The End of Tech Utopianism?

digital painting of futuristic sci-fi city with skyscraper at sunset ,illustrationThe fetishization of technology—the assumption that any technological advent is cause for both celebration, and musings on the utopia it will doubtless usher in—often amazes me. We’re grabbing fitness trackers with the zeal of desperate dieters even though evidence shows they don’t work. In discussing the growing disconnect between technology and practical functionality, and the growing volumes of tech that just doesn’t work, writer Ian Bogost said, “But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it’s evolving separately from human use.”

We consistently assume the best about technology, and even the companies that provide it. We don’t think of Google and Facebook in the same way we think of J.P Morgan Chase—though we probably should. They’re all extraordinarily powerful international corporate behemoths desperate to monetize aspects of our lives. However, we often vilify the financial corporation, and lionize the tech company. Granted, financial corporations helped trash the international economy, but tech companies, with their wilful blindness to their roles as disseminators of news, helped trash the truth by allowing lies to travel as legitimate information.

A couple of recent articles suggest that elites are finally catching up with the challenges technology presents. The venerable Atlantic Monthly recently posted a couple of articles on the topic. One, entitled “Lessons from Isaac Asimov’s Multivac,” posits that technology is damaging democratic institutions, and blames tech’s utopian mindset.

At this year’s RSA information security conference, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Alphabet, attributed the recalcitrant challenge of Internet security to a technocrat’s blind spot: in designing internet platforms and protocols that would eventually be vulnerable to hackers, he said, ‘it didn’t occur to us that there were criminals.’ If we ask why it has been so difficult to civilize Twitter, or to weed out falsehoods and hoaxes on Facebook, one might likewise reply that those systems were not designed with sufficient concern for the existence of pathological liars, demagogues, dogmatists, racists, sexists and other species of civic vice. More to the point, the designs of such platforms have assumed civic virtues as inputs, rather than helping to cultivate them—virtues like integrity, courage, empathy, perspective, benevolence, and respect for truth necessary to fuel any democratic technology, analog or digital.”

Another Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “Are We Having Too Much Fun,” discusses the prescience of Neil Postman’s 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The article points to Postman’s identifying modern technologies—from the telegraph to Facebook—as instruments of amusement as much as conduits of information. In fact, Postman says these technologies inherently turn information into amusement.  It’s a feature, not a bug.

“…as Postman would have it, we are still operating in the paradigm created by the telegraph—one that is extremely good at creating in-the-moment diversions and extremely less good at instilling in its consumers a sense of continuity, meaning, and wisdom. It’s no wonder, in Postman’s reading, that, today, “fake news” has thrived, that “alternative facts” has become a thing, that so many Americans both absorb and express political opinions via memes. It’s no wonder that Malcolm Gladwell would produce an argument against contemporary American satire that would point to jokes as the masses’ new opiate. It’s no wonder, too, that some of the favorite entertainments of those masses involve a fictional genre that goes by the name of “reality.”

We’ll have to see if this reaction to tech utopianism seeps from the rarefied pages of “The Atlantic” and into the lives of ordinary Americans.

— Leonce Gaiter | Vice President, Content & Strategy