Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
“You still have to learn the ABC.
The ABC says:
They will get you down.”
– Bertolt Brecht
The folksinger Woody Guthrie was known for putting the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitars. In the same vein, if somewhat less militant, Pete Seeger would put the words “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender” on his banjo. Inspiring though these slogans may be, guitars and banjos are (probably) not the first things that come to mind for most people when they hear the word “machine.” Furthermore, though it might be comforting to think that no fascist has ever picked up a guitar and that no person harboring hate has ever picked up a banjo – such hopeful thoughts simply don’t hold up. Yet, something that Guthrie and Seeger both (perhaps unintentionally) gestured towards is the tendency to associate certain emancipatory values with machines.
Or, to put it another way, what kind of peace and freedom minded slogans might people put on their computers or smartphones?
Often, the Internet – and the mountain of devices and platforms for which “the Internet” serves as convenient shorthand – is treated as a sort of panacea for society and the world’s ills. We are bombarded with messages celebrating the Internet’s medicinal applications: it will bring people together, it will empower activists, it will make you your own boss, it will allow you to better express yourself, it will provide you with access to all of the world’s knowledge, through encryption it will protect you from surveillance, it will undermine repressive regimes, it will allow you to become fully self-actualized, and [insert your own favorite promise here!]…there are few problems to which the Internet is not treated as the solution.
Such views are advanced and argued for by a host of sources, these certainly include the tech companies themselves, but also includes many foundations, as well as scores of academics and public figures (who may, or may not, have ties to the aforementioned companies and foundations). And even in scenarios where an individual is willing to brave the danger of being dubbed a technophobe or Luddite – the sentiment generally put forth is that the Internet will still save the day…it just needs a few minor tweaks (which, of course, can be accomplished by appealing to the good will of the tech companies). These views are not exclusively found in the camps of cyber-libertarianism (or amongst adherents of “The Californian Ideology”), they can be found amongst groups that sincerely believe that the Internet is essential for making the world a better place. If the followers of “the Californian Ideology” worship the way in which Internet technology will financially enrich them as individual humans, the followers of “the New York Ideology” celebrate the way in which Internet technology will enrich humanity (as such).
Yet, the 2016 presidential election (and the role the Internet played in the election) represents a mighty contradiction to the pleasant paeans of the Internet’s altruistic boosters. They had gone around chanting “this machine will banish the darkness” only to watch as that same machine came to play a key role in allowing the darkness to descend.
To seek the protective shell of the “neutrality of technology” is a fallacious retreat. The idea that “technology is neutral” survives because it is ideologically useful and personally convenient. Technology does not just happen. Rather, technologies are built by people to accomplish certain things in the real world. The values of those humans are inscribed into the technologies themselves. As the historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg captured with his “first law of the history of technology”:
“technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
To say, for instance, that a smartphone is “neutral” is to willfully ignore all of the decisions that went into the creation of that device, as well as the regimes of extraction, labor, and destruction that are bound up in it. Again, following Kranzberg, this is not to say that it is automatically “good” or “bad” but it certainly is not “neutral.” And when you consider a massive technological system like the Internet (with its miles of cable, server farms, routers, websites, devices, massive corporations…and so forth) it should be painfully obvious that those who say it is neutral are in fact simply stuck in neutral. Or, as Langdon Winner put it with wonderful bluntness:
“Those who have not recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far.” (Winner, 21)
Granted the problem facing purveyors of Internet hopefulness in the aftermath of the election is not that they thought the Internet was neutral, but that they thought it was good.
If not a manifestation of “the good.”
It is difficult to tell the story of the 2016, US Presidential, election without paying attention to the role that the Internet played in it. And, to contrast this with previous elections, this was not simply a case of one campaign doing a better job of mobilizing millennials through savvy social media outreach. Rather, 2016 was a tale of hacks, leaks, vitriolic twitter rants, and the inability/unwillingness of powerful companies to assume responsibility for the explosive dissemination of fake news on their platforms. It was a year that showed that the denizens of the dark corners of the Internet – so often casually dismissed of as trolls – are actually quite skillful at weaponizing the web. Internet celebrants have spilled an ocean of digital ink (and actual ink) over the last few years praising the ways in which the Internet empowers “revolutionary” forces – but 2016 was a rebuke that showed that such tools could just as easily serve reactionary ends.
Nevertheless, one should advance carefully. The fact that digital media can be used by Occupy Wall Street and by neo-fascists is not actually evidence that these platforms are neutral. Far from it. Much of this idea of neutrality is obviously farcical when one considers the role that companies/organizations like Twitter, Wikileaks, Google, and Facebook played in the 2016 election. The point is not here to attack any of these entities, but simply to point out that such organizations – whether through action or inaction – were certainly not allowing the powerful technological resources they control to function “neutrally.” Again, this is not meant to single out a particular company, but allowing the dissemination of fake news is not a neutral decision – it is a choice to allow a system constructed by people to continue operating in a particular way. And this way may well involve those spreading fake news to cleverly “game” the algorithms. To hide behind the neutrality of an algorithm is to erect a flimsy barricade that distracts from the fact that the algorithm, itself, was never neutral. Similarly, to allow a site to become an organizing space for xenophobes is hardly a neutral move when such people are actively using the site as a means of hounding those they dislike into silence. And before the counter of “free speech” can be absurdly raised, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the sheer silliness of griping about unconstrained speech on a platform that (for example) already constrains speech to the tune of 140 characters.
One of the things that the election grimly revealed is that there are simply some types of messages that circulate more easily online than others. Sensational statements, crude images, stories that neatly fit into already existing narratives, snappy slogans, dank memes, reliable seeming graphs, statistics with appeals to an official sounding authority, lists that neatly reconfigure history so that it neatly fits within an ideology – these are the types of things which spread wonderfully online. And though it is certainly true that information flows easily online this election was a reminder that talking about “information” (as such) is actually fairly meaningless. What matters is not the flow of information but what kinds of information flow – when people are caught in a deluge of information and unable to tell the useful elements from the gibberish what occurs is not information enrichment but simply information glut. Access to lots of information is not necessarily an embarrassment of riches, rather it embarrasses us by revealing how ill prepared we are to make sense of all of this information.
The 2016 election was not proof that we desperately need digital media literacy now, it’s proof that we needed such literacy a decade ago. It’s not proof that these digital platforms can be used for good or bad, it’s proof that these platforms work in the ways that they were designed to work (getting lots of people to hit “like,” “retweet,” or perform searches is more important than the content of any of these things). The election was not about how technology works, it was about how technology works us over.
At a moment when it is becoming very clear that people have a rather superficial grasp on history, it is worth taking a step back in order to recall that it is not as though this technologically exacerbated mess was unforeseen.
The history of the twentieth century contains no shortage of people warning against the alienating rise of technological society, sounding the alarm about the manipulative functions of mass culture, highlighting the dangers of a few organizations controlling information flows, grimly predicting that fascism is far from dead, and noting that people lack the critical tools to make sense of their new media environments. Such critiques have also popped up in the twenty-first century where they have taken the digital realm as a target – emphasizing the controlling function of unseen algorithms, exposing the immense power hidden behind the smiling Silicon Valley logos, and generally casting doubt at the “good news” of unbridled faith in the Internet. Neil Postman’s essential book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, was first published in 1985, and it is the type of text that warned that unless something was done that we would wind up…exactly where we are now. As Postman put it, towards the end of the book:
“the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.” (Postman, 161)
The problem, alas, is that we have failed to create “a deep and unfailing awareness” – and, if anything, more has been done to mystify the Internet and digital media than to demystify it. And much of the blame for this needs to be placed at the feet of the technophiles, Internet celebrants, and the peddlers of the New York Ideology. This is not to say that they are responsible for the events of the 2016 election (there is plenty of blame to go around there), or to suggest that they are quite as craven as the supporters of the Californian Ideology who are lining up to ensure that there link to power is not diminished.
Yet, insofar as 2016 has revealed that people have been mystified by the Internet, it is important to highlight that there are many people who have been actively involved in this mystification work. Especially seeing as many of these purveyors of Internet adoration have been all too happy to dismiss of those who had remained skeptical. Thus, it can actually be somewhat amusing to watch the various celebrants scrambling to re-orient themselves (and to ensure that they do not lose their cushy positions), admitting that they were wrong in the most measured of tones while desperately searching for ways to keep praising the Internet. Assuring their anxious audiences that this was all just a fluke, claiming that only the Internet can be used to tamp down the hateful forces that have proved so canny at using the Internet, or claiming that they actually always agreed with the points that their critics were making. Of course, one should not find this too amusing – the joke is on all of us.
In the aftermath of the election many people frantically tore at their hair and wondered “how could this have happened” – but Postman (to give one example) could have told you exactly how it happened. Furthermore, he warned that it would happen. This is not about engaging in a game of “told you so,” or about flinging blame around, but instead meant to raise the matter of “who is telling you what.” Or, to put it differently, perhaps the people who played the euphoric music as they skipped merrily towards this mess aren’t the people who actually know how to get us out of it. Many factors were at work in the 2016 election, but digital media played a big role as well. And to a large extent the technologies at work did not function the way that the Internet’s celebrants expected them to: social media drove people further apart, information became junk, fake news intermingled with real news, hate hijacked the hashtag, and the tech firms (the good nature of which these celebrants are always appealing to) simply shrugged as the money was still pouring into their coffers.
That we need to learn a lesson from this does not mean that we will. After all, there’s still good money to be made in celebrating the Internet. And those who are desperately looking for solutions to the present situation are unlikely to be comforted by the message that there is no techno-fix. After all, it’s still easier to hit “retweet,” “like,” or hope for a damaging leak than to realize that such things helped get us into this situation.
Here’s Postman again:
“it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation.” (Postman, 157)
Those words were first published in 1985. Hopefully in 2017 they’ll actually be heeded.
It’s even later than we think.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Poems Belonging to a Reader for Those Who Live in Cities.” Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956. London: Metheun, 1979. pg. 138.
Melvin Kranzberg. “Technology and History: ‘Kranzberg’s Laws’” in Technology and Culture v. 27, no. 3 (July 1986) 544-560.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (20th Anniversary Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Langdon Winner. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.