Mapping the Politics of Technology

Some left-wing criticism of technological disruption. By Jen Sorensen, over at The Nib.

It’s trendy among internet politicos to cast aspersions on the traditional left-right political spectrum. There is good reason for this. It is a huge oversimplification to suggest that one group of people that guns, fossil fuels, and CEOs while another entirely distinct group likes biodiversity, taxes, and abortions. One popular solution to this is the political compass, which brings the spectrum from 1-D into 2-D space, to incorporate both the liberal/conservative economic outlook, and the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum. So libertarians, for example, can be either conservative Randians or progressive anarchists. Some have further complicated this, by adding a third axis for social issues, such as cosmopolitanism versus nationalism.

I am very sympathetic to criticisms of the left-right divide, and I enjoy efforts to refine the political spectrum into something with a bit more descriptive power. But critics of the spectrum are wrong, I think, to discount it altogether, because the left-right political spectrum can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you first figure out your political outlook, you are likely to look for people who agree with views you already have on certain issues. Having found them, you are then likely to also absorb their views on other issues, and believe them when they tell you that the people you disagree with on your favourite issues are also wrong about other things. Any political movement, furthermore, will make itself stronger by forming coalitions with other movements, even if the two have very little in common. That’s why we see free market economists teaming up with evangelical preachers, and environmentalists teaming up with LGBTQ groups. It pays to have friends. And so after a bit of consolidation, you can wind up with two big alliances of different interest groups.

However valid the left-right political spectrum is, however, it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to easily map onto the left-right political spectrum. Liberals, for example, can sometimes be surprisingly conservative about technological change if it threatens labour interests. Conservatives, meanwhile, can actually be quite liberal when it comes to supporting radical new technologies. So I’d like to propose that, in addition to the traditional left-right political distinction, we can also make a separate distinction on peoples’ enthusiasm towards technological change. In addition to liberals and conservatives, there are also futurists, people who want to keep the status quo, and neo-primitives. When you put this on one axis and political outlook on the other axis, you get six categories, each of which I think we see reflected in existing debates about technology. I’ve listed them below.

My (very rough) sketch of a compass outlining the politics of technology.

Techno-Utopians are left-wing and futurist. They believe that radical technological change can bring about a changed economic and social order that will benefit the underprivileged by democratising the means of production. Examples of these include some 3D printing and self-driving car enthusiasts.

Liberal techno-conservatives are left-wing supporters of the status quo. They see new technologies as a threat to existing labour relations, but a threat which will harm workers more than managers, and they are therefore skeptical of new technologies. We have seen a lot of this view in recent criticisms of tech companies like Uber and Facebook, as well as the sharing economy.

Liberal neo-primitivists believe that current technology has already gone too far, by creating a hostile and alienating industrial order. They don’t necessarily want to turn back the technological clock, but they are inspired by older technological systems, and often experiment with incorporating these into their lifestyles. Many environmentalists fit into this group, particularly the Deep Ecology and permaculture movements.

Techno-Libertarians are conservatives who celebrate technology’s disruptive potential. They see new technologies as a way to escape the oversight of the state, and are often highly critical of government regulation of new technological systems. Boosters of things like Uber and Bitcoin often fit into this category, and this is the basic philosophy espoused in Atlas Shrugged.

Neoliberal Techno-Conservatives support both the economic and technological status quo. They believe that existing technological and economic systems, working together, have brought great benefits for humanity, but not by overturning existing relations. Instead, they see moderate technological development as part of the proverbial tide that lifts all boats. They will often point to technological development as an example of what makes capitalist societies superior to socialist or communist ones. Most neoliberal think tanks take this view; here’s an example of this philosophy in action from the Cato Institute.

Conservative neo-primitivists see some forms of technology as a morally corrupting influence. Like liberal neo-primitivists, they want to go back to a simpler time, but they want to do so in a way that largely keeps existing labour relations intact. Honestly, I can’t really think of very many good examples of this viewpoint. It might be embodied in some of the paranoia and social shaming around things like selfies, or it might simply be a view espoused by people who don’t use the internet very much. Some forms of survivalism might fit into this category. The most intriguing possibility is that it doesn’t actually exist very much in the real world, meaning that conservatives are actually very rarely conservative about technology. Comment if you have any ideas about this one!

Exercises like this are always going to be clumsy oversimplifications, and what I’ve done here is no exception, as shown by some of the extremely awkward terminology I have used to describe the different philosophies. But for better or worse, the way most people talk about political differences is based on the political spectrum. That means that if you want to politicize something, you will eventually have to locate it on that spectrum in order to situate the discussion. Since I think that our political discourse about technology is underdeveloped, this seemed like a worthwhile bit of speculation. We need to find better ways to map out the state of the political argument about technology if we want that argument to be more productive.

A few thoughts about Elon Musk

CEOs are being explicitly compared to comic book characters. So it’s probably safe to say that we live in a period of technological enthusiasm.

We’re living in a period in which what might be called “moonshot thinking”, or a general enthusiasm for new futuristic technologies, is very popular. In the last few years, we have seen Google promise both artificial intelligence and radically expanded human life-spans, we have seen proposals for asteroid mining , and we now have a list of 100 finalists to be the first human residents of Mars. If you asked anybody who pays attention to this stuff to name one person they would most associate with it, they almost certainly mention Elon Musk. A few others, such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, and (shudder) Mark Zuckerberg might be mentioned, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of ambitious projects Musk has proposed and is currently working on. The guy is a kind of a big deal.

Tempting though it may be, we need to be careful not to fawn too much over people like Musk. First of all, because Musk’s perception as a selfless innovator who is interested in technical challenges and public service, is probably at least partly a PR creation. I’m inclined to believe that Musk probably is a decent human being, but we should still remember that he is a powerful billionaire, and therefore any discussion of him comes with a duty to be critical. Musk didn’t get to where he is by not earning a profit, after all. The other thing we have to keep in mind is that Musk didn’t get where he is without help. Tesla employs 10,000 people. SpaceX employs around 3,000. SolarCity employs more than 6,000 more. And many of those people are doing the hard research and design work for which Musk soaks up a lot of the credit. Musk is still almost certainly a clever guy, but the development of new technologies has been a large-scale team effort since at least Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

But people like Musk, Schmidt, Ford, and Edison are still a fascinating element of technological culture, because of the enthusiasm they seem to be able to generate for their ideas. If I proposed the hyperloop, nobody would listen and I would probably lose some professional credibility. But because Elon Musk has a reputation for building cool stuff, he can make international news by publishing a 58 page report on the same idea. And the tech media covers virtually everything he says. Why is this the case? One obvious answer is that, as I argued at the top of the page, we are in an era where moonshot thinking predominates, and as the progenitor of a bunch of moonshot projects, Musk is somebody who people want to pay attention to. But just as an experiment, let’s consider it the other way around. What if people like Musk (rather than merely the things they create) are the reason that we are currently so convinced that our immediate future looks like a science fiction movie.

At first glance, this theory goes against everything that science and technology scholars have been saying for the last few decades. Technology, they tell us, is not created by heroic individuals. Some trace the myth of the lone inventor to an obscure Victorian dispute about patent law. Scientists have long acknowledged that they see far by standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is probably time that engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs be willing to make the same admission. Tesla would be nowhere, for example, without the hard work of thousands of people working over the past few decades on better batteries for laptops and smartphones, to say nothing of the legions of people who mine the raw materials for these things, manufacture them, transport them, and sell them.

But what if we look beyond the technology itself, and pay a bit more attention to its public context and popular support? Could prominent, charismatic, and fascinating individuals make us more likely to give our endorsement to new technological ideas that would otherwise sound crazy? I think it’s plausible, mainly because we, as a species, seem to love colourful personalities. That’s why it makes national news when Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift. It’s why celebrities are paid exorbitant sums to endorse products. It’s why most history is understood in terms of big political and cultural personalities, form Louis Armstrong to Winston Churchill. And it’s why websites like Perez Hilton exist. We like to embody our ideas about the world in the form of people. That’s why we remember most of the big technological changes of the past by remembering the people who embodied them. Cars are represented by Henry Ford. Electrical infrastructure is represented by Thomas Edison. Computers are represented by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And so on. We find it much harder to relate to technology, which at the end of the day is a thing, than we do relating to people.

So, according to the hypothesis I’m developing here, sometimes an inventor or entrepreneur catches the public eye for one reason or another. By either an accident or a conscious effort, they cultivate their public image until they have a substantial media following. This becomes a major business asset, allowing them to generate major publicity for virtually any new idea they have. Because of their past successes, the public and media establishment are willing to consider proposals from them that they would reject out of hand if they were voiced by anybody less prominent. The result of this media coverage is that these ideas get financial and political support, as well as motivating research on the idea and perhaps an early market niche from technological enthusiasts. This in turn makes the success of the idea more viable. The result is that people like Elon Musk can serve as standard bearers, playing a big role in shaping future technology regardless of their role in actually developing it.

While I would like to do some detailed research on this idea one day, it remains just a hypothesis at this stage. But as a hypothesis, it has some interesting and important implications. Most important, perhaps, is that it suggests that prominent entrepreneurs and inventors can be extremely powerful people. Politicians come and go and most powerful business leaders are restricted by regulations and market forces. But if people like Elon Musk truly do have this kind of influence over the direction of technological development, then it could be that a small handful of people, most of whom are white men, have a very large role to play in shaping the future of human societies. It’s hard to vote down a transportation system that already has infrastructure in place, regardless of whether your votes come in the form of ballots or dollars. That means that we need to be very critical of these kinds of people and the ideas they propose. We need to really get to grips with their motivations, and be willing to think seriously not just about the viability of their proposals, but also about their long-term social, political, economic, and environmental effects.

But the news isn’t all bad. The power of technological standard bearers can also be a force for good, if we find ways to influence the kinds of people who we give this technological credibility to. We need big technological changes to solve a whole host of very scary social, economic and environmental problems, and if it is possible for one prominent person to play a big role in pushing those kinds of changes, then so much the better. We should, of course, fight the tendency to put people on pedestals. But maybe there is a role for social activists in helping societies think critically about the people to whom they give technological power. And maybe if we can help boost the public exposure of the right kinds of people, then we can help push the kinds of technological change that will make the world a better place rather than a worse one.

How to respond to the anti-vaccination movement

Apparently the anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon. From historyofvaccines.org.

For the last few years, the medical community has been warning us about the public health threat posed by the increasing number of parents who, out of misguided fear of (nonexistent) side effects, refuse to have their children vaccinated. Now, apparently, their warnings have come true: There is now an outbreak of measles in the United States. The public reaction to this has been very well-justified and entirely predictable outrage. There is now a proliferation of articles responding to the anti-vaccination crowd. Many take a tone that is frustrated, if not outright angry. For the record, these articles are absolutely correct. If you have kids, you should vaccinate them. To not do so is to not only to risk their lives, but also to put at risk countless other people who for one reason or another cannot be vaccinated.

That being said, however, I don’t think we, the pro-science public, are responding to this in exactly the right way. It’s perfectly understandable to be outraged by people whose ignorance causes them put others, including their own children, at risk. And it is very tempting to mock these people. But what exactly does mockery accomplish, beyond proving our own intellectual and moral superiority? In this post, I start from the premise that the goal of our response to the vaccination crisis should be to convince as many people as possible to vaccinate their children. Mockery and outrage at the actions of the anti-vaxxers are likely to have exactly the opposite effect, by pushing them further away from the medical establishment, creating an insular community that could jeopardize public health for generations to come.

An alternative to mockery is to simply provide good scientific information about vaccines, in order to counter the myths about them. But this approach also has its problems. The deficit model of science communication has some very serious problems. Anti-vaxxers already have plenty of access to scientific information about vaccines, and they might well have read more of it than you have. The problem is not that they don’t have the information, but that they don’t trust it.

The last strategy you see a lot of is harsh moral condemnation. “Your actions are jeopardising thousands of children!” is the rough message you hear from some in the pro-vaccine camp. The thing is that we have tried this strategy with climate change, and it doesn’t work too well either. When confronted with the absolute worst consequences of their actions, people often go into a reflexive state of denial. Disaster narratives are good for attracting attention, and not much else.

So what we really need to ask ourselves is this: Why has a large group of people living in prosperous first-world countries chosen to reject the institutions of modern medicine? Why is there such a deficit of trust? And how can we address it and get these people to trust doctors and public health professionals once more? Curious about these questions, I had a look at two anti-vaccination Facebook groups to see what kinds of narratives they use to justify themselves. Here are a few revealing quotes:

“…vaccines are a method of population reduction. So is “health care,” which more and more people are becoming aware is more of a “sick care” system that actually harms more people than it helps. Perhaps that’s the whole point of it. Given that vaccines technology help almost no one from a scientific point of view it raises the question: For what purpose are vaccines being so heavily pushed in the first place? Bill Gates seems to be saying that one of the primary purposes is to reduce the global population as a mechanism by which we can reduce CO2 emissions.”

[Responding to a walking dead meme about vaccines] “These idiots obviously have not seen zombie movies. Have they considered that it may be a vaccine that caused the apocalypse in the universe of The Walking Dead, just like other movies where doctors come up with cures for cancer only to result in a global catastrophe.”

“Easy to blame others than actually realise your government lie to you over vaccines.”

What these quotes reveal is not just a basic distrust in vaccines or even medicine, but also in experts more generally. They are appealing to the classic cultural myth of the incompetent or malevolent experts. This story appears not just in conspiracy theories, but also in perfectly mainstream pop culture. How many movies have you seen in which government or scientific authorities who the public trusts to resolve a crisis, instead make the situation worse, either through incompetence or recklessness. Virtually every zombie movie I’ve ever watched comes to mind, as do most other movies about global calamity. We like this story. And so it shouldn’t be too surprising when some people try to look for examples of it in the real world.

This story has, in fact, been played out in the real world. We live in a technocracy, where our everyday lives are increasingly governed by experts. That’s just part of the price we pay for living in a society with nice things like international transportation systems, mass-production of consumer goods, and, yes, vaccines. But these experts are people, and sometimes they screw up. Even worse: Sometimes they get themselves tangled up in self-reinforcing institutions that perpetuate the screwing up almost constantly. We saw a lot of this during the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the early environmental movement was a reaction to this. The government response to the crisis at Love Canal, for example, was completely incompetent.

We still see this kind of thing today, often from the medical community. Doctors are notorious for taking a very paternalistic attitude towards their patients, in which they know best and the patient should just listen. I once had a very frustrating conversation with a doctor about whether or not I should come off a course of medication I was on. The medicine seemed to have done its job, and I was aware that the only risk from coming off it was a relapse of the fairly minor condition that I had taken it to prevent. The medication, meanwhile, had major side-effects and restrictions on what I could do in my day-to-day life. So I wanted an honest appraisal of my chances of relapse, so that I could weigh that against the inconvenience of continuing to take the drug. But all I could get out of the doctor was “You shouldn’t stop taking it. You could have a relapse”. While it is probably just a minority of doctors who act like this, there are enough of them that the profession’s reputation has suffered a little bit.

Distrust of experts, and of the products they oversee, is not just limited to fringe groups like the anti-vaccination movement, either. How do you feel about adding monosodium glutamate to your food? Because it turns out that it’s actually completely safe. So is the artificial sweetener aspartame, though I personally have been distrustful of it in the past. Nobody completely trusts the collection scientific and technological institutions that run much of our world, and that is a good thing, because nobody should completely trust any institution. A healthy scepticism is an important element of citizenship. If you don’t have it, then you wind up buying stuff like radium water.

As with most things, however, balance is key. Too much trust in science and medicine allows imperfect experts to get away without any criticism, while too little results in people not vaccinating their children. So how do we ensure that we have a healthy but reasonable culture of critique for our scientific institutions? I can think of two suggestions. Firstly, robust critique of the experts should happen out in the open, and be featured in mainstream and responsible media outlets. That means that people who are hesitant to trust the experts don’t get driven into echo chambers in little-known blogs and facebook groups. The medical establishment and other institutions like it should be critiqued by people who actually understand the science they deal with, and who can separate the genuine concerns from the conspiracy theories. And secondly, experts should be willing to engage with this kind of criticism. Not with ridicule or paternalistic information campaigns, but with a genuine understanding of the concerns people have. Experts should know that they only have that status by public consent, and that that consent is sometimes precarious.

Mocking and shaming anti-vaxxers might do wonders for our egos, but it won’t do much at all for the health of children. If we really want to inoculate society against these kinds of pernicious conspiracy theories, then we have to be willing to really think about where they come from. That might be uncomfortable, but much like vaccinations themselves, the benefits are well worth it.

Is environmentalism middle-class?

A particularly egregious example of a middle-class ethical consumption from my local supermarket. (via Buzzfeed)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the phrase “middle class” has become a kind of soft epithet in in the United Kingdom. Here’s a Buzzfeed list of things, most of which are food for some reason, that are perceived to be “middle-class”. It’s certainly not the most devastating insult. In fact, it’s more likely to be used in a self-deprecating way than in any serious attempt to offend somebody. Still, it confuses me a little bit. I can understand criticizing and mocking members of the middle-class who fail to check their class privilege, but surely if an class is in and of itself is something worthy of mocking, then the mockery should be mainly directed at the upper-classes. They are, after all, far more ridiculous.

Of course, this isn’t a very big deal. It’s just another one of those aspects of British class dynamics that eludes my sometimes tragically North-American sensibililties. And little bit of gentle class-based ribbing is hardly something to get up in arms about. But there is one application of this phrase that bothers me: According to some commentators, enviornmentalism is middle-classTake this recent comment on the Green Party by the Guardian’s Suzan Moore, for example:

“The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative. As much as I would like to see a Ukip of the left, I am not convinced the Greens are it. Rather, they are a strange coalition, part eco-warrior, part middle-class do-gooder…What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanics of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of the Green Party of Canada. But this post is not going to be a partisan defence of the Greens. Perhaps they do need to take class more into account. But first of all Moore shouldn’t be so quick to shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss theories of plants: People of all classes have a very strong vested interest in the well-being of plants, so long as they enjoy eating. And of course the struggle against climate change is one that should be fought first and foremost for the poorest of the world, who will feel the changing climate more acutely than anybody else. A theory of class analysis is useful, but it shouldn’t be the only thing in our conceptual toolbox. Theories of natural systems should also be pretty important, given that we will be dependent on such systems regardless of what our class dynamics look like.

Of course, Moore seems more interested in gestures and practices than theories. The phrase “middle-class do-gooder” carries pretty clear dismissive connotations of smug suburban consumers who believe that filling their canvas shopping bag with overpriced organic vegetables is all they need to do to save the world. There is some value to this critique, as any proposed consumer actions to address the environmental crisis tend to be expensive and thus mainly accessible to the middle classes.

The flaw with this view is that it sees those expensive hallmarks middle-class sustainability purely in terms of how they exist in the present day. And sure: Farmer’s markets in the here and now are more an example of conspicuous consumption than a serious sustainability strategy.

But when you consider the future of some of these practices and products, then the picture changes a bit. This argument hinges on the idea of a niche: A protected incubator space for a new technology or business structure. Most changes to the rampantly unsustainable economy and society that we currently live in will have to go through this phase. And early experiments in sustainable production and consumption are going to be very imperfect. They will likely be both more expensive and less convenient than their less sustainable alternatives. Compare the price and availability of fuelling infrastructure for a Tesla car to that of a conventional petroleum driven car and you’ll see what I mean.

This means that in order to succeed, any sustainable innovation is going to need an initial market that is willing to put up with these flaws early on. That’s why early adopters tend to be people with both money and time on their hands. In other words: The middle and upper classes. So middle-class conspicuous consumption happens to be a very effective creator of niches for new technologies and practices, which we are going to need in order to tackle climate change and other environmental problems.

This might all seem a bit esoteric, so let’s take the concrete example of vegetable boxes, which happen to be one of my favourite examples of middle-class do-gooding. Currently, they’re expensive compared to what you would pay for the same quantity of vegetables at a supermarket. But the basic business model of a vegetable box scheme can benefits a great deal from a solid community of early adopters. More recipents of vegetable boxes means lower delivery costs, while a stable customer base can give the vegetable box providers an opportunity to work out the kinks in their business model and make the whole scheme cheaper. Eventually, it’s possible that vegetable box schemes could become cheap enough to be a viable option for the working classes. That means time savings, and healthier food for consumers, as well as reducing the importance of a carbon-intensive retail sector that encourages urban sprawl and lots of single-occupancy cars. A very similar process can be traced out for other environmental innovations such as electric cars, micro-generation of electricity, and sustainable housing. It would be impossible for any of these to succeed in the long-term without a community of early adopters willing to spend the time and money on an imperfect technology.

As a self-conscious middle-classer, I hope that this doesn’t sound self-congratulatory. Beneficial though some of these practices may be, they are still a form of conspicuous consumption and that needs to be critically examined. But I think it’s perfectly fair to encourage people who can afford it to try and spend the extra money and time to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s really the least they can do.