Losing My Religion?
Reflections on falling away from unbridled tech-optimism.
So I’ve installed an all-new sound system in my study and the other day I was calibrating my subwoofer, as one does. The way I like to fine tune things is by listening to music I know intimately, and adjusting the levels until it sounds the way it should.
In this case I used my own 2001 album, which I released under the name Mobius Dick, Embrace the Machine. “Do not rage against the machine,” say the lyrics to the title cut. “Embrace the machine.” (Sorry, I don’t have this online anywhere at present; I should really do something about that. I was too sad about the demise of MP3.com in to put it up elsewhere at the time.)
Listening to that song reminded me of how much more overtly optimistic I was about technology and the future at the turn of the millennium. I realized that I’m somewhat less so now. But why? In truth, I think my more negative attitude has to do with people more than with the machines that Embrace the Machine characterizes as “children of our minds.” (I stole that line from Hans Moravec. Er, I mean it’s a “homage.”) But maybe there’s a connection there, between creators and creations.
It was easy to be optimistic in the 90s and at the turn of the millennium. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, the Berlin Wall fell, and freedom and democracy and prosperity were on the march almost everywhere. Personal technology was booming, and its dark sides were not yet very apparent. (And the darker sides, like social media and smartphones, basically didn’t exist.)
And the tech companies, then, were run by people who looked very different from the people who run them now – even when, as in the case of Bill Gates, they were the same people. It’s easy to forget that Gates was once a rather libertarian figure, who boasted that Microsoft didn’t even have an office in Washington, DC. The Justice Department, via its Antitrust Division, punished him for that, and he has long since lost any libertarian inclinations, to put it mildly.
It’s a different world now. In the 1990s it seemed plausible that the work force of tech companies would rise up in revolt if their products were used for repression. In the 2020s, they rise up in revolt if they aren’t. Commercial tech products spy on you, censor you, and even stop you from doing things they disapprove of. Apple nowadays looks more like Big Brother than like a tool to smash Big Brother as presented in its famous 1984 commercial.
Silicon Valley itself is now a bastion of privilege, full of second- and third-generation tech people, rich Stanford alumni, and VC scions. It’s not a place that strives to open up society, but a place that wants to lock in the hierarchy, with itself on top. They’re pulling up the ladders just as fast as they can. As Joel Kotkin writes:
Today’s Silicon Valley is not brimming as before with aggressive startups and the garage-based entrepreneurs who are the SVB’s bread and butter. Indeed, the magic that led firms and people to come to California is wearing off; Mike Malone, who has chronicled Silicon Valley over the past quarter-century, believes that this is because the Valley has lost its egalitarian ethos. The new masters of tech, he suggests, have shifted from “blue-collar kids to the children of privilege”. An intensely competitive industry, he adds, has become enamoured with the allure of “the sure thing” backed by massive capital. If there is a potential competitor they simply buy it. Innovation is therefore in short supply.
And it’s not just innovation that’s missing, but the spirit behind it. Tech is no longer a threat to the establishment, it’s one of the establishment’s main sources of money and power.
Which is bad in itself, but also casts a new sort of light on questions like “do I want my brain connected to a computer?” The answer is very different when the computer is basically my device that I control, the way computers were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as opposed to an interface with a network of hardware and software that I don’t control and can’t trust. Letting something like that connect to my brain is a much less appealing proposition. Likewise AI personal assistants to run my affairs, and even upgrades to my physical body that involve any sort of computerization. You know, all the paraphernalia of 1990s transhumanism.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t trust them because they’ve shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and back around the turn of the millennium they hadn’t really done so yet. Add to that the fact that you don’t really own or fully control the stuff that you buy from them, and it’s hard to get excited about the kind of tech possibilities that I was excited about 20+ years ago. I want my brain to control a computer; I’m not so excited about a computer that controls my brain.
And maybe AI and related technologies take on the characteristics of their creators, to a degree. AI from freedom lovers might be friendlier than AI from power hungry, selfish types; machine learning and AI training are about patterns and observation. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s not implausible. And it seems pretty clear that our tech products now are mostly the product of power hungry, selfish types, and I don’t want AI learning its style from them.
None of which means that tech is exhausted as a force for liberty. Even in the People’s Republic of China, with its strict controls, tech allows the people to push back at their rulers in ways that would have been inconceivable in Mao’s era. And despite all the censorship on social media, word gets out in ways that would have been impossible in JFK’s era. But it does mean that I’m not quite as much of a tech-optimist as I was back then.
I’d like to be, of course. And maybe I’m wrong to be less optimistic. Am I?