In the common age of automation, where people might
Eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for
The first time will be forced to confront himself with
The true spiritual problems of living…
–Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Lunar Bay”
…As machinery develops with the accumulation of society’s science, of productive force generally, general social labour presents itself not in labour but in capital. In machinery, knowledge appears as alien, external to him…the worker appears as superfluous to the extent that his action is not determined by [capital’s] requirements.
–Karl Marx, “The Fragment on Machines”
Sometimes, I really hate technology. Sometimes, I hate how intrusive it is. Sometimes, I hate how addicted I am to it. Sometimes, I hate that so much of our world is dependent on it. I hate how easily hackable databases can be. I hate that Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Uber, and a whole host of companies know me in ways that no government could. Yet, I’m unable to go full Sarah Connor and say: “Not today Skynet. Not today.” Why? Because even though I say I hate aspects of technology, I think I really love it, too. I’m still fascinated by how far innovations have come in a relatively short amount of time. Think about the last 30 years for a moment. Think about how fast technological innovations have progressed. In 1988, how thoroughly were computers, cell phones, and robotic technology integrated into our lives? Well, they were certainly there, but using them on a mass scale like today seemed fairly far-fetched because these devices were expensive for average consumers.
But business saw the potential to save money in the long run by investing in technology to boost profits through the simplification and automation of tasks that were done (sometimes rather inefficiently) by humans. Factories with robotic technology could quickly scale back the need to hire humans. Computers could simplify tasks and eliminate jobs in offices. Cell phones? Well, these portable devices meant communication wasn’t as limited as it was with landlines and answering machines. These trends accelerated as the technology got better and cheaper.
By the time the first iPhone hit the market in 2007, it ushered in a second gold rush in tech. Remember the mad scramble to develop killer apps vying for real estate on your iPhone home screen? The “app for that” craze combined with social media led to an “always on” culture where we were seduced with casino-like guile to be addicted to tech — while giving up a lot of our personal information so we could connect with others in the spirit of being “friends.”
Many of us now know the power of social media in terms of performers and an audience. For those dreaming of being stars, social media can feed that ego by providing a platform where one can post to their heart’s delight for that dopamine rush of affirmation. And like the addicts we’ve become, we rush back for another hit many times a day (probably more than we’d like to know). I’m not immune to these addictions. I’m probably like most Internet users: always looking for stimuli. The type of stimuli depends on one’s mood.
In the post-2016 election years, it’s clear use of a certain kind of stimuli by foreign and domestic actors to shape opinion through the manufacturing and dissemination of propaganda was robust. Opinions can be easily shaped by appealing to people’s prejudices and tastes — which is why advertising works. We’ve bought into the taglines, the slogans, the faux folk wisdom of campaigns that get us to act on our impulses. We tend to believe opinion-makers because they are people we’ve come to trust to tell us what we want to hear. We support this or that politician because they cater to our political self-interest.
We buy smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, and even desktop computers because we’re told by the makers of these devices that we need these things. Having these devices will make our lives easier, more organized, and more fun because we just tell our devices what we want, and, for the most part, these devices deliver. We’re the Id, and the device is the Ego. Impulse and a realistic delivery method working together to satisfy our want for pleasure. When we are kept in a state of instant gratification via technology, it makes us less willing to come out of our cocoons. The silos are comforting because they reinforce our identities and make us less willing to see others who don’t share our views are nothing but hostile entities who wish to destroy the world we’ve constructed — or has been constructed for us. Yes, this dysfunctional, highly partisan and, at times, hostile culture was created by design. Tech isn’t entirely to blame, but they do share responsibility for accelerating it.
Well, now companies like Google — and to a lesser extent Facebook and Apple — want to change the more corrosive parts of the culture they’ve had a part in creating. Why? Because they fear regulation and media scrutiny — so they are rolling out changes to fend off the power of governments and to appease the power of the press. This was evident at the recent Google I/O 2018 conference. Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to the stage at the Shoreline Amphitheater to tell a capacity crowd about how the innovations and improvements to Google products will make our lives better. None of this is new. Most of the big tech companies do these big “Ooooh…Aaaaah” presentations for rapt audiences and a fawning press corps. It’s the same dog and pony show we’ve been watching year after year after year.
This time, there’s a slight variation on a theme. The mucky-mucks at Google are now concerned about time. That is to say, how we spend our time with the products the company creates. Take, for example, the dashboard that will be part of the new Android update. Ever wonder how much time you spend checking your phone? How much time do you spend on the apps that live on your phone? Well, Google will tell you in the next major software update to your phone. Once implemented, you can also try and break your device addiction by using Google Shush — which is essentially a do not disturb feature. You can even program your device to give you a limit on time spent on apps. You see, Google cares about your time. They want you to have more of it away from technology that keeps us addicted — or enslaved.
Speaking of which: do you ever feel like a slave to email at work? Gmail will soon have a predictive/smart compose feature that will autofill your email messages as you type. Yeah, pretty soon most of your emails will be written by a computer, and you’ll have more time!
What about making calls. There’s a sizable group of people under 30 who have a real fear of making an actual telephone call. They would rather text instead of having a conversation with another human. Well, if Google Duplex becomes a thing, just make your Google assistant book dinner reservations, hair appointments, travel arrangements, or any other interactions that require calling someone on the dreaded phone. Now you have more time to do what you want, and less time to fret about having to punch a few numbers on your device, listen to a few rings, and then tense up when someone on the other end says, “Hello?”
And then there the news? Most of us have heard the term fake news, but do we really know when some news stories on your feed are just flat out propaganda designed to appeal to your prejudices? I’m sure we all like to think of ourselves as above average consumers who have a high degree of media literacy but do we? For many of us, the answer is no. How does Google address that? Through revamping Google News. Now you have three tabs that populate your newsfeed: Headlines, Local, and For You. The page defaults to Headlines that Google controls. For some stories, they will offer readers a news story (with fact checking) from multiple news sites; sites that — in some corners — are derisively called MSM, or mainstream media. The idea here, of course, is to get us out of our silos and see big stories from multiple points of view.
Will all this work? Well, we didn’t get this current state of the world overnight. It will take time to unwind what’s been wrought. However, tech companies like Google aren’t really known for their consistency. They like creative destruction and innovations that may or may not work (How’s life these days Google Glass? Anyone still on G+? How ‘bout Blogger?). So, yes, I’m skeptical about their motives. While watching all these improvements to Google products being talked about, it looks a lot like a massive PR campaign — a PR campaign that has shades of Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged screaming: “I care!” He’s saying the words, but we don’t believe him.
I included a quote from the great political philosopher Frankie Goes to Hollywood at the outset of this post because the lyric really does ask us how we’re going to live when the computers automate our work lives — leaving us with very little or nothing to do. Karl Marx (Richard Marx’s great-grandfather. I know. Fake news. But is it?) clearly understands that the science that goes into making the machines isn’t about making life easier for the working class — or even the middle class. It’s designed to serve (and make money for) those at the top. Everyone else not in that club becomes unnecessary, unneeded, redundant, superfluous, unemployed.
Marx is pretty stark in an either/or way when it comes to these views. The gradations in class (and the need to keep a vibrant consumer class in the kind of capitalism tech thrives in) didn’t enter into his views on capitalism in the notes he compiled in 1857 under the heading Grundrisse (aka “Foundations”).
How could they? Capitalism was more about production. The consumer-oriented capitalism that makes us want iPhones, Pixels, Samsungs, FitBits, and all that other stuff was obviously not a thing in the mid-1800s, so it’s difficult to point to Marx as some kind of socialist Nostradamus predicting the future with an uncanny knack for accuracy when reading and quoting fragments like this.
However, he was prescient about who the science is meant to serve — which brings me back to my sometimes love/hate relationship with technology. I love the science, the engineering, the aesthetics of design, the ease of use that goes into these devices and services. The pace of innovations we’ve experienced is staggeringly fast as well. That speaks to the nature of human creativity, problem-solving, and the ability to create something of substance from an initial idea.
As someone who has cast his lot with humanists, I have great admiration for what we humans are able to create in art, science, politics, and all those foundations of what we call civilization. I also know that without capitalism, the pace of chance would probably be a lot slower — mostly because the incentives that appeal to human self-interest vis-a-vis innovation aren’t major parts of other paradigms. However, for me (and this circles back to that whole “Sometimes I hate technology” thing) there’s an American streak of personal freedom that feels it’s under siege as the matrix of tech makes longer and faster leaps toward a world where we will have to confront the true spiritual problems of living within the soul of the machine.