techno-utopian-libertarianism

The New York Times's "Room for Debate Feature" recently featured several writers on the subject of "Is Silicon Valley Changing the World or Just Making Money?" I am so glad the paper posed that particular question, because I find all the tech industry talk of "innovation," "disruption" and "creative destruction" to be little more than a vapid and self-congratulatory mask for a decidedly 20th century social Darwinist libertarianism. (My current  bête noire is the celebration of "failure" in Silicon Vally, usually accompanied with the smug tagline along the lines of "here we accept it as part of the learning process." That's a position a person can hold only if a particular failure doesn't ruin all of his/her future prospects. That is to say, if it was not really a failure at all, but actually more of a setback.) But in our cultural moment, this pattern of thinking is very powerful, and its resonance allows it to serve as an effective device to obscure the fact that the tech revolution has operated more-or-less the same way as other advances in production and consumption: it has enriched a small number of people while paying little notice to fates of the rest of us. The benefits of the current tech boom have come to the rank and file primarily as consumers rather than as workers or producers. And even these advantages are mostly frivolous. Skype, Twitter, Netflix and their ilk can be fun or convenient, but they hardly justify all the talk of living in a better age. The contemporary infatuation with information technology allows anyone who contests this state of affairs to be labelled, successfully, as a Luddite or apologist for the status quo.

A satire of the tech industry's insistence that it is "making the world a better place" from the HBO show Silicon Valley. (Source: YouTube)

Given my attitudes on the subject, I was particularly taken with the response to the Times's question given by Susie Cagle, a journalist who is currently the John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Cagle summarized many pressing concerns about the current economic and cultural implications of technology, in a well-informed and articulate fashion. I refer you to her entry (none of the other ones really impressed me) and have included a few highlights below.

The Internet's broad distribution networks were supposed to allow a much greater proportion of people to access global wealth and abundance, but it has truly done far more to concentrate that power and global wealth...

For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses. 

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales...

For all its supposed disruption, the tech industry has not challenged much about the global economy. After all, that very economy nurtured the world of "tech," and widened the gap between those who drive for Uber and use Facebook, and those who build and own Uber and Facebook.