At the end of October, some of the biggest names in tech were summoned in front of the US Senate to explain how social media platforms were used by Russian forces to influence last year’s election.
Whether it’s ‘pricing out’ of local residents and businesses, ducking regulation for employees and supply chains, or discarding hardware and relationships, the US Senate aren’t the only people starting to question the promised utopia of the tech giants, where meritocracy, genius and freedom would usher in an algorithmically designed paradise.
Despite its promise of freedom and equality, digital technology has entrenched power and wealth amongst those who already have it. Built by the privileged, these high valued companies ‘solve problems’ that never existed until someone realised they could make money through selling the ‘solution.’
Perhaps it’s time that the Bezoses and Zuckerbergs who would seek to change the world had a look at some feminist theory. If you thought Larry Page had vision, imagine taking on sexism, one of the most widespread and ingrained social problems. Intersectional feminism is even more ambitious, trying to untangle the interlinking causes and effects of sexism, racism, poverty. There’s no App for that!
Rebuilding The Masters House
Just as First Wave Feminism needed an injection of critique of how it inadvertently reproduced many of the [colonial, classist, racist, capitalist] power structures of existing society to become truly radical; the same is now true for Silicon Valley, if it hopes to live up to its emancipatory rhetoric.
In 1984, Audre Lorde criticised the apparent consensus amongst [white, academic] feminists of how best to tackle oppression. Pointing out that “The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house,” Lorde explained how replicating existing patterns of power, using only ‘accepted’ methods of questioning, meant that “only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” In the language of Silicon Valley, you cannot truly disrupt whilst following the logic of the incumbents.
Lorde called on the feminist community to recognise the lived experience of those outside their immediate circles, and emphasised the importance of embracing, rather than ‘tolerating’ difference, to allow creativity to flourish and produce new ways of being in the world. This summons should fit well within Silicon Valley, built on a mix of Hippy Utopianism, and the Great American Dream, the idea that America provides the freedom for anyone to take the opportunity for prosperity and success, achieved through hard work.
However, the Tech Community has coalesced around just one aspect of the American Dream – Prosperity, measured by dollars in the bank. It’s rallied around just one ideal of the hippies – Freedom, meaning lack of responsibility to others. By focusing on these single aims, it’s been able to tell a compelling story of success, garnering support from governments, pundits, and consumers. It’s a homogenous mentality reflected in a homogenous workforce.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps the product of financial and military interests could only ever turn out the way it has. But reading The Cyborg Manifesto gives a different perspective on how to utilise technological developments.
Writing at the same time as Lorde, Haraway explores how technology blurs boundaries and creates new ways of existing that rearrange worldwide social relations. As we move from understanding living things, not as organisms, but as biotic components, we see them as special kinds of information processing devices, rather than objects of knowledge. You’re not a cog in the machine; you’re a node in a circuit.
When you cease to see people as people, then it’s a lot easier to exploit them. Just as through patriarchy, women are not people or through racism, non-whites aren’t people, in the tech business, humans aren’t people. Rather than complex and irrational beings with both individual and communal moralities and intellects, we are ‘users,’ ‘customers’ or ‘data assets’. When during the design phase, our usage habits are targeted like an addict, during the sales pitch our tastes are directed towards business capabilities, and during an election, these assets are sold to the highest bidder, you get a whole new meaning to “The Personal is Political.”
The modus operandi of Apple, Google, Amazon et al is to turn the habits, dreams and desires of its human users into a source of profit. While such a business model may disrupt society to an extent, it is more geared towards reinforcing the wealth and influence of the already rich and powerful.
What’s it all about?
As we begin to realise that technological advances can only offer a solution in conjunction with social advances, it becomes clear that it’s as important to upgrade our models of society as often as we upgrade our phones. If we are to consciously allow technology to change society, it needs to be done in tandem with other forms of knowledge, other ways of understanding the world and how humans belong in it.
So when Capitol Hill considers divisive adverts, targeted to those calculated to respond angrily, and pronounces:
We should note that ‘People’ are only the third aspect of the issue, and even then a passive, homogenous category.
This way of thinking provides no power to the individual users of these platforms, no criticism of the structures that allowed this. The issue is not *who* is doing the manipulating (a hostile foreign power), but that the industrial scale “manipulation of the American people” is intrinsic to the data-behaviour business model of these platforms.
How we define a problem will influence the solution we propose. If we really want to change the world for the better, we need to move beyond imperialism, capitalism and paternalism. We need to accept that this is about distraction and division. This is about the shifts in power from politics to businesses. This is about individuals looking for community.
And once we accept that, well, then we can start the real Digital Revolution.