Organic, Locally-Grown Technology

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


June 18, 2012

Organic, Locally-Grown Technology

Reading the work of technology skeptics like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, one cannot help but be struck by their honesty and authenticity. Perhaps their greatest achievement is to draw out extremely subtle details of experience and introduce them into the field of language, as if they are able to peer into the invisible, unconscious levels of human subjectivity and describe what they see there so we can see it too.

Not everyone appreciates it, but that is entirely predictable. If they weren’t controversial, if instead they were universally celebrated, they would have had said nothing new. Of course their work contains errors, but how could it not? You may count it as a success when your enemies are forced to seize on and expose your mistakes in order to discredit and obfuscate your truth.

What is lost by refusing to accept their insights? Everyone knows this joke, told by David Foster Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Turkle and Carr draw attention to features of human experience – cognition, relationships, subjectivity – that are invisible because of their familiarity. Although we are unaware of them, they determine us, they make up parts of our perceptual apparatus, through which we make the world intelligible. But then a shift of perspective occurs: what was formerly an invisible part of the subject is now an object for the subject.

The subject becoming an object to itself is an always incomplete process. How can an eye gaze directly at itself? Freud’s famous motto “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” refers to this shift – liberally translated, it means “Where the Id was, the Ego will be.” Lacan thought such transformations to be similarly profound, describing them as “modifying the moorings that anchor [our] being.”

The sophistication and subtlety of the critics is rarely matched by those who disagree, who reply with their own contrary anecdotes – in Turkle’s case, about how their relationships have been positively affected by social media. But these almost always lack expressive richness and precision, qualities that announce a keen observer of humanity. She is an ethnographer, influenced by psychoanalysis. This gives a density to her descriptive accounts that easily withstands her antagonists.

But this will not be a problem for them, since they are playing an entirely different game. The goal of this game is to secure positive media coverage for technology companies, ensuring that the public continues to feel good about buying and using their products. The risk, of course, is that the people will stop participating, or worse, start regulating. The democratizing effects of technology as so important, we’re told, that any decisions about technology must be reserved for those who “get it,” the Silicon Valley elite.

This is what I find most objectionable about techno-utopians – not so much their views, but their opportunism, cynicism and insincerity, the ideal qualities of successful media pundits. When academics take up this role, it can be quite disappointing.

Critics are constantly required to prove their facility and comfort with technology for fear of being dismissed with the label of luddite. The privileged voices are the famous digital natives, for whom new technologies are a normal part of their lives. Their supposed great advantage when speaking about technology is that it comes naturally to them – as natural as a fish swimming in water.

And also as casually unreflective. What can a fish tell us about water? The critic’s discomfort is treated as a fatal problem, but it is the precondition for insight. We may soon arrive at a point where any insight at all marks you as a crank.

Skeptics like Sherry Turkle are at their weakest when they propose solutions. In the conclusion of her TED talk, Turkle says:

Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children. Create sacred spaces at home – the kitchen, the dining room – and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same thing at work. At work, we’re so busy communicating that we often don’t have time to think, we don’t have time to talk, about the things that really matter. Change that. Most important, we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits.

Capitalists are free to simply impose dramatic changes in the fabric of social life and subjectivity, causing a variety of ill effects, but Turkle’s recommended approach is for individuals to make changes in their own lives. The idea that the people should be involved in deciding what happens in society is simply impossible to imagine, but that’s ultimately the solution, although obviously not an option in the present moment.

If it is true that Facebook is ruining our relationships, what now could we possibly do about it? When a technology has pervasive effects in society, opting out is no longer possible.

In his 2007 book on environmental politics, Shopping Our Way to Safety, UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Andrew Szasz coined the term inverted quarantine to refer to a similar kind of individualized, consumer response to ecological problems. Where a quarantine is used to separate infected individuals from the rest of society, an inverted quarantine is used to separate an individual from the “infected” society, environment or world.

If we fear polluted water sources, we can simply buy bottled drinking water to protect ourselves, and dodge the political actions to regulate corporations that would befoul our drinking water on behalf of everyone in society. If we fear the harmful effects of pesticides, animal hormones and genetically-modified plants in our food supply, we can simply buy organic food, and there is no need for a political movement demanding stricter regulation of the agriculture industry.

Szasz’s notion of inverted quarantine has a strange homology with Turkle’s idea that we use technology to manage our proximity to other people, plugging in our iPods to remove ourselves from public spaces. Communication technologies create a filtered zone of privacy and control, similar to gated communities that isolate the middle class from urban poverty and crime. The experience of other people and the outside world as always potentially intrusive is deeply connected to the decline of the society of prohibition and the rise of the society of enjoyment that I’ve previously written about. In the absence of any shared rules that regulate interpersonal interaction – rules of politeness – we experience the Other as an intrusive, threatening presence.

Szasz traces the history of this tendency towards individual market-based solutions, to the Cold War, where the threat of a nuclear strike created enthusiasm for personal bomb shelters that were often laughably inadequate. The government-sponsored illusion that Americans were in control of their destiny and could individually protect themselves and their families from annihilation helped to firm up political support for the escalating nuclear arms race.

Turkle’s recommendations for how to properly live with our technological devices have the potential to fall into this trap. Although she positions it as a critical examination of the effects of communication devices on our lives, her solutions depend on the fiction that we are fully in control of our social lives, we can simply choose to reclaim spaces in our lives for real conversation. With only a slight shift in tone, this approach easily turns into a much more disturbing blaming and pathologizing of individuals for failing to use social media in expert-approved ways that I wrote about in a previous blog post A Malfunction in the Cyborgologist Utopia. The problem is turned into one of so-called personal responsibility.

Among users of technology, there is a long history of lateral surveillance, policing and shaming to enforce certain types of approved behavior. Recall all the netiquette guides that proliferated in the 1990s that advised users on the proper use of the To: and Bcc: fields when writing emails, and to put your reply below the original so that the message reads in the standard top-to-bottom way. Online forums develop norms that users are expected to follow, things like searching the archives to see if your question has been asked before.

Those who violate these norms often face the ire of veteran users, but in so many cases, these issues only arise in the first place because of some deficit with the technology itself. Why is the default behavior of email programs make it so easy to violate the privacy of everyone in your address book? Why is the original email part of your reply in the first place? Why are new forum visitors presented with the most recent posts, not the most commonly accessed information? Why do we accept the design of technology as a given, and then police each other to make up for its shortcomings? Because they’ve become so familiar. They’re the air we breath, the water we swim in. We can’t imagine them being any different.