Don’t Worry, You’ll Get Used To It

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Last week I came across this image in a short post at MIT Technology Review titled, “Growing Up With Google Glass.” To be clear at the outset, this image was photoshopped to accompany the story. When I posted the image to the Borg Complex tumblr, I offered it as a Borg Complex Rorschach test: What do you see? An inevitable future? Nothing to worry about? The advance of civilization? Then you may suffer from a Borg Complex.

I don’t, in fact, believe this to be an inevitable scenario, but it does strike me as entirely plausible. The post concludes with this:

“Most people at some point or another will have experienced a moment in which they realize the generation behind them has a very different relationship to technology – and hence to the world – than they do. Glass, which mediates a person’s relationship with the world more directly than other technologies, will likely produce its own share of such moments.”

Quite honestly, I’m not sure I fully get the sense of that paragraph. But it seems to suggest that there will come a time when this will be a perfectly ordinary scene and, when that time comes, people will look back on whatever apprehension we may now feel and think it quaint.

This is a common rejoinder to critiques of new technology. It goes something like this: “When a new technology appears, it always elicits concerns that in retrospect turn out to be overstated or misguided. Likewise, whatever concerns or apprehension we now experience will prove to be unfounded.”

I suspect this is sometimes true enough. But is it always? Consider this liminal moment with regards to Google Glass. We are at that stage in the life of a technology when its future remains remarkably malleable. Google is pushing to allay concerns and to naturalize the device, but not without resistance and opposition. You may look at this image and feel apprehensive. If, several years hence, it turns out that Google Glass (or something like it) becomes a taken-for-granted device – and scenes like the one imagined above become commonplace – will that necessarily mean that your concerns were misguided? I don’t think so. Could it not also be the case that genuine and substantive moral reservations were gradually eroded and then forgotten altogether. Eventual acceptance of a given state-of-affairs, after all, is no guarantee of its moral superiority. Consider it 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.

Some time ago I cited Evernote CEO Phil Libin’s Borg-ish assertion, speaking of Google Glass style devices: “It’s going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff.” Perhaps. What he didn’t acknowledge is that such a judgment might itself be the symptom of a prior, forgotten slide into barbarism.

Borg Complex: A Primer

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 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.”

For example:

“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.

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Other Borg Complex posts are collected here.

Borg Complex tumblr collecting cases and related materials here.


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Cataloging the Borg Complex

In June of last year, I read an article which strongly urged religious institutions to adapt to new communication technologies. Adapt or die, the author seemed to say; or, better yet, resistance is futile. This is when it occurred to me that there was an identifiable rhetoric that could be usefully labeled a “Borg Complex.” Labels have their limits, of course, but when you have a name for something it becomes easier to identify and analyze.

I’m persuaded of the usefulness of this particular label because, at the very least, it draws attention to rhetoric that shuts down debate and discussion about technology. In it’s worst forms this rhetoric is disingenuous and coercive. Even when it is not deployed maliciously, it oversimplifies genuine complexity and prevents us from imagining the full range of possibilities with regards to our use of technology.

The label also raises some interesting historical, philosophical, and ethical questions about technology. How far back can we find this kind of rhetoric? To what ends is this rhetoric put? Apart from rhetorical considerations, what do we make of the technological determinism implied? What does the history of technology tells us about the claims of inevitability? What sorts of options and choices are genuinely available when a technology appears?

In order to continue thinking through these questions and to draw attention to this rhetoric, I’ve started a Tumblr blog cataloging instances of the Borg Complex and related material. You can check it out here: The Borg Complex. And, naturally, I’m soliciting your help. If you come across cases of the Borg Complex, past or present, I invite you to send those in. Contact information is listed in the About This Blog page.

Borg Complex Case Files 2

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.

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Alright, let’s review. A Borg Complex is exhibited by writers and pundits whenever you can sum up their message with the phrase: “Resistance is futile.”

The six previously identified symptoms of a Borg Complex are as follows:

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

In an effort to further refine our diagnostic instruments, I am now adding two more related symptoms to the list. The first of these arises from a couple of cases submitted by Nick Carr and is summarized as follows:

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for the achievements of the past

Consider this claim by Tim O’Reilly highlighted by Carr:

“I don’t really give a shit 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.”

Well, there you have it. This same statement serves to illustrate the second symptom I’m introducing:

8. Refers to historical parallels only to dismiss present concerns.

This symptom identifies historical precedents as a way of saying, “Look, people worried about stuff like this before and they survived, so there’s nothing to be concerned about now.” It sees all concerns through the lens of Chicken Little. The sky never falls. I would suggest that the Boy Who Cried Wolf is the better parable. The wolf sometimes shows up.

To this list of now eight symptoms, we might also add two Causes.

1. Self-interest, usually commercial (ranging from more tempered to crass)

2. Fatalistic commitment to technological determinism (in pessimistic and optimistic varieties)

Now let’s consider some more cases related to education, a field that is particularly susceptible to Borg Complex claims. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman gushed over 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. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”

These are high, indeed utopian hopes, and in their support Friedman offered two heartwarming anecdotes of MOOC success. In doing so, he committed the error of tech-uptopians (modeled on what Pascal took to be the error of Stoicism): Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Friedman wrapped up his post with the words of M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, “There is a new world unfolding and everyone will have to adapt.”

And there it is — Borg Complex.

In long piece in The Awl (via Nathan Jurgenson), Maria Bustillos discusses an online exchange on the subject of MOOCs between Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky. Take the time to read the whole thing if you’re curious/worried about MOOCs. But here is Shirky on the difference between he and Bady: “Aaron and I agree about most of the diagnosis; we disagree about the prognosis. He thinks these trends are reversible, and I don’t; Udacity could go away next year and the damage is already done.”

Once again — Borg Complex.

At this juncture it’s worth asking, as Jurgenson did in sending me this last case, “Is he wrong?”

Is it not the case that folks who exhibit a Borg Complex often turn out to be right? Isn’t it inevitable that their vision will play out regardless of what we say or do?

My initial response is … maybe. As I’ve said before, a Borg Complex diagnosis is neutral as to the eventual veracity of the claims. It is more about an attitude toward technology in the present that renders the claims, if they are realized, instances of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The appearance of inevitability is a trick played by our tendency to make a neat story out of the past. Historians know this better than most. What looks like inevitability to us is only a function of zooming so far out that all contingencies fade from view. But in the fine-grain texture of lived experience, we know that there are countless contingencies that impinge upon the unfolding of history. It is also a function of forgetfulness. If only we had a catalog of all that we were told was inevitable that didn’t finally transpire. We only remember successes and then we tell their story as if they had to succeed all along, and this lends claims of inevitability an undeserved plausibility.

One other consideration: It is always worth asking, Who stands to profit from tales of technological inevitability?

Consider the conclusion of a keynote address delivered at the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich by Max Levchin:

“So to conclude: I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.”

The “analog processes” Levchin is talking about are basically the ordinary aspects of our human lives that have yet to be successfully turned into digital data points. Here’s Carr on the vision Levchin lays out:

“This is the nightmare world of Big Data, where the moment-by-moment behavior of human beings — analog resources — is tracked by sensors and engineered by central authorities to create optimal statistical outcomes. We might dismiss it as a warped science fiction fantasy if it weren’t also the utopian dream of the Max Levchins of the world. They have lots of money and they smell even more: ‘I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.’ It’s the ultimate win-win: you get filthy rich by purifying the tribe.”

Commenting on the same address and on Carr’s critique, Alan Jacobs captures the Borg-ish nature of Levchin’s rhetoric:

“And Levchin makes his case for these exciting new developments in a very common way: ‘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.’ Levchin doesn’t really spell out what the risks are — though Nick Carr does — because he doesn’t want us to think about them. He just wants us to think about the absolutely unquestionable ‘must’ of using ‘all available resources to their maximum.’ That ‘advance’ in that direction might amount to ‘retreat’ in actual human flourishing does not cross his mind, because it cannot. Efficiency in the exploitation of ‘resources’ is his only canon.”

We “must” do this. It is inevitable but that this will happen. Resistance is futile.

Except that very often it isn’t. There are choices to be made. A figure no less identified with technological determinism than Marshall McLuhan reminded us: “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, and very often for the worst of motives. By naming it my hope is that it can be more readily identified, weighed, and rejected.

Elsewhere McLuhan said, “the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can … Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”

Understanding is a form of resistance. So remember, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance where discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.

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This is a third in series of Borg Complex posts, you can read previous installments here.

I’ve set up a tumblr to catalog instances of Borg Complex rhetoric here. Submissions welcome.

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The Borg Complex Case Files

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.

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“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.

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