Techno-skeptics’ objection growing louder

Techno-skeptics’ objection growing louder

By Joel Achenbach December 26 at 5:40 PM

Astra Taylor’s iPhone has a cracked screen. She has bandaged it with clear packing tape and plans to use the phone until it disintegrates. She objects to the planned obsolescence of today’s gadgetry, and to the way the big tech companies pressure customers to upgrade.

Taylor, 36, is a documentary filmmaker, musician and political activist. She’s also an emerging star in the world of technology criticism. She’s not paranoid, but she keeps duct tape over the camera lens on her laptop computer — because, as everyone knows, these gadgets can be taken over by nefarious agents of all kinds.

Taylor is a 21st-century digital dissenter. She’s one of the many technophiles unhappy about the way the tech revolution has played out. Political progressives once embraced the utopian promise of the Internet as a democratizing force, but they’ve been dismayed by the rise of the “surveillance state,” and the near-monopolization of digital platforms by huge corporations.

Last month, Taylor and more than 1,000 activists, scholars and techies gathered at the New School in New York City for a conference to talk about reinventing the Internet. They dream of a co-op model: people dealing directly with one another without having to go through a data-sucking corporate hub.

“The powerful definitely do not want us to reboot things, and they will go to great lengths to stop us, and they will use brute force or they will use bureaucracy,” Taylor warned the conferees at the close of the two-day session.

We need a movement, she said, “that says no to the existing order.”

The dissenters have no easy task. We’re in a new Machine Age. Machine intelligence and digital social networks are now embedded in the basic infrastructure of the developed world.

Much of this is objectively good and pleasurable and empowering. We tend to like our devices, our social media, our computer games. We like our connectivity. We like being able to know nearly anything and everything, or shop impulsively, by typing a few words into a search engine.

But there’s this shadow narrative being written at the same time. It’s a passionate, if still remarkably disorganized, resistance to the digital establishment.

Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.

“I’m on Team Human!” author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk.

You could fill a college syllabus with books espousing some kind of technological resistance. Start the class with “You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier), move on to “The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen), and then, to scare the students silly, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat).

Somewhere in the mix should be Astra Taylor’s “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” a clear-eyed reappraisal of the Internet and new media.

Of the myriad critiques of the computer culture, one of the most common is that companies are getting rich off our personal data. Our thoughts, friendships and basic urges are processed by computer algorithms and sold to advertisers. The machines may soon know more about us than we know about ourselves.

That information is valuable. A frequent gibe is that on Facebook, we’re not the customers, we’re the merchandise. Or to put it another way: If the service is free, you’re the product.

Some digital dissenters aren’t focused on the economic issues, but simply on the nature of human-machine interactions. This is an issue we all understand intuitively: We’re constantly distracted. We walk around with our eyes cast down upon our devices. We’re rarely fully present anywhere.

Other critics are alarmed by the erosion of privacy. The Edward Snowden revelations incited widespread fear of government surveillance. That debate has been complicated by the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, because national security officials say terrorists have exploited new types of encrypted social media.

Some dissenters think technology is driving economic inequality. There are grave concerns that robots are taking the jobs of humans. And the robot issue leads inevitably to the most apocalyptic fear: that machine intelligence could run away from its human inventors, leaving us enslaved — or worse — by the machines we created.

Moving rapidly

Technological skepticism isn’t new. Plato told the story of a king who protested the invention of writing, saying it would weaken his people’s memory and “implant forgetfulness in their souls.”

But something different is going on now, and it simply has to do with speed. The first commercial Internet browser hit the market in 1994. Google arrived in 1998. Twitter appeared in 2006, and the iPhone in 2007. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is all of 31 years old.

Our technology today is so new that we haven’t had time to understand how to use it wisely. We haven’t quite learned how to stop ourselves from texting and driving; many of us are tempted to tap out one more letter even if we’re going 75 on the highway.

Some countries are taking aggressive action to regulate new technologies. The South Korean government has decided that gaming is so addictive that it should be treated similarly to a drug or alcohol problem. Meanwhile, the European Union law “Right to Be Forgotten” forces companies such as Google and Yahoo to remove embarrassing material from search engine results if requested to do so.

Washington’s political establishment, however, has largely deferred to Silicon Valley. The tech world skews libertarian and doesn’t want more government oversight and regulations.

One of the tech world’s top advocates in Washington is Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which receives about two-thirds of its funding from tech companies.

Atkinson is a lanky, voluble man who sounds exasperated by the rise in what he considers to be neo-Luddite thinking. (“Luddite” is a term dating to the early 19th century, named for a murky character named Ned Ludd, who inspired textile workers to smash mechanical looms.)

He’s worried that books by people such as Astra Taylor will create a thought contagion that will infect Washington policymaking. In his view, there are two types of Luddites: the old-fashioned hand-wringers who are spooked by anything new and innovative, and the “soft” Luddites — he would put Taylor in that category — who say they embrace technology but want to go slower, with more European-style regulations.

“It’s the emergence of soft Luddites that I worry about, because it has become the elite conventional wisdom in a lot of spaces,” Atkinson said.

But he may be worried prematurely. A Senate bill to regulate self-driving cars went precisely nowhere. It’s not as though people are marching on Washington to demand that lawmakers address the self-driving-car threat.

Fact in fiction

The technological resistance is not limited to nonfiction polemics. Fiction writers are picking up the thread, often borrowing from George Orwell and his dystopian masterpiece “1984.”

For example, Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” is a tale of people struggling to find love and humanity in a world of Big Brother-like surveillance, societal breakdown and increasingly coarse social norms. The novel features gadgets that allow people to rate one another numerically on their sexual attractiveness. Not implausible: A start-up company recently announced its plan to market an app that would allow users to rate everyone on a 1-to-5 scale, without their consent. (After furious protest from around the Internet, the backers modified their plan to include only positive reviews.)

Dave Eggers’s novel “The Circle” tells of a rising star at a Google-like company. She excels by answering thousands of e-mails a day, working at a frenetic pace. She lives with a camera around her neck that streams everything she sees onto the Internet. This does not go well for her.

And there’s a new voice among the dissenters: Pope Francis. The pontiff’s recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” contemplates the mixed blessings of technology. After acknowledging the marvels of modern technology (“Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”), Francis sketched the dangers, writing that technological development hasn’t been matched by development in human values and conscience.

“The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings,” he wrote.

The pontiff is saying, with his special authority, what many others are saying these days: Machines are not an end unto themselves. Remember the humans.

Becoming a dissenter

The dean of the digital dissenters is Jaron Lanier. He’s a musician, composer, performer and pioneer of virtual-reality headsets that allow the user to experience computer-generated 3D environments. But what he’s most famous for is his criticism of the computer culture he helped create.

He believes that Silicon Valley treats humans like electrical relays in a vast machine. Although he still works in technology, he largely has turned against his tribe.

“I’m the first guy to sober up after a heavy-duty party” is how he describes himself.

He can typically be found at home in California’s Berkeley Hills, swiveling in a chair in front of a computer screen and a musical synthesizer. Directly behind him is a vintage Wurlitzer golden harp. Lutes and violins hang from the ceiling. This is his home office and man cave.

Lanier, 55, is a man of considerable girth and extraordinary hair. He has dreadlocks to his waist. He hasn’t cut his hair for at least 30 years and says he wouldn’t know how to go about it. When a visitor suggests that he could see a barber, he replies, in his usual high-pitched, singsong voice, “I don’t know that term. Is that a new start-up?”

Lanier’s humanistic take on technology may trace back to his tragic childhood: He was 9 when his mother was killed in a car accident in El Paso. He later learned that the accident may have been caused by an engineering flaw in the car.

“It definitely influenced my thinking about the proper relationship of people and machines,” he said.

By age 14, he was taking college classes at New Mexico State University. He never graduated from college, which didn’t matter when he wound up in Silicon Valley, designing computer games. He eventually started a company that sold virtual-reality headsets, but the company folded. In 2000, he made his first major move as a digital dissenter when he published an essay, “One Half a Manifesto,” that began with a bold declaration:

“For the last twenty years, I have found myself on the inside of a revolution, but on the outside of its resplendent dogma. Now that the revolution has not only hit the mainstream, but bludgeoned it into submission by taking over the economy, it’s probably time for me to cry out my dissent more loudly than I have before.”

Lanier later wrote two books lamenting the way everyone essentially works for Facebook, Google, etc., by feeding material into those central processors and turning private lives into something corporations can monetize. He’d like to see people compensated for their data in the form of micropayments.

Other tech critics have rolled their eyes at that notion, however. Taylor, for example, fears that micropayments would create an incentive for people to post click-bait material. Stupid stunts — “Hold my beer, and watch this” — would be potentially marketable.

Lanier’s broadest argument is that technological change involves choices. Bad decisions will lock us into bad systems. We collectively decided, for example, to trade our privacy for free Internet service.

“It’s a choice. It’s not inevitable,” he says.

Lanier told his 8-year-old daughter recently: “In our society there are two paths to success: One is to be good at computers and the other is to be a sociopath.”

She’s a smart girl and knows what “sociopath” means, he said. And he understands the nature of this world that he has helped invent. That’s why this summer he sent his daughter to a software programming camp.

No coherent movement

Much of today’s tech environment emerged from the counterculture — the hackers and hippies of the 1960s and ’70s who viewed the personal computer as a tool of liberation. But the political left now has a more complicated, jaundiced relationship with the digital world.

The same technologies that empower individuals and enable protesters to organize also make it possible for governments to spy on their citizens. What used to be a phone now looks to many people like a tracking device.

Then there’s the question of who’s making money. Progressives are appalled by the mind-boggling profits of the big tech companies. The left also takes note of the gender and racial disparities in the tech companies, and the rise of a techno-elite.

Most painful for progressives has been the rise of the “sharing economy,” which they initially embraced. They feel as though the idea was stolen from them and perverted into something that hurts workers.

They say that companies such as Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Amazon Mechanical Turk are creating a “gig economy” — one that, although it offers customers convenience and reasonable prices, is built on freelancers and contractors who lack the income or job protections of salaried employees. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos, an investor in Uber and Airbnb, owns The Washington Post.)

“What was billed as ‘sharing’ was actually ‘extraction,’ ” said Nathan Schneider, a journalist and co-organizer of the recent New School conference on cooperative platforms. “It’s revealed to be a way of shirking labor laws and extracting resources back to investors and building monopolies.”

He was speaking at a reception at the end of the two-day conference. The event was a huge success, with attentive audiences packing the panel discussions. These people are committed to reinventing the Internet.

“The story of the Internet has been one of disappointment after disappointment,” Schneider said.

As Schneider spoke, Astra Taylor stood a few feet away, holding court with friends and allies. Taylor is tall, with striking features that give her a commanding presence. She was born to be a tech critic. She wasn’t home-schooled, she was “unschooled.” Her parents in Athens, Ga., put her in charge of her education. At age 13, she created her own newspaper with an environmentalist bent. She burned with a sense of right and wrong. “I was a serious child,” she says, persuasively.

She says she’d like to see more government-supported media platforms — think public radio — and more robust regulations to keep digital powerhouses from becoming monopolies. Taylor is skeptical of the trope that information wants to be free; actually, she says, information often wants someone to pay for it.

The Internet, she said, is a bit like a friend who needs to be straightened out. She imagines giving the Internet a talking-to: “You know, Internet, we’ve known you for a long time and we think you’re not living up to your potential. You keep making the same mistakes.”

The final event at the New School conference featured a stemwinder of a talk by someone Taylor considers a mentor: Douglas (“I’m on Team Human!”) Rushkoff.

Rushkoff, whose new book is titled “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” provided a primer on the rise of capitalism, central banks and industrial culture. He suggested that civilization started making wrong turns in the Middle Ages. Centralized currency — not good. In the early days, every community could have its own coinage. We need to “rebirth the values of the peer-to-peer bazaar culture.”

Growing louder and more animated as his lecture went on, he talked about the need to “optimize the economy for humans.”

“Where do humans fit into this new economy?” he said. “Really not as creators of value, but as the content. We are the content. We are the data. We are the media. As you use a smartphone, your smartphone gets smarter, but you get dumber.”

Taylor, Rushkoff, Lanier and other tech skeptics do not yet form an organized, coherent movement. They’re more like a confederation of gadflies. Even Pope Francis’s thoughts on technology were largely lost amid his headline-grabbing views about climate change.

Andrew Keen, author of “The Internet is Not the Answer,” sounds a glum note when talking about what the technological resistance might accomplish.

“No one’s ever heard of Astra Taylor,” he said.

He didn’t mean that as an insult. He was making a point about the whole crew of dissenters. No one, he said, has ever heard of Andrew Keen, either.

The world is not about to go back to the Stone Age, at least not willingly. One billion people may use Facebook on any given day. Jaron Lanier may not like the way the big companies scrape value from our lives, but people are participating in that system willingly — if perhaps not entirely aware of what is happening to their data.

Taylor’s smartphone with the cracked screen clearly has been in heavy use. She knows these gadgets are addictive by design — “like Las Vegas slot machines in our pockets.” But she also has trouble living without one.

“I need to learn to turn it off,” she said.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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