“World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued1), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.”
– Zadie Smith
Smith is not alone in making a distinction between those who shape the new digital worlds and those who consume them. This is often done for the purposes of critique by those on the outside:
1) Why did you choose to do it this way and not that way?
2) Did you not think about the long-term effects on people / society / culture?
3) What drives you to make things like this in the first place?
These questions perhaps miss the importance of the distinction upon which they stand, i.e. between those who make the worlds and those who merely consume them. I’d like to focus a bit on whether the implicit division of responsibilities between those asking the questions and those who are expected to then answer them is legitimate.
Any person with a modest understanding of the current breed of consumer technologies spends time explaining how to work these gadgets to those who are new to them. Or help solve common problems for people who just don’t get them. Think of the relative or friend asking how to work their new iPhone or change their profile picture on Facebook.
The sub-group of those who do get it and actually build these world-making technologies is smaller. They’re the ones building web applications or new mobile apps for themselves or more often, corporations and governments.
A tiny sub-group within this sub-group directs the platforms that shape the foundations on which the new worlds are being made. These are the ones working in the tech giant platforms, such as Facebook or Google. It is this tiny portion of people who are in particular accused of being less reflective about their own motivations and its implications.
The majority of people may also be accused of adopting new technologies in an unthinking manner, often due to social pressures, but are not held as responsible for the way they were made.
This naive view does not seem to stand up to scrutiny. Several objections stand out to me:
a) The conditions under which new transformative technologies have emerged are not shaped by the people who built them. The creators of the Internet and the legislators who put in place the individualist-capitalistic system that enabled the world-making of Zuckerberg etc. are the ones who set the limits of what is possible. The structure of this system is ideological – built on a faith in markets, individualism, low regulation (freedom), unrestrained capital; the commoditisation and productisation of all aspects of human life etc.
b) The culture of usage is not wholly under the control of the makers of technology either. It can certainly be argued that world-makers exploit aspects of human psychology to achieve their goals. But as the technology shapes the culture, the culture shapes the technologies. World-makers put on the clothes and fulfil the dreams of their forefathers with the cultural markers of the past clearly evident in both what they choose to build but also how they hope to organise themselves.
This is evident in how they formulate their work, and importantly, in the kind of future they choose to oppose through their works. By which I mean, the way they talk about what they’re doing as serving some need beyond raw capitalism and by the often, libertarian and techno-utopian values they adopt.
c) The vast majority of people make everyday choices, selecting the technologies they prefer based on criteria that are aimed towards some good they want, be it for example, lifestyle convenience, new leisure opportunities, or time management.
The general consumer is not necessarily blind to the potentially negative outcomes of their choices, even if they are overwhelmed with conflicting information about what these might be.
But our society as a whole has not adopted a selective stance about its technology adoption. In fact, it is both hostile to collective stances where it conflicts with individual choice and fatalistic about the invention and spread of all technologies.
This fatalism is admittedly endorsed by the people invested in producing new technologies, who in general may wish to proceed without being hindered by regulation or social opprobrium (although this is not universal).
It is also a pragmatic outcome of the experience of past efforts to constrain technology for moral reasons. In the view of the techno-libertarian, either such restrictions don’t work or have side-effects so undesirable that even those who may approve of some restrictions, grow resigned to the onward march of technological progress.
Value judgements about technology or its use are thus constrained to be individualistic, rather than communal, at least by default.
This is not to say world-makers themselves have no concerns about what they are doing nor that they are always hostile to the notion that a wider conversation in society is necessary.
What bares greater thought, however, is why we, broadly speaking, have adopted such a fatalistic and individualistic attitude, rather than pursuing a more communal approach, to the new worlds being made.
Why have we in fact, put the responsibility of of our technological future in the hands of so few?
Smith, Z. (2010) Generation Why? [Online]. Available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/11/25/generation-why/ (Accessed 19 April 2018).