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Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.

So where to turn? Academia is a good place to start. There are trained thinkers there, familiar with our intellectual heritage and able to put modern day phenomena in context. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy Evgeny Morozov.

Morozov’s most recent work is a review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. However, the review is embedded in an even more important essay about the methods and value of technology criticism. Here is a teaser:

“technology criticism is the theoretical vanguard of the neoliberal project.”


And since the march of that history is increasingly described with the depoliticized lingo of technology—“precariousness” turns into “sharing economy” and “scarcity” turns into “smartness”—technology criticism comes to replace political and social criticism.

Jesus, yes.

You might have heard me say (often) that so much of technology is about mediating interaction between humans, and interaction between humans is mediated by politics. Politics as an underlying social structure should be considered primary. Technology, as such, is simply a symptom.

As in all things, a little about me…

Excuse what might seem an egotistical digression, but I would like to lay out my political journey for disclosure’s sake.

Before I was a tech nerd, I was a (small “p”) politics nerd. I lived in a foreign country, enjoyed learning about other cultures, traveled lots and wrote for Coming Anarchy. I didn’t own my first computer until I was 24, and that wasn’t even connected to the Internet.

Once I got connected, I started to drink the Kool-Aid. I became a “Citizen of the Internet”, which is pretty easy to do when you are an expat spending a lot of your time using the Internet to connect to friends and family back home. The problem began as tech myopia set in.

Why bother spending a ton of money flying “over there” learning about different people and their “funny hats”, when I have unlimited access to new, cutting edge thinking on the internet and I don’t even have to get out of my pajamas!?

Working at Apple didn’t help. The Kool-Aid there did not come in plastic jugs but in firehose form. Once I got out, I could start shaking off the hangover and rethinking things. Grad school helped. It took some time but the myopia dissipated and what do you know? I began to become more interested in the political discussion again. Ideology, class, economics, comparative politics, etc etc.

Hierarchy, not intersection

A couple of years ago, I considered an information-centric political philosophy. I got involved with the Pirate Party of Canada. I wished for a catalogue of disruptive politics. I even started outlining one myself. In the past few years fishing around in the tech silo for some original political thought I’ve come up empty-handed. Like many things on the internet, there are just new forms of older things. Stepping away from the silo I realized what I have previously described as “the intersection between technology and politics” puts tech on a pedestal, making it the equal of politics.

Morozov often says “the ‘digital debate’ can’t be won—it can only be abandoned.” I don’t think tech should be abandoned (and neither does he, to be fair). Technology can bring new things to the political debate (big data, privacy, mass surveillance are just a few examples). However, that does not mean we should let “tech” eclipse politics. Tech needs to be downgraded, to be re-situated as just one facet of the greater political discussion. From the above-linked article:

Disconnected from actual political struggles and social criticism, technology criticism is just an elaborate but affirmative footnote to the status quo.

The debate is wider than merely being skeptical about how new tech is being deployed within long-standing political power structures. It behooves us “tech critics” to think hard about the background problems, and then even come up with novel uses of all this cool tech to alleviate those problems.

(Wait a minute… did I just advocate “solutionism”? No. I mean things like building an internet that protects privacy rather than exploiting it; by coming up with a different economic model for public interest journalism which benefits our democracy; by using new analytics methods to enhance public health, rather than offset responsibility to the individual. These are the kinds of “alternative” programs which tech critics should be thinking about, and which I think Morozov would endorse.)

Not every problem has a technical solution. Much like it brings up new topics to discuss, “tech” can bring up new ways to execute solutions. That being said, such solutions (and compromises!) should be based on wide-ranging political debate, not on engineering requirements.

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