Whose Side is Technology On?

This is a post I forgot to publish a few months ago. Please pretend that I could be bothered to update references to the 2015 election with references to the current Panama papers lets make Cameron resign stuff. Thanks.

Why did Twitter and Facebook fail to be the undermining political force it was expected to be? Fair enough, no one expected it to put an AK-47 in everyone’s hand, but given that May 2015 actually delivered the first Tory majority in 23 years, the near-unanimous anti-Tory sentiment online clearly failed to deliver on its promise. #CameronMustGo had no effect. #Milifandom did not save us. Exactly whose side is technology on? Is it political at all?

Politics is a contested concept, but one way of defining it would be as a human activity concerned with organising the relation of human beings to each other and the distribution of resources. Policy-making from all wings concerns how humans relate to each other and to resources. Should resources be publically or privately owned? Which human comportments should be outlawed? Under what circumstances is violence permissible?

The temptation would be to consider technology to be one of the resources that politics intends to bring under its mastery. This would, uncontroversially, view technology as morally and politically neutral, open to use and abuse by the right and wrong powers. For example, theorist of technology, Evgeny Morozov, does not challenge data capture technology as such, but raises political questions about who should own the data once it is captured.

But, under the Heideggerian analysis, technology holds a more problematic position. Žižek puts this better than me in his recent book Absolute Recoil.

Catastrophe [for Heidegger] occurs before the (f)act: the catastrophe is not the nuclear self-destruction of humanity, but that ontological relation to nature which reduces it to techno-scientific exploitation. The catastrophe is not our ecological ruin, but the loss of our home-roots, thus making possible the ruthless exploitation of the earth. The catastrophe is not that we are reduced to automata manipulable by biogenetics, but the very ontological approach that renders this prospect possible.

In other words, the problem of modern technology is not about the power and control of particular technologies, but of a basic force of history compelling us to understand ourselves and the world as a resource to be controlled. Technology is not a resource, but it is the the historical impetus to interpret everything in the world as a resource in the first place and to make all resources as readily available as possible. This impetus is not neutral at all, but has its own agency.

Two representations of global warming come to mind here, though as Žižek pointed out above, this would be an instance of the problem, not the problem itself. First is the Wight-Walkers of Game of Thrones. Global warming is here represented, disanalogously, as the impending doom of society out of human control: weird zombie things that no one really understands yet. While the aristos fight over land and property, “winter is coming”. Warning signs are ignored as the threat develops, and develops, and seems unlikely to come to any narrative conclusion while there’s money to be made. Yet, the trials and tribulations of heroes and villains are all nothing to the impending doom of a final battle for which they are not ready: global catastrophe.

Another example of this fatalistic version of climate change is within the “Clones and Drones” DLC for a politics simulator game called Democracy 3. The game puts the user in charge of a republic, having to come up with policies to solve social problems and natural disasters, and ultimately get reelected. The game usually ends for me with my assassionation, to my delight, by either capitalists or liberals. The aforementioned expansion pack, however, adds climate change as a phenomenon. All policies are foiled by it, and no policy can prevent it. This means that, no matter how many elections you win, how many assassination plots you fend off, the world will end and all your accomplishments will come to naught.

The point here is that global warming  is presented here as apolitical. Not because it is not a concern for politics, not because political ideologies and positions have nothing to say about it, but because its has no interest in our political differences, it has no stake in our society. It just marches on, doing what it does, while we bicker amongst ourselves.

This is not true of global warming. It can be prevented. However, technology does operate in this way. Technology’s essence is to bring things to presence, to make them accessible, available, visible, and usable. Social Media, therefore, is as likely to distribute a pro-Labour fact as a pro-Conservative fact. Technology holds no allegiances, it will bring down just and unjust governments alike while the liberals proclaim that this is as it should be: put the truth out there, and let the people decide. Well, let’s see how that pans out with the EU referendum…


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