New World, Not So Brave

Alexia Tsotsis is co-editor at TechCrunch, a silicon-centric web-zine. And she’s a damn fine writer. I  re-post an excerpt from a recent article on the New Gilded Era:

“Silicon Valley is suffering from an acute fallacy of composition: Just because it does some good doesn’t mean the whole is good. Tech isn’t above harming society. Just because change (i.e. Disruption) is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s always welcome.

Machine guns were innovation. They Disrupted muskets. They also Disrupted a lot of human bodies in World War II. Pharmaceuticals save lives. But they also let people numb emotional pain rather than face it, quiet their children rather than teach them. Social games can be seen as entertainment and relaxation. They can also be seen as dehumanizing thieves of our time and attention.

The tech sector is particularly ill-suited to address its own footprint, staving off its rich guilt with the misguided belief that it lives in a meritocracy. Hell, even the people who blog about it are rich.

Like the problem of technology replacing jobs, there is no solution to technology’s feigned innocence. As nerds and underdogs, we will always believe we have the best intentions. That doesn’t negate the problem: Even though we’re not Washington D.C., we are still an industry with absurd amounts of power, attention and money. And plenty of intentional and unintentional opportunities to abuse it.”

A few points:

Technology empowers us. Sometimes, technology frees us. Questions remain: what do we do with that power, and with that freedom? How do we spend our time, those of us lucky enough to live in a society where much of the nasty stuff was abstracted away before we were born? How are we empowered, and how much? Who is more empowered, and who less? And perhaps most importantly: how free are we, really?

George Orwell wrote of a possible future that seemed plausible at the time, and there are certainly pockets of the human world where the overt surveillance and routine brutality of totalitarian control are the norm. However, though Orwell was the perhaps the better writer,  Aldous Huxley was the more prescient imaginer. “Brave New World” was a distant early warning for anyone who has ever watched more than a few hours of TV per week, or taken prescription mood-altering medications, or slowly drowned in a bottomless glass of booze. I’ll let a better writer say it. From Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Postman added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. InBrave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

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