Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The early weeks of January represent a precious liminal period in which many people seek to establish new patterns that they hope to follow for the new year. The New Year’s Resolution industrial complex fires up and offers individuals a host of socially sanctioned resolutions along with a variety of memberships, devices, and mantras meant for ensuring that these goals don’t get abandoned by February. Generally speaking, resolutions have to do with some form of personal improvement in response to one’s feeling of a lack in the previous year. To be frank, 2017 was a year of many problems – one that exposed many a societal shortcoming. Yet, one area in which such failings may be particularly noteworthy is in regards to our relationship with technology. From the Equifax hack to the details of Facebook’s moderating policies; from the arrival of even more “smart home assistants” to the reappearance of the threat of nuclear war; from the tech giant’s shrugging admission of social irresponsibility to the continuing wave of stories revealing the often reactionary politics at work in Silicon Valley; and, of course, 2017 was capped off by the FCC voting to gut Net Neutrality.
What follows is a list of five short(ish) resolutions to consider for our computer dominated society. These do not entail a challenging new fitness regime requiring new shoes, but instead primarily involve thinking about technology in new ways in 2018. After all, 2017 was a year of many unwelcome technological surprises, at the very least we can brace ourselves for what’s to come.
Expand Your Definition of “Technology”
There are certain terms that are used so carelessly as to lose much of their meaning. Often these are “big idea” terms like freedom and democracy that are frequently evoked in order to draw upon their positive connotations while simultaneously keeping their actual meaning rather fuzzy. Technology is another such abused term. Admittedly it is a term that one encounters everywhere these days (including on this site), and it is deployed frequently because it is easy and convenient to do so. And yet, in much of its current use “technology” has become a simplistic summary for a handful of things: computers and computer-esque devices that connect to the Internet, as well as other “high-tech” things. Or, to put it somewhat differently, “technology” has become a wholly owned subsidiary of a handful of massive corporations with headquarters in Silicon Valley. As a result, our understanding of technology has become cheapened, our knowledge of its history has become warped, and the tools we have to describe the world around us have become indelicate. There is a reason, after all, why the historian Leo Marx described technology as a “hazardous concept.”
In 2018, let us remember that technology isn’t a term that just means computers – it also means books, eyeglasses, bicycles, clocks, and many other seemingly mundane features of our everyday lives.
Expanding our definition of technology – or recognizing how much is contained in the term – allows us to see through the simplistic narrative in which technology is only about microchips. And this matters because, very often, our societal narratives and discussions around technology seem to act under this misguided assumption. There are powerful ideologies at work here, ones that stand to gain in terms of social prestige as well as economic power by muddling these distinctions. This is clearly seen whenever those who criticize a particular device, machine, or platform are criticized as being “anti-technology” – the cardinal sin of our era. Only in a society that has been tricked into accepting a simplistic definition of “technology” could such a charge be met with anything other than laughter. Yet a simplistic notion of “technology” allows for any criticism of a particular type of technology in a particular context to be cast as a full-scale rejection of technology as such. What’s lost here is the nuance necessary to critique particular technologies, it creates an anti-technology strawman, and forces those criticizing particular technologies to issue mea culpas in which they explain that “of course, I’m not opposed to technology.” We don’t need to bring this rubbish into 2018.
Technology is a term that encompasses volumes. Think of it like food. A person who criticizes McDonald’s is not “anti-food;” and a person who criticizes Google is not “anti-technology.”
Many of us live our lives surrounded by a rich assortment of technologies, we undermine our ability to describe the world we live in and the world we want if we reserve the term “technology” for things containing microchips.
Imagine the Accident
When the executives from a tech company ascend the darkened dais at a launch event they rarely have a portion of their remarks devoted to “how things could go wrong.” This is not surprising, they’re hocking a product, and thus they’re unlikely to give potential consumers reasons not to buy. Unfortunately, this failing tends to be repeated by many of the journalists (and specialty publications) that tend to cover technology with a tone of breathless excitement. Every new device, every new platform, every new update – we are promised – will transform our lives for the better in a multitude of ways big and small! It is a tempting promise, one that allows us to happily feel as though we are personally partaking in progress…and then we learn that our information has been hacked, that the company has been slowing down our battery, that the online world on which we’ve come to depend will now be governed by the profit-driven caprice of telecom conglomerates. There is a feeling of shock, of outrage, of betrayal.
In 2018, let us force ourselves to imagine what could go wrong – before it goes wrong.
Though new technologies are sold on the backs of lavish promises, these technologies also include a range of seldom discussed threats. It’s time to take the threats seriously. Is your data really secure? Have you unknowingly agreed to be a permanent guinea pig for a social media company? Has the lure of convenience convinced you to allow a corporation to constantly monitor you and your family? What have you given up by clicking “agree” on the latest terms of service update? Can it be hacked? Can it breakdown? Or, at the most banal, what will it mean for you on the morning you wake up to find that this device just doesn’t work anymore? To be clear this is in no way shape or form to hope for such accidents, but to think in advance about what they may be. At the very least, this should help insulate us from some of the surprise and may well allow us to act in ways that make us better prepared when these accidents occur. It is likely that in weighing the benefits against the risks that most people will still opt for the benefits (this is the ethos of our computer dominated society), but at this point it seems increasingly naïve to act surprised when some facet of our technological society goes haywire.
You don’t need to constantly expect the worst, but you should at least try to imagine what it might look like.
Watch out for Giants
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google – these are the massive tech conglomerates battling for control of the future. They are joined in their melee by a range of smaller (yet still sizable) combatants such as Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Tesla. All fiercely fighting for market share, and for the honor of being at the vanguard of technological innovation. To those who’ve been watching this clash of titans for a while it is becoming harder to deny that there are fewer and fewer gladiators, and those still fighting are getting bigger and bigger, even as their armor appears ever more finely crafted, and as their weapons get sharper. True, occasionally a would-be David takes the field to confront one of these Goliaths – but David and Goliath no longer fight, now Goliath simply offers David a buy out (or, if David truly refuses, Goliath simply clones everything David offers). And, to be clear, a battlefield filled with giants is not a safe place for mere mortals to tread – lest they want to be scraped off the bottom of one of the giant’s boots.
In 2018 let us be mindful of these giants, and let us be aware of what we are feeding them.
It’s hard to get away from the giants, and goodness knows avoiding them often requires active choice. They’ve become so mighty at least in part because what they’ve been able to offer – in exchange for permitting their metastasizing – has been appealing to many people. Amazon’s prices are low, Apple’s products are shiny, Facebook helps you stay in touch with your cousins, Google has become a verb, and so forth. They have managed to graft themselves seamlessly onto the basic social processes that define much of life in twenty-first century computer dominated societies. It’s time to pay more attention to the seams. Facebook wants you to use Facebook more than you want to use Facebook, Amazon wants you to buy things on Amazon more than you want to buy things on Amazon, Google wants you to watch YouTube videos more than you want to watch YouTube videos – you may truly want to do all of these things, but the company wants you to do it even more. These giants have grown due to regulatory inaction and economic systems which allow for massive concentration of wealth, but these giants also grow because we keep feeding them snacks ourselves. This is not to argue for complete abstention (insofar as that’s impossible for many to do), but it is to argue for greater awareness. It is important to recognize that avoiding the giants may be a laudable goal, but it is a total nonstarter for many people. But let us be aware of the choices we’re making, and (where possible) assume some more responsibility. You may well wind up buying a book off of Amazon this year, but that doesn’t mean you need to willingly put an always-listening Amazon microphone in your house.
A continuum exists between slaying the giants and jumping into the giants’ mouths, we should remember that.
Read the Warnings
On a certain level, it would be comforting if some of our technological troubles had been wholly unforeseen. Truly, it would be nice if no one had warned us that the high-tech world would unleash mass surveillance, lead to rampant ennui, drive ecologically terrible consumerism, and result in ever more power being concentrated in the hands of a few companies. After all, if there had been no warnings we could more easily look out at the world and say, “yes this is bad, but how could we have known?”
But, the truth is, we were warned.
The problem is that those who issued these warnings have turned out to be the descendants of Cassandra: condemned to be right, but still ignored. In fairness, as is often the case with prophecies, some of these kinfolk of Cassandra did not identify the problem in precise detail (they didn’t warn specifically about a company called Google) – but the trends they identified, the modes of thinking they pointed to as sources for concern, and the general shape of the future they darkly envisioned were largely correct. Granted, it’s not simply that these figures were ignored, but that they were often derided as “prophets of doom,” denounced as “Luddites,” and scorned for being “anti-technology.” Yet it’s essential to realize that rolling one’s eyes at Cassandra’s prophecies doesn’t make them false – go ask the Trojans.
In 2018, take the time to read the warnings.
Such reading is advisable in two forms: the reading of older and newer works. There were thinkers who predicted the mess we find ourselves in today, and there are thinkers predicting the mess we’re heading for tomorrow – and in many of these cases, these thinkers do a good job of contextualizing our challenges by paying attention to what has come before. One of the running themes that played out in 2017 was a sense that people were failing to learn from history, and while that is certainly true when it comes to political, social, and economic history; it is likewise true when it comes to the history of technology. Admittedly, not everyone will find this reading enjoyable. It can be highly discomforting. But it can also provide you with the tools to understand what is happening now, and what will probably happen next. Look for current work being published in and around Media Studies, the History of Technology, and STS – and keep an eye on the various academic societies that work in those fields (pay extra attention to the works that align themselves with post-colonial, indigenous, feminist, disability, and other critical fields of study). Admittedly, this is not the place for a reading list (perhaps one will be forthcoming) – but if you’re looking for three books to add to your reading list in 2018, consider: When Old Technologies Were New by Carolyn Marvin; Autonomous Technology by Langdon Winner; and Technology and the Virtues by Shannon Vallor.
Take some time off
In descriptions of our computer dominated society, one often comes across references to people always being “on.” The smartphone is always ready to hand, the wi-fi is always working, the e-mails are always coming in, the Facebook feed is constantly flush with updates, and there are always new tweets available. We live in a world in which, as Sherry Turkle evocatively put it, we’re “alone together.” In 2017, the sense of always being “on” was intensified by a feeling that one always had to be watching (the news, Facebook, Twitter, etc…) because at any moment something extremely significant could occur. Always being “on,” and feeling that one is always obligated to be “on,” can lead to exhaustion. It’s simply overwhelming – there are always more articles, more tweets, more status updates, and more new photos to read/see/comment on than you can possibly get to. If your full-time job consisted of nothing but consuming such content, you’d still fall behind.
In 2018, take some time off. And by “time off” what is meant is take a day in which you turn, at least some things, off.
This is not a call to delete your Facebook account, or Twitter, or Instagram, or a suggestion that you disconnect your wi-fi router, or that you forego having a computer at home. However, it is an invitation to find some space between always being “on” and going off the grid. This isn’t meant as an insult to those who, for a range of reasons, choose to minimize the role of high-tech things in their lives – but for many people genuinely shutting “off” simply isn’t a realistic option. But you could decide that you’re not going to Tweet on the weekends, you could decide not to go on Facebook before 10 a.m., you could decide that you’re not going to check your e-mail on Saturdays, you could unplug your wi-fi on Wednesdays – none of these things preclude you from going back online on other days or at other times, but they can provide you with some mental space. And more importantly, they can remind you that you don’t always need to be on.
2018 is probably going to be a rather difficult year. Brace yourself.