The Borg Complex Case Files

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.


“Resistance is futile.” This is what the Borg, of Star Trek fame, announces to its victims before it proceeds to assimilate their biological and technological distinctiveness. It is also what many tech gurus and pundits announce to their audiences as they dispense their tech-guru-ish wisdom. They don’t quite use those words,of course, but they might as well. This is why I’ve taken to calling this sort of rhetoric a Borg Complex.

I first wrote about the Borg Complex last June in response to an article on technology and religion which confidently announced that “religion will have to adapt.” The line, “Resistance is futile,” could have unobtrusively made its way into the article at any number of places.

Using this same article as a specimen, I identified six tell-tale symptoms of a Borg Complex.

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

These symptoms may occur singly or in some combination, and they may range form milder to more hysterical manifestations. Symptoms of the Borg Complex also tend to present with a smug, condescending tone, but this is not always the case. Those who suffer from a Borg Complex may also exhibit an earnest, pleading tone or one that is mildly annoyed and incredulous.

As a more recent example of symptom number 2, consider Tim Wu writing in the NY Times about the response of some communities to apps that allow one to book cabs or rent out an apartment:  “But they’re considerably less popular among city regulators, whose reactions recall Ned Ludd’s response to the automated loom.” Clearly a bad thing in Wu’s view.

An interesting case of the Borg Complex was on display in a Huffington Post interview of Evernote CEO, Phil Libin. Libin is discussing Google Glasses when he says:

“I’ve used it a little bit myself and – I’m making a firm prediction – in as little as three years from now I am not going to be looking out at the world with glasses that don’t have augmented information on them. It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff. That’s going to be the universal use case. It’s going to be mainstream. People think it looks kind of dorky right now but the experience is so powerful that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off… We’re spending a good amount of time planning for and experimenting with those.”

“It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff.” Here’s an instance of the Borg Complex that does not fit neatly within the symptoms described above. It’s some combination of 1, 5, and 6, but there is something more going on here. Context provides a little clarity though. This case of the Borg Complex is wrapped up in the potential sale of some future product. So the symptoms are inflected by the marketing motive. It is perhaps a more passive-aggressive form of the Borg Complex, “You will not want to be without __________________ because everyone else will have _________________ and you’ll feel inadequate without __________________.”

A more direct and intense variation of the Borg Complex was on display in Nathan Harden’s essay about the future of higher education. Here are the opening lines:

“In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.”

Harden sums up his introduction with the announcement, “The college classroom is about to go virtual.”

Kevin Kelly, a tech-guru par excellence and one of unbounded optimism, also exhibits Borg Complex symptoms in his much talked about essay for Wired, “Better Than Human” (the title, it is worth clarifying, was not chosen by Kelly). Early on Kelly writes,

“It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words, robot replacement is just a matter of time.”

And perhaps it may be so. A diagnosis of Borg Complex does not necessarily invalidate the claims being made. The Borg Complex is less about the accuracy of predictions and claims than about the psychological disposition that leads one to make such claims and the posture toward technology in the present that it engenders.

The contrasts among Libin, Harden, and Kelly are also instructive. Libin’s case of Borg Complex is inflected by commercial considerations. I’m not sure the same can be said for either Harden or Kelly. This moves us beyond the work of identifying symptoms and leads us to consider the causes or sources of the Borg Complex. Libin’s case points in one plausible direction. In the case of Kelly, we might reasonably look to his philosophy of autonomous technology. But further consideration of causes will have to wait for a future post.

Until then, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance were discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.


12 thoughts on “The Borg Complex Case Files

  1. I like your list of symptoms. There’s another one, which I’ve been bumping up against recently, that I’m not sure how to express concisely. It’s on display in Tim O’Reilly’s new Wired interview, when he says “I don’t really give a s**t if literary novels go away. … the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.” And it’s on display in a recent comment on my own blog, when Clay Shirky says, “the book, which half a millenium of rehearsed reverence have taught us to regard as a semantic unit, may in fact be a production unit: the book is what you get when writers have access to printing presses … Take away the press, and what looked like an internal logic of thought may turn out to be a constraint of the medium.” There’s an assumption here that objects of culture don’t have any inherent human value; rather, they’re all just “constructs” or “production units” that represent accidents of history and that can and will be replaced, without any loss, by the next wave of new “constructs” and “production units.” We shouldn’t worry about the Borg, in other words, because nothing that we may lose actually has any inherent human value. There’s a glibness to this view of history that feels simplistic and repellent to me. If you can think of a crisp way to encapsulate the view as one of your symptoms, I’d like to hear it.

    1. Kevin Kelly has a similar perspective in his “What Technology Wants” in which he claims that no technologies are ever lost. He claims that almost no historical technologies ever die:

      “But by far the greatest difference between the evolution of the born and the evolution of the made is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct.” p. 51, WTW

      And so if arts and literature and other culturally important stuff are cast as technologies, then one has cover to say there’s nothing to worry about in the development, or “assimilation” into newer forms. “Technologies are idea based, and culture is their memory,” he states p. 56. At this kind of distance, it’s hard to see any kind of losses as real or important.

      1. I did not read “What Technology Wants”, but I read quite a few reviews and excerpts. That said, I do recall the point you mention here. In fact, I remember some posts on Kelly’s blog that first tried out this thesis and in which he identified all sorts of primitive farm equipment that was still being made somewhere by somebody. So I could see how someone like Kelly could take that approach, and I think that Shirky’s comments on Nick’s blog also invoke something like this. (By the way, I appreciated your own comments over there too, well put.)

        As I was typing my reply above, I was also thinking of your comment. I think you’re right when you say, “At this kind of distance, it’s hard to see any kind of losses as real or important.” The distance, I think, is also an emotional distance. There is no love or attachment here for the particular, there is only a faith of sorts in the future in general. There is a willingness to surf on the breaking wave of history with no real attachments or anchors laid deeply in the past. This is why I’ve always been struck by Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus. Only I would say that more than disasters pile in front of the Angel of History, much goodness and beauty does as well. But the “storm we call progress” blows us away from those as well.

        1. Yeah, its interesting about this business of closeness to the subject. I’ve always been someone who really appreciates abstraction. But I guess seeing a glib analysis of something one cares a lot about by someone who doesn’t seem to care much about it at all is hard to take.

          I didn’t know your reference to the analysis of Klee’s etching by Benjamin, so I looked it up and read a little. Perspectives on history… interesting. I do remember reading an essay by him about the origins of Romanticism that really impressed me.

          By the way, on the topic of this post, over at Nick Carr’s blog, commenter William continues with what looks a lot like a good example of this Borg complex:

          He asks whether Nick wants to become just another “old guy yelling at the kids to get off his lawn”. I think that’s another common slur that serves the same purpose as “Luddite”.

    2. I did see both of those comments via your blog, and my reaction was much the same as yours. O’Reiley’s comments express more of a contemptuous hostility toward the literary novel, but this seems so irrational that I wonder if the novel is not a proxy for something else or whether the novel is a symbol for all of those who would not happily embrace the new, the unreconstructed, who must really piss O’Reilly off. Shirky appears more matter-of-fact about the whole affair, his is a breezy indifference to these cultural artifacts understood to be merely production units. There is in both cases also an unquestioning confidence that whatever replaces (or displaces) older forms of media will be necessarily better. It is a more specific instance of the condition CS Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.”

      This all seems to me to be a matter of sensibility, which is the best word I know to get at this. There’s a certain sensibility that feels the cultural loss and another that simply doesn’t get why it’s a big deal for some. I’m also tempted to attribute this to some sort of aesthetic myopia or a failure of the imagination. Recalling some musings about criticism a few months ago, I’d even say that it is attributable to a lack of love (risking the charge of sentimentality). If one loves an object or practice, its replacement/displacement by another such thing, even if it be superior, is no consolation. Love sustains the multiplication of its objects, but it wishes not to endure the loss of even one.

      I’m not sure how to reduce all of that to a line in the vein of my list up above. Perhaps something along these lines:

      “Expresses contemptuous disregard for the achievements of pre-digital culture.”


      “Blithely assumes the newer displaces the older without loss or remainder.”

      I’m not sure those do justice to the dynamic in the O’Rielly/Shirky comments, which are definitely manifestations of the attitude I’m trying to capture with the Borg Complex.

      1. I very much like the Borg Complex frame. There is something of the archetypal economist to the O’Reilly and Shirky comments: an insistence on the necessity and virtue of hard-headed and unsentimental thinking if we are to Build the Future. I think both O’Reilly and Shirky would vote Democrat and I believe both have spoken in favour of the Occupy movement, yet their attitude has a ring of Gary Becker to it in the deliberate neglect of any cultural overtones to objects or practices. The one/two of “the future will be great!” and “it’s coming and there’s nothing you can do about it” is an interesting dance to track.

  2. Perhaps the phrase “it’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff” should be read as “if you don’t have that stuff, all the cool kids will point and laugh at you”.

    The fear of appearing naive can be an extraordinarily powerful thing.

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