish-images the piece asked seven individuals from the tech realm a range of future oriented questions:
“What far-off technology will be commonplace in a decade? Which industry will tech put out of business next? What technology will seem antiquated in a decade? What is the next issue to undergo a sea change in social acceptance? What is tech’s role in reducing income inequality?”
It is an interesting cluster of questions, and they result in a variety of answers that seem less to be bold futurism than the – already becoming staid – accepted vision of the future that is often touted by the evangels from the tech sector. Case in point: drones will soon be delivering packages, your car will drive itself, we will become so accustomed to total surveillance that we stop thinking about it, biometric data will be how we access our…well…everything, and (of course) higher education will soon be put out of business.
While it may be worthwhile to truly parse the individual answers that the Times solicits, it is much more interesting to view the piece from a slight remove. As it is from a position a step or two back that one can see that – while it was likely not intended as such – the Times piece verges so close to self-satire as to force one to contemplate whether or not it’s intended as a joke. Granted, that would raise the question of “who is the joke on” and it may very well be on the individual reading the article on their screen without contemplating the forces that brought about that screen. After all, the interesting thing about the Times article was not any of the actual content, but in the way that the article made evident a certain ideological core.
When reading an article with a title containing the words “Those Likely to Invent It” one can learn quite a bit by looking at the people about whom those words are meant. In the case of the Times’ article the list of seven individuals consists of a range of venture capitalists, founders/heads of social media platforms, with an inventor (or two depending on how one defines “inventor”) thrown in – with multiple members of that cast of seven earning a few of those titles. Thus it quickly becomes clear that these seven people are not necessarily “Those Likely to Invent It” – but they may well be “Those Likely to Invest In It” as it is even clearer that they are “Those Likely to Profit From It.” When the investment and profit aspect are emphasized instead of the “invent in” aspect, the answers to the questions shift easily – these “future” changes have less to do with the “good life” than with selling you the “goods life” and it is a future in which the seven people consulted are still profiting like bandits or unethical bankers or like those making the decisions. These are hardly advocates of “appropriate technology” they are advocates of “technology that appropriates everything.”
Beyond their appellations as “venture capitalists,” “co-founders,” “executives” and so forth – there is another striking feature to consider when contemplating the seven folks consulted by the Times: they are overwhelmingly male, they are overwhelmingly white, and they are overwhelmingly wealthy. This is not to say that there are no women consulted, nor is it to say that all seven people are white – but nevertheless it would not be wholly unfair (and it might be more accurate) to title the article: “A Vision of the Future From a Group of Predominantly White Men Likely to Invest In and Be Made Even Richer By It.” There is a rather uncanny – a bit too neat for comfort, really – parallel that emerges between the Times’ piece and a couple of lines the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner penned in 1986 that have only grown truer with time (in The Whale and the Reactor):
“Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy. Far from demonstrating a revolution in patterns of social and political influence, empirical studies of computers and social change usually show powerful groups adapting computerized methods to retain control. That is not surprising.” (Winner, 107)
Recognizing the social and economic position (and the level of self-interest) of those questioned by the Times – a group of mostly rich white men – helps to make evident just how backwards this vision of the future is. Yes, there may be drones delivering you packages and you’ll pay with a microchip in your fingernail…but the people in control, will be the same as the people who’ve always been in control. Is there any sense – other than satirically – in which we can really call this “progress?” Technological change has a very significant impact upon people all over the world, and those impacts are not distributed evenly (go ask the miner or the e-waste recycler), in times such as these the fact that rich white men are still running (and rigging) the game shows that “technological progress” is not necessarily bound to any other social values.
Thus, one can revisit the questions posed by the Times and recognize the degree to which these seemingly playful and somewhat innocuous questions are actually significant ethical questions about the world we live in, the world we want to live in, and the world we will want to live in. The answers that are furnished reveal the ideology at the core of the seven tech folks’ thinking, and that ideology is the same old dominant logic of hierarchical capitalism.
After all, there is nothing playful about a question like “which industry will tech put out of business next?” It is not a laughing matter, those are real people, with real jobs, with real families to support – and though tech may alleviate the dangers of some risky jobs, the tech sector seems much more focused on battling higher education than making mining conditions better. Think this matter isn’t serious? Ask somebody who has been automated out of the job they worked for years if they think this is funny, and see if they are laughing (even as their boss laughs all the way to the bank). These are not questions of utility to the “tech sector,” these are questions about the world that all of us live in. Who says that these seven individuals (and the rest of their cohort of predominantly rich white men of whom they are emblematic) get to make these decisions? The market? Because they’re rich? Is that not rather problematic?
Indeed, there is a dull irony that emerges towards the end of the Times piece when it raises the question about “income inequality” and the answers that it provokes reveal a stunning lack of imaginative – or ethical – thought: tech decided to eliminate the sector in which you work…but it’s okay…because…um…philanthropy! Those devoted to technological solutions seem unable to see that not every problem (especially those exacerbated by technology) has a technological solution.
Without it necessarily being its intent the Times article does a pretty good job of laying out the self-serving (and self-enriching) ideology currently hard at work determining what the future (what your future) will look like. And it is an ideological force driven predominantly by a group of wealthy white men committed to strengthening their own position whilst buying off much of the public with shiny new toys.
In the end it raises another question: are these people trying to invent the future? Or re-invent the past?
Interested in some actual alternatives? Check out the following links for another vision of the future:
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.