Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There is an odd dissonance playing out in the news of late – a rather jarring juxtaposition between euphoric promises and doom tinged proclamations. While a defining feature of the summer of 2013 was Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, the events that have shaped the summer of 2014 have been international conflicts (Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria), fear of epidemics (Ebola), breakdown of essential services (Detroit, the functioning of the US government), and increasingly loud – if unheeded – sirens being sounded regarding climate change. However, if the Snowden revelations at least gave politicians the opportunity to pound their fists and fulminate, this summer’s set of calamities has resulted in reactions that are blaring mostly in their silence.
Yet amidst all of the despair inducing headlines the unflinching hopeful cheeriness surrounding technology shines through. After all, it has been a very good summer for tech industry profits. When the revelations about the NSA were causing an uproar (before they started generating shrugs) there was paranoia by some leaders in the tech industry that their firms – which had cooperated with the NSA – might experience some negative impact from the revelations. Such concerns seem to have largely been overblown, indeed even stories about social media platforms experimenting upon their users have not resulted in a major exodus from those platforms. Perhaps this is a result of the cultural position that technology seems to be assuming of late – it is not just offering up a variety of shiny exciting consumer goods, it is articulating a vision of the future coated with a thick veneer of feel-good values. While it certainly remains worth asking “whose vision of the future is this?” the fact remains that those celebrating technology are amongst the few groups at present that seem to be articulating a vision of the future that does not primarily consist of austerity, drowning cities, a fantasy of returning to the 1950s, or barren ruins.
We are mired in human created problems to which nobody seems to have a particularly convincing solution. Indeed, the scale of the challenges facing not so much our civilization as our species are of a variety that demand the type of ambitious thinking to which it seems we have become allergic. Modern communications technologies have made it so that we are instantly aware of injustices across the globe as we follow second by second updates of bombings and rising infection counts – but even as our ability to receive information has increased exponentially our ability to respond seems stymied. We express our outrage, voice our solidarity, do that which we can (protesting, boycotting and donating are all meaningful actions) – but still find ourselves buffeted about by the strong winds pushing us forward. We are learning that the ability to pass along stories about injustices may not lead to the advancement of justice.
In democratic societies (even if they are just nominally so) the citizenry is meant to feel as though they have a say, as if their opinion matters, as if those representing them should feel a sense of outrage similar to that which pulses through the minds of those that elected them. And yet – at least in the US – this summer has been just one more moment in which the posturing of politicians evinces a mix of venality and fecklessness – if we cannot recognize the basic humanity of our neighbors what hope is there for a recognition of the humanity of those being bombed with US made (or funded) munitions? When it comes to the political sphere the view of the future is at best a preservation of the status quo – divisiveness that maintains things as they are due to an inability to accomplish anything of much consequence. Granted, it may well be that the attempts to maintain some form of the present course guarantee that things cannot continue as they are indefinitely.
And yet, even with countries across the globe plunging deeper and deeper into conflict and even with time running out to seriously address the dangers of climate change – the advocates of the technological future remain stalwart in their confidence. Big data, wearable technology, the Internet of things, self-driving cars, streaming services, the next iPhone, delivery drones…there is a world of even greater technological magnificence about to be born, we are assured, all that we have to do is let these companies build it. Though – as these companies are not in any way accountable to democratic processes, “let them” may be insignificant, they simply will do it. Nevertheless, it may be less that these companies are coming up with solutions to paltry “first world problems” than that these companies have accidentally identified what has increasingly become a major (and genuine) problem for countries considered part of the “first world.” Namely: technology has become a primary site for the investment of hopes; it – and its loudest celebrants – present a well articulated positive view of the future. It is a position they must assume, as it is the only way to rationalize the genuinely impressive forward leaps in consumer technologies alongside the fact that all of this technological ingenuity has not proved capable of solving pressing societal issues. There is not an app or a simple social network that will solve issues like hunger and poverty (though some may fantasize of such a thing). The belief, therefore, that the key is just more technology (more automation, more data) has less to do with any genuine set of solutions than it has to do with the maintenance of the technological prophesies (which is more appealing than the technological profit making). The continuing bolstering of the prophesy retroactively rationalizes the reason we have not yet gotten where we are going.
While contemporary consumer technologies are often accused of hiding a set of consumerist/capitalist/controlling ideologies behind the gleaming luster of the new device’s screen and some cleverly selected slogans – it may be that the overarching societal success is related to this something else. After all, companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and their fellow behemoths have become more than simple companies using smart pr to hide their monopolistic goals – these corporate platforms have come to represent a vision of a future where everything can be just the tap of a button away, a future where we never need to feel alone, or bored. It is a vision of the future which could be called the “Now but better” – it does not seek to dramatically alter any of the core features of society, it just seeks to amplify that which we currently have. Thus a smart phone is replaced by one with a bigger screen, a video game console is replaced by one with slightly better graphics, a search engine grows to know what we are likely to search for, a commerce platform knows what we are going to order before we do, download speeds increase, buffering decreases – it is a vision of the future that promises us the same comforts to which we have become accustomed, only more so. Even the more dramatic seeming shifts – self-driving cars, wearable tech – are couched in this amplification of the now. The self-driving car is just the familiar vehicle run through the sci-fi grinder while wearable tech and the Internet of things are largely just ways to increase the functionality of smart phones. Our phones will be able to track all of our health and fitness information, but we will remain stuck with a for-profit healthcare system.
Though it may be easy to balk at many of these changes as evidence of “solutionism” or as failures to adequately answer Neil Postman’s first question for new technology (“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”) – the truth is that technology has become a very important solution for a very genuine problem to many people. For the problem that technology currently solves is hopelessness, it assumes a stance as the solution to despair. The appeal of technology is not solely in the utility of the actual devices, but in the way that the devices can function to shore up flagging confidence: “Yes, economic inequality is widening…but isn’t Wikipedia wonderful.” It is not so much that technology pulls a bait and switch as that technology is a reminder of the ingenuity of humanity: “if we can create smart phones and self-driving cars than surely we can invent something to deal with climate change” or “conflicts would decrease around the world if only everybody were able to connect via social media.” On a societal scale we are falling in love with a new type of technological determinism – no longer does it mean a belief that technology determines a society’s culture and values, now it has become a determination to see every societal situation in light of the question technology. Our lives may not be fully determined by technology (at least not yet) but we are increasingly determined to subject every sphere of our life to technology. It is worth noting that the stances that seek to reclaim the Internet (whatever that means) function just as well in this context as the corporate presentation – the point is to keep technology as the focus for hopeful predictions. Restoring control of the Internet to some amorphous “the people” is an attempt to keep the positive view of the future while sanding down the corporate control – it is the desire to have our technological cake without getting stuck eating Soylent’s goo.
It is by considering technology as representative of a hopeful future that it becomes easier to understand the increased hostility towards those who would dare to question the “good news” of technology’s evangels. If the angry growls of “Luddite,” “reactionary,” “anti-technology,” or “fuddy-duddy” seem to be examples of hyperbolic hyperventilating than what is not being recognized is that the offense is not the actual critique. Indeed, that a critique is offered against a given device or platform is not the problem, the problem is that by offering such a critique one undermines an entire vision of the future and throws the for-profit futurist back into the abyss of uncertainty. To question Google Glass, Facebook experimentation, or the need for a slightly different phone – is to dare to question the wisdom of those proclaiming what the future will look like. It is not that the emperor has no clothes, it is that the emperor is not an emperor but a pretender to the throne.
As allegiance to technology takes on an almost religious quality to be even mildly agnostic towards the technological gods appears as a display of insolence that cannot be tolerated. What makes matters all the more difficult is the unfortunate truth that to offer a critique of the future to which technology is taking us, is not necessarily to offer an alternative vision. A quick glance at the headlines will confirm that instability has become the new status quo – and there is an understandable desire for a light that will illuminate a pathway in this darkness. What we are seeing is that many people will happily accept the glow of a smart phone screen as this light when there is a paucity of other options.
The future is coming, it is unavoidable, this is simply a result of the passage of time. Yet the shape that this future will take remains foggy. In times of instability and injustice a vision of a different future can provide solace, strength, as well as a destination towards which a course can be set. There are numerous flaws, many of them galling, in the vision of the future that is laid out by the advocates of today’s high technology. And yet one must give credit to the missionaries of the electronic faith: for at least they are putting forth a vision of the future.
It is abundantly clear that we cannot remain in temporal stasis – nor would it be desirable. But unless an alternative future can be argued for, we will find ourselves inhabiting a future designed to buy us, instead of a future designed by us.