Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
What we are eating often remains a bit of a mystery. We may know what it says on the packaging or what it says on the menu – but when the food enters our mouth there is often a certain act of faith taking place. Even those who have worked in kitchens in the past may be hard pressed to truly know what all is going on behind the closed doors where the cooks and chefs are busily working away. These points are as true of standard cuisine as they are of the other things that we have become quite accustomed to consuming with a hungry gusto. As we gobble up new gadgets and technological devices we can examine their listings of ingredients as well, but we rarely see the culinary lab where they are conceived. Just because we are being served a device on an aesthetically laid out plate and being assured by the server that we will like it – does not mean that we truly know what we are eating. Yet, as the server brings out yet another platter of cake some diners are beginning to hesitate before eating.
As we come to terms with the seemingly omnipresent role of advanced technology in our daily lives it is becoming more and more common for people to chafe slightly against the masses of machines that are constantly being unveiled and updated. Though we have embraced certain devices and some aspects of the ideology that seems to come along with technology – other parts leave us raw. We may have a certain affection for our smart phones – but raise a nonplussed eyebrow at Google Glass; we may appreciate the way in which a computer allows us to work – but be put-off by the talk of how more computers will soon make the human worker superfluous; we may enjoy the ease of ordering food online through an app – but remain highly skeptical of techno-food projects like Soylent.
We are beginning to struggle with the question: can we have the elements of technology that we so enjoy without also getting the worrisome parts? Or, to put it another way, can we have our technologically created cake without having to slurp down Soylent’s goo?
Granted, that some wariness is becoming more evident does not mean that it is the primary emotion one sees. Though anxiety is an understandable response to change, the emotion that is widely encouraged (and thus encountered) at the moment is closer to euphoria: “Look at the exciting and fantastic changes we are witnessing! What a time to be alive!” The technological shifts that have occurred in the last decades have been rather remarkable, and the changes still to come are likely to be similarly stunning. Without delving into ethical or ecological concerns it should be granted that contemporary technology provides some impressive abilities. Indeed, there is something rather awesome about much contemporary technology; however, it is important not to confuse a feeling of being filled with awe (which can be wrought by shock, horror or discomfort as well as pleasure) for a colloquial expression of admiration. To claim that technological changes are impressive is not to say that all of these technological changes are good. Likewise to say a device seems “like something out of science fiction,” is not necessarily a positive claim – many works of science fiction filled with impressive devices are meant as cautionary tales.
In Greek tragedy the character Cassandra had the power of foresight, but her ability to prophesy the future was undermined by the fact that none would believe her prophecies. In modern times it often seems as if the power of prophesy is amongst the technologically enabled super powers enjoyed by prominent advocates of the tech industry. Yet these self-styled seers, unlike Cassandra, seem to have no problem being believed. Perhaps this is because Cassandra had an unfortunate habit of predicting things that people did not want to hear – Troy will fall – whereas many of today’s flush with funds futurists are adept at telling people what they want to hear, or at least convincing people that they want to hear what is being said. Certainly there is an occasionally dour prediction – “the job you depend on as a source of income will soon be made obsolete by technology” – but this is always followed up with a promise that “don’t worry, technology will be able to fix this, and before you get to worried…hey check out this cool new app! Wow!” Which is simply another way of saying, “yes, you can eat all of the cake you could possibly desire, and then even more.”
Yet it may be the case that there is a growing suspicion that these technological prophets are primarily interested in envisioning a future that protects their own profits. Thus, a new degree of skepticism seems to be increasingly apparent, though skepticism is not synonymous with serious critique; however, even this low-level suspicion propels many of those celebrating the coming technological shifts to deride any critics as Luddites. Such a hyperbolic and historically ignorant response speaks more clearly of paranoia on the part of the prophets than anything else. After all, the serious affront committed by the Luddites was not that they smashed a few machines, but that they dared to claim that people should have a say when it came to the technological changes that would directly impact their lives. While those celebrating technology may seek to undermine their detractors criticisms by casting them as “anti-technology” – the problem is simply that more and more people are taking after the Luddites in one important regard: they recognize that technology is not always beneficial.
Nevertheless, for many people (particularly in industrialized nations or modern metropolises) the lopsided distribution of benefits does not mean that they are receiving only the negative aspects of technological change. People genuinely feel (not incorrectly) that they are amongst the beneficiaries. The historian and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford was keenly aware of this problem – and saw in it the functioning of what he termed “the megatechnic bribe” wherein an individual:
“can have everything the system produces—provided he and his group have no private wishes of their own, and will make no attempt personally to alter its quality or reduce its quantity or question the competence of its ‘decision-makers.’ In such a society the two unforgivable sins, or rather punishable vices, would be continence and selectivity.” (332)
Providing people with a share of the “goods” made available by technology thus serves as a powerful distraction from questions of “the good,” as people (particularly in industrialized societies) are allowed to partake in “everything the system produces.”
Here the crux of the problem becomes starkly visible, for individuals may dislike Amazon’s bullying tactics, Facebook’s emotional manipulation, Google’s desire to truly make technology the lens through which we look out at the world, and any number of other developments – and yet there is a certain degree to which it is becoming almost unthinkable to do without some of these companies or their platforms and devices. While alternatives certainly do exist, many of these still entail a certain reliance upon a broader technological infrastructure consisting of material devices (smart phones, server farms, computers, cables) that are also rooted in similar large enterprises. There is a desire to be able to keep the parts we like without having to worry about the negative aspects – but can we have Facebook without it selling our information to advertisers and manipulating our emotions? Can we make use of Google’s search engine or some of its apps without helping to bolster its push towards Orwellian omnipotence? Can we enjoy the low prices offered by Amazon without enabling the platform to demand fealty from publishers? Such questions are the “unforgivable sins” of which Mumford wrote.
These are questions to which there is not a simple solution, nor should it be pretended that the answer is simple. Yet in looking for potential answers it may be worthwhile to consider some of the past prophecies regarding technology that are more reminiscent of Cassandra than with advertising campaigns. Thinkers like Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Ivan Illich, and many others advanced critiques of technology that in a variety of ways predicted our present predicament. Not in so much as they warned against Google Glass or Soylent, but insofar as they saw the dangerous trends that would reduce humans to appendages to technological systems or robot-like entities for whom eating would become similar to fueling. Yet the most important takeaway from these thinkers is less a particular comment or neologism and more the aspect that they have in common – the way in which they recognized that technology and those who drive technological change are not separate from society but very much a part of it. Therefore, the technology that one encounters is not the result of a wholly objective technological sphere, but instead is very much driven by the dominant forces in society.
Thus, to return to the earlier question, it is a distraction to contemplate whether we can have smart phones without funding behemoth companies, just as it is a bit of a bait and switch to ask if we can have computer devices that are not reliant upon layers of unseen exploitation (of workers and the planet). Insofar as technological changes and developments are driven by corporate drives for profits the technologies that are put on offer will be corporate ones through and through. Even the alternatives that do appear within this broader context still wind up being reliant upon this larger corporate structure (especially when it comes to reliance on the material aspects of technology [it is easier to write a program than to construct your own device from raw components]). A society that sees tremendous wealth flowing to tech companies is one in which the primary driving force is not technology (as such) but the profit motive – which is why those investing, profiting, and advocating for tech do not represent some new legion of upstarts but the same people who have always had the funds to buy up startups. The problem is therefore not one of Facebook or Google or Soylent, per se, but one of a system where corporate power has eclipsed the power of the people.
Such was the danger that many of the aforementioned Cassandras warned against – from Mumford describing the threat of “authoritarian technics” to Ellul’s “technique” to Weil’s warnings that people had become “uprooted.” It is no idle coincidence that many of these thinkers cast the salves and alternatives in ethical and humanistic terminology: Mumford’s “democratic technics,” Illich’s “convivial tools,” E.F. Schumacher’s “technology with a human face.” What these thinkers emphasized was that the problem was not technology but the way in which particular societies were developing their technologies. These thinkers cautioned against the risk of societies that were designing machines to serve massive information gathering apparatuses and the lust for profit – as opposed to developing machines to meet essential human needs. In particular many of these thinkers highlighted the importance of small-scale technical systems over which individuals – instead of huge entities – could exert real and meaningful control. The problem – they recognized – was not a technological one, but a societal one, and therefore the response that was needed was not to balk at a new device but to see that device as the reification of trends in the society.
The problem is not one of wanting the technologically offered cake without having to chase it down with a side of Soylent goo – but of recognizing that the constant offering of cake can leave people very sick to their stomachs, seriously ill, or so amped up on sugar as to ignore what else is occurring. In other words – the cake and Soylent both come from the same for-profit industrialized kitchen, and the same chefs are cooking them up. We can argue that a new type of cake (the Google Glass variety, for example) is unappealing, but unless the chefs in the kitchen (and the people who own the kitchen) are changed they will continue concocting similar dishes.
The choice is not between cake and Soylent or nothing, but between being served cake and Soylent or learning how to bake bread.
Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich – 1970.