Posted by JonKatz on Tuesday
August 01, @10:30AM
from the Technology-and-Politics dept.
The tech culture is becoming a elitist society with no coherent political
values, poorly prepared to deal with real politicians, who pass real laws like
the DMCA. "How could they take my Napster away?" lamented one recent
e-mailer. A new book by journalist Paulina Borsook takes an even sharper look at
techno-narcissism and hostility. The tech culture, she says, is at times
self-centered and selfish.
In Borsook's Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through The Terribly
Libertarian Culture of High Tech, published by Public Affairs, Borsook takes
aim at the Social Darwinism of the tech culture, at its lack of empathy for
human beings -- especially the technologically primitive and impaired. In this
world she finds much hostility and paranoia, a world of
"testosterone-poisoned guys with chips on their shoulders and too much time
on their hands." Ouch.
She has a point, and it's hard to write for Slashdot and not wince at the
above description. This is a narcissistic civilization with a mean streak, fat
and lazy and arrogant from years of uninterrupted opportunity, innovation and
peace, thriving from years of neglect by unknowing and entrenched institutions.
Values and political systems are often forged in turmoil and difficulty, but
people who've grown up in and around technology have seen an almost unbroken
stretch of growth, innovation and prosperity. Jefferson wrote that in times of
peace and prosperity, there is little need for politics. Not surprisingly, this
techno-civilization has little interest in the political systems that still
dominate society, so it radically underestimates their power and has an inflated
sense of its own.
Having known only one reality, the young and techno-savvy can't quite imagine
any other. But the political systems that dominate society have a keen interest
in them, as a host of new laws, regulations and legal initiatives are already
demonstrating, from the FBI's mail-sniffing program "Carnivore" to the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
As a social grouping -- despite the handful of protestors who made their way
to Seattle and struggle to form public interest groups online and off -- this
culture has by and large rolled over for greedy megacorporations in exchange for
full employment and technological capital. That makes it a vulnerable society
too, unprepared for the assaults just around the corner. "How could they
take my Napster away?" as that e-mail wailed. "Who did it? Where did
they come from?"
As a culture, it mistakes mechanical skills -- like programming an operating
system -- with technological knowledge and power. It tolerates an alarming
amount of hostility and abuse, both of which make any political communications
-- at least those in public -- nearly impossible.
If it has any common ideology, it honors innovation, economics and freedom --
the freedom to speak openly and to be prosperous. In fact, prosperity and the
acquisition of technology have become this society's hallmark; it doesn't really
have any other principles.
The techno-young correctly grasp that many of the country's seminal
institutions -- politics, journalism, education -- have failed them and the
larger society. But nobody seems to have given much thought to what might
replace them, or to how they might defend themselves against increasingly
encroachments from the off-line world.
Since this particularly gifted society created its social revolution quite
apart from politics, education, even most adults, it has no sense of history and
little memory, which creates another point of vulnerability; to be ignorant of
the past is to be defenseless against the future. The techno-world eschews even
the most marginal understanding of the tortured history of technology, the
awareness that periods of technological advancement are always followed by
periods of fear and retrenchment.
From the Greeks to the the Enlightenment philosophers to Thomas Jefferson to
Albert Einstein, some of the world's greatest thinkers have argued that to have
knowledge is to struggle to understand the relationship between what you know
and what you do. If they're right, we're in trouble. We have no common agenda.
We stand for nothing. We take actions based on tiny nodes of specialized
information. Granted an unprecented opportunity to speak, we have not bothered
to learn how to listen. Our freedom to speak out becomes illusory when most of
us are shouting into a void, because nobody really cares what we say. Meanwhile,
the real social and political agendas are being set by older people with little
knowledge of technology, working out of l9th century institutions corrupted by
That leaves the average citizen -- the prime user of technology -- caught in
an intolerable position, between a technological elite moving rapidly past them
on the one hand, and an ignorant power structure making foolish laws and
uncomprehending responses on the other. As a society, we have no means of
grasping the bigger picture, the purpose being the things we do, the moral
rationale for the way we live and work.
In 1159, a philosopher-noble named John of Salisbury helped revive the then-
dormant notion of individualism. He challenged his society to achieve
self-scrutiny and understanding. "Who," he asked, "is more
contemptible than he who scorns knowledge of himself?"
It's a great question. Liberalism and conservatism have been discredited,
Libertarianism seems rigid and stagnant. In fact, conventional political
ideologies seem far too narrow and inflexible for these times. Individualism
seemed the right idea for John of Salisbury's time, and it might be even more
relevant to ours, given that it fits the Net ethos like a glove, from the
hackers to the cypherpunks to the open source progrmmers. And it's the only
possible antidote to life in country evolving steady towards a corporate rather
than democratic republic.
Technology has become the world's most interesting and ascending social
force. No ideology -- with the possible exception of corporatism -- is stronger
or spreading more rapidly. The frequently idealistic generation that designed
the Internet -a diverse collection of engineers, cyber-gurus, philosophers,
programmers,nerds, geeks, communalists and free-thinkers -- is yielding power
and influence to the inhabitants of the Second Generation Internet, the first
generation to grow up with networked computing. This new techno-generation takes
for granted startling realities -- the ready availability of much of the
archived information and entertainment in the world.
This techno-elite, taking sophisticated knowledge of technology for granted,
has lost touch with the vast numbers of people in the world -- the elderly, the
poor, foreign-born -- who don't share their skills and confidence. "Anybody
can get an encrypted e-mail program," JOEB7 e-mailed me last week.
"Why all the whining about privacy?"
JOEB7 doesn't seem to know that the vast majority of people have never even
heard of encrypted e-mail programs, let alone used them. Such people dominate
the most powerful and vital subculture in the world, but have no coherent
political values beyond a nearly universal contempt for the one in place.
We think the individual's primary responsibility is to speak freely and
become prosperous. Neither of those are small or inconsequential things, but as
a cultural or social philosophy, they ring hollow. They promote cynicism,
hostility, alienation, superiority, and most of all, they leave this culture
vulnerable to better organized and powerful elites -- media, Congress,
corporations. This may be inevitable, but it's worrisome.
We hear political truth daily -- we are vaguely conscious of threats to
privacy, the looming menace of genetic and other technologies, poorly made,
unnecessary and overpriced technology, challenges to the environment, human
dignity, etc. -- but don't much want to deal with them. People worried about
these issues are derided -- in this techno-culture as crackpots and extremists.
We either laugh at them or dismiss them.
Democracy and freedom aren't about prosperity. You can be poor and quite
free. Democracy is about the legitimacy of the individual, whose voice and vote
should count for more than any other single interest or group. Technology can
either be the vehicle through which those voices are re-democratized, or it can
provide the tools through which corporatism can generate even more money.
This is an intensely political choice -- a decision -- even if many of the
people most involved have no idea they are making it every day of their lives.
is available at FatBrain.