How digital technology is destroying our freedom
There’s a whole genre of literature called “technological utopianism.” It’s an old idea, but it reemerged in the early days of the internet. The core belief is that the world will become happier and freer as science and technology develops.
The role of the internet and social media in everything from the spread of terrorist propaganda to the rise of authoritarianism has dampened much of the enthusiasm about technology, but the spirit of techno-utopianism lives on, especially in places like Silicon Valley.
Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist at Queens College in New York, is the latest to push back against the notion that technology is driving social progress. His new book, Team Human, argues that digital technology in particular is eroding human freedom and destroying communities.
We’re social creatures, Rushkoff writes in his book, yet we live in a consumer democracy that restricts human connection and stokes “whatever appetites guarantee the greatest profit.” If we want to reestablish a sense of community in this digital world, he argues, we’ll have to become conscious users of our technology — not “passive objects” as we are now.
But what does that mean in practical terms? Technology is everywhere, and we’re all more or less dependent upon it — so how do we escape the pitfalls?
I spoke to Rushkoff about this and much more. I wanted to know why he thinks the revolutionary potential of the internet was destroyed by commerce, why the tools that ought to liberate us often imprison us instead, and what we can do to restore a sense of connection in a world of alienating technologies.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You write in the book that our society is being threatened by a “vast antihuman infrastructure that undermines our ability to connect.” What does that mean?
What I mean is that before digital technology, we were already on the brink of extreme alienation. We already had an economic system that was starting to burn itself out, that was built increasingly on constant consumption and the exploitation of labor.
And then digital technology came later in the century and offered an opportunity to do things in a different way. It offered the possibility of retrieving a common space and a way for people to share and connect. It was a chance to build an economy that wasn’t based purely on the extraction of resources and capital.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, digital technology was used to double down on industrialism. And industrialism was always about getting the human being out of the equation. It was about assembly lines and automation and separating workers from the value they’re creating. It was about business owners paying their workers less money and gaining more control over them at the same time.
Once we decided that digital technology would be used in further service of that, in further service of extracting value from labor and manipulating consumers into buying stuff they don’t need or doing behaviors that aren’t in their best interests, we created a worse monster than we had before.
So I’m not saying that we invented this anti-human agenda with digital technology, but that we’re using digital technology to perpetuate an anti-human agenda that was already there.
At some point, technology ceased to be a tool to help us get what we want and instead became the only thing we actually want. We stopped using it and it started using us.
I think that’s basically right. In some ways, we’re all hostage to our technologies, or we’re simply at the mercy of this system. We’re being steamrolled by our devices, and the result is a kind of emotional slavery. And we know that billions of dollars are going into applying everything, every nasty trick we know about behavioral finance, to the digital realm.
This is what I mean when I call digital technology “anti-human.” If we were using digital and behavioral technologies to help people eat better or not smoke, then at least we could be arguing that it’s intended to help people. When we’re using technology to get people to revert to their most reptilian impulses, to get them to buy stuff they don’t need or to react angrily to stories, we’re in deep trouble.
You argue that using technology in this way, and really we’re talking about algorithms here, effectively destroys human autonomy. Can you lay out the case you make in the book?
The easiest way to understand what’s happening is to think of something like autotuning. Autotuning works by quantizing the human voice into the particular correct notes. Without getting too artsy here, I’ll just say this process shaves off the weird peculiarities that make humans human. It strips human expression of its unique weirdness. It obliterates what makes us different from a machine, what makes life different from plastic.
In a more practical sense, the way it works with individuals is you go on a platform like Facebook, and Facebook is using data from your past to dump you into a statistical bucket. Once they know what bucket you’re in, they do everything to keep you in that bucket and to make you behave in ways that are more consistent with all the things about that bucket.
So if they know there’s an 80 percent chance you’ll go on a diet next month based on your search habits, then they’ll start peppering your newsfeed with articles and stories that are designed to get you to really go on that diet. So you’ll see stories of people getting too fat or whatever. And that’s to get you to behave more consistently with your statistical profile.
The algorithm thing is tricky to me. On the one hand, algorithms are making our lives easier by predicting what we want and giving it to us. On the other hand, our wants are so manipulated, so curated, that at some point it’s no longer a meaningful choice and the algorithms are just doing our thinking for us.
And what if you don’t want anything at all? That’s the thing: That’s not one of the choices you have online. So in that sense, they’re not even giving us what we want. They’re trying to trigger whatever they can get us to want. It’s about stoking consumption, about convincing us that we need another gadget, another toy, another device that will make us happy…..Read More>>>