Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When a person uses a particular technology they become entangled in the history of that device – its past and its future. In the moment of use a person may not be cognizant of the factors that were involved in the creation of the device, and likewise they may not be aware of what shall happen to the device when they discard it, and yet technologies do not suddenly appear in our hands. The technological tools and devices with which we interact are the result of a range of economic, social, and political factors – that device users may be unaware of these factors is often a result of the peculiar relationship that many people have towards their technological tools today.
Though we live in a technological society and our days involve countless interactions with various devices – we may know relatively little about the devices as such. Our reliance upon our devices invites us to feel a sense of ownership – after all, we paid for them – but, as Erich Fromm once noted:
“There is also no strength in use and manipulation of objects; what we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (225)
To think of ourselves in relation to technology we need to first recognize that we enter into a relationship with our technology, next we need to discern how this relationship is defined. Certainly, our very ability to use a given device suggests that we are able to exert some degree of control over it, but in the larger schema of that technology’s lifespan where does our momentary control fit? What groups does our position place us on top of, and what groups do we remain beneath? After all, our technology usage occurs within a capitalist framework – and though people from many different economic strata use technology this usage defines them in terms of new positions that may oddly cut across some class boundaries.
There is a well known image titled “Pyramid of Capitalist System” which originally appeared in the pages of the IWW’s newspaper in 1911 (though the image is based off of an earlier Russian cartoon):
The image depicts a tiered system in which each level of the pyramid supports (and in turn is controlled by) the levels above: the workers are at the bottom, with the bourgeoisie above them, above them sits the militarized force of the army and police, above them established religious leaders, with the capitalists and kings atop them, and a bag of money (capitalism) resting at the zenith. It is not simply that those occupying upper echelons are in controlling positions, but that their control is reliant upon the acquiescence of those occupying lower levels. While the 1911 cartoon may seem a bit antiquated the framework it constructs – of the pyramid structure – remains apt and useful as a thinking exercise (the folks at CrimethInc. produced an updated version of the pyramid recently).
This pyramid structure provides us with a useful way of thinking through our positions in technological society as they relate to the devices that have become omnipresent features in our lives. Our technological usage may place us in a privileged position relative to others and it is worthwhile to be aware of this. Likewise it is important to bear in mind that just as our technological usage is reliant upon those at a lower level there are those at a higher level whose wealth is contingent upon our acceptance of our position in the pyramid. As one moves up the pyramid one finds the groups getting smaller and smaller even as their growing wealth and power relies upon the societal-cooperation of all at the lower levels.
The layers of this pyramid are meant to broadly capture ranges of individuals and there will surely be a great deal of economic and ideological variation within a given layer. Nevertheless, the goal is to provide a schema by which it is easier to locate our position in technological society. There are doubtlessly layers within layers, but the first step is to see the pyramid itself – and to consider the particular role that a given layer (broadly defined) plays in maintaining technological society.
A Pyramid of Technological Society:
Base – The Planet
The lowest level of this pyramid – the unnumbered level atop which the entire structure rests – is the planet itself. Though much of our interaction with technology may take on a seeming “ethereal” aspect (where is the Internet?) the devices we use are physical objects based in material reality. A laptop computer, a smartphone, a server, a network cable – all of these are made up of a variety of minerals and chemicals that are pulled from the planet. Likewise, when a device is finally discarded it is eventually returned to the planet – usually in such a way that the components leech their, toxic, aspects back into the planet. All of the other layers are ultimately reliant upon the planet – as both a source for raw material, a place to return discarded material, and as the basic ecosystem upon which all the other layers rely for basic survival. Below the human level, the pyramid rests on the firmament.
Layer 5 – Material Labor
The first human layer of the technological pyramid consists of those whose labor invovles transforming the raw materials pulled from the planet (the base) into the devices which are enjoyed by higher levels on the pyramid. This layer consists of those whose labor defines the early and late stages of the material life of a device – this is the work entailed in mining minerals, working in factories to actually assemble the devices, and ultimately those who work in the toxic scrap heaps where devices become e-waste. Those who occupy this layer help to physically create new technological devices, yet they are rarely amongst those who get to enjoy the benefits such devices bring. The labor of this layer is generally unseen, consigned to the margins of society, and generally taking place in parts of the world (“the developing world”) unseen by occupants of higher layers. These are the laborers whose work directly produces the tools, which they will not get to use. The exploitation and repression of these workers is what permits for the mass production and dissemination of the tools enjoyed by those in the above layers.
Layer 4 – Technology Users / The “Cybertariat”
The hands that twiddle thumbs on smartphones, mash buttons on video game consoles, and type on laptop keyboards are rarely the same hands as those that assembled these devices from their raw components. The fourth layer consists of those who purchase the technologies constructed by those at layer 5 (though the profits accrue upwards – towards Layer 1) and who are able to make use of them in their daily lives without having to be directly concerned for the toxic working conditions in which the devices were built and in which they will eventually be broken down. Those at Layer 4 are able to enjoy the basic benefits of the devices (entertainment, easy communication) without having to cope with the toxic downsides. While those at Layer 4 are largely able to reap the basic benefits they also perform a great deal of work – work upon which those at higher layers are reliant. The time and energy an occupant of Layer 4 puts into a social network profile, contributes to an online community, or data they feed into Big Data systems is the work upon which the fortunes of higher layers is largely reliant. A social-network (for example) is not worth very much without the labor of an army of those at layer 4 filling it with content. Those at layer 4 are in a precarious position – at once able to experience the thrilling promise of new technologies (they become reliant upon these new technologies) and yet the benefits they gain are specious. Most of the “benefits” – such as the devices themselves – act as much to bind them to technological society as to grant them new freedoms. Those at layer 4 are turned steadily from laborers into consumers where their act of continuous consumption (planned obsolescence, quantified self) keeps them on the backs of those at layer 5 and at the feet of those at higher levels – they buy into a system that is busy automating them out of their livelihoods. [Admission – Layer 4 is the space occupied by the author of this post, and most people in “industrialized nations”]
Layer 3 – Technologists, Engineers, Designers
Those whose labor at technology firms is often held up for all to see are rarely those working in the factories (layer 5), instead the conditions of the technologist on a firm’s “campus” is pointed to as the example of the charmed life of working in technology. The programmers, technologists, engineers, and designers write the code, conceive of the interfaces, and shape the actual devices – and for this effort they are not simply financially compensated but are allowed to partake in the privileged aura surrounding their particular labor. From free meals, to on-staff masseuses, to specially chartered buses, to the regular reminders of their superior status – those at layer 3 do the technological work, reap financial benefits for a while, and are placed in a position from whence they are encouraged to see themselves ascending to layer 1 even as their contracts ensure that they remain fixed at layer 3. Located at the middle layer of the pyramid, those at this area are at highly visible defendants of the upper layers and advocates for the status quo upon which their position relies (even as they sometimes spin out elaborate techno-libertarian fantasies). It is not that those at layer 3 lack significant skill sets, but that they tend to put these skills to use for upper layers in the hopes that they may be able to move up to such levels. The faith of layer 3 is based upon confidence that members of this chosen group will be able to “disrupt” everybody else without there being any risk that they will in turn be “disrupted.” Ensconced within their campuses and technological ideologies the members of layer 3 often see their labor as the real work (ignoring layer 5), whilst considering the members of layer 4 with a sentiment somewhere between bemused pity and outright loathing. Many occupants of layer 3 imbibe of the ideology disseminated by layer 2, dream of reaching layer 1, and fear the mounting hostility (or becoming part ) of layer 4. Layer 3 is a point of near total integration into technological society – its residents perceive attacks on technology as personal attacks.
Layer 2 – Celebrants, Techno-Utopians, Ideologues
The maintenance of this pyramid as it currently stands is reliant upon a philosophy that continually validates and advances a viewpoint that treats technology as the pinnacle of human achievement and as the driver of progress. The celebration of new technologies, the praise of “disruption,” the blessing of the creation of new panoptic monopolies, and the promising of a technological utopia is incumbent upon a layer of voices who are not necessarily in the direct employ of the tech sector but who perform its theoretical lifting. If those at layer 3 write the codes that make the devices work, it is those at layer 2 who write the codes that allow those devices to work over society. As apologists and affirmers of the neo-liberal economic system and devoted evangels for the faith in technological progress those at layer 2 help build the intellectual offense and defense for technological society – though they launch their attacks with books, op-eds, TED talks, through think tanks, and even through policy. Those at layer 2 are rarely drawn from the ranks of layer 3 and while they may be confidants of those at layer 1 they remain residents of a seemingly “objective” space from which they are able to protect the ideological interests of layer 1, give an intellectual milieu to those at layer 3, justify the steady “automation” of those at layer 4, whilst providing the standard capitalist shrug to those at layer 5. It is from layer 2 that the ideology of technology is re-worked into a format that makes it seem more palatable – even if all that is transpiring is that standard capitalist logics are having “2.0” stapled on as postscript. The cachet of layer 2 is directly in proportion to the value they create for those at layer 1, whilst their larger value is in keeping those at layer 4 convinced that everything is fine. It is also at this layer that technological justifications leech into political regulation and control – such that hordes of lobbyists steadily turn elected officials into nodding adherents of this layer.
Layer 1 – CEOs, Venture Capitalists, Magnates – the “1%”
Wealth flows upwards, and the value created by the various stages of labor (material, immaterial, intellectual, etc…) ultimately results in the further enrichment of those who were well located from the outset. While some of those who ascend to the heights of layer 1 may have had relatively humble beginnings, these are the proverbial “rule proving, exceptions” – furthermore, such “humble beginnings” in the sense of this pyramid generally mean that an individual had previously been at layer 3 and was able to rise by selling or successfully monetizing their technological skills (such is the case with the heads of Google and Facebook – for example). Amidst a slice of elevated technologists, layer 1 largely consists of investors and venture capitalists whose investments have propelled them to greater and greater heights (layer 1 is itself a pyramid of sorts with wealth being increasingly concentrated as one moves upwards). Those at the top layer are able to shape and define the form that further developments in technological society will take – the layer 3 firms in which they choose to invest are those that will eventually impact the daily lives of those at layer 4 and potentially place new demands upon the labor of those at layer 5. While some of those who ascend to the heights of layer 1 may choose to philanthropically re-invest some of their riches, their choices of investments are unlikely to be those that will dramatically threaten their position on they pyramid. Indeed their ideological leanings may result in funds flowing down a single layer – to layer 2 – to fund think tanks, non-profits, and other groups that will continue to promote the (market libertarian) ideology that maintains their position. Significantly, those who occupy the heights of layer 1 often bear more than a striking resemblance to those who have traditionally occupied this layer – they are generally white, male, heterosexual, and are generally already wealthy. Indeed, many of the layers of the pyramid may have changed since the 1911 cartoon…but there is a certain continuity when it comes to those at the top.
* * * * *
The new technologies that define life in technological society are the result of intersecting flows of labor and control between the various layers. Our usage of technology binds us to a given layer in the pyramid – we are simultaneously supporting those above us and standing upon those below. Though this pyramid is built on the logic of technological systems the layers are not filled with machines but with people – and the vast majority of them are mired in a particular layer from which chances are they will not move a great deal.
Technological society is a site where many interesting new devices are created – but it is also a site that replicates many of the old forms of social, economic, and political control. This is a detail worth remembering.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics. London: 2001.