Issue #18 ‘Stuff’ has arrived, you can buy a copy online, subscribe now, or visit one of the stockists listed…
Back when grunge was fast becoming a department store fashion, a bold new hope for civilisation appeared. It was lauded by academics, commentators, and politicians: the Internet was going to emancipate and democratise the world. It enabled the free flow of information and goods. Everyone was an author, with all the power this suggested. It allowed users to play with their identities, resisting older, fixed notions of selfhood. Theorists proclaimed that its decentralised, grass-like character – ‘rhizome’ was one of the era’s buzzwords – would resist authoritarianism. During a visit to China, Bill Clinton told reporters that trying to crack down on the Internet was “sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
Almost two decades later and the Chinese government has, famously, a very large wall. There and elsewhere, electronic filtering and redirecting, surveillance and content alteration are common. The Internet’s liberating vigour was greatly overrated. Politically and economically, capital remains in the hands of the few – only their investments have changed. As Kentaro Toyama recently put it in The Atlantic, the ‘“Internet is not, nor will ever be, the primary, systematic cause of real political change any more than lanterns – ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ – were the primary cause of the American revolution.”
A more profound mistake is at work here. It concerns not just the Internet, but technology in general. It is the expectation that technology can and will solve problems; that the future will be better because technology will have made it so; that many of us can wait for machines and code to fix things.
This is not surprising. Technology is about problem-solving. As Aristotle revealed in his study of techne, or craft, its rationality is instrumental. Technology realises possibilities which would not otherwise be, and it does so reliably – or is supposed to. It is a specific means to specific ends.
But it is naïve to believe that technological innovation always embodies the ends we desire, or will achieve only those ends. Most obviously, engineers and scientists do not always make objects because they care about the outcomes. David Hume noted in his A Treatise of Human Nature that experts sometimes labour because they enjoy their work, not because they esteem the welfare of their community.
This is no attack on so-called ‘blue sky’ research, which is vital to the enrichment of knowledge. What’s dubious is the belief that widgets exist because they are helpful – sometimes their genesis is curiosity.
More often, other motives drive novelty. The businesses that fund and hype technology often have very different ends to those of the buyers and users. For example, skin creams are marketed as innovative rejuvenating agents: making older skin younger, with cutting-edge medical research on enzymes, cellular replenishment, and so on. There is no evidence that they can achieve this, despite advertising “clinically proven” results. They are also helping to create the problem itself: heightened anxiety over ageing, and the manic celebration of youth.
Put another way, the ultimate end of many products is profit not utility – exchange value, not use value. And this logic can create more grief than it overcomes. When businesses are driven chiefly by income or shareholder returns, we should not be surprised when their gadgets are superfluous at best; sold with a wink and a whispered promise, to make a few bucks.
In fact, sometimes this outlook can be profoundly dangerous, even when the technologies are useful. Transport, logistics, communication, and the energy to power it all – all of these are vital to modern life. But they also require waste and pollution on a global scale. It is partly because the biosphere is not valued – or is ranked far lower than profit – that companies have treated this necessity as a handy gratuity, or as non-existent. The result: international problems perhaps too wicked to solve.
Technological Pollyannas also ignore the use of tools. The Chinese government is using many of the same instruments as companies in the west – in fact, it often has their cooperation. But their aims diverge: controlling dissent, rather than profit margins. The same is true of western governments. While politicians publicly lionise freedom and confidentiality, their agencies are invading privacy. They collect personal data from companies, tap into servers and undersea cables, persuade companies to compromise their encryption – all while restricting their own information for commercial confidentiality or national security. This is neither democratic nor liberal, and points to a genuine struggle between authority and autonomy.
Put more generally, human existence involves the conflict of values. We are, as Aristotle observed and Hannah Arendt celebrated, political animals. Not because we are all party apparatchiks, but because we cannot escape the basic condition of social plurality. There is no magical space apart from political and ethical strife, and it is foolish to believe that technology can be deployed without co-option by some human end.
For the same reason, it is naïve to believe that these problems will be solved in the future. Regardless of how swiftly technology develops, there will never be a time without discord. Even if everyone agreed on our troubles and how to overcome them (a huge ‘if’), nothing would stop interest groups from selfishly doing otherwise. This happened with tobacco, is happening now with fossil fuels, and will continue with other businesses, lobbyists, and parties. Humans are a divided and fractious species.
There are also some problems that technology cannot solve. Not because it is too sluggish, fragile, or clumsy, but because not all problems are instrumental. Machines can no more do ethics than they can have existential crises. They can help to change circumstances, but they cannot reflect on their value or morality. For example, a cheap pump can increase water supply in a drought, avoiding brutal resource conflicts. But technology cannot persuade the community to install, operate, and maintain this pump, or aid organisations to support this project instead of a cheap laptop program.
This highlights the intimate but asymmetric relationship between humanity and its instruments. We are a tool-making species, but we are not ourselves tools. We have our own ends – in fact, we are ends. Technology can nudge, encourage, invite; it can amplify or diminish, accelerate or slow down. It is no neutral bystander. But its agency is limited, and its consciousness non-existent.
We have to decide what vision of the good life compels us, and commit to it. Humanity is an ongoing question, and technology cannot answer on our behalf.