The rise of smartphones and social media has ushered in a new age of techno-optimism. And that’s a big problem
Saturday, Nov 29, 2014
The technology pages of news media can make for scary reading these days. From new evidence of government surveillance to the personal data collection capabilities of new devices, to the latest leaks of personal information, we hear almost daily of new threats to personal privacy. It’s difficult to overstate the implications of this: The separation of the private and public that’s the cornerstone of liberal thought, not to mention the American Constitution, is being rapidly eroded, with potentially profound consequences for our freedom.
We could say that it’s simply a matter of habit, that we have become so used to using devices in such a way that we cannot imagine using them any differently. Or we could, for example, invoke a tragic fate in which we simply have no option but to accept the erosion of our privacy because of our powerlessness against corporations and governments.
These are, however, retrospective justifications that miss the kernel of the truth. To reach this kernel, we have to excavate the substratum of culture to uncover the ideas that shape our relationship with technology. Only here can we see that the cause is a profound ideological shift in this relationship.
Over the last few hundred years, it has been one characterized by deep ambivalence. On the one hand, we have viewed technology as emancipatory, and even, as David Nye, James Carey and other scholars have argued, as divine. On the other hand, we have seen it as dehumanizing, alienating and potentially manipulative — a viewpoint shaped by historical figures as diverse as William Blake, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Charlie Chaplin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ned Lud, Samuel Beckett and Karl Marx. However, over the last 20 years or so, this latter perspective has largely been thrown out of the window.
There are many areas of culture that witness this shift, but none does so as lucidly as science fiction film. Even when set in the future, science fiction explodes onto the silver screen the ideas held about technology in the present. Indeed, the success of many of the best science fiction films is undoubtedly because they illustrate their time’s hopes and fears about technology so clearly.
Those of the late 20th century clearly suggest the prevalence in American culture of the old fearful view of technology. The 1980s, for example, saw the advent of personal computing, innovation in areas like genetic engineering and robotics, job losses brought about by industrial mechanization, and the creation of futuristic military technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars).
Lo and behold, the science fiction films of the time betray cultural fears of keeping up with the pace of change. Many explore the dehumanizing effects of technology, depicting worlds where humans have lost control. “Terminator,” for example, conjoins fears of mechanization and computing. The human protagonists are powerless to kill Schwarzenegger’s cyborg directly; it ultimately meets its end via another piece of industrial technology (a hydraulic press). Another classic of the era, “Blade Runner,” is a complex thought experiment on the joining of technology and humans as hybrids. The antagonist, Roy, whom Harrison Ford’s Deckard must kill, represents the horrific synthesis of unfettered human ambition and technological potency.