Directive from the Borg: Love All Technology, Now!

I don’t know about you, but when I look around, it seems to me, that we live in what may be conservatively labeled a technology-friendly social environment. If that seems like a reasonable estimation of the situation to you, then, it would appear, that you and I are out of touch with reality. Or, at least, this is what certain people in the tech world would have us believe. To hear some of them talk, it would appear that the technology sector is a beleaguered minority fending off bands of powerful critics, that Silicon Valley is an island of thoughtful, benign ingenuity valiantly holding off hordes of Luddite barbarians trying to usher in a new dark age.

Consider this tweet from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

Don’t click on that link quite yet. First, let me explain the rhetorical context. Andreessen’s riposte is aimed at two groups at once. On the one hand, he is taking a swipe at those who, like Peter Thiel, worry that we are stuck in a period of technological stagnation and, on the other, critics of technology. The implicit twofold message is simple: concerns about stagnation are misguided and technology is amazing. In fact, “never question progress or technology” is probably a better way of rendering it, but more on that in a moment.

Andreessen has really taken to Twitter. The New Yorker recently published a long profile of Andreessen, which noted that he “tweets a hundred and ten times a day, inundating his three hundred and ten thousand followers with aphorisms and statistics and tweetstorm jeremiads.” It continues,

Andreessen says that he loves Twitter because “reporters are obsessed with it. It’s like a tube and I have loudspeakers installed in every reporting cubicle around the world.” He believes that if you say it often enough and insistently enough it will come—a glorious revenge. He told me, “We have this theory of nerd nation, of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country. So you get to choose what tribe or band or group you’re a part of.” The nation-states of Twitter will map the world.

Not surprisingly, Andreessen’s Twitter followers tend to be interested in technology and the culture of Silicon Valley. For this reason, I’ve found that taking a glance at the replies Andreessen’s tweets garner gives us an interesting, if at times somewhat disconcerting snapshot of attitudes about technology, at least within a certain segment of the population. For instance, if you click on that tweet above and skim the replies it has received, you would assume the linked article was nothing more than a Luddite screed about the evils of technology.

Instead, what you will find is Tom Chatfield interviewing Nick Carr about his latest book. It’s a good interview, too, well worth a few minutes of your time. Carr is, of course, a favorite whipping boy for this crowd, although I’ve yet to see any evidence that they’ve read a word Carr has written.

Here’s a sampling of some of Carr’s more outlandish and incendiary remarks:

• “the question isn’t, ‘should we automate these sophisticated tasks?’, it’s ‘how should we use automation, how should we use the computer to complement human expertise'”

• “I’m not saying that there is no role for labour-saving technology; I’m saying that we can do this wisely, or we can do it rashly; we can do it in a way that understands the value of human experience and human fulfilment, or in a way that simply understands value as the capability of computers.”

• “I hope that, as individuals and as a society, we maintain a certain awareness of what is going on, and a certain curiosity about it, so that we can make decisions that are in our best long-term interest rather than always defaulting to convenience and speed and precision and efficiency.”

• “And in the end I do think that our latest technologies, if we demand more of them, can do what technologies and tools have done through human history, which is to make the world a more interesting place for us, and to make us better people.”

Crazy talk, isn’t it? That guy, what an unhinged, Luddite fear-monger.

Carr has the temerity to suggest that we think about what we are doing, and Andreessen translates this as a complaint that technology is “ruining life as we know it.”

Here’s what this amounts to: you have no choice but to love technology. Forget measured criticism or indifference. No. Instead, you must love everything about it. Love every consequences of every new technology. Love it adamantly and ardently. Express this love proudly and repeatedly: “The world is now more awesome than ever because of technology and it will only get more awesome each and everyday.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This is pretty much it, right? You tell me?

Classic Borg Complex, of course. But wait, there’s more.

Here’s a piece from New York Times’ Style Magazine that crossed my path yesterday: “In Defense of Technology.” You read that correctly. In defense of technology. Because, you know, technology really needs defending these days. Obviously.

It gets better. Here’s the quick summary below the title: “As products and services advance, plenty of nostalgists believe that certain elements of humanity have been lost. One contrarian argues that being attached to one’s iPhone is a godsend.”

“One contrarian.”

“One.”

Read that piece, then contemplate Alan Jacobs’ 70th out of 79 theses on technology: “The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.” Here are the highlights, in my view, of this defense of technology:

• “I now feel — and this is a revelation — that my past was an interesting and quite fallow period spent waiting for the Internet.”

• “I didn’t know it when I was young, but maybe we were just waiting for more stuff and ways to save time.”

• “I’ve come fully round to time-saving apps. I’ve become addicted to the luxury of clicking through for just about everything I need.”

• “Getting better is getting better. Improvement is improving.”

• “Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun.”

• “What has been lost? Nothing.”

Nothing. Got that? Nothing. So quit complaining. Love it all. Now.

10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers

Nobody asked me, but here they are anyway. A short list of suggestions and clarifications for pundits, journalists, bloggers, and assorted scribblers who write about technology, in no particular order …

1. Don’t be a Borg. The development, deployment, and adoption of any given technology does not unfold independently of human action.

2. Do not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.

3. Do not deify technology or assign salvific powers to Technology.

Pieter Brueghel, Construction of the Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Brueghel, Construction of the Tower of Babel (1563)

4. When someone criticizes a specific technology without renouncing all other forms of technology, they are not being hypocritical–they are thinking.

“I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art
connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. 
To love is to choose.
And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation.” (Paul Virilio)

5. Relatedly, the observation that human beings have always used technology is not a cogent response to the criticism of particular technologies. The use of a pencil does not entail my endorsement of genetic engineering.

6. Don’t grant technology independent or sufficient causal force. Consequences follow from the use of technology, but causality is usually complex and distributed.

7. If you begin by claiming, hyperbolically, that a given technology is revolutionary, thereafter responding to critics by assuring them that nothing has changed is disingenuous at best. If something is completely different, it can’t also be exactly the same.

8. It is banal to observe that a given technology may be used for both good or evil; this does not mean that the technology in question is neutral.

9. Use the word technology circumspectly. It can function as an abstraction harboring all sorts of false assumptions and logical fallacies.

10. That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.

These are, of course, otherwise known as Sacasas’ pet peeves. You may take them accordingly.


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Borg Complex Alert!

BorgIt’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to point out a Borg Complex case, but the folks at Google have seen fit to help me remedy that situation.

At MIT’s EmTech conference last Thursday, the head of the display division at Google-X, Mary Lou Jepsen, gave us a few gems.

Speaking of Google Glass and its successors, Jepsen explained, “It’s basically a way of amplifying you. I’ve thought for many years that a laptop is an extension of my mind. Why not have it closer to my mind, and on me all the time?”

Why not, indeed.

In any case, her division is hard at work. They are “maybe sleeping three hours a night to bring the technology forward.”

“It’s coming,” she added. “I don’t think it’s stoppable.” Then why, I ask, lose so much sleep over it. One really ought not wear oneself ragged over something that’s bound to come to pass inevitably.

But, as per Mr. Brin’s directives, she wasn’t saying much about what exactly was coming. Whatever the next iteration of wearable computing looks like, Jepsen tells us “you become addicted to the speed of it, and it lets you do more fast and easily.”

Concerns? Never you mind. Remember Mr. Schmidts’s comforting assurances: “Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.”

Silly fearful critics. Don’t they know resistance is futile, society will be assimi … er … will adapt.

Thinking and Its Rhetorical Enemies

In one short post, Alan Jacobs targeted several Borg Complex symptoms. The post was triggered by his frustration with an xkcd comic which simply strung together a series of concerns about technological developments expressed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The implicit message was abundantly clear: “Wasn’t that silly and misguided? Of course it was. Now stop your complaining about technology today.”

Jacobs raised four salient points in response:

1. “Why do we just assume that their concerns were senseless?”

2. While we may endorse the trade-offs new technologies entail, “it would be ridiculous to say that no trade has been made.”

3. “Moreover, even if people were wrong to fear certain technologies in the past, that says absolutely nothing about whether people who fear certain other technologies today are right or wrong.”

4. This sort of thing presents “an easy excuse not to think about things that need to be thought about.”

Exactly right on all counts.

In partial response to Jacobs’ question, I’d suggest that when living memory of a lost state of affairs also perishes, so to does the existential force of the loss and its plausibility. What we know is that life went on – here we are after all – and that seems to be the only bright line of consequence. All that is established by this, of course, is that we eventually acclimated to the new state of affairs. That we eventually get used to a state of affairs tells us nothing about its quality or desirability, nor that of the state of affairs that was displaced. To assume that it does is a future-tense extension of the naturalistic fallacy: simply because something comes to be the case, it does not follow that it ought to be the case.

The second point above recalls Neil Postman’s discussion of (yes, you guessed it) Phaedrus, Plato’s famous dialog in which Socrates tells the story of Thamus and Theuth. The god Theuth presents Thamus, king of Egypt, with a number of inventions including writing. Theuth is understandably excited about his creations, but Thamus is less sanguine. He warns that writing, among other things, will destroy memory. Learning to cite this story and dismiss it scornfully must be the first thing they teach you in tech-punditry school. But, as Jacobs points out, Thamus was not wrong. Here is Postman’s take:

“[Thamus’ error] is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thamus’ error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable.”

“Every technology,” Postman goes on to say, “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” Those who see only blessing Postman labels “zealous Zeuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.” Postman grants, of course, that there are also one-eyed prophets who speak only of the burdens of technology. It is best then to open both eyes.

Jacobs’ third point reminds us that the one-eyed prophets of technological blessing, those who dismiss the silly fears of previous generations, take Chicken Little as their normative story: the sky never, ever falls. As I’ve written before, the tale of the boy who cried wolf serves better. Even if earlier alarms proved false, it does not follow that the wolf never comes.

Finally, it is the fourth point that bears reiterating most emphatically. We need to think more, not less. It is that simple. There are many problems with Borg Complex rhetoric; that it undermines thinking and judgement may be the most disturbing and damaging.

Being-With Technology

Carl Mitcham’s “Three Ways of Being-With Technology” opens with the following claim: “In any serious discussion of issues associated with technology and humanity there readily arises a general question about the primary member in this relationship.” A bit further on, he adds:

“This is, of course, a chicken-and-egg question, one not subject to any straightforward or unqualified answer. But it is not therefore insignificant, nor is it enough to propose as some kind of synthesis that there is simply a mutual relationship between the two, that humanity and technology are always found together. Mutual relationship is not some one thing; mutual relationships take many different forms. There are, for instance, mutualities of parent and child, of husband and wife, of citizens, and so forth. Humanity and technology can be found together in more than one way. Rather than argue the primacy of one or the other factor or the cliché of mutuality in the humanity-technology relationship, I propose to outline three forms the relationship itself can take, three ways of being-with technology.”

The first thing that came to mind when I read this paragraph was the digital dualism debate. One could, for instance, substitute the human-technology pair above with the online-offline pair and retain the sense of the paragraph. Once mutuality is established, the next, more interesting move is to explore the different forms this mutual relationship takes.

As far as the human-technology relationship is concerned, the three ways of being-with technology that Mitcham outlines are ancient skepticism, Renaissance/Enlightenment optimism, and Romantic uneasiness. I suspect you might already have a pretty good idea of how Mitcham fills out those categories. (The chart below gives a decent summary.) Perhaps this being-with model could also serve to illuminate the online-offline relationship. Might it be useful, in similar fashion, to outline the forms the online-offline relationship takes?

One other thought: It seems to me that what I’ve been describing as a “Borg Complex” could be understood as a being-with relationship of the sort that Mitcham describes. The “resistance is futile,” adapt or die rhetoric is what led me to identify this rhetoric as a Borg Complex, but the symptoms I’ve compiled also suggest something more expansive than this techno-fatalist attitude. They encompass an entire posture toward the human-technology relationship — one that has certain affinities with Mitcham’s Renaissance/Enlightenment optimism, but departs from it as well.

So, looking at this chart, I’m wondering if it might not be updated with a category that accounts for the Borg Complex and then also one that accounts for what Leo Marx has called postmodern pessimism.

I’ll leave these considerations with you this afternoon. More thoughts along these lines may be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

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