It’s Time to Dismantle the Technopoly

In the fall of 2016—the year in which the proportion of online adults using social media reached eighty per cent—I published an Op-Ed in the Times that questioned the popular conception that you need to cultivate a strong social-media brand to succeed in the job market. “I think this behavior is misguided,” I wrote. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.” I suggested that knowledge workers instead spend time developing useful skills, with the goal of distinguishing themselves in their chosen fields. The article took off, driven by a provocative title added by my editors: “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.” For a brief period, it even topped the paper’s most-e-mailed list.

The backlash soon followed. The CBC invited me on a national radio program to discuss the essay; I was surprised, just a couple of minutes into the segment, when the host introduced two unannounced guests tasked with rebutting my ideas. A prominent communications professor began e-mailing me invitations to debate. Most notably, the Times took the unusual step of publishing a response Op-Ed two weeks later. It was titled “Don’t Quit Social Media. Put It to Work for Your Career Instead,” and it was written by Patrick Gillooly, the director of digital communications and social media at the career site Monster. Gillooly provided a point-by-point disputation of my column, delivered in a tone of unabashed techno-optimism. “In the case of clients in particular,” he wrote, “exposing yourself to diverse views expressed on social media will make it easier to find common ground.”

My essay stood out partly because technology criticism during this period tended to pull its punches. Respected writers and researchers, including Baratunde Thurston and danah boyd, had popularized the idea of taking breaks from Internet use, indicating a growing recognition of the costs of online life—but breaks were about as far as most people were willing to go. A notable exception was the technologist Jaron Lanier, whose 2010 manifesto, “You Are Not a Gadget,” delivered a scathing indictment of the consolidation of Internet activity onto a small number of corporate-owned platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. The book was widely praised for its originality and cheerful techno-hippie vibes, but many readers rejected its most radical assertion: that the shift toward a Web 2.0 world, in which posting information was as easy as consuming it, might have been a mistake. A review of “You Are Not a Gadget” in the Guardian noted that “Lanier is clearly very well-informed about IT,” but then went on to describe the “social and spiritual strand of the book” as sounding like the “anxiety of an ageing innovator.” The implication was clear: don’t take this guy too seriously.

In the moment, the response to my criticism, as well as to thinkers like Lanier, felt like a cultural immune reaction. The idea of stepping away altogether from powerful new tools like social media just wasn’t acceptable; readers needed to be assured that such advice could be safely ignored. The communications theorist Neil Postman, who died in 2003, probably wouldn’t have been surprised by this reaction. Though he is best known for his anti-television polemic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman’s masterwork is his 1992 book, “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” in which he argues that our relationship with technology has passed through three distinct phases. First, tool-using cultures deployed inventions to “solve specific and urgent problems of physical life” (using a water wheel to mill grain faster, say). Later, the rise of industrial capitalism pushed us toward “technocracy”—an era in which technology made a bid to become more important than the values that had previously structured existence. Rural communities were gutted, inequality was amplified, spirituality was sidelined, and the landscape was crisscrossed with telegraphs and railroads—all in the service of newer, more capable tools and the relentless demands of efficiency.

During this period, Postman writes, “tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.” And fight they did. William Blake, John Ruskin, and Henry David Thoreau, among many others, decried the deprivations of industrialization, while the Luddite movement protested automation and the concentration of profits. Mark Twain expressed an almost boyish enthusiasm for the new industrial cotton mills in his memoir, “Life on the Mississippi,” but also wrote “Huckleberry Finn,” which Postman describes as “nothing less than a celebration of the enduring spirituality of pretechnological man.”

The big surprise in Postman’s book is that, according to him, we no longer live in a technocratic era. We now inhabit what he calls technopoly. In this third technological age, Postman argues, the fight between invention and traditional values has been resolved, with the former emerging as the clear winner. The result is the “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” Innovation and increased efficiency become the unchallenged mechanisms of progress, while any doubts about the imperative to accommodate the shiny and new are marginalized. “Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,” Postman writes. “It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.” Technopoly, he concludes, “is totalitarian technocracy.”

Postman’s book, which I was reading around the time I wrote my Times Op-Ed, helped me make sense of the urgent reaction my ideas sparked. In a technopoly, the notion that we might abandon a new tool like social media wasn’t something to consider or discuss—instead, it was something to be rendered invisible and irrelevant. The use of the phrase “quit social media” in a headline of a prominent publication was like a temporary glitch in the matrix that needed to be rapidly patched, then explained away. What I didn’t realize back in 2016, however, was that, although the grip of technopoly was strong, it was also soon to weaken. The first cracks in its foundations were already beginning to form.

A major source of this destabilization was the Trump-Clinton election cycle, which, among other things, created a subtle but consequential shift in our relationship with the products coming out of Silicon Valley. Conservatives became wary of censorship on social media, liberals grew uneasy about revelations of foreign disinformation, and everyone found Cambridge Analytica’s strip-mining of Facebook data to be alarming. These bipartisan concerns led many exhausted partisans to mentally recategorize these tools. Where once they had seen platforms like Facebook as useful and in some sense mandatory, they started treating them more warily. This shift in perception might have seemed small at the time. But it was a seed, and from it grew an increasingly strident rejection of technopoly’s demand that we accommodate and embrace whatever innovation we’re told to be excited about next.

Today, we can see a fully formed version of this new attitude reflected on a few different fronts. Consider our current struggles to make sense of generative A.I. tools, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT. The companies developing these models have been singing a hymn straight out of Postman, arguing that their advances are inevitable and that the best we can do is adapt to their presence. Last spring, when Sam Altman was pressed by Congress about the potential negative consequences of the technology, he steered the conversation away from why OpenAI was developing it and toward how the work was unfolding, proposing the creation of a new federal agency to enforce some vague notion of “safety standards.” But not everyone has simply capitulated. The Writers Guild of America, in its new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, has won strong constraints on how A.I. tools can be used in writers’ rooms. The W.G.A. insisted that, even if it might be technically possible to outsource parts of screenwriting to large language models, we aren’t obligated to follow this path toward increasing automation.

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