The real threat of the tech revolution
Big Tech is making big changes to the way we think about ourselves and others
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Big Tech is a problem. That’s one statement that seems to unite liberals and conservatives today. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article that indicated most Americans, regardless of party political loyalties, would like to see the government to do more to curb the power of Apple and the like. From censorship of dissident voices to manipulative algorithmic newsfeeds to invasions of privacy, the issues now seem obvious. The Journal’s findings show that people are particularly concerned about the effect of social media on children. Indeed, we can only contemplate with dread what the internet will do to the rising generation for whom Instagram is central to self-image and for whom sex education takes the form of online pornography.
These concerns are, of course, all legitimate; but they do not address the most fundamental challenge that Big Tech poses: the threat to our basic humanity.
One of the fundamental fallacies concerning technology is that it simply helps us do things faster, more efficiently, with greater precision, and with less personal inconvenience. In short, it allows us to live the same lives, only better. Technology is simply not that straightforward or innocent. It mediates reality to us, and in doing so, it reshapes how we imagine the world and our place within it. It is no surprise that the authority of institutions—from churches to banks and stores—declined in the wake of the internal combustion engine. Now the individual could easily imagine driving to the neighboring town to worship, borrow money, and buy groceries.
I suspect that the automobile revolution will appear relatively trivial compared to the tech revolution we are now living in. The speed of technological change is breathtaking. We do not have time to adapt to one development before another supersedes it. Hence the feeling of vertigo many of us feel as we find our ways of imagining the world to be antiquated even before we have had time to come to terms with their significance.
Now, lest any think that this is tending towards a Luddite polemic against technological change, let me say that many developments are simply developments, neither good nor bad in themselves. But even so, it is worth asking what the tendency or the tilt of our current tech revolution might be.
I would argue that it is tilting us away from the importance of bodily presence, whether by accident or design. Now relativizing the body is not a development unique to information technology. Industrial mechanization accustomed us to the idea that bodily strength was less important in the modern age than before the rise of machines. Feminist theorists have looked for decades to technology to sever the connection between female embodiment and what they perceive as the burden of motherhood. And now it is training us all to think of bodies in themselves as less important, period.
A moment’s reflection makes this clear. Online shopping means that we no longer must engage with store assistants or experience serendipitous encounters with others in the aisle. Records turned music from a communal experience into a private one, and streaming apps have now universalized that. Uber rides can be mediated entirely through the app, removing the need for any interaction with the driver. Finally, there is the debasing of the language of friendship to refer to people we have encountered (as in, not really encountered) on Facebook.
It is hard to know the long-term social cost of this, but some aspects of the price tag are already emerging. When Twitter becomes a prime medium for polemics, not only are complex issues forced into the straitjacket of simplistic soundbites, but the discussion lacks all the vital elements of personal interaction: tone of voice, facial expression, the intangible power of physical proximity to lower the temperature and suppress the more violent elements of vocabulary.
When life is lived primarily online with those who are physically absent, then those natural forms of authority that physical presence often reinforces—that of teacher over student, of neighborhood or nation over villagers and citizens, of parents over children—are not simply weakened but actually subverted and even denied. Parents who still think the educational choice they make for their children is the most critical decision they make are sadly mistaken. That they decide whether their children can have smartphones is likely of more importance. The physically present teacher, like the physically present parent, is not the most important influence in the life of a child who thinks their online activity is where true reality is to be found.
Where we go from here is not clear. But being aware of the problem is a start. Big Tech censorship is only one part of the challenge we face. Maybe anti-trust legislation can fix or mitigate that. Maybe. But the deeper one is that of the fundamental way it denies the importance of that most human of things: bodily presence. To be human is to be present with and for others—as anyone who has ever been at the bedside of a dying loved one knows. No app is adequate in that context. And if that is the main problem, government legislation cannot solve that for us.
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