From the growth of the internet to robotic automation, to big data and apps, the pace of technological change seems to be faster than ever. The rise of Silicon Valley and its various products has given us a variety of new terms with which to describe the world we live in, from the optimistic idea of the ‘sharing economy’ to the ubiquitous ‘platform capitalism’ and the rather more cynical ‘cut-off economy’.
A similarly break-neck speed of technological change was experienced in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, with the proliferation of rail, cars, industry and the growth of modern cities. Intellectuals such as Thorstein Veblen, Martin Heidegger, Max Weber and Georg Simmel, through their writings and reflections, helped people make sense of these scientific and technological advances. Today is no different. While the technology writers profiled over the next few pages may not reach the intellectual heights of the aforementioned names, in the same way, their writings provide interesting ideas and insights through which we can understand the constant technological innovation happening around us every day.
Nicholas Carr came to prominence as a writer in the mid-2000s with essays such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which raised questions about the impact of the internet on human cognition. His 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains further elaborated upon this essay, arguing the fragmented nature of information found on the internet, removed from context, was detrimental to human intelligence. While he praises the internet for allowing us easier access to information, he expresses concern that the “flick and click” nature of the internet is altering the human brain, turning, what he calls, “the linear, literary mind” into “yesterday’s mind”; we learn to consume information in small flashes, rather than in long, thought-out narratives.
Carr’s latest work, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, extends his critique to automation. His thesis is that increasing automation of tasks previously performed by humans is causing “an erosion of skills, a dulling of perceptions, and a slowing of reactions”. From word-processing spell checkers to autopilot on aeroplanes, delegating tasks to machines is inhibiting people’s cognitive abilities, he says.
Inspired by the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Carr argues the increasing automation of activities by technology and computers makes people miserable. In a sort of inverted version of Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, he argues the replacing of some forms of human labour with automated machines alienates people from the world; idleness is alienating because humans find meaning in their work. Automation, he says, creates a frictionless world in which humans, bereft of certain work activities, struggle to find any meaning.
Any solutions derived from his critique seem rather lacking, with the suggestion of reclaiming tedious toil from robots unlikely to gain much support. Yet, in a world where automation is ever proliferating – every week it seems some team of researchers has developed some new technology to displace humans – it is worth considering Carr’s thesis. Neither Luddite nor tech-utopian, his writing provides a unique insight into the human implications of the automated world said to be coming.
Fellow tech critic Evgeny Morozov (more on whom later) dubbed Jeff Jarvis, the creator of online news site BuzzMachine, “the loudest guru on the internet”. In 2009, Jarvis published What Would Google Do? The book details the rise of the internet giant, along with similar technology firm success stories, and endeavours to show what other prospective internet entrepreneurs can learn from them. He postulates the heads of firms such as Google “think differently”, and are consequently changing the world. Anyone who wishes to get ahead in business, he says, should attune himself or herself to Google’s way of thinking.
Jarvis has since gone from quasi-religious praising of Google to making the case for what he calls “publicness” in his latest title, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. In a world of clouds, big data, social media and anti-terrorism surveillance programmes, the death of privacy is much fretted about. Whether it’s Google and Facebook collecting large quantities of personal data, or the NSA and GCHQ tapping phone calls and monitoring emails, a technology-driven loss of privacy is a recurring news story. “Privacy advocates swarm in the media every time a new online service entices us to share something about ourselves”, writes Jarvis.
He contends democracy requires a level of “publicness”, and that the disclosure of information from individuals, businesses or governments and other institutions is beneficial. For Jarvis, privacy is for the selfish. Too much concern with privacy causes us to “lose opportunities to make connections in this age of links”. There is nothing inherently bad, he argues, with the internet’s blurring of the public and private sphere.
New technologies, he continues, allow a back and forth dialogue between consumer and producer, with the latter able to take into account the views of the former, creating a world where “people formerly known as consumers can move up the design, sales, and service chains to say what they want in a product before it is made”. Like so many who spend an inordinate abmount of time on the internet, he is a promoter of “open government”, claiming “there is no reason for public officials to hide what they know and do from their publics”. To address this he advocates the creation of a “Publicness Czar” to oversee openness in the US Government (though one would hope such a role wouldn’t suffer from mission creep, concerning itself with enforcing ‘openness’ for everyone).
Tim Wu is many things: by profession he is a trained lawyer, having graduated from Harvard Law School and now teaching at Columbia University. In 2014, he tried his hand at politics, running for the Democratic Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor of the state of New York against the incumbent Kathy Hochul, and losing with a respectable 40 percent. He is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
He is most well known, however, for coining the term “net neutrality” in a 2003 academic paper entitled “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination”. It has fast become a contentious issue. The basic premise is that internet providers and governments should treat all internet data as equal and not discriminate between certain web pages or information. For example, Comcast’s intentional slowing down of connection speeds for users engaged in peer-to-peer sharing violated net neutrality. The accusation that Google privileges its own products on web searches is also be seen by some as a violation of the same principle.
Many of Wu’s papers have had a significant influence. In 2006, he wrote a paper arguing censorship of internet content by governments should be regarded as a trade barrier by the World Trade Organisation, which is said to have inspired Google’s lobbying for China to be penalised for its internet censorship. His writings on net neutrality and internet censorship helped the Federal Communications Commission draft rules concerning the issue in 2006 and he served as a Senior Advisor to the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 and 2012.
Wu has also written more theoretical works concerning technology and the internet. His 2010 book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires charts a pattern of how methods of disseminating information (termed “empires”) are subject to cycles of openness but inevitably become closed over time. Drawing upon the historical cases of telephone technology, the film industry, television broadcasting and the internet, Wu says that, while technological innovations at first result in increasing open flows of information, certain companies soon consolidate their positions in the new industries and increasingly exert control, ending their open nature. Soon, a new technology “disrupts” this closing, and the cycle repeats. Unsurprisingly, violations of Wu’s principal of net neutrality by corporations and governments are framed as the biggest threat to the openness of the internet.
Hailing from Belarus, but living in the US, Evgeny Morozov made a name for himself in the early days of the Arab Spring. With protests being mobilised through Twitter and other social networking sites, many saw the internet as the new harbinger of democracy. His well-timed book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World punctured the growing optimism that the internet would facilitate democratisation.
In the mid-2000s, he had been a hopeful advocate of the internet’s liberating possibilities, working for a Czech-based NGO called Transitions and giving talks on how digital media had the potential to improve politics in Eastern Europe. Yet, with the usual zeal of a repentant believer, his The Net Delusion argued the internet was actually a technology that could aid tyrannies and dictatorships.
He has now denounced his former faith as “a quasi-religious belief in the power of the internet to do supernatural things, from eradicating illiteracy in Africa to organising all of the world’s information… Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed off their authoritarian skin is just one of the expectations placed on the internet these days”. Morozov argues the internet could instead be used to track and arrest potential advocates of democracy and reform, extending – not diminishing or weakening – illegitimate leviathans.
Morozov has since widened his aim, taking on the personalities and assumptions that form the Silicon Valley nexus. In a slew of articles and in his 2014 book To Save Everything, Click Here, he criticises the oft-held view he calls “solutionism”. He defines this as a delusion that technological innovations can provide simple solutions to a host of problems such as politics and obesity, devoid of their social and political context, as well as the misconception that there is a solution to all problems in a liberal democracy. He has also taken issue with the casual use of the term ‘the internet’, consistently placing it in square quotes throughout his work. The reason for this, Morozov argues, is that, when people refer to the internet, they do not refer to just a collection of cables and material infrastructure. Rather, they refer to a set of ideas – such as solutionism and other tendencies he repeatedly critiques – about how the world works and ought to work, which he contends in no way flow naturally from the information sharing technology of the internet.