The endless noise emanating from Silicon Valley essentially has two complementary elements. One is all about dreams so unlikely that they beggar belief: the idea that the Tesla CEO Elon Musk will one day set up a colony on Mars; or that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg can successfully marshal an attempt to “cure, prevent and manage” all diseases in a single generation. Whatever its basis in fact, this stuff casts people and corporations as godlike visionaries, and then provides a puffed-up context for the stuff the big tech companies shout about week in, week out: stuff we either don’t need or, worse, which threatens some of the basic aspects of everyday civilisation.
Our phones are full of apps that gather digital dust, and the same fate has befallen many supposedly groundbreaking inventions. Though the idea of internet-enabled spectacles has potentially fascinating uses in such fields as autism, education and high-end manufacturing, Google Glass was never going to be a mass-market product in the way its inventors thought.
The same applies to the concept of the “smart fridge”, which has been kicking around for almost 20 years (and, indeed, other devices, from window blinds to cookers, that will supposedly be incorporated into the over-hyped internet of things). I have Apple’s Siri “assistant” on my phone, but I barely use it and neither do lots of other people: between 2016 and 2017, its use in the US is thought to have dropped by 15%.
Yet some people fall in love with these things. Among the great mountain of writing at the heart of the current so-called “techlash” is a great book entitled Radical Technologies, by the former tech insider Adam Greenfield. When he writes about people obsessed with the kind of internet-enabled devices that monitor sleep, heart rates and exercise levels, he nails something that applies to a whole array of allegedly cutting-edge innovations. “A not-insignificant percentage of the population has so decisively internalised the values of the market for their labour,” he writes, “that the act of resculpting themselves to better meet its needs feels like authentic expression.” What he says echoes a key passage in Guy Debord’s visionary text The Society of the Spectacle, published 50 years ago: “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomised by the gadget … The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”
Such ornate words speak an enduring truth. Amazing and sometimes life-enhancing innovations, I dare say, are being worked on by tech geniuses across the world. In fields such as driverless transport, virtual reality and blockchain technology, new inventions may eventually transform our lives, and fulfil the cliched big-tech promise about making the world a better place. But that is the not the nature of our current phase of history, nor the absurd and often dangerous creations we are now being offered on an almost monthly basis.
Ignore all those whoops. If we do not want to live in a world in which “assistants” trick us into flimsy conversations, and human contact is a chore left to the bottom of the labour market, we do not have to. There is a basic fact about the future the figureheads of big tech too often forget: that what it will look like is actually up to us, not them.
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