The Deification of Technology

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  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    This is thick, and I don’t have a ton of time to really dig into it, but it strikes me that the author is complaining that one set of elites is supplanting their preferred set of elites.

    Looking at the bit about ‘tests’, and ignoring that a large number of them have zero scientific basis (they are marketing tools), and the rest are only somewhat better than astrology and horoscopes at predicting anything, these tests are merely the modern replacement for religious or cultural elites offering up their opinions regarding whatever thing is being tested.

    The author basically says this when noting that:

    This is compounded when those in charge are also the most comfortable with the Technopoly.

    How is this different from religious leaders being most comfortable with scripture and capable of leveraging select passages to offer up the meaning they wish to convey? Or political leaders doing the same with polling data, or just being able to ‘read a crowd’?

    I mean, the author makes a lot of good points regarding technology and how it can be misused (criminal justice, racism, etc.), but does not appear to address how the elites of old did the exact same thing, and with much more naked ambition.

    I’m fine with a robust criticism of how we over rely on technology and data/big data. I can read about that all day. But coupling such a criticism with what comes across to me as a lament for the old ways of things just strikes me as whining about the shifting of power away from what the author is comfortable with.Report

  2. Avatar Swami
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    “The Technopoly is systemic force of thought and for alignment. Like all systems, someone has to be in control. The massive amounts of power and control that the Technopoly consolidates are not happenstance.”

    The second sentence is clearly and absolutely incorrect. For counter examples, look up emergence, complex adaptive systems, systems of spontaneous order, or better yet, google just Scott Anderson’s writings on “Moloch”.

    That doesn’t mean the first or third sentences are wrong, but it certainly causes one to consider they may be mistaken.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Swami
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      Honestly, I’m not comfortable with sentence two: “Like all systems someone has to be in control”. Mostly, the systems I deal with every day don’t have some one, some single person, in control. But I think I maybe engage with the word “system” a bit differently.

      I have a digestive system. Is someone in control of that? I’m certainly not in control of it. As I get older, I get constant reminders of that.Report

    • John-Pierre John-Pierre in reply to Swami
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      says:

      Fair point. I would just say that this system benefits a specific group of people, and is largely run by them. Now whether they took control after the system was already in place, is another question.Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    When I think of the deification of computers, I naturally think of Deep Thought, the fictional computer created by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Adams used Deep Thought to lampoon the idea that computers were somehow more authoritative than any human, er, sentient being.

    “A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate—and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its ten-million-year program! Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called… the Earth.”

    And so on. This was written about 1980,

    I think this attitude is actually lessening these days. This attitude comes from a time when computers filled up whole, specially-designed rooms. In order to interact with one, one needed special access. Now we carry around far more powerful computers in our purses and hip pockets. We have computers in our refrigerators, washers and dryers, and maybe in our toasters. We moan about them being wrong or breaking down all the time.

    I think this trope has seen its heyday and is fading.Report

  4. Avatar Swami
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    says:

    Let me also push back on another part of this post…

    “A consequence of this is our inability to argue for anything, without the addition of statistics. To posit a new approach to helping the homeless, you must first provide statistics that show incarceration and city clean-up campaigns negatively affect them.”

    Yes, Virginia, the world really is complex. The counter argument is that simplistic, “feelsgood”, intuitive responses to real world problems in a complex society with unintended effects and feedback loops is bound to lead us astray. Statistics is simply a tool which can be used to help us make sense of the messiness of reality.

    Is it perfect? No.

    Can it be abused? Yes?

    Are we better with it, than without? Almost definitely.

    “To complicate the issue further, someone might come along with their own set of statistics showing that breaking someone’s legs doesn’t hurt them in the long. Who is to believe then? If you try to argue that their position is inherently sadistic and evil, you’ll be accused of an ad hominem. Or, heaven forbid, virtue-signaling. Data is taken as truly objective, as the one path to knowing what is true.”

    Rather than the one true path, how about an just an extremely useful path? It really seems that the author just wants to clear the table of any pesky folks who might disagree with him with facts or something.Report

    • John-Pierre John-Pierre in reply to Swami
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      says:

      That statement is more directed toward the “rational” “facts don’t care about your feelings” segment of the right (specifically). I’m not trying to clear the table of opponents. Just pushing back against unhelpful and unhealthy mindsets.Report

      • Avatar Swami in reply to John-Pierre
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        says:

        I am not following you. I don’t think your argument is that facts “do” care about your feelings, so I assume you are referencing some movement from the right which is widely despised or something. Perhaps if you elaborate.

        If those on the right disagree with you (on say minimum wage, disparity in pay by gender, or incarceration rates/justice by race) are you suggesting that their arguments using statistics are unhelpful and unhealthy and disingenuous? Why?Report

  5. Avatar George Turner
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    Being somewhat older, I’m reminded of the day when the railroad tycoons were running things. Horses or a man’s labor was obsolete compared the power of steam engines! Then it was those automobile folks like Ford and Chrysler and Dodge, and they rigged things to favor car transport. Train folks didn’t like that very much.

    Then you had those nuts who thought the future was airplanes, like the Wrights, Sopwith, Fokker, McDonald, Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed, and countless others who thought that just because they understood their flying monstrosities meant there was some reason they should benefit by building lots of them and convincing all us poor saps that flying was “the future.”

    Well they were all just leading us astray! A man’s proper place is where it always was, either behind a plow or in a pew giving thanks for the food that God grows right out of the ground, instead of these newfangled inventions that mainly enrich their delusional creators. They seek to supplant God in men’s hearts, and nothing good will ever come of it.Report

  6. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    Somehow this essay brings to mind Patrick Deneen’s criticism of liberalism, that the stress on radical individualism has destroyed the ability to craft a coherent worldview which is meaningful.

    In that the chief success of technology has been to increase the ability of individuals to make choices independent of the existing institutions like church and state which defined the range of acceptable options.

    I also compare it to Maria Farrell’s piece at Crooked Timber
    http://crookedtimber.org/2019/09/14/this-is-your-phone-on-feminism/
    Where she asserts that the relationship we have with our cell technology is akin to an abusive relationship; We love our phones but know that they are untrustworthy and not beholden to our best interests.Report

    • John-Pierre John-Pierre in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      Thanks for this! I’ll be sure to check it out.Report

    • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      “I hope that the people of America will understand and believe when I tell you that our mission upon this planet is simply this: to bring to you the peace and plenty which we ourselves enjoy, and which we have in the past brought to other races throughout the world. When your community has no more hunger, no more war, no more needless suffering, that will be our reward.”

      -The Good Society (aka the Cultural Majority, aka Kanamits)Report

  7. Avatar North
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    says:

    This post touches on a theme that I have been chewing on for a while. Personally whenever someone comments on the very true fact that there are some things that cannot be empirically qualified or measured I instinctively reach to check my wallet. It inevitably seems to fall out that in discussions of public policy whenever someone says there’re things that can’t be measured it is inevitably followed up by calls for very measurable changes in policy.

    From the right you see it in religious appeals to the ineffable, unknowable and un-disprovable God very briskly followed up by demands for very quantifiable dollars, very measurable changes in day to day empirical behavior and very observable alterations to rules around public interactions. God is unknowable and hidden beyond the veil, it seems, but we do know for sure he isn’t fond of very specific sets of behavior and only wants us to focus on certain even more specific subsets of that behavior. Also he’d really like us to give a lot of money and power to religious figures quickly now.

    From the left there’s a mirroring, though thankfully far less powerful and pervasive, strain of thought that peddles the same woo-woo snake oil only in service of different immeasurable things. We cannot measure the economic value of happiness or well-being (true) so we must pour very measurable units of economic effort into various left with policy sinkholes and never mind where it’s coming from or what result it’s producing. We cannot measure the nature of a person’s feelings or self-identity nor the relative value of a group’s culture so we must very measurably privilege certain minority identities and cultures and very measurably pour tribulation on different (generally more widespread) cultures and identities. Oh and everyone and everything is racist, most especially testing and empirical sciences.

    But public policy pretty much necessarily has to deal with measurable and empirical issues because measurable and empirical issues are the only areas where public policy can have any hope of being effecacious and just. You ask the right wing theocrats or the left wing progressive mandarins “how will we be able to tell if this policy is working” and they assure you “oh don’t worry, we’ll be your in-house wizards to tell you it’s working well” and again, whack, there goes the hand to the wallet.

    It’s enough to make one long for a magical spell or divine miracle to banish all those kooks, left and right, to some island where they could regress to pre-stone age state of being and hurtle invective at each other like rival bands of howler monkeys.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to North
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      says:

      Way back in the ancient times when Led Zeppelin ruled the airwaves, James Fallows wrote an essay called “Deliver The Mail/ Holy Grail” or the DETMAHOG theory of government, where all agencies could be classified as either Deliver The Mail or Holy Grail missions.

      Agencies like the Corps of Engineers, FAA, National Parks, Treasury are Deliver The Mail agencies that had very objective and quantifiable goals;
      Holy Grail agencies are ones like the EEOC, EPA and welfare agencies that had some sort of societal improvement goals which were impossible to quantify.

      He pointed out that the former were popular among conservatives and the latter popular among liberals.

      Except, he concluded, the agencies most prized by conservatives like Defense and Police had the most Holy Grail of all missions, which was Security.

      But over time I’ve seen how even the most seemingly objective mission contains within it a choice of metrics for success or failure is itself the result of arbitrary moral values.

      It doesn’t do any good for example to assert that Policy X will result in higher GDP, unless we all agree that a higher GDP is the correct metric.
      Or to say that this policy will result in greater degree of lifestyle choice, unless we think such freedom is a preferred goal.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Chip Daniels
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        says:

        I would argue that the EPA is probably closer to a “deliver the mail” agency than a “Holy Grail” one since most of its mandate focuses on very measurable matters. But it’s still a great point.

        And I agree that there’re base priors that have to be hashed out. I suspect it’s probably my libertarian-sympathetic side’s fault that gives me the notion that if you drill down to the base principles and there’re really large groups of population that disagree on the basic priors you should be hesitant to be having public policy picking winners and losers between them. But then my liberal side raises its hand and points out that most of our modern cultural contratemps involve liberals saying “these people deserve to have the state take its boot off their face” while conservatives screech “but what about my right not to see these people walking around without a state boot on their face???” As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begin to perceive a strain of very left liberalism that starts to sneak into the “lets put the boot on the normies necks for the sake of it” kind of stuff and that’s an island too far for me.

        But yeah, it’s a very complicated subject and it can be really complicated. To take your GDP example for instance, is it worth it to adopt a policy that results in 100x more benefit to society even if that 100x is unevenly distributed to the members of said society? On the one hand; everyone is better off- on the other hand the experiment with monkeys getting grapes or cucumber slices for the same work speaks to real concerns.Report

    • Avatar Swami in reply to North
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      This comment could have been a front page post on its own.Report

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