One point which I believe is worth making regarding the ongoing and eternal dispute between techno-sceptics on the one hand (such as the ever-compelling Dale Carrico at Amor Mundi) and the techno-utopians and techno-ideologists on the other hand (take your pick…) is the differing degrees of investment in the ideas being discussed. Carrico refers to these acolytes of undiluted progress as Robot-Cultists, both for specifically rhetorical and tactical reasons, but also in terms of the group identity they seek to foster for themselves. I am tempted to play Good-Cop to Carrico’s I’ll-beat-a-confession-out-of-them-yet-sarge-Cop (making me a techno-scepto-wimp?), and to say that this identity isn’t quite so monolithic as to warrant being called a cult, but perhaps is closer to something like a religious order.
Thus there are not just Dominicans, Jesuits, Norbertines, Benedictines, Poor Clares, etc., but there are the tiniest gradations in between some of these orders (not the first two though, who put a premium on coherence before differences of conscience). Thus there are the positively po-mo number of Benedictines (extra po-mo given that many of the differences are boil down to choices in footwear and other clothing…). Accordingly, the techno-utopians all seem to be following the same basic message, as promulgated by the various Cardinals of the Silicon Vatican (after Steve Jobs’s death, there has still been no white smoke to say “habemus papem”). The message that is sent out is that the share price is holy, and thus our works are good.
The most wonderful expression of this is in the “We’ve been acquired!” Tumblr which consists solely of website announcements from various companies and start-ups. These usually state that they have been bought by Google/Apple/Microsoft, and so a whole new part of the journey has begun. Which is, as we know, horseshit, given that the journey is as far as their laptop to see the millions of dollars and euro flow into their bank accounts. Also, not infrequently the acquisitions are part of a broader strategy of patent farming, and so the journey stops there, in a digital dungeon, the techo-utopian oubliette where knowledge is locked up to be forgotten. Now, perhaps this is an extreme version of events (I can think of exceptions such as Canonical’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth and his investment in the Open Access movement, yet I note the coincidental religious overtones of that company’s name), but it is one that needs to be made brutally apparent.
There is a tension in all discussion of technology, because technology is fundamentally applied science. This application means it is never going to be pure in the sense in which we might idealise science or mathematics, and curiously, even engineering – while applied and practical in its very essence – never quite approximates the commercial aspect of technology which is built-in to it from the very beginning. This means that all discussion of technology is at root a form of elevated p.r., at various degrees of abstraction from the matter at hand. When we discuss problems with technology, we should be discussing problems with a technology, and thus we are always already implicated in the discourse which means that difficulties with technology X must make appeal to technology Y as a solution. Technology is a discourse of totalising implication.
So, when we dispute with technologists and techno-ideologists and techno-utopians, it is difficult to remember at all times that what we might consider loyalty to a cult is actually the conviction of faith, unshakeable and unengageable, but it is not quite faith as we once knew it, given that it is the faith of good works, where grace is found in the bank balance and the share price. In the back of my mind, I have Bill Hicks:
Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call, every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore and eh, end of story.
Yeah, not going to win many converts with that one. It’s interesting to me that people such as Dale Carrico are not Neo-Luddites (though I think that word has never been properly understood anyway), but rather are attempting to see broader implications for society, whereas the proponents of technology couch such things on the level of the individual.
This is interesting to me for another reason, because the above outline of techno-Catholicism is not the reality, and we are faced with something more like the Protestant work ethic, where the group identity ceases to be significant. The scale upon which marketing operates is that of the individual (“MY money”, not “our wealth”), and thus technology also functions on this level. The ethical, the social, and the political are at a higher level of granularity, that of the group, and that is why conversation is difficult. These two perspectives are at opposed levels of analysis, and so this may be a fundamentally intractable dialectic, a rhetorical arms race of escalation.
The technological discourse is always mark-to-market, and though it is Enron-like in its accounting for its own supposed benefits, its day of reckoning (another dual-purpose, dual-implication word) is always deferred, since whatever technological problems we have will be solved by that technology that is yet to come. There will be no audit, because the have faith that before this there will be an Advent. The group identity of the proponents and cheerleaders of technology comes solely from their dedication to the share price, and so any intervention by a sceptic or an outright opponent is taken as a personal attack on their sense of equilibrium in identity terms and in terms of the bank balance. Their investment is both intellectual and monetary.
They have probably literally given time and money to whatever technological topic is under discussion, whereas it may be said of people like myself that we have only given of our time and 20 Watts of brainpower. Thus, when we techno-sceptics engage in a dispute, it is worth remembering that we are more or less attempting to undermine their entire being, their narrative of themselves and their work and what they consider important in their lives. We are seeking to undo that Church of Technology which has given their lives so much reason and structure, and which we consider little more than a bad and dangerous joke.