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.

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