I coined the term “Borg Complex” on a whim, and, though I’ve written on the concept a handful of times, nowhere have I presented a clear, straightforward description. That’s what this post provides — a quick, one-stop guide to the Borg Complex.
What is a Borg Complex?
A Borg Complex is exhibited by technologists, writers, and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile. The name is derived from the Borg, a cybernetic alien race in the Star Trek universe that announces to their victims some variation of the following: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”
“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.” (Nathan Harden)
“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.” (Kevin Kelly)
“I’ve used [Google Glass] 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.” (Phil Libin)
What are some other symptoms of a Borg Complex?
These symptoms may occur singly, or in combination:
1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology
Of MOOCs: “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”
2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur
”But [P2P apps are] considerably less popular among city regulators, whose reactions recall Ned Ludd’s response to the automated loom.”
3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns
“This is going to add a huge amount of new kinds of risks. But as a species, we simply must take these risks, to continue advancing, to use all available resources to their maximum.”
4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia
“There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?”
5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation
“There is a new world unfolding and everyone will have to adapt.”
6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate
“Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.”
7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for past cultural achievements
“I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away.”
8. Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns
“… 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.”
Is there more than one form a Borg Complex may take?
Yes. There is temperamental variation ranging from the cheery to the embittered. There is also variation regarding the envisioned future that ranges from utopian to dystopian. Finally, there are different degrees of zeal as well ranging from resignation to militancy. Basically, this means a Borg Complex may manifest itself in someone who thinks resistance is futile and is pissed about it, indifferently resigned to it, evangelistically thrilled by it, or some other combination of these options. So as an example, take some one like Kevin Kelly. He is cheery, utopian, and not particularly militant about it. This is, I suppose, a best case scenario.
What causes a Borg Complex?
Causes, of course, is not the right word here; but we can point to certain sources. A Borg Complex may stem from a philosophical commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technology drives history. This philosophical commitment to technological determinism may also at times be mingled with a quasi-religious faith in the envisioned techno-upotian future. The quasi-religious form of the Borg Complex can be particularly pernicious since it understands resistance to be heretical and immoral. A Borg Complex may also stem from something more banal: self-interest, usually of the commercial variety. Apathy may also lead to a Borg Complex, as may a supposedly hard-nosed, commonsense pragmatism.
Aren’t Borg Complex claims usually right?
A Borg Complex diagnosis does not necessarily invalidate the claims being made; it is primarily the identification a rhetorical stance and the uses to which it is put. That said, examining Borg Complex rhetoric leads naturally to the question of technological determinism. It’s worth noting that historians of technology have posed serious challenges to the notion of technological determinism. Historical contingencies abound and there are always choices to be made. The appearance of inevitability is a trick played by our tendency to make a neat story out of the past. Even if some Borg Complex claims prove true, it is worth asking why and whether Borg Complex assumption did not act as self-fulfilling prophecies.
What does it matter?
Marshall McLuhan once said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation when it comes to technology and its consequences. We need more thinking, not less, and Borg Complex rhetoric is typically deployed to stop rather than advance discussion. What’s more, Borg Comlex rhetoric also amounts to a refusal of responsibility. We cannot, after all, be held responsible for what is inevitable. Naming and identifying Borg Complex rhetoric matters only insofar as it promotes careful thinking and responsible action.
Other Borg Complex posts are collected here.
Borg Complex tumblr collecting cases and related materials here.
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