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Wendell Berry Against Your GPS

How we became an age of renters

Digital technologies tend to replace the skills they purport to augment. The use of typing has already destroyed most people’s capacity for legible handwriting. The use of email has not augmented the use of letters; letter writing is a lost art, and with it went any concern for craft, care, or punctuation in “long-form” communication. The transition from reading to online reading has not increased our reading capacities — it has turned us into jittery headline junkies without the patience for nuanced arguments.

Nor has the age of information improved our “information skills.” By rendering every person into a passive consumer of a “news feed” — seamlessly integrated with merchants’ advertisements — social media nullifies the human capacity to dredge out truth from a marsh of opinions and downright lies. When breakups, suicide bombings, and guacamole recipes are all presented in and through the same, evenly lit squares of information, information takes on a startling quality of sameness that begets no critical public. A recent study from Stanford University called young people’s “ability to reason about the information on the Internet…bleak.”

It would be foolish to deny that our digital tools help us live. But it is equally foolish not to add that their “help” wears away our “analog skills,” rendering us dependent on the internet for what was once an internet-free task.

This is also true of our emotional “skills.” The ubiquitous presence of the camera phone does not just add to our experience of significant events. It has become the very mode by which we claim events as significant, lifting our phones at dinners and concerts as a kind of duty by which we perform and realize a connection to the events that we record. We rely more and more heavily on the corporate provision of emojis, gifs, and memes to signify how we feel. We are increasingly uncomfortable with meeting and even calling people to navigate delicate emotional situations — like breakups and consolations in the face of death. The young person of the internet age can be roughly characterized as the person without the capacity to express his anger to an adult unless it is mediated through Twitter. The growing complaint that young men are unable to achieve erections without the use of internet porn is an icon of this obvious fact — the internet engenders the internet-man, primarily characterized by his need for the corporations that own and disseminate internet connection to help him perform the basic functions of his existence.

Now, any futurist worth his bytes would hear all this and scoff, “So what? New tools replace the old ones. Let them, and let nostalgic saps be replaced along with them.” But what I have been referring to as the loss of human skill can be equally described as the process by which we exchange ownership of our abilities for renting them. Consider a favorite piece of digital technology: the GPS. The problem with GPS technology is not merely the nostalgic loss of map reading. The problem with GPS technology is that it replaces the human capacity of “finding one’s way about” with a tool that one must continually rent from the wealthy in order to use. What was once possible by the strategic use of a map and one’s car (or one’s feet) is now made possible by monthly payments to power companies, data providers, and Alphabet Incorporated for the right to use a tool that one does not own.

The difference between an age of property rent and an age of digital rent is that while it benefited the former landlords to make their presence known, it benefits digital landlords — be they lords of internet service, physical technology, data, electricity, or coding — to hide. Property landlords want to remind you to pay the rent. Data-lords want you to forget that you are paying it. The reason is simple: Property is necessary. Digital conveniences are not. You could own maps instead of renting Google Maps; own physical media instead of renting streaming services; own books, paper, pens, and cabinets instead of renting Microsoft Office. Data-lords hide the fact that you rent your capacities from them, because, at the end of the day, you don’t need them.

Thus, most of our rent payments for digital services don’t feel like payments. We pay rent by selling our attention span to third-party advertisers. They front cash to Google and Facebook to run their advertisements in the confidence that we will pay it back, with interest, by purchasing the products they peddle. What isn’t paid by third-party money-fronting is paid by the sale of our personal information, habits, and tastes to advertisers, which tailor their messages to what tempts us.

In the specific case of Google Maps, we pay our rent by confusing the results of our searches with the paid “suggestions” of businesses. Adding to this cost, corporations pay Google for us to see their icons — McDonald’s golden arches, Hilton’s “H” — rather than generic restaurant or hotel symbols. We hassled travelers respond to their familiarity. The status quo is reinforced — we rent our means of getting about by paying money to the corporations that have paid Google for the ad space. To hide the fact that we have exchanged an owned, human skill for a tool rented from the superwealthy, our data-lords hide the transaction, presenting Google Maps like they present all their products — as free services. If the terms of our rent were made explicit, the result would be comic. Imagine, if you will, a lease agreement from Facebook:

The TENANT of FACEBOOK agrees, by the end of each month, to view an average of 2,500 advertisements and sponsored posts which, statistically, will result in 3.1 to 5.7 manufactured desires per year, which will result in 1 to 4.2 purchases per year with an average net worth of $100.37. The TENANT also agrees, by virtue of the tenant’s presence on FACEBOOK, to serve as an advertisement for others to join, resulting in an average of 2.1 new users, hereby referred to as SUBLEASERS, who will likewise make 1 to 4.2 purchases a month. Furthermore, the TENANT agrees to replace an average of 1.2 human skills a year with a digital service owned by FACEBOOK or one of its subsidiaries…

There is a reason why, of the eight people who own over half the world’s wealth, four are digital landlords: Zuckerberg, Bezos, Ellison, and Gates. Our age is one of unimaginably concentrated wealth because it is an age of hidden rent; an age in which “analog” systems are digitized, an update that while only vaguely improving “speed” and “convenience,” always and everywhere exchanges ownership into the hands of the wealthy. What we think of as inevitable technological “progress” can be equally described as the process by which, under the guidance of the wealthy, ownership changes into renting.

Of course, this was already argued by Wendell Berry, the radical farmer, poet and philosopher, who gained minor infamy in the 1980s by telling the world “Why I Will Never Own a Computer.” In a follow-up to his essay, Berry explained that the “[technological] revolution has been successful in putting unheard-of quantities of consumer goods and services within the reach of ordinary people. But the technical means of this popular ‘affluence’ has at the same time made possible the gathering of the real property and the real power of the country into fewer and fewer hands.”

Thanks to the hard work of the wealthy, we are swiftly approaching an age in which we cannot “do without” the GPS technology of the smartphone. My generation owns neither map nor atlas, and if we did, we have forgotten how to read them. For us, space has become a series of desired destinations that Google reveals upon request — we believe, or very nearly believe, that the two or three route options our data-lords provide us are the only ways to get to a place. An iPhone crash mid-trip has become less of a minor inconvenience and more of a disaster. The human skill of “getting about” is gathered into the hands of the few and sold back to the many, with interest.

The self-driving car, then, is not some awesome, futuristic advance. It is the next logical step in the transition from ownership to renting, within the specific field of individual navigation. We are already obeying directions that we rent from the wealthy — the self-driving car simply automates our already mechanized motion. We began by paying Google to tell us when to turn the wheel; we will end by paying Google to do the turning. In the age of the Google-driven car, there is no “doing without” the wealthy — the world will become a spread-out place, connected by a standardized road system, navigated by Google, for you, at the price of rent, with as much grim necessity as when the car itself became “necessary” for navigation in the 20th century.

Every technology of the digital age follows the same path: the replacement of an owned, human skill for a rented digital convenience — one that eventually becomes a rented digital need. We are renting our capacity for communication, navigation, memory, trade, sexual arousal, and entertainment from men who are, unsurprisingly, growing wealthy by their growing number of renters. My fear is that once enough human skills have made the full transition to the point where we really do need the wealthy to live, move, and laugh, our data-lords will no longer need to obscure the relationship of rent. The owner of the tools that an entire nation must rent in order to navigate need not be shy about the fact that you are paying for his product. You need him in order to work, love, and live; you need his products as humans once needed food, clothing, and shelter. Thus the age of the gentle, philanthropic data-lords will fade, and the owners of what has now become a necessary utility will able to act like so many owners of necessary utilities act — like tyrants.

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