The Need for Control or the Problem of Technology

This is a blog post about two ICT related issues that have bothered me slightly over the past few months: over-user-friendliness and internet privacy. Concerning the first, I am, as I am sure is everyone, glad that the days of computers informing us of ‘illegal operations’ and showing a bunch of scary grey writing when we turn them on are gone. I’m glad that computers are being used by more people. All in all, it is a very good thing that you no longer need a degree to send an email. However, I’ve started to get wound up because my computer has definitely started patronising me. Look at this:

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I swear to you, I didn’t make that up. What was wrong with ‘Internet Connection Error’?! I know that not every user knows how to deal with an Internet Connection Error, but they probably do  know what one is, provided they speak fucking English. I haven’t yet had a printer error on Windows 8, but I wouldn’t be surprised that instead of ‘Printer not detected’ it has started saying ‘Sometimes your printer and your computer have a bit of a fight. Make sure they have adequate access to relationship counselling and then we’ll give it another go.’

Now, I don’t mind being patronised that much. I mean, this sort of thing gives me something to complain about in pubs. But, it represents something that is a bit worrying: the dumbing-down of computer use. Yes, Microsoft and Apple, make things easier to use, please. But, that does not mean that you should not expect people to have at least a partial awareness of what is going on ‘under the hood’. It might be a good thing that a three year old can use an iPad, but that doesn’t mean that all users should be treated like they’re three as well. If you patronise users with error messages like the above, while at the same time making computers easier to use, it is tantamount to disinformation about how computers work at a time when it is becoming increasingly important to have an understanding of how ICT to works.

This brings me onto privacy of data. Over the past few months (or year, I haven’t been paying that much attention) the topic of internet and privacy seems to have gained currency. From being a bit of a niche obsession that one or two people around the office would pay attention to, occasionally sending emails on the latest Facebook ToS changes and informing them on how to use them (emails that were probably roundly ignored), people seem to be slowly starting to pay attention to this. Google has gone, in public perception, from the cool great free software provider who ‘does no evil’ to a data hungry tax-dodging shadowy corporation who is being taken to court for making money out of our private emails to our families, friends, mistresses and so on. The whole Snowden thing has lead to a state of affairs where terms like “cookie”, “TOR” and “proxy server”, previously the exclusive domain of the most competent of techheads, are now cropping up in the Guardian almost every other day.

In short, we’re starting to learn, as a group, that our laptops and smart phones, rather than just being (to echo Adams) “our plastic pals who’re fun to be with”, who empower our lives, are also devices that allow big companies to make a lot of money out of us and track us. And yet, at the very same time, the major operating systems (Windows, OSX, iOS, Android) are aiming to be as easy to use and un-technical as possible. This is largely because, following Apple’s lead, they have realised that the more people who can use their products the more people are going to buy them.

But, this expansion of their market has come at a price. Rather than educating people about computers, they have simply hidden all the scary complicated bits. So, on the one hand, we’re being told to look after are data and think about how our computers work and on the other we’re being told not to think about how our computers work at all and to just use them and buy things with them.

Now, last week, I got into a very good pub discussion with a friend and his friend about this. They came up with the very good point that the solution to this problem is simply to educate ourselves as much as possible, to remember that these devices are our tools and gain mastery over them.

I found this interesting because, despite being a very convincing line of argument, it is precisely what Heidegger tells us will not work. And yet, I found it very compelling. But, I think I have come to understand what Heidegger is getting at and this blog post is essentially an articulation of the position I failed to articulate last week.

The relevant insight can, I think, be summed up like this. The problem with technology is not a question of keeping in control of it. The problem of technology is that we are under the delusion that we could ever have control over anything in the first place. While we usually think of technology as a tool that man has made to extend his skill and control over nature, it is not at all in the essence of technology to be under our control. The essence of a device is not to be a tool for humans. Rather, it is determined by the essence of technology which is, according to Heidegger, to “enframe” all entities as a resource standing in reserve. What technology does is make things present. So, Facebook makes people and data about them present. It does not do this for us, so that we can catch up with friends. Nor does it do it for for Facebook Inc., so that they can make money for advertising. Both of these things do happen, but that is not why the device we call Facebook operates. It just functions as a piece of technology for the sake of technology.

As an example of this, think of the problem with illegal file sharing. On the one hand, the music industry embraces the internet as a way of reaching consumers in an incredibly efficient way. However, the internet, as a piece of technology, is not for the purposes of any group of humans. It only strives towards making everything present, and this includes music recordings and it will continue to make them present to everyone no matter how many spanners they throw into the works. SOPA and PIPA were no less than a luddite attempt to throw clogs into the machinery of technology, something doomed to fail because technology is just not the sort of thing you can control. Even if the internet is controlled from the ground up, another technology will surface and start it up all over again.

Another way we could put this is by asking whether our smart phone is a device for making our friends present so that we can talk to them or whether it is a device for making us present so our friends, bosses, telesales companies, etc. can get in touch with us. Or is it a way for software and device companies to make profit present in their bank accounts? The smart phone no doubt does all of this, and more. But, none of these human benefits/exploitations are essential. The only thing that is essential is that technology operates to make a resource of the whole of everything, and that includes humans.

Heidegger’s line is that this is a bad thing, that the problem of our age is that the human is slowly becoming a resource and is losing its freedom. Technology, literally, makes us less human. Or, more accurately, makes it very difficult for the human to understand itself as what it is. As he points out himself, the idea of ‘Human Resources’ in corporations is not just a corporate name for payroll meant to make people feel like they’re valued to the company. It is an outer sign of the work of technology, of the fact that we, as humans, are coming to a point where we can only view each other as resources and not as humans.

Further, it is not something that can be solved by simply avoiding technology. Stopping using Facebook or computers etc. in no way counters the essence of technology, it only ignores it. And, just as problematically, it cannot be solved by attempting to control technology because the disposition of attempted control is precisely what the problem is. By controlling technologies, you only repeat technology.

In short, what is needed is a new way of approaching technology that is neither controlling nor avoiding. But, as he admits, exactly what this would be is not only not yet a possibility for us but is not even on the horizon.

6 Comments

  1. I very much agree with your concluding remarks – by learning to control tech, you give it more legitimacy; you add fuel to the fire as it were. So, you are not really challenging it fundamentally, as a phenomenon; you are doing the opposite. Understanding its essence and engaging with it intellectually is key, I agree.
    I do think however that you’ve thrown away some of the physical realities here; you can look at it one way, and afford it an agency of its own: “It only strives to making things present” etc. OR you can think about the amazingly complex combination of infrastructure, economics and policy decisions enabling all of this to exist. Most of us – progammers included – rarely come into contact with that world so it’s easy to forget.
    But It IS possible to influence the direction our technologies go in, and some spanners CAN influence the works. I hope so anyway! 🙂

    • Thank you for commenting. But, I disagree! The will to influence is itself part of the problem. Technology is the final realisation of something much older: the idea of control. To try and direct technology by controlling it only repeats technology and further enmeshes us within it. And, in terms of your either…or… we need a neither…nor… The issue of technology is neither that it has its own agency (to say that is just to say “it has a will of its own”, which is to say it is not controllable, which is to say it is not good by the standards of technology) nor is it that we have created it through policy decisions. We haven’t. The origin of technologies lies not in decisions or in their own autonomy but in the “essence of technology”, as Heidegger calls it. This essence is not a technology itself, but that which makes technology possible: european history as the will to control. What we are dealing with is the basic impulse of philosophy and our culture as the determining precondition of any action or thinking in that culture. We are destined to think and be technological by our history and the only way out of this is to have a “new beginning” of a different way of thinking. But such a new beginning is a long way of! Such a new way of thinking would have to involve finding a way to say that neither we nor technology (fate) are the agents of doom but that history actually develops out of something inbetween the two.

      Or maybe none that makes sense and we should just get drunk.

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