A Litmus Test for Humanistic Technology Critics

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 12, 2015

A Litmus Test for Humanistic Technology Critics

Michael Sacasas has a pair of posts on his blog on the possibilities of a humanistic critique of technology, both partly wrestling with Evgeny Morozov’s frustrations with critics who comment on such things as the dehumanizing effects of technology while ignoring fundamental political and economic questions that might lead them to adopt more radical political positions.

Morozov’s complaints about the sad state of technology criticism were part of a review of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, and so Carr became the front man for this tendency, which also includes other critics like Jaron Lanier, Andrew Keen and Sherry Turkle. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that Morozov targeted himself and his earlier writings for the same tendency, but all the same, he made a seemingly outrageous claim about these other writers: “technology criticism, uncoupled from any radical project of social transformation, simply doesn’t have the goods.” Without an emancipatory vision, it is ineffective, conservative, superficial and irrelevant.

This was rather easily demolished by Carr by accusing him of dogmatism. Morozov appears to be demanding a litmus test where only criticism grounded in radical left politics is permitted. It’s a devastating allegation, and to my knowledge he has never responded. That Morozov’s argument is indefensible seems beyond dispute, so it is significant that Sacacas spends so much time engaging with it and trying to make space for a humanistic critique. Why not dismiss it as doctrinaire and move on?

It’s time for me to lay my cards on the table. I’m very much in agreement with Morozov’s point that all of the issues around technology that we debate are fundamentally political. I’d even go so far as to endorse the dreaded political litmus test, but in a kind of inverted way.

Let’s paraphrase his argument: “A true critic of technology is politically radical.” There are two possible meanings to this sentence. First, the litmus test: there are critics, and we can tell the true from the false by whether they are politically radical. The second possible interpretation is the way that I would read it: there are critics, and how can we tell if they are political radicals? By whether their critiques are true. Precisely because as Morozov says, economic and political questions undergird all technology issues, if a critic writes insightfully and exposes something fundamental about them, then they are engaged in a politically radical project even if they themselves are unaware of it.

One good example is perhaps Morozov himself. His leftist tendencies have only recently become clear. Working at the George Soros-funded non-profit Transitions Online and enthusiastic about the potential for technology to reform authoritarian governments, he had different, more mainstream liberal progressive views. What radicalized him? One suspects it was his growing awareness of the dangers of solutionism, internet centrism and cyber-utopianism. Nicholas Carr seems to have moved further to the left. As far as I know, Andrew Keen was quite right wing, but in listening to the debate Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb? (a question that, admittedly, proves Morozov’s point about the superficiality of this style of critique), it became quite clear to me that his views have also changed.

Morozov’s outrageous litmus test can only be saved by inverting it and reading it through Slavoj Žižek’s maxim ‘class struggle is the Real’:

Class struggle is ‘real’ in the strict Lacanian sense: a ‘hitch’, an impediment which gives rise to ever-new symbolizations by means of which one endeavours to integrate and domesticate it (the corporatist translation-displacement of class struggle into the organic articulation of the ‘members’ of the ‘social body’, for example) but which simultaneously condemns these endeavours to ultimate failure. Class struggle is none other than the name for the unfathomable limit that cannot be objectivized, located within the social totality, since it is itself that limit which prevents us from conceiving society as a closed totality.

The thrust of the argument in Morozov’s review of The Glass Cage could be neatly summarized by paraphrasing Marx: a spectre is haunting technology critics—the spectre of radical politics. Technology criticism is haunted by the ghostly apparition of radical politics, and critics attempt to integrate and domesticate it through recourse to various ideological constructions—humanism, romanticism, conservatism, etc. But these are condemned to failure; they distort and mystify rather than getting at the root of the issue. Morozov denounces critics for this failure, but maybe he should be celebrating it because it indicates that they are still haunted by the unsymbolized spectre of radical politics.

The failure of The Glass Cage, as I noted in my review, is that Carr’s humanistic framework for analyzing the impacts of automation isn’t coherent. Carr claims that the design of automated systems to minimize the intervention of human users, leading to automation complacency and bias, is driven by a technofetishistic philosophy that privileges technology over humanity. It sounds plausible, but he doesn’t provide any evidence that this is in fact the rationale. Why not consider other motivations, like a profit-driven demand to reduce labor costs, or even a human-centered desire to relieve users of burdensome manual labor?

Morozov is right when he says:

“[critics] treat manufacturers of those objects as imaginary, theoretical constructs. They are “imaginary” and “theoretical” inasmuch as their rationale is imposed on them by the explanatory limitations of technology criticism rather than grasped ethnographically or analytically.

Sacacas falls into this trap in this paragraph:

A not insubstantial element within the culture that drives technological development is animated by what can only be described as a thoroughgoing disgust with the human condition, particularly its embodied nature. Whether we credit the wildest dreams of the Singulatarians, Extropians, and Post-humanists or not, their disdain as it finds expression in a posture toward technological power is reason enough for technology critics to strive for a humanist critique that acknowledges and celebrates the limitations inherent in our frail, yet wondrous humanity.

I’ve worked for over 10 years in the technology industry, including in Silicon Valley, and I’ve never worked with or even met a Singularitarian. There are many debates and disagreements about how to design the technologies we build, but I have yet to work with anyone who I felt was motivated by a disgust with the human condition.

What Sacacas describes as a “not insubstantial element within the culture that drives technological development” bears no resemblance to my experience of that culture. I might be missing something, but Sacacas doesn’t offer evidence or cite any sources for his claim. What I have found is that many software developers left to themselves will design overly complex, feature-packed systems that are poorly suited to users’ needs and contexts of use. Why do they do this? Not because they want to replace humanity with machines, but because they design for themselves and their own priorities. Technophilia manifests as a desire for control, mastery and understanding of technology; they want an Arduino, not an iPad.

It’s why the Internet of Things is about networked light bulbs and reading Twitter on your fridge—it’s about saying “Look what I can make it do” more than addressing a need or solving a problem that people have. At worst, they are uninterested in the social impact of the technologies they build. If technologists were truly motivated by a belief in the inferiority of humans, they would build things that demonstrate that. Instead, we get devices which tell you when your lawn needs to be mowed and apps that let you chat with your washing machine.

When they do try to remove human intervention from systems, it’s usually because they just think autonomous machines are cool, not because they disdain human frailty. But this is actually uncommon. A typical software developer is much more likely to offer too much flexibility, control and information rather than not enough, to the point of overtaxing and overwhelming people who don’t share their fascination with technology.

The irony of The Glass Cage is that Carr thinks his demand for greater human control and mastery over technology is a challenge to the technophilic worldview when in fact, it is an argument in its favor. He misconstrues his own position because he assumes from the outset that any negative consequences of technology come from some lack of appreciation for humanity.

Humanism and human-centric have thus become empty signifiers. A common humanistic critique says that when we are obliged to learn and master a machine, we become subordinated to its logic; we become machine-like and lose part of our humanity. Carr’s complaint is almost the opposite: when automation deprives us of integration with the machine, we lose part of our humanity. Both of these claims begin from reality: the factory assembly line enforces a kind of machine-like repetitiveness on human action; autopilot systems deskill human pilots. But elevating them into paradigmatic examples of a general antagonism between the Human and the Machine creates opposite claims, and this suggests that there is no underlying human or machinic essence on which to base a humanistic critique.

Political economy offers a simpler, more intellectually satisfying and coherent explanation for why technologies have developed in this way: using automation to eliminate labor costs is a time-honored method for improving profits. As Morozov points out, Carr’s humanistic approach mystifies and obscures the true causes. It also distorts Carr’s own thinking.

Sacacas describes technology critics in this way:

The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity.

Morozov confirms this analysis by setting his radical emancipatory politics in opposition to other critics’ romanticism and conservatism. It implies that we begin with ethical frameworks and by looking at technology through these various lenses, certain problems are exposed. But is that how it works? Morozov, Carr, Keen, Turkle and Lanier were all once enthusiastic about the potential of technology to positively transform society. It seems to me that the more common path was that these writers began to sense the problems, false promises, tensions and antagonisms around technology, and then began to search for or create frameworks through which their concerns could be expressed.

Thus, Morozov’s real frustration is not that he is against romanticism and conservatism because he is a committed radical. It is that radical left politics is the only option that works, the only framework that has any hope of getting to the root of the issue and challenging Silicon Valley’s power.

Sacacas gives us five principles for a humanistic critique of technology, but doesn’t really offer a plan for how these might be put into practice. This might be an unfair expectation for a blog post, but it isn’t for someone like Jaron Lanier. How do these humanistic ideals about technology carry forward to application? Writers in this genre seem to assume that they are engaging in a dialog with technologists. In my experience, no such dialog is occuring, despite all of the books, TED talks and editorials. These are ignored by the people they ostensibly challenge.

Perhaps this explains why Sacacas imagines Singularitarians and Posthumanists as his interlocuters. These are a group of people who do engage in the kind of deliberative, philosophical thinking about technology and may be open to hearing a humanistic critique. However, I would argue that their influence over the direction of modern technology is marginal. For those interested in a purely theoretical debate, that may not matter, and that’s fine.

In practice, technologists have little interest in listening to these ideas and are mostly unaware the issues are even being debated. But let’s suppose that somehow you could get them to listen. Sacasas treats these ideals as separable from political economy, but in fact the main obstacles to implementing them are financial, and the question of how to make sure these ideals aren’t trumped by the profit motive is left unanswered. A political critique of technology doesn’t suffer from these drawbacks. It has an audience and a means for implementing its ideas: political action.

We ought not to have a litmus test that demands fealty to a particular political viewpoint. But if you have an intuition that technology is having a negative impact on society, by seeking out intellectually satisfying, consistent and coherent explanations that make an impact on the world, you will probably find yourself further to the left than where you started. The only litmus test needed is intellectual honesty, insight, coherence and a desire to get at the truth.