Tech Utopia

Finally got around to reading this piece from The New Atlantis. It’s a disconcerting read, especially if, like me, you’re also reading 1984 with a group of high school students. Needless to say, I’m a little concerned about the parallels between what Jon Askonas identifies as the unintended but unavoidable consequences of Big Tech/Social Media, and Orwell’s description of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.

We can see the shift from “access to tools” to algorithmic utopianism in the unheralded, inexorable replacement of the “page” by the “feed.” The web in its earliest days was “surfed.” Users actively explored what was interesting to them, shifting from page to page via links and URLs. While certain homepages — such as AOL or Yahoo! — were important, they were curated by actual people and communities. Most devoted “webizens” spent comparatively little time on them, instead exploring the web based on memory, bookmarks, and interests. Each blog, news source, store, and forum had its own site. Where life on the Internet didn’t follow traditional editorial curation, it was mostly a do-it-yourself affair: Creating tools that might show you what your friends were up to, gathering all the information you cared about in one place, or finding new sites were rudimentary and tedious activities.

The feed was the solution to the tedium of surfing the web, of always having to decide for yourself what to do next. Information would now come to you. Gradually, the number of sites involved in one’s life online dwindled, and the “platform” emerged, characterized by an infinite display of relevant information — the feed. The first feeds used fairly simple algorithms, but the algorithms have grown vastly more complex and personalized over time. These satisfaction-fulfillment machines are designed to bring you the most “relevant” content, where relevancy is ultimately based on an elaborate and opaque model of who you are and what you want. But the opacity of these models, indeed the very personalization of them, means that a strong element of faith is required. By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am.

In this process, users have gone from active surfers to sheep feeding at the algorithmic trough. Over time, platforms have come up with ever more sophisticated means of inducing behavior, both online and in real life, using AI-fueled notifications, messages, and default choices to nudge you in the right direction, ostensibly toward your own maximum satisfaction. Yet now, in order to rein in the bad behaviors the feeds themselves have encouraged — fake news, trolling, and so on — these algorithms have increasingly become the sites of stealthy intervention, using tweaks like “shadowbanning,” “down-ranking,” and simple erasure or blocking of users to help determine what information people do and don’t access, and thereby to subtly shape their minds.

…………

While the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of the world claim to be shocked by the “abuse” of their platforms, the softly progressive ambitions of Silicon Valley and the more expansive visions of would-be dictators exist on the same spectrum of invasiveness and manipulation. There’s a sense in which the authoritarians have a better idea of what this technology is for.

Places and Spaces

I’ve read and watched two things today that have my mind humming with old ideas re-presented in new contexts.

The first is from Wilfred M. McClay at Comment:

As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

(Note: I struggled not to copy and paste the whole essay. You should read the whole thing).

The second is from a talk by Andy Crouch:

A couple takeaways:

1. When we abstract our material and tangible experiences, we implicitly alter our conceptions of personhood and leave ourselves vulnerable to powers that would impose their will upon us. Abstraction is as reductive as materialism. Abstraction, however, is not just the sin of the ivory tower. It is located within tech. industry and our cultural obsession with convenience. For Crouch, one of the problems that emerged from the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of human work with machines. Ostensibly, technology allows us to off-load human work so that we can live lives of uninterrupted pleasure. The result is a vision of humanity unfettered from the work that produces tangible goods. In a word, we become “consumers,” and so we are at the mercy of those who provide the consumable goods.

2. One of my favorite parts in McClay’s essay (not included in the above quotation) is his image of human beings as gardeners and pilgrims. These are competing extremes within the human psyche and within philosophy/theology of personhood. McClay points out that the gardener can’t subsume the pilgrim aspect of our nature, and vice versa. The two must always be held in tension. But, McClay emphasizes, our present cultural moment leans too much in the direction of pilgrimage–both in secular (i.e., technological conveniences) and religious contexts: “We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.” Paradox is at the heart of human experience, and our tendency is to try to eliminate one of the competing aspects. After all, paradox is both uncomfortable and inconvenient–two words our “technological progress” is hell bent on eliminating.

I also appreciated McClay’s essay because it helped keep my inner-luddite in check. Technological improvement does not have to progress at the expense of human flourishing. And much of the technology we enjoy today–whether medicinal, recreational, educational, etc.–has enhanced our lives in good ways. The trick, McClay says at the end of his piece, is preserving our memory of what it means to be human.