"More than machinery, we need humanity."
In the early 1990s an assortment of activists and academics banded together in an attempt to challenge the direction in which high-technology, and infatuation with it, was taking society. And though the movement was always a fairly loose one, its core precepts were finely captured in Chellis Glendinning’s “Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.” As is generally the case with manifestos, it was more of a statement of principles than a declaration seeking signatories, and it has its arguments have lost little of their heft over time.
The key points of Glendinning’s “Neo-Luddite Manifesto” were that: “1. Neo-Luddites are not anti-technology;” “2. All technologies are political;” and that “3. The personal view of technology is dangerously limited.” What these three points aimed to encapsulate was an expansive definition of technology that recognized that opposition to some technologies (in certain contexts) did not make one opposed to technology (as such), and to highlight the ways in which even seemingly innocuous technologies advance a particular vision for how society should function.
Without explicitly calling for anyone to pick up a sledgehammer, the manifesto’s “program” called for “the dismantling of…destructive technologies,” sought “a search for new technological forms” which would involve creating “technologies in which politics morality, ecology, and technics are merged for the benefit of life on Earth,” and argued that in contrast to the technological worldview that what was needed was “the development of a life-enhancing worldview.” And amongst the “destructive technologies” that were singled out for “dismantling” were “nuclear technologies,” “genetic engineering technologies,” “television,” and “computer technologies.” While the Neo-Luddites did highlight particular classes of technologies for their opprobrium, the key element to take away from the manifesto is that the Neo-Luddites were not singling out particular companies, but were instead recognizing that what really needed to be challenged was a belief system.
Though it seems that it barely needs to be written: the Neo-Luddites were not particularly successful. Certainly, in the years following the publication of Glendinning’s manifesto, there were a spate of patronizing articles about the nascent movement, and many of the individuals associated with the movement wrote books in which they further fleshed out the meaning of, and need for, Neo-Luddism. But all in all, the Neo-Luddites failed. The proof of which is all around you.
If one wanted to apply a term that’s being kicked around a lot of late to the Neo-Luddites, one could say that the Neo-Luddism was an example of a “techlash.” Or, at the very least, an attempt to spark a techlash. Albeit, one that stands in rather stark contrast to the techlash of today.
In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle, and Mark Zuckerberg’s performance before Congress, some found themselves wondering whether society was about to experience a techlash. Were people finally sick of the actions of these giant tech companies? Was the political will finally building up to seriously regulate these companies? Would the #DeleteFacebook campaign actually result in Facebook losing millions of users? Would the anger at Facebook grow to encompass other tech titans like Google and Amazon? Had people finally reached a point at which they were willing to say “Enough!”? And were a significant number of people beginning to consider hitting the “off button”? Across Silicon Valley, investors and executives anxiously anticipating their dethronement from society’s heights.
To be clear, the idea that a techlash was brewing had already been causing some tech-evangelists concern for several years. Case in point: the strong reaction to Google Glass that wound up succeeding in killing the product, frustration with how easily tech companies had been cooperating with the NSA (as revealed by Edward Snowden), and the protests against the gentrification caused by tech companies that led to a few buses being blocked in San Francisco. Indeed, it was in reference to the latter incident that the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff titled his 2016 book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus” – a text that seemed to be a warning to the tech giants to change their ways lest they face a techlash. Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that the tech companies had solely taken on the forms of villains: canny creators of alliances, the tech firms managed to build good will with activist groups by defending net neutrality and lending their support to countering the likes of CISPA and SOPA.
And even as anger with the tech companies bubbled up in certain segments of society, the companies kept growing in power and influence.
For all of the concern that may have gripped investors and executives in Silicon Valley, it seems that they are likely now popping champagne. Either the techlash failed to really materialize, or it did briefly appear but was so quickly snuffed out as to be inconsequential. Facebook’s profits are back up, the #DeleteFacebook campaign does not seem to have lost Facebook a statistically significant quantity of users, Congress has made it clear that it isn’t going to seriously regulate Facebook, the frustration with Facebook hasn’t been channeled into anger at other tech companies, and after enjoying broadcasting clips of Zuckerberg squirming before Congress the news media has moved on to other matters. Unless there’s another galling revelation about Cambridge Analytica waiting in the wings, it seems that this story’s shelf life has ended. Besides, newscasters would much rather talk about the president and the possibility of a scandalous recording, than about the fact that the power of tech companies has metastasized. Indeed, those in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley would be right in saying that at this point the people who are still fixated on this matter are the same people who were fixated on it before the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle. And nobody pays attention to them, anyways.
Yes, maybe Zuckerberg needs to go into hiding (after his lackluster apology tour) for a little bit – but his temporary fall has just created an opportunity for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to vie for the title of High Priest of the, still very popular, Religion of Technology. Maybe Zuckerberg’s presidential ambitions have been put on hold, but there’s still a legion of fans praying that Saint Musk will save them.
The situation with Facebook has provided plenty of reasons for why there should be a techlash. First and foremost being that Zuckerberg’s testimony made it clear that Facebook has amassed a huge amount of power, while its actions have made it clear that it cannot be trusted to use that power responsibly or ethically. While Zuckerberg repeatedly referred to the platform’s “Terms of Service,” he also admitted that Facebook knows no one actually reads them (they are written so as not to be read), and he further acknowledged that Facebook tweaks them all the time. Facebook also made it clear that joining the platform is like joining a panoptic cult – as Facebook keeps tracking its users even after they’ve logged off, and can’t guarantee that it ever really deletes the accounts of those who go through the onerous process of quitting the site. And of course Zuckerberg plunged a dagger into the belly of the #DeleteFacebook campaign when he admitted that Facebook has ghost accounts even for people who do not use the platform. To say it again, Zuckerberg made clear that there are plenty of reasons why there should be a techlash.
But there hasn’t been one.
Yes, there are scattered pockets of angry individuals. Yes, there have been some agitated op-eds. Yes, some people have quit Facebook. But a real techlash? No. At least not yet.
The irony of the present situation is that it is clear that a techlash is badly needed, but the situation is simultaneously one in which it is increasingly difficult for that techlash to occur. Companies like Facebook and Google have so thoroughly interwoven themselves into people’s daily lives that to genuinely challenge them would require people reevaluating much about how they’ve come to live. And it seems that many people are simply unwilling to do so.
This raises the question of what would a techlash look like? Admittedly, it isn’t the easiest question to answer. Although it does seem fair to state that the limited reactions we’re seeing happening now, certainly doesn’t count for much. This is not to deny the work that some groups, some critics, and some scholars, are doing – but what would a genuine techlash entail?
It may well be that what a real techlash would look like, would be similar to what the Neo-Luddites attempted. Because what the Neo-Luddites realized was that they didn’t need to just challenge one or two companies, rather they needed to challenge the belief system upon which those companies were built. And this is one of the aims a real techlash will need to take on: not to just be angry with Facebook, but to direct this outrage at all of the companies that are participating in this same economy of surveillance capitalism. After all, to attack Facebook and leave Google untouched will only serve to benefit Google. Thus, a real techlash must be able to imagine a different arrangement of technology in society, one that has the ability to imagine a world without Facebook and Google, or in which they can be imagined in radically different forms. A techlash must recognize the power differentials that different technologies reify within society, that make it so that “just quit” isn’t an option for many people, even as the surveillance gaze of these platforms preys on some groups more than others. To be even moderately invested in the idea of democracy, a techlash shouldn’t just be satisfied with demanding that Congress pass regulation, but should demand democratic control over these technologies. And if a techlash isn’t going to just be a passing fad, or a brief expression of activist militancy, it needs to create a mass movement that can genuinely ask: what are these technologies doing to us and to our society?
There’s something darkly humorous about the fact that many people are promising that they are ready to take to the streets if President Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller – for such an act, if it happens, is seen as being an affront to democracy. But people seem far less concerned with the ways in which the tech companies have been steadily eroding democratic institutions for years.
The lack of a genuine and sustained techlash gives the tech companies carte blanche – it tells them that they can keep doing whatever they want without having to really worry about the consequences. When they overstep, and get caught, they may have to send an executive to be unhappily questioned before Congress, and they may have to endure a momentary stock hit, but after the storm passes they’ll be just fine.
Some may look back at Glendinning’s “Neo-Luddite Manifesto” and scoff at her inclusion of “computer technologies” amongst the list of “destructive technologies” that might warrant dismantling. But recent events suggest that she knew exactly what she was saying, and that she wasn’t wrong.
The world we live in today is a testament to past techlashes that have failed, and the world of tomorrow will depend on whether or not we can learn from those past failures before it’s too late.
And to be very clear, it’s already very late.