There is no tech backlash, the New York Times tells us; a statement met with sighs of vindication in some corners of the internet, in which invocations of an “invented narrative” sum up the minority view — albeit a vocal one — against the increasing prevalence of technology criticism in parts of the mainstream and left commentariat. In the last quarter, according to the Times, Facebook “added about a million new daily users in the United States alone”, and the implication appears to be that it’s time we all woke up and smelled the coffee: people want and like technology, and there are no signs of us slowing down our embrace of it. Get with the programme, the argument goes, and acknowledge that the wrinkles and inconveniences we’re forced to undergo as a trade-off in our use of these technologies — the lack of privacy, the frantic compulsion to check and click on feeds, the way our behaviour is being constantly monitored and modified by vast monopoly interests — are simply bumps in the road on the way to a harmonious utopia of constant connectivity, a mere blip ahead of the coming technological salvation.
Only, it’s not that simple. Use of, and attitudes to, technology do not necessarily correspond — especially in an age in which our lives, careers, not to mention our sense of social belonging, are increasingly predicated on being connected, on the need to become a functioning node in the imposed networks that make up the way we are expected to live. There is plenty of evidence of growing disillusion with big technology and support for breaking up the technology monopolies; but even if there wasn’t, it would still be disingenuous to equate ‘backlash’ with a mass abandonment of technology, whether it be smart devices or the social media platforms that proliferate on them.
For a start, it’s not as if such technologies in themselves don’t represent great innovation and self-evident convenience: it would churlish to pretend otherwise. Tools that help us navigate the world, connect with the like-minded, and streamline our daily lives have obvious benefits. But what users never expected as part of the bargain of access to these tools was to be monitored, persuaded, surveilled and controlled as part of that experience. We didn’t sign up to be forced into a form of use that would guarantee to profit a minority of tech corporations, at the same time as coercing us further into entangling our personalities and behaviour with every swipe and click. There was no need for our use to be so carelessly and cynically compelled, and there continues to be no need: we should be able to use technology anonymously, without being tracked, without our inputs harvested to train AI engines, without being bracketed and apportioned and turned into monetised data points. But we no longer have a choice. To use now equates to being used.
Imagining that we have a straightforward choice to divest from technology in this data-dependent society is like suggesting that the residents of Flint can choose not to drink the water that comes out of their taps, or to suggest that we can choose a system other than capitalism to structure our economic choices. There isn’t another system available, but can we therefore state that there is no backlash against capitalism? The Flint point illustrates another truth underlining how the argument about tech backlash misfires: it is the poorest in society who are generally least able to consider the possibility of refusing technology. Perhaps it is possible for the more well-off to entertain more sustainable, un-networked ways of problem-solving, since these are the people who’ve already benefitted the most from technology over the long term. For those who are only just finding themselves belatedly offered affordable access and connectivity, to then be lectured in the evils of tech and urged towards divestment smacks of entitlement, even racism.
For most of us, in our interactions with schools, colleagues and organs of state, we have no choice but to use technology platforms. In the case of a recent British Home Office app, EU citizens attempting to secure settled status in the UK ahead of Brexit initially discovered this could only be actioned from an Android device. Short-sighted prescriptiveness of this kind is a reminder that narrow technological mandates are imposed in the first place by corporate entities, and then inculcated by social and government institutions. As users, as citizens, even as human beings, the terms are dictated without the slightest possibility of refusal.
As a user, it is hardly my choice to be training artificial intelligence as to how to identify a bridge or a chimney every time I log into my email. With Google’s Recaptcha software, millions of freely-proffered clicks a day have become valuable fodder in training AI engines to understand how the human eye perceives. Like it or not, Google is using our unwaged labour to train robots to think and see like us. Yes, there are plugins and workarounds for annoyances like Recaptcha, but these are at best tiny pushbacks, inaccessible to the casual user, inconvenient even for those informed enough to consider them. Again, there is an arrogance in the assumption that in being made aware of such things we can respond by rejecting the technologies that carry them altogether. For the vast majority of users, this is the normal ebb and flow of tech use: click, wait, verify, repeat. The built-in rhythms of technology — the pauses and hurdles of verification — have traditionally been taken by users as steady reassurances that such tools are processing our inputs deliberately, in the interests of protecting our security and privacy, rather than removing it.
In The Twittering Machine, an exhaustive dissection of the impacts of social media, Richard Seymour points out that the notion of technology backlash is in itself a simplistic, reactionary characterisation of the complicated responses required to confront such problems. To imagine that even a collective calling out of technology’s ills is enough to trigger a wave of consumer dissent is a delusion, one “underpinned by a fantasy that the frequent flights into mob irrationality, paranoia, nihilism and sadism characteristic of social media could be solved simply by ‘going back’”. Taking the example of the Luddites, and noting how they’ve come to be misrepresented as a mob of regressive intransigents terrified of change, Seymour demonstrates that backlash to technology has been consistently portrayed as a fundamental battle between enlightenment and barbarism; between right and wrong. The Luddites had much right on their side, Seymour suggests, in pursuing a form of “prototypical class insurrection… with tremendous élan”. Backlash, defined in these terms, becomes a blunt instrument wielded by technology’s proponents, a one-dimensional taunt daring us to reject technology wholesale rather than actually engage with or try to change it.
Our ability to exercise choice in terms of technology — to even consider the difference between acceptance and refusal — flows from what the notion of choice is in the current moment, in what sense of agency any of us may feel, not just as consumers, but as citizens, voters: as participants in representative democracy. Given that we continue to live through an era of what Colin Crouch calls “post-democracy”, in which our democratic institutions, while still appearing robust and indispensable, are in effect window-dressing on the market-led neoliberal forces that are the true mechanisms of power, it stands to reason that our consumer choices become just as illusory and inconsequential.
Ultimately then, our responses to technology are about agency: as long as we are swept along in a vision of technology as a compulsory control on our lifestyle choices — an opt-in without a realistic opt-out — then backlash remains the tokenistic moralising that some already see it as. For anything like a ‘backlash’ to be effective, it has to feel effective. It cannot be a mass movement to reverse our behaviour out of already established avenues of use and convenience. If nothing else, it should be about triggering and facilitating a renewed sense of agency, about reclaiming technology from its corporate dominion: re-purposing it for the good it should be, not the evil it’s threatening to become.
Backlash isn’t about rejection: it’s about transformation. And isn’t the first step towards change the clamour of voices for that change?