Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dialectic of Technophobia and Technomania

"Technology can solve all of our problems" exclaim enthusiastic proponents of what is often called the new "Information Age". With the advent of social media technology like Twitter and Facebook, we've entered an inevitable march toward the best of all possible worlds. "What about global warming", you ask? Well, just give Steve Jobs a couple more months and he'll have that technological problem worked out just like that.

On the other side of the coin, rightfully distressed by the irrational, myopic technomania exemplified above, we get the technophobes. Rather than presenting us with new emancipatory possibilities, Facebook and Twitter are unmitigated disasters they tell us. Others, especially some anti-modernist environmentalists, insist that such technologies are inherently evil and rotten to the core. What we need, such forces suggest, is to fetishize the pre-industrial in itself. We need to simply invert technomania, they tell us, in order to free ourselves from the shackles of the status quo.

The head-butting of these two exaggerated and, I should add, implausible views fits cleanly into the ideological framework that dominates understanding in the "authorized" mainstream media. In lieu of such facile analysis, we need a more complex understanding of what's at work.

As Marxists have long argued, ambivalence is the best attitude to strike with respect to Modernity. The same goes for the high level of development of the productive forces (i.e. technologies of various kinds, productive instruments, technically useful scientific knowledge, etc. ) in modern capitalist societies. "Contradiction" (not in the logical sense, of course) is a crucial concept that Marxism brings to the analysis of such phenomena. At the same time that the possibility of eradicating world poverty is brought into existence, the possibility of global destruction at the hands of atomic bombs is brought about as well. The technological capacity of modern industrial societies makes horrors as terrifying as Auschwitz possible at the same time that it provides the potential for a truly just, human society of equals.

Whereas now, for the first time in human history, we have the technological capacity to feed the world's population without working ourselves to death doing it, such potential is not realized. Whereas the high development of technology and scientific knowledge unlocks the possibility of a radically different kind of world, hitherto un-thikable, this possibility is foreclosed by those in power with the help of these very technologies and sets of scientific knowledge.

This should not be surprising. Technology is paradigmatically that which is of only instrumental value. That is to say, it has no intrinsic value in itself. Hammers are not bearers of intrinsic worth; they are valuable to us only in virtue of what they can be used to accomplish. They are valuable only as a mere means to other goals, other things we value. To value a hammer, or an iPhone, as intrinsically valuable would be to fetishize such things, to impute to them an importance which they could not rationally be said to possess.

So when assessing any instrument or piece of technology, the question cannot be whether the thing is good in itself. The question must be: what goals does it help us to accomplish, and are such goals worthwhile? What ends is it put in the service of, and are they worthy ends? Something may be a better or worse means to some end, but there's always a remainder when we ask whether something is an effective means. There's always something left over: what of the ends themselves? What is it that we're trying to do in the most fundamental sense with the technological capacity we have? What are the ultimate goals?

This is the question occluded by the facile debate among technophobes and those enthralled by technomania. For capitalism, the tacit answer to the question of ultimate goals is clear: perpetual growth for the sake of maximization of profit. But is this an answer we should endorse?

If this is a rotten, unsustainable final end (and I think that it is), this should be no stain on technology as such. Rather it is a stain on the uses to which our impressive technological capacities are subjected to under a rotten system.

The contradictions are paralyzing. Rather than put technology in the service of reducing menial labor and eliminating all forms of poverty and devastation... technology is more often put in the service of producing new weapons and means of exterminating human beings. Soberly grasping such contradictions must be part of any serious analysis of the social and political function of technology in contemporary societies. Any attempt to evaluate new technology under the fetishistic banners of technophobia or technophilia are bound to generate nothing but confusion. Any attempt to break out of the ecologically disastrous trajectory of existing societies must also eschew such facile polemics. Put in the service of worthier goals, certain technologies would have to be part of any sustainable world. But adjusting the goals in this radical way requires a radical transformation of the basic economic structure of contemporary societies. It means rejecting some technologies outright and reconfiguring social life in a way that doesn't depend on planned obsolescence, automobile-scale development, and the profitable wastefulness of capitalism.


Hank said...

What's interesting about social networking technology is that it is always designed by an elite so that when change comes, it always comes from above. Of course, this isn't unique to social networking -- the most "change from below" ever comes in the market (seems to be) in situations like in recent years when Blu-ray DVDs and HD-DVD's were "battling" to see which would become the dominant format. It's laughable to call that change from below, though.

However, in social networking the differences brought about by a new layout design can be more profound than the difference brought about by the change from DVDs to Blu-ray, because new layouts put different emphases on different pieces of information about people. I don't know if you use Facebook, but there was recently a new layout design implemented for profiles. One of the differences is that this new profile puts a person's location, employer(s), and education in the foreground; I was struck by how much this reflected not necessarily the desires of Facebook users, but the values of the owners of Facebook: the emphasis is on -- literally -- networking and career advancement. Doesn't seem very social to me and the irony is that for many people who use Facebook -- retirees, high school students, people who are more 'working-class' than 'middle-class' -- these anti-social aspects of Facebook are utterly superfluous. But to the 'ruling-class' of Facebook, sociableness is superfluous, or at least best used in the pursuit of material gain.

Richard said...

There is a dialectical process when it comes to technology: capitalists develop it to achieve capitalist objectives (greater accumulation), but those subjected directly to it, as well as those who encounter it, devise the means to turn it to their own ends. Currently, you'd have to say that the capitalists are prevailing, but the success of protesters, like those in the UK, as well as wikileaks. indicates that the ultimate outcome is still to be determined. Embedded within this process is the fact that technological changes, especially those related to the production process (and, ultimately, aren't all of them related to it?), frequently result in a decline of earnings of those who are supposed to buy the goods produced. I only have the vaguest conceptual notion of their work but the technological innovations of the last 40 years for overtly neoliberal ends (with the classic example being the effort to create a tomato more easily picked by mechanical machines) seems to me to be associated with the profits crisis of capitalism mentioned by Brenner and others, a crisis that they maintain first emerged in the 1970s.

Hank's comments on social networking are interesting, and leads to me to the rather vulgar conclusion that one of its purposes may be to provide a relatively free form of virtual entertainment, to replace the declining appeal of TV, for people can no longer afford more expensive ones associated with the market.