October 5, 2020

The novelist Walker Percy writes of a person who, deep in malaise, receives a diagnosis from a psychotherapist. That the diagnosis will meet with sadness, even fear, is obvious enough. But what is harder to see is that it may also meet with a quizzical sense of relief, even satisfaction. Buried beneath Oh, no… is At last! The depressive can now call herself a patient, a journeyer on a recognizable path of suffering, and the therapist her spirit-guide.

If Percy risks being a shade too sly about mental illness, in his insight we may recognize something of how our culture talks about “tech” today. I can’t seem to get off my phone in the evenings, a friend muses at a party. Ah, yes, one replies with a knowing nod, Did you see the new study on how social media is optimized to hijack our brains’ reward system? Did you know that Steve Jobs didn’t let his own children use iPads? Like the patient, we feel affirmed in our sense of suffering from tech anxiety, while casting about for Silicon Valley gurus to help us cope.

We can see this pattern running through the “tech backlash” of recent years. Where many journalists of a decade ago effused about the potential of social media to usher in a new era of informed democratic participation around the globe, today they are no less reflexively dour. Hardly a day passes in which we do not read a new headline offering a variant of “Our democracy is dying — why won’t Zuckerberg fix it?,” “Facial recognition software used by police departments disproportionately impacts people of color,” or the many neuroscience standbys. Though this mode of critique is crucial, it limits our public conversation about technology, narrowing the questions we ask, and even the kinds of technologies we talk about — it is easy to forget that “tech” is much more than what is on our phones and computers.

What is perplexing is that many popular forms of technology criticism seem at once too dystopian and yet also too soft, too passive. Beneath their surface hostility, they offer a deeper surrender to the tech industry, making us more passive and pliable. For however angrily we pose the critique, we actually cede a great deal to Silicon Valley when we ask Mark Zuckerberg to fix our information system by applying better machine learning to filter fake news from our feeds. If a boot is really stamping a human face, why is the loudest cry we can muster that it apply its pressure equally and transparently? Perhaps it is no coincidence that we increasingly see engineers themselves advancing such calls under the guise of making technology more “humane.”

The problem, then, cannot be only about what limits we place on tech or its designers. And it is not a problem best thought of as a fight to be won once and for all, like heroes in a dystopian movie who take down their oppressive overlords. Living well under the technological condition means ceasing to view ourselves as part of the schematic — as subjects for more benevolent management, pieces of material in need of data analysis and iterative improvement. We must instead learn to relate to technology as an endeavor in which we may become more fully human, in which we distinctly realize our agency and our excellence.