Social Media, Technology and the Modern Age: How Change was Replaced by a Designed Illusion

In the past, we may not have thought of design as the terrain on which the future of democracy would be decided. But that was before we entered into an age in which more and more of the designed objects and interactions we encounter became silently curated, positioned and politicised without our consent.

The great triumph of handheld technology is the lie it conceals. Ever-present and portable, it draws our attention downwards, off-wards, at right-angles to the march of life before us. As long as our heads are bent, we’re captive, placing faith in an impermanent, implied plane of living. We buy into an illusion, seeing ourselves walking upon the plane and shaping history as we pass across it. Our experience is of a real-time slew of apparently consequential events, as opposed to the simulation it is. We find ourselves endlessly, but transitorily, invested in the lives of everyone we know; made into a single, breathing organism of evolutionary progress. And yet, in pandering to this joint surface-life, we belie the true, hidden unchange concealed beneath the visible. While we fiddle, Rome burns.

Unchange is the unwritten mission of modern technology design, its principles slowly solidifying from incidental side-effects into core principles. The ever-repeating clarion call of today’s corporate technologists is the permanent reach for tomorrow: an all-consuming, all-replacing future without a future. The compulsory urgency of this incessant solutionism has become the default setting for vast swathes of our interactions with objects. Thanks to the profit-hungry near-sightedness of today’s big tech companies, unchange holds us at a discombobulated arm’s length from the world we inhabit: we look at it as if through a goldfish bowl. The march of technological innovation, traditionally an endeavour to solve, soothe, improve and revolutionise our path through the world, now lives in a tug-of-war between negligent and malevolent forces, both eager to constantly reinvent and obsolete every aspect of our progress.

First big technology came for our attention, and we did not speak out: then it came for our outrage. In a world of designer indignation, devices and browsers can at best only mimic engagement with the wider society. The last two years of history prove it: for all the digital outrage we can summon, none of it can effect real change without physical action to back it up. But the link between our instinct to express outrage and its practical application is all too often lost beneath unchange. The only thing left to impact the shape of digital discourse is falsehood, bending our interactions beyond recognition. The considered origins of our debates over difference are lost. It is lies that ring loudest, pulling at the oval of our understanding, distorting it like a coat-hanger tugged from every side. Unchange doesn’t simply enable that distortion. It insists on it.

The outrage, of course, is illusory in itself. Our belief in it as righteous, material power extending from our fingertips into a calcifying, three-dimensional reality is the true legacy of unchange. Scrolling through constant, determined outrage galvanises our sense of participation in the improvement of our environment. In truth, we wear our digital opinions like the emperor wears his new clothes, in a collective hallucination of action. Unchange is the naked body beneath: a determined re-versioning of the status quo over and again, each time less tangible, more removed, more in the interests of intractable power. Culture theorist Mark Fisher noted as long ago as 2006 the troll’s claim to ‘speak from nowhere’. As then, the designed insistence on anonymising the voice and place of individual sovereignty continues to uphold the hegemony of corporate power. In endlessly conjuring up a personalised version of autonomy, harvesting the data we submit to it as fodder to monopoly profit, the big tech corporations repeatedly bait-and-switch self-determination away from the user, giving it to the deregulating, authoritarian interests of unchange. In its current form, social media is corporate power. It is power that is stolen from you, withheld from you.

There are exceptions of course. Truly decentralised forms of organising often thrive when accountability is fluid, where anonymity reigns. Technological tools do provide access and engagement with otherwise intangible platforms of power, putting constituents in direct contact with their representatives. But the underlying trends and motives that govern the process of innovation — the real values of unchange — run counter to this.

The way that the social media hive buzzed over recent pronouncements by Elon Musk is a case in point. Tech determinist libertarians like Musk constantly paint themselves, largely with our blessing, as humanist visionaries, grasping the nettle of the future. In the fuzz of indignant response to Musk’s misunderstanding of socialism, the puzzle for me was why anyone would have ever imagined him thinking differently. Technological determinism has nothing to do with the sharing of power. Musk personifies a bigger danger to world peace than Trump: he champions a blinkered pursuit of technology’s possibilities as mandatory race to the prize, stripped of moral and human consequences. Bezos, Jobs, Zuckerberg et al are essentially cut from the same cloth: for them, the accumulation of innovation is about proprietary right, not human benefit. They succeed because they put the interests of their users (let alone their employees) at the bottom of their list of priorities, not simply in spite of it. In fact, the systems which effectively lock users out of the reality of the technology’s effects are hard-designed into the way their products are made. Unchange is the feature, not the bug.

The real-time pernicious trends we see increasingly in interactive and experience design — its so-called ‘dark patterns’ — are microcosmic examples of the contempt for the user that unchange dictates. The ongoing lack of moral attention given to the user is an issue that needs to be addressed on its own terms, but in truth it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem.

As Mark Mazower notes in his Guardian review of David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, companies like Facebook and Google “encourage instant gratification when democracy presupposes a capacity for frustration and patience”. This is a reversal of how power is supposed to work: we’ve become the subject of technology, rather than it a tool for us. And instead of simply sounding the alarm about a dystopian Terminator-world of robot takeover, I’m arguing that if we don’t trust the picture of the world that technology delivers, we’re already complicit in unchange. The machines don’t need to take over if we can’t agree on basic realities. Subjugating interests are already filling the vacuum.

Design’s great failure in this system is not that it simply overlooks this. Unchange has become the raison d’etre of modern technology. In demanding autonomy, in enabling full anonymity, in the supposed utopian freedom of cultural access and its coital adhesion to data-driven capitalism, today’s digital platforms are designed to steal power from us. The great leaps of miniaturised connectivity, unchecked by ethical considerations, have brought surveillance into our lives, our homes, even our opinions, stealing our privacy and agency in plain, consensual sight. We’ve invited power to leave out of the the doorways we opened on ourselves.

Utopian determinism, technology’s recurring war cry, is the crime that steals from the very people it’s supposed to help. In connecting us so completely, and yet so illusorily, and with so little regard for the consequences, designers graduate from servants of unchange to its determined architects.