For the past couple of months I’ve been engaged in reporting on the nexus between major brands and pirate bit-torrent sites. It has been like lifting up a rock to see all the weird life forms crawling out of the light. The New York Times characterized the efforts to pin down who was responsible to Whack A Mole. But what really interested me is that the whole future of the advertising business seems to be based on the premise of what I call a Geo-Behavioral Targeting System. The implicit assumption is that consumers don’t care if Google, Facebook or an Ad Network has a total window into the most intimate details of your personal life, your finances, your aspirations and dreams. All the better to sell you your own future. In the futuristic novel,Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, Gary Shteyngart posits a world in which your credit score, sexual preferences and other details are available to anyone who points their smartphone at you.

I was reminded of all this reading an piece by Evgeny Morosov in yesterday’s New York Times. Morosov has been a lonely voice in the wilderness, protesting against the rise of Techno-utopianism. In The Perils of Perfection, he worries about what the rise of the ubiquitous App Culture is doing to us.

LAST month Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director, enthused about a trendy app to “crowdsource absolutely every decision in your life.” Called Seesaw, the app lets you run instant polls of your friends and ask for advice on anything: what wedding dress to buy, what latte drink to order and soon, perhaps, what political candidate to support.

Seesaw offers an interesting twist on how we think about feedback and failure. It used to be that we bought things to impress our friends, fully aware that they might not like our purchases. Now this logic is inverted: if something impresses our friends, we buy it. The risks of rejection have been minimized; we know well in advance how many Facebook “likes” our every decision would accumulate.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who celebrated the anguish of decision as a hallmark of responsibility, has no place in Silicon Valley. Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, Silicon Valley has chosen the latter — perhaps as a result of yet another instant poll.

Maybe people don’t want the responsibility of making choices anymore. Maybe our whole lives should be crowdsourced. After all if my friends told me to do something, its not my fault if it turned out to be a stupid move.

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17 Responses to Techno-Utopians

  1. Fentex says:

    I think the greater worry for people is not how corporate entities use this information to sell but how they easily become proxies for governments with more nefarious intents.

    The worry that people live a more open communal life with information flowing freely among everyone isn’t of much concern to me. Indeed such community building through openness and trust ought please people who want social peer pressure to help establish social norms of paying for content to operate.

    But I write under a pseudonym.

    This is because I personally am not much of a joiner. I don’t use Facebook, I don’t use Twitter, I grumble and complain about efforts to obtain and catalogue information about me. When shop staff ask me for my phone number I answer “555…”

    “The Man” pisses me off, “Community” does not, though I do not willingly join communities often.

    Everything is tension.

  2. len says:

    It might be relaxing to pull out the old Lemmings radio play and give it a listen. People haven’t changed that much. It’s simply going faster and the ties that bind are tighter.

  3. Alex Bowles says:

    Not sure how well the “everybody else did it” line of thought works in practice. People will adopt it, obviously, but that doesn’t completely erase the sting. Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on that point exactly.

    But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew — left or right — was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

    Watching reasonable people assemble sober arguments for a disaster was, to put it mildly, searing.

    The DC press is provides an especially vivid example of toxic groupthink. An entire generation of editors have convinced themselves that the nation automatically divides itself more or less evenly into two opposing camps that are both wrong about everything, but wrong in a very specific and complementary way that magically produces the correct answers by splitting the differences between them.

    So for instance, if one party insists that 2 + 2 = 4, and the other says “no, it’s 5” the correct answer must be 4.5. And if no one accepts this figure, then “both sides are to blame” for the failure to agree. Clearly identifying one party as demonstrably wrong and the other as unequivocally right is sure to draw charges of “partisanship” and therefore “bias” which – in a truly Orwellian twist – is seen as a departure from “objectivity.” In other words, “telling the truth” means lying, while actually telling the truth means being called a liar.

    Not surprisingly, this lunacy produces a loss of trust among readers, which is the real cost of groupthink. As Jay Rosen notes,

    Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence— most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.

    While distrusting an untrustworthy source is better than trusting it, it’s still not as good as having a trustworthy source to rely on. Personally, I’m less concerned with people sharing the opinions of others, and more concerned with whose opinions they’re sharing.

  4. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Well, then, in taking up Jon’s concerns (which I share), when I refer to the presiding myth of inevitable progress and human perfectability, whom then shall I cite? The incumbent President of the United States? The Leader of the U.S. Senate? Or, alternatively, should I wish to take up Jon’s alternative, practical meliorism, whom? The list is endless. What’s the point in pitting e.g. Marx against Hobbes, Wilson vs. Lincoln? It seems to me that you ought to be more interested in fresh opinions reported straight from the mouths of free-born sovereign citizens whose only requisite credential is Being. Jon’s in part lamenting our loss of interest in that hunt, and certainly I, in the name of Professor Doctor St. John Noonday, empathize.

  5. Rick Turner says:

    It’s not easy fitting in, given that I consider myself to be a Libertarian-Socialist. This left right divide is so one dimensional. What about up and down and forward and back?

  6. Hugo St. Victor says:

    You’re true to your findings, Rick. By reputation you’re also as true as those findings.

    I’m afraid we’re in process of deciding whether we want a country friendly or else hostile to men and women who stick by their findings. For a Libertarian-Socialist to fit in, in daily society here or probably down over in Alabama, is a painful stretch, but is no rational reason for finding one’s methods and data, one’s work product devalued. I’d trust you any day with evaluation of the platforms, systems, stratagems built to protect me and the Americans I love. It’s bad, and discomfiting, but man, other innings your way. Dig?

    Now, returning to Jon’s concern about culture swamped by marketeers wired-in by the nanosecond to our market horniness and tracked habits, you’ve got to admit that this trumps–especially for a fried who’s a Professor of Communicatons.

  7. Hugo St. Victor says:

    So Rick you can see how similar are we all to Len’s present plight. We’d do what we could, with things coming apart, with ideology the first to go. We’re talking about flat irresponsibility toward one’s dependents and I just don’t get the Bill Maher joke in that. A man like that can joke and mock only if he presumes that no one ever has depended upon him. His immaturity unmans him.

  8. Hugo St. Victor says:

    I wish that those of you who may know me notoriously as a fucked-up Republican liberal would just look at Jon’s first cite, from NYT. He’s trying to fight art theft on its own terms and turf. It’s admittedly insufficient without everybody’s support, and really for my part the preservation of our culture right now is more important than the Human Genome. Just take a look at what Jon’s saying. Stuff’s being stolen, therefore lost from the next age cohort. Art as mere Toilet flu$h. It should be made impossible. The Country’s bearings aren’t ball bearing.

  9. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Ha, and filibuster flacks. Jesus, never telegraph

  10. Brian says:

    Over the years not once were my generalities on the human condition truly correct, so I’m trying a new approach. I’m trying not to use the word people… people this, people that, those people…. I try instead to imagine an actual person, to merely invent someone in my mind’s eye, say that commuter in a new Chevy, perhaps a court clerk, or a Navy recruiter, or an indie musician. I try to look into their imagined eyes and wonder about the pressure in their life. There must be more accurate clues to our humanity. Neighbors speeding into their driveway without a wave or a nod outright confounds me. Do they think I’m one of those people? I wonder what I’ll see in their eyes. What’s Bruce in the Chevy thinking about? ‘Did Ann ever put a case of beer in the fridge for Romney? Is Oprah a mystic? Does anybody really enjoy canned soup? You bet it will be an asteroid.’ We veer into so many desires and opinions, sometimes I’m utterly sure corporations have no chance.

  11. JTMcPhee says:

    On the other hand, the BIGs of the world seem to have figured out the congruent parts, the ones with handles that can be grabbed and twisted and tweaked and jerked and stroked, of all those individual persons. Marketing works, not perfectly and not all the time, but it works. Nationalism is a real phenomenon, as is tribalism and family loyalty and romantic love and whatever it is that sprouts out of “people” at soccer games and similar events (including stuff like Tienanmen and Tahrir Square) to produce prodigies of common effort that can produce bodies in the streets, living and dead. There’s poetry in us, and Popery, and potpourri made of wood shavings dyed with coal tar derivatives and scented with other coal tar derivatives, in little pretty baskets on the toilet tank covers of the world. There’s inarguable concentrations of wealth and power that make life really special and perfect for a very few, those who have a few more individual persons who “make a living” by serving as walking, talking bidets for the very few, catering to their every whim and bending their individual intellects to directing ever more of the Good Stuff into the maws of the Few. Monsanto is a corporation, but it’s also a collective of individuals who find a “living” setting up the conditions for dying for a lot of humans. And they are successful. By the measures that the vast majority would agree define success.

    There’s a reason that soldiers understand the command, “Break step, HARCH!” as they move out onto a bridge which has resonant frequencies that if excited by a bunch of average-180-pounders marching in step, would be shaken to pieces. The folks at Monsanto and other such entities (Lockheed Martin, Bayer, TEPCO, you name it) don’t care: there’s money to be made, wealth to be extracted, $120,000 brunches at swank spas in Sarni to be savored and bragged about, from the privatized rebuilding of bridges….

  12. len says:

    We are in a time of struggle, not class struggle, but a struggle of skills, knowledge and practice. Those who become technically adept and practiced are overwhelmed by those who became politically and socially adept. We see it in music as Amanda Palmer and in politics as George W. Bush. As long as the poltically adept can persuade the technically adept to support them, this trend will continue.

    The soldiers for Christ (not Christians but those who use religion for social warfare) align with the angry and insecure marshalling their forces against the soldiers of technology (not scientists but those who believe the ability to program or design and build yet another box makes them intellectually superior). In the middle is everyone else simply trying to work a job and raise a family or otherwise go about the practices of living decent lives and enjoying the rewards.

    The know nothings and the do nothings are at the helm pretending to be the annointed. The irony for this list is that is exactly what Ayn Rand predicted.

  13. Rick Turner says:

    I don’t think that any of Jesus’ aspirations were to have armies in his name.

    And Amanda Palmer…too bad her music just isn’t very interesting. She’s the Lady Gaga or Madonna of the indie nerd crowd. Big on personality, small on music.

  14. len says:

    We agree.

    But the techno utopians are at war with the large and in charge. The worst of us are the most able to take the upper hand.

    I heard a snippet of an NPR interview with an author talking about the necessity of violence if one wanted to get wealthy, that squeamishness about means and becoming rich are mutually incompatible. What is missed is scale: there is so much passive violence at every level of social success today. The more one tries for the right path, the more that path is covered in socially sewn briars because en masse, the gardeners are sinister and self-absorbed.

    Monkeys. Evolution is far too slow and not that reliable.

  15. Brian says:

    I read a draft thesis years ago postulating that urban mobility trends were diluting traditions of one-to-one confrontation and group/community accountability. Whether petty pilfering, whether street corner bullying, pirates and thieves can merely shift locations rather than be bridled and restrained. Over time, better values are weakened while culture is diluted with uncorrected pathology. The title was something like ‘Rise of the Human Trickster’.

  16. Fentex says:

    I obtained and listened to Amanda Palmers “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” album recently.

    I enjoyed it and suspect easy dismissals of her art are not motivated by entirely disinterested evaluation.

  17. Fentex says:

    I read a draft thesis years ago postulating that urban mobility trends were diluting traditions of one-to-one confrontation and group/community accountability.

    It’s been a common thread in literature for decades now that isolation of people through ease of movement, disconnection from location and the ease of finding news and information sources that present allied and predetermined view points which as a sum remove the need to confront differences and individually disparate people through out a day will lead to a dangerous breakdown in social cohesion.

    A fragmentation. I suppose the Red/Blue, North/South, Urban/Rural, Liberal/Conservative divides in the U.S that make governing so impossible could be seen to be such.

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