October 6, 2020


Reckoning with and overcoming technological cynicism

In the midst of the ongoing "techlash", we as a culture are in danger of rejecting (rightly) not only the grey-goo padded wall aesthetic that the mature tech platforms have imposed, but (wrongly) the idea of technical progress itself. We must reckon with how we got here, and fight our way out.

Mainstream belief that technology improves people’s lives has been undermined by the failed promises of the "enthusiastic nerd" cohort on the one hand and by the capture of technical progress in the service of capital reproduction on the other. We must choose a third way.

The enthusiastic nerds (2005-2015) naively believed that many problems exist only because nobody smart and radical enough had come along to try to solve them with technology, but thankfully they were here now, and they were going to fix it all.

noted enthusiastic nerd @Scobleizer demoing google glass

Totally unmoored from history they believed that through gamification, nudges, “the internet interprets censorship as damage” etc. etc. that bloodless but nevertheless radical social changes could take place, like in so many Cory Doctorow stories.

The tech press caught up to / grew from / went mainstream out of this enthusiasm and propagated the promise of a better future through apps with emojis in them. That didn’t pan out, people grew cynical about the enthusiastic nerds, undermining technical optimism overall. It turns out 3D printers weren't really a big deal and VR multiverses were not just around the corner.

The failure of the enthusiastic nerds was largely born out of naivety and ahistoricity but they also caught a double whammy; some of their projects got profitable and capital saw an opportunity.

Volumes have been written on the topic of the interaction between capital and technological progress, but I want to focus on how the huge injection of capital changed perceptions of what ‘tech’ is and what technological progress is really like. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a ‘tech’ company regardless of whether technology had anything to do with their core business.

The intrusion of capital made technology culturally synonymous with wealth. And downstream of that is the cultural repositioning of technology from a creative endeavor undertaken by some fairly strange people, to a way to become wealthy - or at least get some economic mobility in an increasingly precarious world.

Repeated economic shocks and the devastation of entire sectors of the economy gave rise to the phrase that best conveys the current mood; “learn to code”.

Learn to code and your material circumstances will improve! in fact it’s your only chance to provide for your family. Join the ranks of the new masters of the world! It’s undeniable that this route does in fact improve people’s material circumstances. It really is the best way out for many people, the only escape they have left.

The sheer bitterness with which this phrase is now uttered represents the capture of technical progress for the purposes of capital replication. God shaped hole is one apotheosis of the resulting aesthetics, @Shitty_Future is another.

A despair and cynicism produced by the inevitable capture by capital of all technical change for the purposes of its own scaling and replication. The integration of technical progress into the reproductive cycle of capital is as pure an expression of pirsig’s ‘death force within technology’ as has been found since the first world war’s mechanized self-governing slaughter.

As a consequence, people have turned away from the promise of technology, seeing in it only the promises of hucksters and money shufflers. In the popular imagination our era's forms of technical progress now more closely resemble Chernobyl or the Exxon Valdez than they do the triumphs of electrification or Apollo.  

When technology claims that it will change the world, the idea is met with justifiable jeering or else outright fear of the consequences.

Technological progress exists independent of capital. While capital is necessary for some types of technical progress, for others it is an impediment. In many cases the scale brought on by capital injection impedes scientific / technical progress because it destroys the fundamentally humanistic principles that drive it.

Along with this comes the perception that the frontier of technical progress is closed to those with no access to capital. But in the history of scientific and technical advancement rarely has the revolutionary breakthrough come from those with the most resources.

The way forward is this; small dedicated groups working on fundamental technological/scientific advances can show the world that progress belongs to the human spirit and is not vestigial to a capital reproductive organ. Many of these groups exist already in plain sight, they just aren’t perceived in that way (yet) because they are too foreign to the lens of capital-reproductive technical progress.

The enthusiastic nerds did get one thing right, small groups of dedicated people can create great change, but it must be achieved in a way that is more clear-sighted and far more grounded in history than what they attempted.

Cynicism is at root reactive; it cannot produce any change in and of itself. Between the mainstream techlash and the constant tech-elite-tech-media bickering a cultural vacuum is forming.

This is an enormous opportunity. There is the chance now to bring the culture as a whole around once more to the idea that technology can make life better for us and for our children. We only need to show them how, and we can arm the people against hopelessness. Show them that they are not at the mercy of invisible terrifying forces. Become true believers, fight for the future.