The Need for a Radical Critique of Technology
“As states merge with the internet and the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet, we must redefine force relations. If we don’t, the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control” -Julian Assange
Our lives are filled with technology, from our offices to our bedrooms. We work, play, and create with them, we wear them, and we rely on them for countless daily tasks. Our technologies and technological systems form the background, context, and medium of our lives. The things we make and use shape our environment, our culture, and, in altering the patterns of human activity, they shape who we are and how we live. In short, what we make and use does not only enable us to manipulate and control the environment, but it also ends up changing us in fundamental ways.
The predominant approach to technology only emphasizes its benevolent side that makes our lives more comfortable, our work more efficient, and our play more fun. However, those that have maintained a more critical outlook have been able to see what the true costs of new technologies are.
The Hidden Costs of Technology
The comforts and convenience of our current technology came at the expense of freedom and autonomy. This is not a controversial statement as the works of Shoshana Zuboff, Julian Assange, and many others have brought to light how current technological designs are enabling governments and corporations to take control over more and more aspects of our lives. While we will talk more in detail about the current issues that we are facing today in the next series , it is important to mention them to raise awareness on the importance of engaging with technology more critically.
Big Data & Psychological Moulding
A striking example of this new form of control is Big Data– a large data set that can be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns and trends relating to human behavior and interactions. The data is routinely collected from social networks, websites, apps, and any use of smart devices that is then analyzed, turned into predictions, and traded to third parties that will use this information to create new desires.
In ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier or Power’, Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls out a new system of power and control that has surfaced during the digital age– Surveillance Capitalism. The efficient system of information harvesting creates what Zuboff calls “economies of action,” that is, economies that can herd and condition individuals with subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt them towards their desired outcomes.
This new form of control is extremely successful as it does not manifest through explicit coercion. Individuals are lured or suggested into sharing more of themselves to get access to services while beneath the surface their information is analyzed and used to accrue purchases, interactions, and create new desires.
Intimate Privacy Violations
We are constantly required by different agencies to share an enormous quantity of personal information to obtain public services and benefits. Even for the simple purchase of a theater or museum ticket we are often required to share our email and home address that will then end up stored on the entity’s database. How secure this database is, who will have access to it, and how this information will be used, is often not clear, and anyways, there is no alternative but to subject oneself to it for the sake of getting access to something we need or desire.
Privacy law professor Danielle K. Citron wrote extensively about the serious intimate privacy violations that occur daily because of companies and governments treatment of people’s data. And as she recounts the experiences that many of her clients have lived through she brings to the attention the nefarious consequences that a privacy violation can have on the life of an individual.
Discovering that something private about ourselves has been shared in unwanted ways or has been explicitly been used against us radically changes how we interact with the world and with others. It leads to being reluctant to engage with others and express ourselves, leading us into isolation, anxiety, and worse.
Since the advent of the Internet, computer scientists have been the first people to speak out on the nefarious State interference on the private life of citizens facilitated by digitalization. Through the 80s and 90s, the cypherpunk movement fought several battles to preserve online anonymity and freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, the state of affairs has continued to deteriorate, as Julian Assange, one of the most widely known cypherpunks, made abundantly clear in “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet”. Governments across the world are using technology to spy and control their citizens, repress unrest or dissent, and control political discourse. At the same time, technology is purposefully made more and more difficult to access by ordinary people, making it harder for anyone but the experts to critically assess their design.
The Need for a Critical Technology
What I have outlined above are just a few of the major challenges that we are facing today when it comes to technology, and they are not small ones! There is way more to be said about it to convey the extent to which our society and us, individuals, are negatively impacted by these new technological developments that seem to have turned away from any human value.
Technological advancements are taking place at unprecedented speed, and yet these changes are only superficially changing people’s lives. While life-standards have significantly increased, people have not been able to have a say on technology’s future, they have not been able to see their values and desires truly reflected in the material world around them.
Technology has been savored from society thus becoming a tool for the elites to promote their interests and visions. However, there is something we can still do to reclaim technology, be critical of it, learn about it, and crucially, by claiming our visions into existence.