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Progress for the status quo – on the Chamber of Progress

“There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.” – Neil Postman

A very long time ago, the tech titans of Silicon Valley were viewed as benevolent saviors eager to distribute their shiny gadgets and platforms to make life better for everyone. The haloed CEOs of these companies graced the covers of popular magazines alongside laudatory headlines, those same CEOs palled around with prominent politicians, tech company campuses were hailed as miniature utopias, the downsides of “disruptive innovation” were treated as insignificant in comparison to the benefits, and against the soot-covered backdrop of a grim industrial past these Silicon Valley tech companies promised a glistening high-tech future of same day delivery, endless streaming content, and limitless progress.

Of course, “a very long time ago” should be read as “prior to November 2016.”

In the halcyon days before Trump’s election, Silicon Valley was often framed as a wonderful progressive force—and those who dared challenge this viewpoint found themselves tarred as technophobes, Luddites, or troglodytes. Yet in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, attention quickly turned to the ways in which his success had been aided and abetted by those same tech companies: Twitter was no longer a tool of upstart activists but instead Trump’s favored bullhorn, Facebook was no longer a friendly gathering spot but the crime scene of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, YouTube was no longer a place to watch silly cat videos but a place that funneled angry young men to the alt-right, and the tech company CEOs who had carefully deployed the language of progressive values rushed to do nothing about the explosion of hate on their platforms by making bland appeals to freedom of speech. And though critics had already been sounding the alarm on these issues for years the stories about the sexism, racism, and labor violations endemic at the tech companies could no longer be deflected by banal platitudes about the tech companies’ commitment to making the world a better place. Sure, the profits of the tech companies continued to soar, but as the company CEOs found themselves dragged before Congress they looked miserable. Where once they had posed heroically on magazine covers now they appeared sickly and exhausted as they sought to fend off regulations.

It has never been enough for these tech companies to have money and power, they also want to be loved.

By the end of January 2021, Trump’s presidency had ended. But Biden’s entry into the White House has not been matched by the salvation of Silicon Valley’s image. Too many people still blame Facebook and Twitter for Trump’s rise to be willing to give these companies a pass now, too many people have read the deluge of articles about the racism and sexism at these companies to believe that they can be trusted to fix themselves, and too many people have seen the prophecy of technological salvation come unraveled to be willing to return to worshipping at the church of technology.

What then are the tech companies to do? How can they salvage their image?

Enter the “Chamber of Progress”

According to the “Our Mission” section of the Chamber of Progress’s website:

“We’re not just another business group. Chamber of Progress is a new tech industry coalition devoted to a progressive society, economy, workforce, and consumer climate. We back public policies that will build a fairer, more inclusive country in which all people benefit from technological leaps.”

The group’s founder and CEO is Adam Kovacevich, whose resumé includes working as an aide for Democratic officials including Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Cal Dooley, helping to found the House New Democrat Coalition, and who can boast of being Google’s seventh DC hire. And the group’s advisory board is made up of a diverse array of individuals with close ties to the Democratic party and the tech sector. Beyond this, the group’s list of corporate partners is an impressive assortment of major tech firms including (but not limited to): Amazon, Facebook, Grubhub, Twitter, Instacart, Uber, DoorDash, and Google. As of this writing, in the week of the organization’s formal launch, the Chamber of Progress’s website remains somewhat sparse, but luckily Kovacevich has written a Medium post in which he further lays out the goals and general vision of the group.

In the Medium post, Kovacevich grounds the organization in his experience helping to found the “center left” New Democrat Coalition in the late 1990s, as he fondly recalls the days when Democratic policy makers “continued to trek to Silicon Valley.” Kovacevich is open in stating his belief that “tech has also played a huge role in improving our society” from activists to Uber drivers, “this technology-powered expansion of economic, educational, and social opportunity has advanced modern progressivism.” And yet, as tech’s power has grown, it is now giving rise to some “understandable scrutiny of tech,” though unfortunately in Kovacevich’s assessment this debate has come to “be characterized by extreme reactions.” What is needed is therefore “a more sensible debate” around technology, as “consumers don’t want laws to mess up the services they love.” Thus, the Chamber of Progress sees it as “essential that our laws responsibly minimize technology’s excesses while preserving its benefits for society” so that “all Americans benefit from technological leaps.” The work of “ensuring a progressive high-tech future” will be a challenging task, but the Chamber of Progress is here to lead that charge!

In fighting for that “progressive high-tech future,” the Chamber of Progress is committed to “economic progress,” “social progress,” and to “consumer progress”—and the Chamber has specific ideas of the elements that make up these various types of “Progress.” As Kovacevich explains it, the Chamber of Progress will support “public policies” that promote:

Economic progress, including combatting income inequality; promoting a bigger, modern social safety net; encouraging progressive taxation; and supporting reliable, win-win online marketplaces.

Social progress, including promoting inclusive democracy; supporting bold action against climate change; promoting digital opportunity for all; and advocating for healthy and equitable online communities.

Consumer progress, including promoting the principle that tech should always serve consumers’ interests; “building back better” by investing in communities and regulated innovation; increasing access to goods and information; and balancing consumer and worker concerns.”

Central to the Chamber of Progress is the idea that technology has been a progressive force, and that it can still be one.

The Chamber of Progress has a bright, aesthetically pleasing, website that clearly lays out its mission and values. It has an advisory board filled with diverse smiling faces with impressive qualifications. The list of corporate sponsors is a comprehensive assortment of tech’s major companies. And the Medium post by the Chamber of Progress’s founder and CEO, lays out a clear vision of tech’s past and tech’s potential future.

But the Chamber of Progress is simply repackaging Silicon Valley talking points in vaguely progressive terminology. It is the just another manifestation of Silicon Valley effort to ensure that the work of critique and pushback is done by former tech insiders who still adhere to the ideology that tech is ultimately a force for good.

The Chamber of Progress is not how we’ll get out of this mess, it is a reminder of how we got into this mess, and it is the type of group that will keep us sinking deeper into this mess.

An Echo Chamber of Progress

Not many people who identify themselves with the political left are going to want to speak out against progress. After all, the language of “progress” and “progressivism” have become the hallmarks of culturally acceptable leftism—the kind that you can voice on MSNBC, in a campaign ad, or on the floor of the Capitol without being attacked as a socialist (well, at least not by other progressives). And many of the types of “progress” that the Chamber of Progress supports are of the sort that few will really want to challenge. Though they will certainly differ on the specifics, NPR listeners and Jacobin subscribers are likely to agree that “combatting income inequality” and “supporting bold action against climate change” are goals worth pursuing. And to be frank, an affection for technological progress (even if it is often pared with antipathy towards particular tech companies) is a hallmark of much of the contemporary left.  

Yet, you do not need to dig too deeply into the types of “progress” the Chamber of Progress is advocating for to begin feeling slightly suspect. It’s great to support “bold action against climate change,” but what does that actually mean? Similarly “encouraging progressive taxation” sounds all well and good, but saying you support something isn’t the same as giving concrete figures. The idea of “digital opportunity for all” is so broad as to be pretty much meaningless. And though “build back better” was one of the tag lines of Biden’s campaign, advocating for “investing in communities and regulated innovation” feels like just another nice-sounding but ultimately vapid idea stitched together out of an assortment of PR approved buzzwords. There are some very worthwhile goals listed by the Chamber of Progress, but there is nothing in those goals that could not easily be signed off on by the executives of any of the tech companies who fill the roster of the Chamber of Progress’s corporate sponsors. There is nothing brave about saying you like ice cream, and it takes no political bravery to state that you support a vague idea of progress.

It is important to note, that the word “progress” is everywhere on the Chamber of Progress’s website, heck it’s in the organization’s name, and the term comes up over and over again in Kovacevich’s Medium post. However, nowhere is the term really wrestled with in any kind of thoughtful or nuanced way. Kovacevich states that “tech has been progressive” and this is presented as simply a statement of inarguable fact as opposed to something much more complicated. The evidence of tech’s “progress” is here an attempt to resurrect the narratives about tech that died when Trump was elected: it empowers activists, it creates “new livelihoods,” it makes things cheaper (don’t you love next day delivery?)! But much like a zombie that has risen out of its grave, something doesn’t smell right here, and you shouldn’t let yourself get bitten.

Historians of technology have documented time and time again the many ways in which, particularly in the US, the belief in technological progress has often been closely linked to the idea of progress more generally. From the telegraph to the railroad to mass electrification to the automobile to the telephone to the microwave to the computer—scholars studying technology have written thousands and thousands of pages detailing the ways in which technological progress came to be seen as synonymous with economic progress, social progress, and consumer progress. Granted, in exploring this connection, most of these scholars have been careful to explore the ways in which this interconnection is largely an ideological construction. And it is also worth noting that when historians of technology discuss “technology” they are doing so in a much more expansive way than how the term tech has come to just be a shorthand for “computers and the Internet.”

The idea that technological progress ultimately trickles down and creates social progress is the sort of belief that those who control (and are made rich by) these forms of technological progress love to sell. It is ultimately a soporific belief that encourages individuals to sit calmly by while they wait for social progress to come to them thanks to technological progress. Techno-utopians love to pay homage to the activists who use their gadgets and platforms, but at the core of the techno-utopian ideology is the belief that progress comes from Mark Zuckerberg not the people marching in the streets. And of course, this narrative of technological progress serves to downplay and hide technologies downsides and consequences. Indeed, those who study technology have demonstrated the many ways in which far from bringing about social progress, technological progress has often served to deepen already existing inequalities.

Or to put it slightly differently: technology progresses while reinforcing the status quo.

To be clear, the belief that technological progress is the same as social progress is a widely shared belief. As was previously noted, this is an idea that plays a prominent role in the American belief system, so it is not particularly surprising that so many have been taken in by this idea. Furthermore, the loyalty to this idea can be easily understood insofar as it is easy to see technological progress—especially in periods when social progress seems to be backsliding. In the last ten years, in terms of technological progress, we have seen faster Internet, leaps in robotics, and all manner of newfangled consumer gadgets. It is the type of shiny progress that you can buy! But on the social progress front (without meaning to suggest there has been no progress): economic inequality continues to widen, xenophobic authoritarianism is on the rise, and catastrophic climate change (which is one of the consequences of technological progress) draws closer.

The belief that technological progress is the same as social progress is appealing in an era when the fragility of social progress is clear, but when a new iPhone still rolls out every 18 months. You can go to the store and buy that technological progress, and therefore feel that at least something is advancing that it must mean that everything else is moving forward as well. Social progress emerges out of struggle and requires people willing to stand up and organize, but technological progress is something that you can just buy at a store.

And it is in this area that another highly problematic element of the Chamber of Progress’s underlying ideology becomes clear. Though the group has ties to the Democratic Party, and though they speak of “promoting inclusive democracy,” at core the Chamber of Progress does not see people as people, or even as citizens, but as “consumers.” After all, what the hell does “consumer progress” even mean? And isn’t there something rather vile about bouncing so swiftly from “social progress” to “consumer progress”? Yet, this is a key component of the Silicon Valley view of the world: you are not a human being, you are not a citizen, you are a consumer (one who both consumes technology and is consumed by it). And despite some gestures towards democracy, the Chamber of Progress seems to view most people in much the same way. Nowhere is this clearer than when Kovacevich writes: “Consumers don’t want laws to mess up the services they love.” One might expect an advocacy group to say that “citizens don’t want tech companies to mess up the society they live in,” but such a statement might lead to arguing for positions that make Google uncomfortable. However, saying “Consumers don’t want laws to mess up the services they love,” is the type of sentiment that any tech company’s PR firm could trot out whenever some politician pushes for meaningful regulation.

A further problem with this view that sees people as consumers first, and only people second, is that it presents a warped view of society and the world. Though this is the warped view that seems to permeate tech companies. There is a clear class component of this wherein there is a divide between those who can afford to consume and those who cannot. Here one earns the right to meaningful consideration within this technological society in virtue of the fact that you are a technological consumer. Granted, what this consideration looks like is largely just the promise of a steady stream of new gadgets and services. This is a view of life that is broken down to the basic function of consumption, whether that is the literal buying of products on Amazon, consuming content on a platform like Twitter, or consuming tech services like Gmail. Those who are not part of this consumer class are not worthy of mention or consideration: we hear nothing about those who mine the minerals that are essential for all these consumer gadgets, we hear nothing about the environmental toll of the cloud, workers are only mentioned insofar as there is a need to balance “consumer and worker concerns,” and the mountain of toxic e-waste that all this high-tech progress generates goes unmentioned as well. When you put people first, companies by necessity come later. But when you turn those people into consumers, you put the companies first as they are the ones churning out the products to satiate those consumers.

The Chamber of Progress does a fine job of replicating the communicative techniques of Silicon Valley companies by speaking in terms of lofty ideals and goals, but if you start to actually dig into the code you can pretty quickly detect that beneath the shiny veneer is just the same old ideology that technological progress equals social progress. And in this situation your role isn’t that of the righteous activist, it isn’t the role of the informed voter, it isn’t even the role of a human being, instead you are just a consumer who loves tech services and doesn’t want any pesky laws getting in the way.

If the last few years have taught us anything it should be not to equate technological progress and social progress. This is a point that academics and many activists have been screaming for years, but it seemed like many people needed the events of the Trump years to fully convince them that Facebook really isn’t their friend.

Progress can be an important and meaningful thing, but “progress” can also just be an empty term being used to distract from corporate control—and unfortunately with the Chamber of Progress it is the latter.

The Chamber Pot of Progress

Why get so worked up about a brand new organization with a content thin website? Because it’s important to understand what such organizations are and what purposes they serve from the outset. And because groups like the Chamber of Progress really do wind up playing a role in shaping the discourse around technology and the tech companies.

Case in point: in 2018 an organization launched called the Center for Humane Technology. Founded by a former tech insider, CHT’s bright aesthetically pleasing website was filled with appealing comments about the importance of ensuring that tech’s benefits were better distributed. From the outset it was fairly easy to recognize that the Center for Humane Technology was mainly about channeling growing frustration with the tech companies back into channels wherein the criticism of technology could be captured and controlled by former tech insiders who still believed in their hearts that Silicon Valley meant well. Of course, not too many people were aware of the Center for Humane Technology…until 2020 when CHT was heavily involved in the making of the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma,” a movie which largely argued  that the work of fixing tech could be left to the techies. This is not the space to rehash the critiques of “The Social Dilemma,” suffice to say that just about every critique of that film was foreseeable by considering the organization from the outset.

The point of the Center for Humane Technology was to capture the cultural space that was opening up for criticism of technology and ensure that this space was filled by former Google employees who give sad-eyed statements about what they wish they had known, while still arguing that Google is basically great and can be trusted to regulate itself. The point of the Chamber of Progress is to channel the energy for regulation and new laws regarding the tech sector into superficial changes that won’t significantly challenge the power of any of these tech companies. On its website the Chamber of Progress notes that the “Chamber of Progress remains true to our stated principles even when our partners disagree,” but those principles represent such a banal commitment to the broad idea of “progress” that it’s hard to imagine it really doing much of anything with which those corporate partners disagree. In the coming years we will likely see a fair number of new tech related regulations getting introduced, and groups like the Chamber of Progress position themselves to be the organizations journalists go to for quotes, and networks invite on air for commentary. And in that moment when a new regulation is being debated, it makes a difference whether the person being consulted is an academic who studies this topic, a community activist, or a former Google employee. Furthermore that people will hear “Chamber of Progress” over and over again can serve to create the impression that the group represents the “progressive” take on the issue, when in reality the group is an outgrowth of the center-left New Democrat Coalition.

The Chamber of Progress does not represent progressive goals or movements, it does not represent a push for meaningful regulation, and it does not represent a challenge to Silicon Valley. Instead the Chamber of Progress represents a fairly transparent bait and switch wherein things like progressive goals, meaningful regulation, and challenging Silicon Valley get channeled to and skillfully deflected by a center-left group of tech insiders.

Google employees got us into this mess, nobody should expect former Google employees to get us out of it. And the company name “Google” in the previous sentence could easily be swapped out with “Amazon” or “Apple” or “Microsoft” or “Facebook.” This is not to suggest that there are no good people working at these companies, or that there are no people fighting for meaningful change from within those companies, but the problem is not merely the companies themselves but the broader ideology that exists around these companies. If we want to actually challenge the power of these tech companies in any meaningful way it is essential to realize that the problem is not simply Google or Amazon or Facebook, but the faith in technology as the god who saves. If we are going to take on the tech companies we must be willing to take on this religion of technology. The problem of course, is that organizations like the Chamber of Progress don’t actually seem to be interested in challenging the power of these tech companies in any meaningful way, it attempts to put the priests of the religion of technology in appealing new robes…but they still serve that false god. The point is to just do enough to renew your faith in these tech companies so that you will go back to happily consuming new gadgets and platforms instead of calling for Facebook to be broken up.

Perhaps the Chamber of Progress will surprise us all and emerge as a fierce challenger of the Silicon Valley orthodoxy, but it seems like the organization is just the latest manifestation of Silicon Valley’s continued attempt to argue that it can be trusted to regulate itself.

The Chamber of Progress is attempting to revive the faith that technological progress will save us. But that’s not progress, that’s regress.  

Coda:

“If I have mocked the doctrine of Progress, I have done so only to attack the simpleminded notion that human improvements are guaranteed by purely scientific and technical advances—that they are the predictable outcome of today’s panacea ‘research and development.’” – Lewis Mumford

Related Content:

Beware Silicon Valley’s Guilty Conscience – on the Center for Humane Technology

Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – a review of “The Social Dilemma”

“Striving to minimize technical and reputational risks” – on Ethical OS

What Technology Do We Really Need? – on the Personal Democracy Forum

Authoritarian and Democratic Technics Revisited

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

2 comments on “Progress for the status quo – on the Chamber of Progress

  1. Lisa Hill
    April 1, 2021

    Interesting…
    I am currently reading The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz, which links the rise of loneliness (even before C_19) to anti-social and extremist behaviour because those groups offer a sense of belonging. Amongst other things she comments on the rise of Big Tech and its conception of us all as consumers—but not just of products, also of political ideas, hence Trumpism.
    Alas, (although I haven’t yet finished the book so perhaps this judgement is premature) though she has some ideas about how to improve things, most of them seem to rely on people making different decisions such as deactivating Facebook. Which doesn’t seem very likely to me…

  2. Pingback: They meant well (or, why it matters who gets to be seen as a “tech critic”) | LibrarianShipwreck

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