Techno-Utopianism: 3 Dissents

While we are eagerly awaiting the shot-across-the-bow that is Evgeny Morozov‘s forthcoming To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (Public Affairs, 2013), a few recent pieces of writing have come across the wires that open up some of the same space on which a few of us have been working (personally, I have been working a long time–since at least 1996–so it’s heartening to find some more people joining in). Each of them is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few excerpts from pieces that have brightened these dark days of December:

First, on Dec 6 in The New Statesman, Steven Poole (@stevenpoole) writes a piece called “Invasion of the Cyber Hustlers” that really calls Shirky, Jarvis, & McGonigal on the carpet, with quotations & everything. Some choice cuts:

From Jeff Jarvis to Clay Shirky, a class of gurus are intent on “disrupting” old-fashioned practices like asking us to pay for valuable content. Meanwhile, web giants like Google and Apple jealously guard their profitable secrets.

Another purported quality of Coursera is that it is “open,” as everything must now be. The cyber-credo of “open” sounds so liberal and friendly that it is easy to miss its remarkable hypocrisy. The big technology companies that are the cybertheorists’ beloved exemplars of the coming world order are anything but open. Google doesn’t publish its search algorithm; Apple is notoriously secretive about its product plans; Facebook routinely changes its users’ privacy options.

A perfect Ted talk title is the recent “The Game That Can Give You Ten Extra Years of Life”, by the cybertheorist and “gamification” promoter Jane McGonigal. What could such a game be? Wiring up a joystick to an iron lung? Playing a gladiatorial game of televised chess in which the loser is killed instantly — and winning? No, it’s a little web-based game that McGonigal created called SuperBetter. There are, to date, no large-cohort longitudinal studies showing that SuperBetter makes you live ten years longer, but then a Ted talk is all about attention-grabbing truthiness, not truth.

As with the notion of sharing, so with “social”: the cybertheorists have adopted a term of presumptive virtue and sprayed on to it a newly etiolated and instrumental meaning. Social is now a commercial technique to persuade users of digital services to reveal more to potential advertisers about their “networks” of friendship and business contacts and to “connect” such users more intimately with brands by means of a “Like” button — and soon, as recent reports of in-house experiments at Facebook suggest, a “Want” button.

prologue and promise

Robert McCall, “The Prologue and the Promise” (Source:  http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog/2010/06/techno-utopian-artwork/)

On Dec 12, Tom Slee (@whimsley) on his own Whimsley blog contributed a scathing review of Steven B. Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age” called “Sixty-Two Things Wrong with Future Perfect.” Among the most notable of his “things”:

  1. First, and the reason I am writing this: Claiming that the “peer progressive worldview” stands for decentralization and egalitarianism. It will lead instead to an increasingly polarized world, with centralization of information on an unprecedented scale.
  2. Having a short attention span. Only a few pages further on, the switch takes place, unremarked. SBJ writes of his peer progressives that “In an age of great disillusionment with current institutions, here was a group that could inspire us, in part because they had attached themselves to a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy — more like the Internet itself than the older models of Big Capital or Big Government” (xxxvii). The institutions that he was praising just a few short pages ago are now caricatured with Big Capital Letters, labelled as relics of old-style thinking (see also p 51). SBJ now adopts the very disillusionment that so upset him, turns away from incremental progress, and never looks back, taking on the more romantic mantle of the revolutionary. The truth in his introductory pages, that the value of incremental progress will inevitably be overlooked, is ironically confirmed.
  3. Making a brief reference to trading towns of the early Renaissance as “adher[ing] to peer-network principles in much of their social organization” (p 27) is far from enough to claim that these towns are “the birthplace of modern capitalism” (28), and to place the whole of modern industry on the network side of the leger. A flimsy statement, unsupported by evidence or argument, and not to be taken seriously.
  4. The Spanish Revolution? There wasn’t one. (48)
  5. Believing in a magic bullet. “When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem”. (50)
  6. Twitter was not responsible for “spawning pro-democratic flashmobs in the streets of Cairo”. (111)

Finally, this past weekend, Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) wrote a nice brief blog entry called “Dear Technoutopianism” that documents the awakening of a (relatively) young person to the sham goods sold by the Shirkys, Tapscotts, Benklers, Jarvises and McGonigals of the world:

It’s been a while though, technoutopianism. I’m not a teenager anymore. I’ve changed, but in so many ways you haven’t–and I see you more clearly now. Fred Turner’s right about you, and so are Barbrook and Cameron: you’re selfish. You never really wanted what was best for me, or for any of the rest of us; you wanted deregulation and radical individualism, wanted us out of your way so you could take the whole world–the Whole Earth–for your playground. Hawai’i is for lovers, and your shiny silver future was only for a network of the already privileged and powerful.

In fact, I’ve realized: you never apologize. You’ve never once, in all this time, said you’re sorry.

I’m tired, technoutopianism. I’m tired of your sexy, shiny surface and your utter lack of substance. I’m tired of life in the network economy, tired of all my supposed “freedom.” I’m tired of the land of “pioneers and gold-diggers.” I believe in the cyborg, but I don’t believe “˜life’ and “˜technology’ are as interchangeable as Kevin Kelly might think they are. I’m with J.J. King: there’s something about connectionism that I can’t connect with, either. I’m tired of being “disrupted, subverted, and dispersed across social space.” I’m taking my vinyl records and my MIDI-toned mp3s and my decentralized self, and I’m going home.

Let a thousand flowers of sanity bloom…

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    From a working paper of mine on the Wisconsin Union uprising:

    “Tweets don’t rise up. People do.”

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