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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 10, 2022

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Techno-pessimism as Agency-Depletion

Note: This is an exploration of what techno-pessimism feels like. I don't think there's an argument I'm making here. Perhaps it's more a reflection on how deep my techno-optimism goes that it's so difficult for me to entertain the idea of techno-pessimism. The connection to the culture war is that techno-pessimism seems to be deeply embedded in the political dialogue of both the left and the right.

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 classic "The End of History", spends a few pages describing techno-pessimism. It's been a while, but I think he put it as a belief that technology doesn't solve man's problems and may, in fact, make them worse. The flavor we're experiencing now has its source in the meat grinder trenches of WW1 when people were confronted by a mechanized, assembly-line conflict that was optimized for turning real live humans into ground meat.

For a long time, I didn't give this idea much thought. It was a useful label for a cluster of ideas I'd come upon time and again; a useful bucket to put people in to better understand them, nothing. But today, I read a piece that triggered all my "angry uninformed person ranting on the Internet" alarms, and instead of closing the tab, I spent some precious work-time to read it.

At the end, I was blown away. Not by any new points or ideas, but by being, for the first time ever, shown what techno-pessimism looks like from the inside. Suddenly, these two words stopped being merely a label, but also a lens through which to view the world. And I'm still shocked by seeing something so completely alien to my own perception.

I write code for a living. I have a general idea of how computers work and how different types of software works: payments processing, flight controls, video games, social media, VR, point-of-sale systems, etc. I also licked a little bit of physics and information theory, so I kind of see how all the machinery around us operates, at least on vague level. In the world, I feel... comfortable. I can fix a change a door lock, fix a leaky faucet, install an outlet, change a car tire, etc. It's all just machines of different sorts.

I hope this doesn't sound like bragging. I'm no genius. I can't fix most things and I'm more than happy to hire an expert when I can. I don't understand how most things work. Just enough to get the big picture, the relationships, the constraints.

Reading this the above linked blog post showed me a world where I know non of this. A world where I have some vague ideas about simple things like a squeaky hinge and the like, but anything above it is black magic. I mean, computers have inserted them into every facet of our lives. They record, update, store, delete, connect, calculate everything about us: our bank accounts, our working hours, our taxes, our retirement funds. The distance to the store, how busy a coffee place is, how to send flowers to your mother on Mother's day. Even if you're relatively disconnected, over half the world's population is plugged in; over 3bn people have Facebook accounts. TikTok has 1bn users; so even if you're disconnected, the majority of the people around you are plugged in, dancing to the rhythms created by man and machine together.

That's a terrifying. I can't imagine the frustration this guy has to feel. He can't troubleshoot his router, apart from pushing a paperclip into the little hole to reset everything. He can't make his own website (that doesn't look like templated shit). He can't figure out the right steps to get the car computer to reboot correctly after the battery ran out of power. Jesus, the sheer alienation must be terrifying--you can't really affect your immediate environment in any meaningful way. You're at the mercy of these beeping, monitoring, distracting machines all around you.

Now I understand that, perhaps, WW1 was the moment when people realized they built a grand machine that they only pretend to control. A machine with tendrils leading into every house, every room, every other person. And while in the first half of the 20th century any clever farm boy was likely able to mess around with a car, this isn't true today. There's a lot of layers of abstraction. So many interconnected systems. (Though I believe that taking a beginners course in programming would dispell like 80% of ignorance about machines).

How much agency is lost because of the aggregate effects of modern technology? Sure, the world of yesteryear wasn't some primitive utopia. But even within the strict confines of tradition and feudalism people had agency in the little things. Now, people like the author of that blog post I read are left without even the little things--their "smart" coffee machine will calls the cops if he tries to insert off-brand coffee pods into it.

Re: the Sam Kriss piece: I have to wonder if he just needs to be taken back to the Internet That Was, a time when you could make stupid Flash animations and YouTube videos that contained whatever, when you could put in a copyrighted song without it getting nuked off a platform or claimed by some anonymous person/bot/corporation, when you were free to be transgressive. Perhaps the Internet looks sterile and dying to him today because, in a sense, the managerial Powers That Be decided to smother the global citizenry's id under a blanket on pain of lawsuit.

Even before Web 2.0 tried to consume the world, the mainstream was already aware of the wacky things people got up to on the Internet.