Introduction: Our Technology and Theirs

Introduction: Our Technology and Theirs

(Beraldo Leal/Flickr)

It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure. The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook—with all one’s photos, birthday greetings, and invitations? New digital technologies, particularly social media, make money by encouraging us to spend our lives on their platforms; they try to turn labor that was previously paid, from drone development to sex work, into play for unpaid amateurs. To what end?

This special section of Dissent begins where other critiques of digital technology have left off. Early critics of social media focused on whether they weakened communication: was talk in a chatroom less “real” than a live conversation? A second wave of commentary argued that digital and analog media were equally authentic.

Now, however, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between digital and non-digital activities. Google Glass provides feedback about the physical world even as one is moving through it. Many thousands of people labor from home, completing microtasks through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and similar products.

The universal digital turn does not mean our communications have become false, but they are shaped by motives that are often hidden. By permitting us to communicate so easily, technology companies are able to add calculations, usually undisclosed to users, that work in the background. These include algorithms that determine which advertisements to show and reading to suggest; they also nudge us to share certain kinds of popular content, like personal photos, with the largest possible audiences, supplying the psychological reward of likes, shares, and retweets.

Of course, we can and do pursue relationships of love, friendship, and work in ways that digital firms can’t sell. These relationships, however, represent too much value for tech companies to allow them to remain off the grid for long. They want to know who is important to us and why, and what we talk about. They find ways to insert themselves into these conversations with suggestions about what topics, brands, and other people we ought to include. They encourage us to check out this bar over that one and to tell others that we are there in hopes they might join us, generating viral growth for both the bar and the platform that publishes the updates.

This communication, thickened with the desires and plans of whole industries, opens up our lives to deep surveillance as the government increasingly uses tech firms to discover the personal information of nearly everyone. And it has become difficult to resist this process. Services like Google+ require logins on multiple platforms (YouTube, Gmail, News) so they can track our Internet activity whether we are aware of it or not, feeding it all into a database whose full value to Google has yet to be realized.

How do we see technology’s power and demonstrate it to others? E. Alex Jung documents “Wages for Facebook,” one artist’s attempt to clarify for users how the company extracts value from their interactions. Inspired by the 1970s feminist campaign “Wages for Housework,” the project reveals how what once was viewed as natural social behavior and pleasure-seeking has now been turned into labor.

At the same time, some tech companies are turning labor that once was paid into amateur work done “for fun.” That is the subject of Melissa Gira Grant’s investigation into, a San Francisco–based pornography company that specializes in live events. With the arrival of the Internet, Kink began broadcasting sex parties. The firm laid off organized sex workers in favor of amateur participants who would do it for free, while generating a profit for Kink. Much as Facebook functions as a platform for other kinds of socializing, Kink functions on the principle that no one gets paid, but millions still get made.

Amateurs play a quite different role in the story that Joanne McNeil and Ingrid Burrington tell about drones. The relationship between hobbyists, the tech industry, and the military is a startling nexus of crowdsourced weaponry, one invisible to many independent enthusiasts. Their bafflement emerges when a conference dedicated mostly to hobbyists cannot avoid the question of bombs in Pakistan.

Nor can another conference—the Consumer Electronics Show—ignore the far-off traumas generated by its products. Colin Kinniburgh reports on the relationship between technology and the extraction of rare minerals in the war-wracked Congo. While tech companies have latched onto NGOs that promise to help them mine and manufacture their products in ethical ways, Kinniburgh shows what effects this production has actually had on the region, below the Cloud and far from Silicon Valley.

Back in the Valley, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian details a strange new fad: homelessness. An obsession with playing at homelessness and with individual homeless people has been evident on tech industry blogs and events for some time now. What about this particular brand of suffering inspires the self-made entrepreneur?

Finally, historian Colin Gordon takes on the common notion that advances in technology cause people to lose their jobs and breed greater inequality in modern societies. His careful dissection of arguments made by both liberal and conservative economists establishes that the problem is not in our computers but in our politics.

Sarah Leonard is a former associate editor at Dissent and a senior editor at the Nation. Kate Losse writes about the culture of technology. She is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings and has written essays on tech and culture for Dissent, Model View Culture, and the New Yorker.