Engineering Illusions: An Insider’s Take on the Tech Industry
Reviewing the unchecked promises of technology and the abuse of technology by the powerful
Amidst our breathless technological mania, a gadget that can disabuse us of our extravagant dreams about technology is sorely needed. If only our technical trance was an energy source; then it could perpetually power our automobiles, phones, social media and aerial taxis. Elaborate tales about the wonders of technology have always animated our scientific and technical enterprise. At once tangible and available, yet intangible and distant, technology touches all aspects of our lives, even as we await and gossip about its unknown but assuredly transcendent effects on a later day. Ennobling technology with its own will, our resolute reverence for it solemnly declares: today, technology is an elixir; tomorrow, technology is salvation.
From boardrooms to congressional hearing rooms to classrooms to living rooms, the idolization of tech CEOs, celebration of the tech industry, and breathless consumption of its every product runs wild. As the belief goes, today’s blessings of technology bring with them the possibilities of that glorious future, one enriched by ever increasing technical accretion. The final future is always at hand, and the bell is permanently about to toll to signal terminal technological deliverance. Then our work will have completed, and utopia will have been constructed.
In 1999, Wired Magazine’s founding executive editor Kevin Kelly penned an effusive prediction about an imminent nirvana that was upon Americans. Titled The Roaring Zeroes, the piece promised, “The good news is, you’ll be a millionaire soon. The bad news is, so will everybody else.” Predicting incessant stock market growth, improving living and working standards and full employment through digitally integrated international markets, Kelly placed these outcomes at the altar of the internet. Indeed, this technological marvel would bring about an “ultraprosperity wave,” and as it splashed over the majority, the affluent lifestyles of the rich “will become a template for everyone else.” Hence, “what the rich have in the year 2000, the rest [would] have in 2020: personal chefs, stay-at-home moms, six-month sabbaticals.” Packed with grand claims, the piece topped it all by noting that “air, soil, and water pollution will lower dramatically in the next 20 years,” and people will “start working later, retire earlier, and live longer;” this only after corporations hire high-school grads and pay for their college education because labor would be in short supply.
Perched upon the promised future, one can now survey the landscape of the past two decades. The internet did lead to rising productivity, in part driven by insecure contract and gig work. Income and wealth distribution continued to become more concentrated as wages for the majority continued to stagnate. In 1999, the top 0.1% of Americans secured a staggering 162 times the income of the bottom 90% of country. In 2018, it had ballooned to 196 times the income made by the bottom 90%, touching Great Depression territory. For context, the multiple hovered around 40–50 during the 1960s. By 2010, the increase in life expectancy in the US had plateaued, even beginning to decline by 2014. Noting the creation of a “tremendous amount of personal wealth” as the internet era spawned many millionaires and billionaires, tech executive and investor Bill Davidow proclaimed in 2014, “The Internet is the greatest legal facilitator of inequality in human history.”
A 2017 CareerBuilder study showed that 78% of Americans lived paycheck to paycheck, and as for corporations hiring high-school grads and then paying for their education, there were approximately 45 million students straddled with a combined $1.6 trillion in student debt as of 2019. Prophecies about the benefits of the webbed wonder did not seem to materialize, even if those regarding its sheer capabilities outdid most predictions. This wasn’t the first time a technical fantasy had misfired.
Nevertheless, expecting technology to improve the present is reasonable. After all, given the advanced capabilities of these technologies, one would expect a strong positive correlation between technical development and universal improvement of the human condition — professed goals that anyone can recite after attending the day of orientation at any tech company. Yet, in the face of tremendous global problems such as poverty, hunger, nuclear risk, environmental devastation, climate breakdown, corrosion of democracies and indeed, extreme inequality, it has become difficult to reconcile our impressive technological capabilities with concurrent realities. Beneath the undying celebration and worship of cell phones, electric vehicles, the internet, airplanes, gene editing, machine learning and other technical results lies a glaring need to penetrate the institutions that have carved the scientific and technical enterprise to their own ends. As technology’s stature has shifted from simply a means to a self-justifying, axiomatic end, two pertinent questions emerge: by whose means, and to what end?
Our contemporary romance with technology merely continues a long, fanatic dream of technical transcendence that has lasted for more than a thousand years. The mania has never been dampened by the blatant abuse of technical work by the prevalent powers of the day. Engineering Illusions begins by unfurling the history of the ‘useful arts’ from the Middle Ages. Part I, Religion and Technology, analyzes the religious epistemic roots of the modern scientific and technical enterprise. The tree of religion, with the vine of technology coiled around it, provides a vantage point to understand our unremitting technical obsessions. Tech CEOs making grand proclamations about saving the world, investors selling the life-changing potential of a finance management app, or an internet-connected fitness contraption claiming to deliver bodily perfection share a secret bond with ancient religious doctrine.
Religious thought, particularly Christianity and its foundational tenets, may not be prominently featured during Google’s annual conferences, a General Electric commercial, or in legislation backed by automobile manufacturers, but it most certainly continues to shape today’s beliefs about technology. Modern secularism nevertheless contains within it religious convictions about technology — from artificial intelligence, biotechnology, to space exploration — rooted in a deep lust for Godlike knowledge, divine perfection and heavenly ascension and escape.
Today, these convictions inform industrial development, economic policy, public discourse, investment beliefs and international relations. Technology and our perceived ascension with it continue to weave our dreams about the future, a historical tradition that is more than a thousand years in the making. Understanding today’s abuse of technology, and accompanying flowery promises made by powerful interests under state-capitalism, begins here.
Technology’s impact is in part merely operational: the internet reshaped international finance markets, or the automobile changed the direction of urban planning and transit systems. But more importantly, it is ideological: religious beliefs in this seraph called technology are absorbed and in turn promoted by two very terrestrial institutions for their own ends: the state and private power. Davidow is incorrect. The internet is not the greatest legal facilitator of inequality in human history. That would be the institutions that control and squander this otherwise neutral technology to their own ends.
Part II, State and Technology, investigates the national crucible from which the modern technical enterprise has emerged. The state, in its attempts to maintain its preponderance in the world through technological supremacy, seeks to develop and deploy technology primarily to maintain its dominance. In this act, the long history of the useful arts bending to serve state power is repeated. A democracy seeking to best utilize its technical capacities to universally make available the fruits of technology must first contend with the state, for it has other ideas about our technical direction, budgets, and priorities. For instance, while wars of aggression to protect national security strain the definition of ‘national’ or even ‘security,’ inextricably tied to war budgets is the fate of long and expensive research and development programs that yield advanced technologies like GPS, computer processors and the lithium-ion battery.
Emerging technologies such as 5G communication, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity tools and advanced manufacturing techniques have already cast various states into a contest of techno-nationalism against the prevalent neoliberal international order. These technologies are poised to reshape the international economic and political landscape, and states are on high alert. No matter the regime — nationalism or liberal globalization — the state’s primal desire to maintain its supremacy remains. Under the state’s insatiable desire for power, technology becomes a mere tool to affect this aim, as the creativity and dedication of the technical enterprise is directed away from the professed virtuous goals of human development, and towards more serious matters of state power.
The state plays a monumental role in the modern scientific and technical enterprise. Research and development, raw material extraction and procurement, financial support, and international engagement across various markets are but a few steps that the state takes to advance technology. Informing these decisions is the state’s primary mandate for its own power. Any attempt to understand the trajectory of our technologies and their repeated mutilation cannot neglect this primordial necessity.
Part III, Private Power and Technology, reviews how our scientific and technical work is largely organized. The operating principles of private institutions like corporations and financial interests exercise critical control over which technologies are developed and how they are deployed. Attempts to reconcile the advanced state of our technologies that incessantly fail to produce that magnificent futuristic nirvana must account for these institutions. Today, far from a nirvana, Silicon Valley and the modern technological economy at large faces what has been called the ‘techlash’ — a generalized resentment towards tech companies. Precipitating unstable labor markets, privacy violations, national surveillance, worker abuse and tax evasion are but a few cited reasons.
At the peak of our technological achievements, one would have hoped to see the apogee of human satisfaction and contentment. Yet, in the face of phenomenal capabilities in communication, mobile technologies, agriculture, automation, information management, transportation, and other fields, there is a swelling ‘techlash.’ In a 2018 pseudo letter to the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Apple, the Economist magazine proposed some voluntary antitrust remedies to quell the rising resentments. It noted, “There is one ray of light. Almost all your services remain wildly popular with consumers; they use your products to communicate, to navigate, to search for stuff, to buy things and to socialize. They cannot imagine life without you.”
“Cannot imagine life without you” either indicates indispensably valuable, or unavoidably powerful. In either case, merely offering weak, voluntary anti-trust fixes misses the complete scope of private power’s control over the scientific and technical enterprise, and why technologies are being recklessly abused and agonizingly frittered away. A broader analysis is in order. Obscuring this analysis is the thick fog of ideology — formed by business doctrine. What must cut through the fog is, oh what’s the term…a ray of light.
Paradoxically, as institutional abuse of technologies continues unabated, and reasoned, tactical use diminishes, resolute faith in technology seems to only expand. Challenging these doctrines reveals possibilities of developing and utilizing our technologies for their proclaimed goals of universal service to humanity. Summarizing the combined effects of religion, state and private power, Part IV, Conclusion discusses alternatives that can help foster a robust, democratic scientific and technical enterprise. Rebuking our milieu’s impulse for the novel and the flashy, many of these actions are well established and quite conventional.
Rationality hardly characterizes our combined technological activity, an endeavor soaked in machine madness and spinning with high-tech hallucinations. This is the unfortunate outcome of longstanding irrational ideologies operating on what pretends to be the most logical and reasoned of human undertakings. Given the dire challenges facing humanity today, radically reorienting our technological endeavors is not just intellectual masturbation, but a critical exercise to redirect our capacities to meet the urgent problems of the day.
Note: In this discussion, the “scientific and technical enterprise” refers to our cumulative endeavors in the applied sciences and technological sectors to produce various outputs. Here, “enterprise” is not limited to business. While Silicon Valley is used here as a modern proxy for the totality of the endeavor, it remains but a subset of the whole enterprise. In this light, it’s not just Amazon, Uber and Apple that belong to the scientific and technical enterprise, but Boeing, Ford, AT&T, Department of Defense and other institutions are included as well, which also interact with Silicon Valley to be sure.
The discussion here largely keeps to the United States, barring some exceptions. There are a few reasons for this. The US holds technological preponderance on the world stage. US-origin trans-national corporations are some of the most dominant technology entities on the planet. Notwithstanding the seasonal tradition of frantic speculations of its global decline, the US still controls the majority of the world’s wealth, and commands by far the largest military (itself a product of the technological enterprise). Lastly, even domestically, technology dominates much of the political economy of the country, as just five tech companies accounted for 25% of the S&P 500 in July 2020. Hence, the evaluation of the scientific and technical enterprise begins here.
The final reason for the US-centric analysis is rather straightforward. It is the same reason why a member of this enterprise might question his own community’s diligent and dispassionate service to power systems that abuse our technological capabilities. As computer scientist Drew McDermott once put it simply in 1976, “If we can’t criticize ourselves, someone else will save us the trouble.”