Saturday, April 28, 2012

Techno-Utopia or Techno-Serfdom?

When Steve Jobs died a few months ago, I found myself unable to join in the seemingly universal--at least in the American mass media--lionization, if not outright canonization--of this business leader who had become a cultural icon for many. Yes, his company, Apple made nice computers, with often cutting-edge technology that would later be imitated by other computer and technology companies, and then went on to introduce the iPod, iPad and iPhone to similar effect. I could understand giving him credit as an effective business leader with a fine instinct for sniffing out new trends and possibilities and then shaping them into technological and business successes for his company, but does this really make him a hero, a saint, a world-changer on the order of Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Copernicus or the Buddha? Sorry, I don't think so. He was also a bully who often treated his employees horribly, a childish tyrant prone to tantrums, a heartless corporate executive who was entirely happy to ship American jobs overseas to China to take advantage of the low-paid, quasi-slave labor available there, and a ruthless competitor whose company's success was paved with the broken bodies of other companies and technologies.

In my view, Jobs' greatest legacy is the creation of a new style of techno-capitalism which combines the most destructive features of both high technology and advanced corporate capitalism. Apple actively seeks to either decimate or dominate one after another area of business, communication and culture, leaving in its wake a scorched and damaged cultural, economic and social terrain in which all human activity is downsized and digitalized into Apple devices and software applications. Once there were music stores, record and CD shops, where a whole eco-system of music-loving people could work and make a living, share knowledge of music, and create little communities of music devotees. This has largely been replaced by the online iTune service, a cold, inhuman sphere lacking in any human warmth or possibility of actual (as opposed to "virtual") community. Once there was a publishing industry in which a whole eco-system of literature-dedicated people could work and make a living, from authors to editors to literary agents and booksellers, a model that had served the reading public quite well for many decades, even centuries. Now this is being replaced by the digital book reader, causing a collapse of the traditional publishing industry. Once there were camera companies and photo shops.....The list goes on.

The growth of Apple-style tech businesses is far from a cornucopia of universal benefit to all. It means high profits for some, outsourced jobs and unemployment for many others. Remember that, the next time you hear a politician babbling on about "innovation" and "business opportunity." Ask the politician who will get the benefit of whatever innovation or business s/he is promoting. Will it be for American workers, or just corporate investors? Shareholders or the general population? We need businesses that benefit more than just the corporate and financial elite.

We are told that this is not a problem. We are told that this is simply the inevitable progress of technological innovation and the expanding utopia of consumer delight. I say, BULLSHIT. This is ruthless capitalism at its most savage, destroying the livelihood of many for the profit of the few, and creating a world where we are all gradually being forced to purchase devices that are quickly becoming the only way to access large areas of cultural and social life, because the alternative ways of experiencing our culture and society are being eliminated. For whose benefit is all this taking place? Tech company stock value keeps going up, that's for sure, but is that really all we should be thinking about? A narrow market-focused view is to accept this as economically and technologically inevitable....older forms of music and book publishing disappear, long live Apple and Amazon and consumer choice. After all, these shifts are only happening because the consumer WANTS them to happen....otherwise, they wouldn't be rushing to the Apple store every few months to buy the new, improved, faster iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc?

I think that "consumer choice" in this context is something of an illusion, a false myth. These products are being shoved down our throat with an incredible barrage of marketing pressure, playing on people's vanity and insecurity as surely as women's fashion magazines market anorexic visions of feminine beauty. Who wants to be left behind, a techno-idiot, caught holding an out-of-date phone that is unable to advise you on how to perform an emergency appendectomy, or using a laptop that weighs more than three feathers? Horror of horrors. Fast food a la McDonald's is also highly popular, but by now everyone knows it is unhealthy. When I see people walking around totally obsessed with tapping away on their darling little phones, playing idiotic games and becoming totally unaware of and indifferent to the world around them, I have no doubt that they are enjoying themselves, but I fear that their enjoyment is not without risk or damage. Heroin and crystal meth are also popular "apps" that produce pleasurable effects in the brain, and can be highly profitable for those who produce and distribute them, but this does not mean that they are not personally and socially destructive. If you did a market research survey on heroin or meth addicts, however, you could prove that these products are highly valued by their customers and consumers. So what?

Furthermore, as the economic might and market heft of companies like Apple and Amazon grow, they are able to increasingly force competitors out of business or gobble them up and add the vanquished technology to their own imperial arsenals. Apple, Google and others are gaining monopoly power not only in the technology sphere, but increasingly, over our cultural and social life. They are also becoming tools of government surveillance, with Google for example being all too willing to assist our friendly Department of Homeland Security in monitoring every conversation you babble into your phone or every idea you enter into your keyboard. There is a lot more going on here than just a casual growth of technology that creates and distributes cool new "apps" and along the way causes out-of-date companies to dwindle and vanish.

Since companies like Apple and Google and Facebook are, when all is said and done, capitalistic, profit-seeking companies, their basic goal will always be profit, not the benefit of society or culture. That means that over time, they are likely to seek to "rationalize" their businesses by reducing production of unprofitable items and focusing on what can be made most cheaply and economically. There is likely to be less and less support for non-mainstream works of art, thought and culture. Niche channels will remain, of course, and some will thrive, thank the gods, but we can expect Google, Apple and Facebook to bombard us with junk that they think we will want to buy, especially if they can convince us that we also need a new app or device to fully enjoy the latest, increasingly hyperactive but essentially soulless junk.

So no, I will NOT worship at the shrine of St. Stephen of the App. I fear a future of techno-serfdom where a small class of capitalist investors and engineers will make fabulous profits, while the majority will see their opportunities for a decent livelihood dwindle, as more and more functions are taken over by machinery. As an educator, I have no doubt that the tech companies are eager to replace teachers and professors with gadgets and apps, completely ignoring the social dimension of the classroom experience, that brings people together, teaches human socialization, and creates a common culture of learning. I worry that in the Brave New World that the techno-corporate engineers and marketers are preparing for us, our culture will be junk and our society will be increasingly disconnected as people become semi-autistic in their devotion to whirring, chirping, flashing little boxes. I see little cause for optimism, but I do hope to resist in my own small way.

I see Paganism, a reaching back to nature to find sacredness and value in the sun in the sky, the leaves and blossoms gesturing in the trees and the timeless murmuring of rivers, something above and beyond technological gadgetry, as a part of that resistance, and certainly a good place to rest after each long day of techo-serfdom.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was happy to see someone finally write my own thoughts. I refuse to buy anything but a real book; and I've always refused to be a slave to the latest techno gadget and then be forced to buy another when it wears out or breaks always at the expense of others misery. My books last forever and I have many that I've had since I was a teenager. As a grandmother now, I plan to pass these leather bound beauties on to my own grandchildren. There is something wrong with holding a metal tool no larger then a credit card and trying to read it while hoping we don't find out in 30 years they caused cancer of some kind. Some things really are better as they were and more natural to me. Like Paganism and mother earth, some things are meant to sustain us and last.

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