Revenge of the Nerds

This essay was first published in Arena Quarterly

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Don’t be alarmed if you hear a tinkling noise in the San Francisco Bay Area these days. Chances are that it’s simply the sound of scales falling from the eyes of tech employees, as they come to realise that the companies they work for aren’t quite as upstanding as they claim to be, and that the collection of massive amounts of data from billions of social media users may be, well, a little ethically dubious. Time was when the denizens of Silicon Valley seemed convinced that their collective efforts heralded a new form of capitalism: open, utopian, progressive, clean. Now you can’t move for disaffected coders ready and eager to rip back the curtain on the Big Tech wizards and their magic art. Having helped design the digital platforms on which we now spend much of our lives, such insiders are necessarily well placed to tell us how that magic is worked. And tell us they will, with that appealing blend of self-reproach and nerdy enthusiasm: The Big Short meets The Big Bang Theory.

All of which is welcome, of course. But as a way of talking about info-capitalism, it has certain crucial limitations. The Irish tech journalist Maria Farrell has written of the way in which such insider perspectives mirror the parable of the prodigal son, with its ‘massive payload of moral hazard’: if we’re going to venerate ‘The Prodigal Techbro’ (PT) for having seen the error of his ways, might we be creating a perverse incentive to play the Big Tech game for a while? Certainly the case of former Google lobbyist Ross LaJeunesse gives pause for concern. LaJeunesse left Google in 2019 and attempted to leverage his decision to do so in support of his campaign for a US Senate seat. In an article published on Medium, LaJeunesse invoked Google’s imperative, ‘Don’t be evil’, before declaring, ‘Things have changed.’ But as hundreds of comments on the piece pointed out, things had changed a long time before LaJeunesse joined Google (in 2008), never mind by the time he took his leave. To call such moral framing self-serving would be to put it delicately.

But there is, perhaps, a deeper objection that one could make to the PT parable. For such narratives often channel the idea that there exists a set of admirable tech values that have been overridden by the profit motive, and would likely re-emerge in its absence. Technology is seen as something separable from information capitalism, rather than as something bound up with its trajectory, with the result that we get plenty of chatter about the monetisation of users’ attention by Facebook, YouTube, Google etc., but little, say, on the way the PC is marbled into a socioeconomic dispensation in which various forms of individual endeavour and abstract practice are privileged. There is a touch of Golden Age thinking here – one that reveres the ‘blue sky’ thinking of Steve Jobs and his analogues, while downplaying their sharp business practices. (Whatever Jobs’ countercultural leanings ran counter to, they never ran counter to the profit motive.) Notwithstanding Richard Stallman’s free software movement, even most open-source milieux were more pragmatic than ideological, focused on the quality of the final product rather than on the principle of common ownership. Many of the PTs are clearly good people, and fascinating to listen to. But their insights should not be taken for a full analysis of the symbiosis of capitalism and info-tech.

Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama, The Social Dilemma, provides a good illustration of both the strengths and the limitations of this insider perspective. Its PTs include Tristan Harris (former Google design ethicist), Tim Kendall (former Facebook executive), Justin Rosenstein (creator of the Facebook ‘like’ button) and Jaron Lanier (virtual reality pioneer). There are interviews, too, with Shoshana Zuboff (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, but it is the techies who sit at the centre of the film, determined to express the full insidiousness of the algorithms they helped create. As a further illustration of that insidiousness, we are given a series of dramatic segments depicting an American family as it navigates social media addiction, exposure to extremist content and so on, and a ludicrous subplot that re-imagines notifications software as a trio of button-punching psychopaths bent on keeping one high school student hooked into his social media accounts. (“Hey, do you guys ever wonder if the feed is, like, good for Ben?” asks one of them. Their snorts of derision suggest that they don’t.) And of course there are plenty of clever graphics, witty animations and the like: an implicit recognition of the fact that the people who need to see this film most urgently are the ones whose attention is hardest to hold.

Many of the central claims in the film will be familiar to anyone interested in the intersection between technology and capitalism, and some of the PTs seem aware that their insights – that users are raw material, not customers; that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product – have taken on a hoary quality. But on the question of how the ‘attention-extraction’ model of info-capitalism actually works the film is very good indeed. In essence, that model is to collect user data, build profiles of individual users, and attempt to predict and alter their behaviour with a view to attracting advertisers. It is a trade, says Zuboff, in ‘human futures’ – a new form of advertising, the space for which is sold on the understanding that predictions can be made on the basis of constant surveillance. Nor is this advertising model peripheral to the business of navigating the internet. As many of the PTs frame it, the model is the internet, or is objectively so for most of the world’s users. When I type ‘climate change’ into Google’s search box, the results that come back will depend on my profile. As the author Cathy O’Neil puts it, algorithms are optimised to some definition of success; and the definition of success in this case is the bottom line, not the edification of users.

Indeed, the gap between the self-projection of Big Tech and the reality on the ground is at its widest when we consider what is happening to those users. Rosenstein may be telling the truth when he says that Facebook’s ‘like’ button was conceived in a spirit of Kumbaya, but its effect has been to create a by-product – the social-approval-addicted user – that has, like gasoline in the oil-refining industry, now become the main line of business. The result is that this anxious user is conceived as a sort of voodoo doll that can be dosed and nudged and prodded at will through ‘positive intermittent reinforcement’ and various subliminal cues: a Skinner-box model in which our deepest desires are tied to the imperative of monetisation, not now and again, but constantly. Naturally, we are only just beginning to understand how our subjectivities are affected by this model, but Haidt is on hand with some frightening statistics showing a sharp increase in self-harm and suicide among US teens and (especially) pre-teens around 2010, when the first generation to grow up with social media – Generation Z – hit middle school.

Though the film is good on all of this, its tendency to present the attention-extraction model as a uniquely menacing development, as opposed to part of a broad trajectory, is more than an incidental limitation. The problem becomes especially marked when the film shifts its focus to the issue of fake news, extremism and political polarisation – problems it sees, or that the PTs see, as an unintended consequence of the ‘bespoke’ nature of social-media algorithms. The dramatic segments take a darker turn, as ‘Ben’ becomes obsessed with a group called Extreme Centre, and the experts muse about threats to democracy and the necessity for regulation. But whatever role social media plays in the process of political polarisation – and I’m sure it plays a major role – it is not the ultimate cause of such, and any implication that it is smacks of a liberal desire to police, or at least to parameterise, debate. Fake news may be a massive problem, but it is a far more complex phenomenon that many liberal commentators imagine, involving as it does the politicisation of knowledge itself by those who feel themselves excluded from a cultural-economic dispensation in which knowledge is now the main source of social capital. By calling the group Ben joins ‘Extreme Centre’ the filmmakers are signalling their impartiality. But there are some of us who do regard ‘the centre’ as a form of extremism posing as its opposite, and not all of us end up in pizza restaurants demanding to know where the kids are kept.

Thus we come to the question of the Left and what ‘we’ think about these issues, and for this Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley serves as an excellent point of departure. Her book is a memoir, the early chapters of which describe her life and work as a software engineer for Google, and her slow disaffection with the company as she comes to realise that the casual atmosphere of the Googleplex in Mountain View (more rumpus room than cube farm, it seems) belies a single-minded hierarchy bent on corporate secrecy and ruthless business practices. Eventually she jumps ship and joins the ranks of hopefuls eager to strike gold as a startup company, working all hours in a small team of friends. As the setbacks accumulate, the relationships fray, but the main tension that emerges, and eventually proves fatal, is between the idealism of the engineers and the nihilism of the marketplace. Liu is very honest on this score, and does not claim, LaJeunesse-style, to have been misled by corporate meanies; indeed, she is clear that as both a Google employee and a startup entrepreneur she believed strongly in meritocracy and rarely questioned the massive sums accumulated by the Alphas of Silicon Valley. Rather her idealism is something that grows as she learns more about the world. At any rate, and having repeatedly ‘pivoted’ from one business model to another, she decides to pivot away from the info-tech industry altogether.

The rest of the book is a description of her encounter with radical Left politics, ‘an analytical framework … that allowed me to situate my burgeoning scepticism of the tech industry within a larger critique of capitalism’. It ends with a series of ‘utopian’ suggestions as to how society could be organised, some of which have a bearing on hi-tech (more worker control of tech development, reduced copyright and patent term-lengths) and some of which are broader in focus. And it’s here that the central weakness of the book – its inability to think about tech as anything other than something owne­d – becomes apparent. A case in point: 

Google might argue that its self-driving car technology is their private property, and so for a former employee to share that technology with a competitor would be theft. And yet, if the technology is truly as useful to society as Google claims, then it would better serve the public interest if that technology were owned and developed by an institution accountable to the public.

True enough. But that first ‘if’ is a big one, and it isn’t going to get any smaller in the event that Silicon Valley is ‘abolished’. No less than the smartphone, or CRISPR-Cas9, or Ray Kurzweil’s dreams of digital immortality, the self-driving car evolved under capitalism in order to meet needs that evolved under capitalism, and if it was ever enough to say that technologies need to be ‘in public hands’ – and, again, that ‘if’ is a significant beast – it certainly isn’t enough today, when technology is transforming our subjectivities as quickly and as radically as at any point in human history.

In short, it is a very pale communism that haunts Abolish Silicon Valley, and many comparable dissertations. And what is missing, I think, is any sense of the human being as a bounded and embodied creature, subject to certain limitations. After all, it is possible to see the liberating potential of some varieties of automation and near-zero marginal cost technologies, and still remain nervous (not to say terrified) about the more general trend towards a technologised society in which relations of absence become the norm and various kinds of technological intervention become ever more permissible. While never exactly celebrating the hi-tech future in the manner of the tech utopians (or ‘fully automated luxury communists’, as the British writer Aaron Bastani has dubbed them), Liu does seem to accept the view that the tech itself is unproblematic, or will prove so under a new dispensation. Like the PTs in The Social Dilemma, she assumes that information technology and information capitalism are entities that can be neatly separated.

If the COVID pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that human sociality is about much more than meeting up on Microsoft Teams. It depends on the physical presence of others. Otherwise there’d be no problem, would there, save for the economic one, which could surely be solved with a bit of automation and a national fleet of delivery drones. That large parts of the Left have allowed themselves to be seduced by such tech utopianism (a tidy fit with an identity politics that admits of no natural limitations) is, I think, a worrying sign. Changing the economic algorithm is an urgent necessity, but it isn’t enough.

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The Social Dilemma (Exposure Labs, The Space Program, Agent Pictures, 2020)

Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, by Wendy Liu (Repeater Books, 2020)