Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"This storm is what we call progress."

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

At the start of the month Vanity Fair ran a piece about orgy culture among the Silicon Valley elite. There's a lot to be appalled by, but I might be in the minority in that the details of exclusive MDMA-fueled tech bro parties wasn't what grossed me out the most.

Emily Chang (author of the forthcoming book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, from which the Vanity Fair article is an adapted excerpt) speaks to one "Founder X," an "ambitious, world-traveling entrepreneur" who gives us an insight into the chauvinistic behavior of the young tech mogul who regards female colleagues as "sex pawns and founder hounders" (emphases are mine):
“It’s awesome,” says Founder X. At work, he explains, “you’re well funded. You have relative traction.” Outside work, “why do I have to compromise? Why do I have to get married? Why do I have to be exclusive? If you’ve got a couple girls interested in you, you can set the terms and say, ‘This is what I want.’ You can say, ‘I’m happy to date you, but I’m not exclusive.’ These are becoming table stakes for guys who couldn’t get a girl in high school.”

...They don’t necessarily see themselves as predatory. When they look in the mirror, they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values. “What’s making this possible is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allows us to be creative and disruptive about ideas,” Founder X told me.


Furthermore, these elite founders, C.E.O.’s, and V.C.’s see themselves as more influential than most hot-shit bankers, actors, and athletes will ever be. “We have more cachet than a random rich dude because we make products that touch a lot of people,” says Founder X. “You make a movie, and people watch it for a weekend. You make a product, and it touches people’s lives for years.

At least on the financial level, Founder X has a point. The payouts of A-list actors and the wolves of Wall Street just aren’t that impressive among the Silicon Valley elite. Managing directors at top-tier investment banks may pocket a million a year and be worth tens of millions after a long career. Early employees at tech firms like Uber, Airbnb, and Snapchat can make many times that amount of money in a matter of years. Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, and Leonardo DiCaprio have jumped on that power train and now make personal investments in tech companies. The basketball great Kobe Bryant started his own venture-capital firm. LeBron James has rebranded himself as not just an athlete but also an investor and entrepreneur.

With famous actors and athletes wanting to get into the tech game, it’s no surprise that some in the Valley have a high opinion of their attractiveness and what they should expect or deserve in terms of their sex lives. In the Valley, this expectation is often passed off as enlightened—a contribution to the evolution of human behavior.
Here we have the lapidary encapsulation of Silicon Valley's arrogance.

Not that anyone should think of disputing Founder X's claim that the products of California's mad science workshop aren't altering the complexion of human life and rescripting our activities. At this moment gadgeteers and venture capitalists are putting their shoulders to the wheel with more weight than anyone else in the United States, and almost anyone else globally. (The Communist Party of China comes to mind as a competitor for the distinction.) And they're awfully and perhaps justifiably pleased with themselves. They're creating cutting-edge products and conveniences; their incomes are lavish to the point of obscenity; they're rewiring civilization, changing how we behave and relate to each to each other. If nothing else we can understand why they believe themselves to be the visionary agents of human progress, and why so many consumers and Wired readers concur with them on this point.

Progress is not an a priori concept. It is relatively new, and it was once unique to European Christian culture.

Unlike the great Eastern religions with their cyclical views of history, the Abrahamic religions understand the the passage of time as a linear process with a definite beginning and a destined conclusion: the End Times. And it was in Europe that the scientific revolution began, forcing conversations about the comportment of empirically derived fact with bible "truth." Centuries of belief in the coming Millennium, of God's reign over a restored and paradisaical Earth, were not to be effaced from Europe's intellectual background in just five or six generations. As a matter of fact, the new worldview subsumed medieval chiliasm, divested it of its religious elements, and transmuted it into the secular belief in "historical progress."

A book I love, A.D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), smacks of the nineteenth century's de-apocalyptized chiliasm. White states it flatly: "the tendency of mankind is upward." This was not a revolutionary or even very controversial assertion, and the European powers' optimism wouldn't be shaken until World War I—and only momentarily, at that. For that matter, the background anxiety of the atomic age which found popular (and perhaps most virtuosic) expression in The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) lacked the vehemence and urgency to curtail nuclear escalation and proliferation in the 1950s and 1960s, and despite the current popularity of the television series Black Mirror (2011– ), our reservations about inviting Silicon Valley into a more pervasive and intimate role our everyday lives are far outweighed by an outstanding belief that the arrangement must be a net gain for us. We still make the assumption of an inevitable one-way arrow slanting skyward.

A 2014 Pew Poll found that 59% of Americans feel upcoming technological changes will make people's lives "mostly better." I imagine if Pew conducted its quiz exclusively in Southern California, that percentage would be in the upper 90s.

We can adduce a common misreading of Dawin's theory of evolution as a proof for the survival of the old millennarian opinions into the modern age. Popularly understood, evolution was (and still is) construed not as an ongoing dialogue between genes and the changing contingencies of the environment, but as less-advanced organisms giving rise to superior ones. The fatuousness of this understanding is laid bare by the fate of the dinosaurs, whose 186 million-year reign reached its precipitous end when the very attributes that allowed them to thrive became fatal liabilities in the face of a global climate shift.

Our understanding of technological change is no less simplistic. I say "change" instead of "progress" because it is connotatively neutral and carries no judgement in either direction. Because if we were more inclined to view the history of technology since the Industrial Revolution with a broader perspective, we'd notice that there's been no new epoch-making invention that hasn't introduced a problem that didn't exist before society embraced it. We'd also have to admit we've made a habit of neglecting to address these unanticipated troubles in favor of provoking the next upheaval in some other area of life.

Yeah sure I enjoy the abundance of inexpensive and readily available consumer goods that mechanized production made possible, and I can't imagine a life without electricity. But prior to the smokestack and power plant, civilization was in no danger of a catastrophic (or fatal) disruption precipitated by anthropogenic climate change.

The automobile granted the individual an incredible freedom and speed of travel and allowed for the rapid intracontinental transport of goods. But after a century of designing our infrastructure around it, we have large areas in which ownership of an expensive piece of heavy machinery (and the purchase of an insurance policy on said machine) is a de facto requirement for residency; cities dealing with more cars than they can accommodate; traffic jams; hundreds of thousands of motor vehicle deaths every year; and another source of greenhouse gases on top of those spewed by manufacturing and power generation sites.

Industrial agriculture feeds more people than traditional farming ever could, but pesticides weren't wreaking havoc on animal life before the plough was abandoned (we're going to sorely miss the bees), and we certainly weren't in any danger of a looming soil crisis on top of a climate crisis (to which industrial agriculture is another chief contributor).

Something something antibiotics something super bacteria something following the pattern.

By and large we defend technological change for the comforts it has yielded while either ignoring their costs or holding firm to our faith that we (read: somebody else, somewhere) will innovate our way out of danger with time to spare, and the proverbial trains will indefinitely keep running and Waffle House will stay open as always.

It's no surprise that Silicon Valley's luminaries (and their sycophants in the chattering classes) want the tech industry to be rewarded and worshiped for the tools and amusements it gives us while being absolved of blame for any unforeseen fallout from its latest successful "disruption."

Actually, that's not accurate: asking for absolution follows the acknowledgement of responsibility. More often the fallout goes ignored for as long as it is tenable to do so—a moral failing exemplified by Twitter's sluggishness in dealing with the vicious bullying that happens on its platform (read: that its platform has made uniquely possible) and Facebook's long recalcitrance in owning up to its role as a dezinformatsiya instrument.

When Wired posted a piece exploring Bitcoin's staggering energy quotient, cryptocurrency enthusiasts took to the comments sections to denounce the magazine for peddling Fake News.

Apple prefers not to talk about how its flagship product is designed to be addictive; smartphone use is linked to optical maladies, depression, and reduced cognitive capabilities. Steve Jobs touted his iPad as a "magical and revolutionary device" and did his damnedest to sell one to every human being who could afford it, but famously didn't allow his own children to use one. Jobs understood and acknowledged the deleterious impacts of his own technology, but only privately—which is far more perfidious than denying it altogether.

On one tab in my browser is YouTube, where an instream ad for the iPhone X is playing before my video begins. "The iPhone X! It recognizes your face! How neat is that?"

On the other tab is a Washington Post story about China's drive to perfect facial recognition technology as a new and unprecedentedly powerful organ of the state's surveillance apparatus.

When Founder X talks about him and his ilk "touching lives," I'm pretty sure by "touching" he means "blithely rubbing our genitals against."

It is often said that the march of technological change is inexorable, and for the moment, that's true. Novelty in the marketplace is integral to the metabolism of the global economy. That's not going to change overnight, or even in a century, absent some global disaster that capsizes the existing order and forces a systemic reorganization of society. But I'd like to believe it's possible to see the development and application of modern technology carried out with more circumspection. Sinister as China's endeavor with facial recognition might be, at least it is being conducted in the service of a definite goal. In the United States, we still trust that technological progress qua social progress can be delivered from the anarchy of a free marketplace commandeered one one side by self-laudatory venture capitalists whose sole objective is having a stake in the next "disruption," and on the other by a bored, dissatisfied public with a bottomless appetite for new toys, new conveniences, and cheaper shit.

In the above sentence it was necessary to distinguish technological progress from social progress because the former does not necessarily equal the latter. In many ways, technological "progress" has made us less stable and more vulnerable.

This is not luddism. Incredulity is not a retrograde habit.

If we don't correct our cavalier attitude toward technological change, we may yet discover that the trajectory of our behavioral evolution from the Industrial Revolution through the Digital Revolution has led us toward a dead end.

1 comment:

  1. Those that say having multiple partners hardly seems like they are" enlightened" more like they are reverting to the leaders of old who had harems and what not,who thought that having only one mate was beneath them. Or that's just me.