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Selfish Society
Technology 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 corporate money.

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.


This book is available at FatBrain.

paulina b.

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