Thursday, March 26, 2015

Wages Against the Machines

Evgeny Morozov:

Thus, there’s a very sinister and disturbing implication to be drawn from Carr’s work—namely, that only the rich will be able to cultivate their skills and enjoy their life to the fullest while the poor will be confined to mediocre virtual substitutes—but Carr doesn’t draw it. Here again we see what happens once technology criticism is decoupled from social criticism. All Carr can do is moralize and blame those who have opted for some form of automation for not being able to see where it ultimately leads us. How did we fail to grasp just how fun and stimulating it would be to read a book a week and speak fluent Mandarin? If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, what excuses do we have?

“By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil,” notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone. Workers of the world, relax—your toil is just a perception! However, once we accept that there might exist another, more banal reason why people embrace automation, then it’s not clear why automation à la Carr, with all its interruptions and new avenues for cognitive stimulation, would be of much interest to them: a less intelligent microwave oven is a poor solution for those who want to cook their own dinners but simply have no time for it. But problems faced by millions of people are of only passing interest to Carr, who is more preoccupied by the non-problems that fascinate pedantic academics; he ruminates at length, for example, on the morality of Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.

...How, the critics ask, could we be so blind to the deeply alienating effects of modern technology? Their tentative answer—that we are simply lazy suckers for technologically mediated convenience—reveals many of them to be insufferable, pompous moralizers. The more plausible thesis—that the growing demands on our time probably have something to do with the uptake of apps and the substitution of the real (say, parenting) with the virtual (say, the many apps that allow us to monitor kids remotely)—is not even broached. For to speak of our shrinking free time would also mean speaking of capital and labor, and this would take the technology critic too far away from “technology proper.”

I don't have the breadth of knowledge to be an actual critic, so it pleases me when someone who does have it says what I've been saying all along. It makes me feel a bit like the kid who first noticed the emperor's danglies swinging in the breeze.

Leaving aside the whole difficult question of whether most people actually want to live up to Carr's ideal vision of the contemplative, literate citizen, or whether they just dimly recognize that it makes them look good to at least profess to want it, the simple fact remains that most people simply don't have the fucking time and energy after a long day of work to relax by reading modernist literature before bed instead of scrolling aimlessly through Facebook (or to go for a walk according to the exacting standards of another elitist twat). People who actually, you know, work for a living have bigger and more urgent problems to worry about than whether their brains are getting the correct sort of exercise by sending text messages instead of composing letters with quill and inkwell.

And so fretting about one's technological consumption habits is becoming just one more trivial class signifier, one more way for people with the money to afford artisanal, free-range, handcrafted leisure time to conspicuously signal their status. The revolution is over, or, rather, it was stillborn to begin with. The bums, as always, are the ones who lose.