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“The Goliath of Totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”, is what the 40th president of the United States Ronald Reagan said during his speech in June 1989, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November that same year.[1] In London’s historic Guildhall, Raegan addressed an audience of a thousand British notables, proclaiming that recent advances in technology, and telecommunications in particular, had put the world on an unalterable course towards freedom and democracy. As technology progressed, fascism, communism and totalitarianism had no choice but to crumble in its wake. Reagan even went as far as describing information as the “oxygen of the new age” and the telecommunications revolution as “the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen”. If there is indeed such as thing as the church of technological optimism, or techno-solutionism, then Ronald Raegan would certainly be one of its patron saints.

While optimistic voices were celebrating the techno-aided victory of the Western liberal-democratic market economy over fascism, socialism and communism, the European intellectual landscape was in turmoil. We discover largely pessimistic accounts and critiques of technology in the works of many of Europe’s profound thinkers of the 20th century. Predominantly in the works of the Neo-Marxist scholars of the Frankfurt School, which includes the likes of Jürgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. Scholars of the Frankfurt School famously applied concepts from Marxism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology and other disciplines in their analyses and critiques of societies under capitalism. The approach is more commonly referred to as ‘critical theory’. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power during the 1930’s, many of these intellectuals were forced to flee Europe and found refuge in the United States. It’s important to note that Marxism is not generally opposed to technological progress or industrialization. On the contrary, central to the Marxist doctrine is humanity’s ever-increasing knowledge and mastery over nature, with the aim of reducing mundane labor and to raise the standards of living. To them, technological progress is therefore not a goal in itself, but another means of bringing freedom to the proletariat. However, the socialist revolution in an industrial advanced Germany, which these scholars predicted, failed to happen. Not only once but twice, - not before and not after World War II. Disillusioned by this misreading of history, and paired with their exposure to America’s capitalist ideology, they offered the explanation that technology itself had become a new form of ideology. Furthermore, a conflation between technology and capitalism had occurred, which gave rise to a new technocratic elite. Jürgen Habermas lays forth this belief in his essay Science and Technology as an Ideology[2] and Herbert Marcuse in is his book One-Dimensional Man.[3] In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse acknowledges the potential freedom from labour which technology can offer mankind, but that technology can also create false needs. Instead of embracing and utilizing new freedoms, Marcuse argues that society has become engulfed by a concept called “technological rationality”. Marcuse posits that a rational decision can be made to adopt technology in a society, however the adoption of this technology then changes the concept of what is considered rational in society itself. For example, there are arguments to be made as to why the introduction of the smartphone makes our lives easier and brings with it new forms of freedom. However, the consumerism surrounding the smartphone is what Marcuse would label as irrational. Is it really in the best interest of society to engineer smartphones not to last? Is there freedom to be found in the incentivization of the disposal of old products, with the sole aim of buying more technology, forcing us to work more and harder to keep up with this lifestyle? It is in this way, Marcuse argues, that we have become subject to a new form of enslavement. We have become cogs in the totalitarian system of technological progress.

The techno-optimist and techno-pessimist positions differ fundamentally in the values that each of them attributes to technological progress. The techno-optimist position is primarily concerned with libertarian values, such as democratization, decentralization, economic prosperity etc. The techno-pessimist position, however, is much more concerned with questions pertaining to human autonomy, control, as well as the existential threat technology poses to mankind.[4] Despite these opposing views, both positions crucially recognize that technological progress impacts society as an autonomous and determinate force. Humanity has little say with respect to the inherent ethical and political properties of technologies and each technological development serve as the precondition for the following one. This concept is referred to as technological determinism. The concern with technological determinism is of course more apparent in the techno-pessimist account of technology. After all, it is up to the techno-pessimist to come up with potential remedies for this phenomenon. For the techno-optimist, it is less of an issue that technological progress stretches beyond the borders of human control, as long as “things go well”.

Confrontation: the Now

For a long time, the techno-optimists seemed to be right about the course of history, as Raegan’s gospel came to fruition. Many technologies from the 1980s and 1990s, such as the early internet and the mobile phone, are inherently decentralized technologies and were supportive of individualism and libertarianism. This radical change to how our world works often gets attributed to the telecommunications revolution. However, this revolution should be just as much, if not more, attributed to the boom in household appliances.[5] Household technologies, including the washing machine, the microwave and many more, radically changed the way we live, as they vastly reduced the time we humans needed to spend on household labour. Together with other technological inventions, such as the pill, these technologies had a transforming effect on female education and labour market participation. The kind of technological progress that even the largest techno-pessimists would be content with.

Many technologies from the 1980’s and 1990’s, such as the early internet and the mobile phone, are inherently decentralized technologies and were supportive of individualism and libertarianism. This radical change to how our world works often gets attributed to the telecommunications revolution.

However, if we examine the world we live in today, we notice that the tides are shifting from a period of almost unbounded techno-optimism to increasingly more pessimistic accounts of technology. Big government is making a serious comeback, but this time it is successfully leveraging decentralized technologies and IT-infrastructures to do so. The same decentralized technologies and infrastructures that were originally meant to be free from government intervention. At first glance, the combination of Big government and Big tech leveraging decentralized technologies seems like a scenario which the scholars of the Frankfurt School would have applauded. However, decentralized technologies have turned out to be an autocratic dream instead. We even have countries right now that successfully combine strong authoritarian regimes with capitalist market economies, combining the left’s two biggest historical fears. The communists and socialists of the 20th century would spin in their graves. As it turns out, decentralized technologies, because they are connecting us, offer endless forms of control and influence which we are seldom aware of. They are used, or misused, to this end by governments, corporations and foreign entities. Many large, sophisticated technological systems turn out to be highly compatible with centralized hierarchical managerial control. And some technologies even leave us no choice but to accept the techno-scientific and military authorities that come with them.[6]

It’s not without surprise, the business case for Big government is crystal-clear, as our world is facing challenges on multiple fronts, including terrorism, cyber criminality, the climate crisis, mass immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently even war on the European continent. Challenges of this nature and scope require government intervention but carry with them risks to democracy. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), the cloud and blockchain technologies, play important roles in these challenges and today’s society. These new technologies are mainly developed and controlled by large and powerful corporations. Even in China these technologies are developed by specific corporations, so-called National Technology Champions.[7] Hence, today we encounter an interesting marriage between Big government and Big tech. But it’s not only the aforementioned challenges and our socio-economic landscape that pushes forward a shift to centralization. Many of these new technologies, and AI applications in particular, turn out to be inherently beneficial to groups or organizations, and less to individuals. Examples of such applications include personalized pricing, predictive policing, student placement algorithms, social credit systems and employee monitoring software. The list goes on. These applications can also easily result in biases against individuals which don’t fit a majority demographic. When applying AI, or any form of statistical reasoning for that matter, we are admitting a defeat. We admit that reality is making it either too complex or unfeasible for us to perform exact determinations. AI is a technology that learns and generalizes historical patterns, meaning that we are willing to sacrifice individual determinations for generalizations on group-level. Hence, individuals sacrifice their personal data for short-term gains, but mainly at the benefit of third parties. Our society is adapting to these increasingly impactful technologies, but this comes with a price tag: our human autonomy and privacy. Not only due to us designing and adopting more centralized applications, but also because technological determinism moves our society towards centralization, as the next step in the trajectory of technological history.

To utter critique of technology today will often get you labeled as a technophobe or a doomsayer. Technological pessimism is an unfortunate label in this sense because one most certainly does not need to dismiss the potential of technology to do good, be critical of capitalism, or need to be supportive of socialism, let alone Marxism, in order to be a critic of technological progress. On the contrary, we live in an age where paradoxically the loudest voices of concern with respect to (digital) censorship are coming from the political right. A sentiment that we would historically place in the ballpark of the political left. The crucial insight that the Frankfurt School thinkers raised was that technological progress does not equate to societal progress. Today, however, in the West we remain to equate technological progress with societal progress. We can spot this line of thinking in various labels such as ‘smartphone’, ‘smart city’ or ‘smart contract’. After all, how can one reasonably be against things becoming smarter? How can one be against progress itself? And even though it has become clearer recently that technological progress isn’t always beneficial to society, or to us as individuals, the unconditional belief in technological progress remains deeply rooted in the Western collective consciousness. By dismissing the critiques to technological progress, we are, in an undemocratic fashion, making any form of social criticism impossible. Technologies, AI, in particular, carry with them inherent societal and cultural effects, which are difficult to spot and cannot easily be reverted. Therefore, before implementing these new technologies, we would be wise to ask ourselves what the specific societal and cultural effects of these systems are. And we need to take responsibility as individuals and as a society when we discover that these effects do not align with the values we hold dear. It is for this reason that we should tread lightly and require an appropriate level of control surrounding new technologies. Self-restraint is the most responsible and democratic thing to do.

Resolution: The Future

So, what does technological progress have in store for us, and are the outsights optimistic or pessimistic? If both history and AI teach us anything, it is that accurately predicting future events is notoriously difficult. However, regardless of whether one subscribes to techno-optimism or techno-pessimism, up to this point, there has always existed a distance between ourselves and technology. An unbridgeable gap between our minds, our inner reality, and the physical reality. If recent technological developments and techno-optimistic voices are anything to go on, however, this gap is the next frontier for technology to tackle. This gap is becoming increasingly mediated, or bridged, by an expanding digital reality; virtual meetings, avatars, e-money and so on. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, highlighted that his design philosophy revolves around the emulation and sharing of human experiences.[8] Zuckerberg went on saying that:“how I think about designing products comes from basic elements of psychology” and “what I care about is building technology for people to interact with each other”. Tracking facial expressions, eye movements, initiatives like the Metaverse, but also Elon Musk’s Neural Link make no secret of the fact that our brain, our thoughts, are next in line to be datafied. Being connected and sharing experiences is sold to us as the next freedom. Again, one can raise the question of whether or not technological progress on this front actually equates to societal progress. Recent developments such as the gig economy, the blockchain and NFT’s give us plenty of reasons to be skeptical. These technologies are being sold to us today as new forms of freedom and emancipation, but in reality transpose the problems they are proposed to solve directly into ourselves. Why would you want to work for a boss if you can be your own boss? Or who needs governments or financial institutions if you can perform unmediated transactions with other parties? But does giving up safeties, like labor rights and financial safeguards, and becoming the direct instruments of the capitalist system itself really equate to societal progress? With new technological threats to democratic societies, and now also to the mind of the individual, looming on the horizon is the possible future of a “kingdom without paradise”. A future in which, akin to the gig economy and blockchain, the new reality of digital feudalism by corporations and governments is being sold to us as yet another new freedom, by transposing the problem of feudalism directly into ourselves. Meaning that we can be in control of our own little digital kingdoms, with the risk that they are devoid of any positive properties. Who cares about a technological dystopia if you can be the ruler of your own digital kingdom? One can already picture the slogans, a world in which “you can be the real you”, whatever that might mean. The concept of techno-feudalism might be hard to grasp and recognize since for the past decades we have been sold its counter-concept, a “paradise without a kingdom”. Everything has been done to break with Europe’s history and tradition with feudalism to pave the way for us to enjoy freedoms under democracy. A concept we have been taken for granted over recent centuries. Complete control of our own digital destinies, virtual spaces in which we can fully express ourselves, wherever there even is such a thing to begin with, wouldn’t resemble much of a paradise. Furthermore, as opposed to today, where the privileged class is associated with access to the latest technologies, the new privileged class under this system will be those that either rule or can afford to be outside of this digital space.

A future in which, akin to the gig economy and blockchain, the new reality of digital feudalism by corporations and governments is being sold to us as yet another new freedom, by transposing the problem of feudalism directly into ourselves. Meaning that we can be in control of our own little digital kingdoms, with the risk that they are devoid of any positive properties.

From a technological perspective, the possibilities of new and upcoming technologies are thrilling. But again, ask yourself, does the adoption of a specific new technology actually lead to societal progress, or are we simply indulging in techno-solutionism? The seeds for new digital realities and digital freedoms have been planted. But what will we be kings of? Digital paradises, or digital wastelands? Only with clear and consistent visions in this age of post-truth postmodernism and censorship on the account of both politics and technology, which are interconnected, we can have a sensible and truthful discussion about the future.


[1] Sheila Rule, "Reagan Gets A Red Carpet From British," The New York Times Archives, 14 June 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/14/world/reagan-gets-a-red-carpet-from-british.html

[2] J. Habermas, Technik und Wissenschaft als “Ideologie”. [Technology and science as“ideology”] (Frankfurt: Surhrkamp, 1968).

[3] H. Marcuse, One-dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

[4] N. Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies, (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[5] H. J. Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, (Penguin Books, 2011).

[6] L. Winner, “Do artifacts have politics?,” Daedalus, Vol. 109 (1980): p. 121–136; Plato. The Republic, book VI.

[7] Luciana Floridini, “The Chinese Approach to Artificial Intelligence: an Analysis of Policy, Ethics, and Regulation”, MAIEI, 29 March 2021. https://montrealethics.ai/the-chinese-approach-to-ai-an-analysis-of-policy-ethics-and-regulation/

[8] Mark Zuckerberg: Meta, Facebook, Instagram, and the Metaverse | Lex Fridman Podcast #267 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zOHSysMmH0

CONTRIBUTOR
Marc van Meel
Marc van Meel

Marc van Meel is an AI & Ethics Lead for KPMG.

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