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Technonarcissism

It is an enviable feeling when you find a word that encapsulates a complex experience in a just a handful of characters. Examples for me include “schadenfreude” (German; taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune) and sehnsucht (also German; way too complex to describe here). Even “nostalgia,’ although a relatively well-known English word, is much more evocative as a Greek form – its roots come from verbs that mean “to go home” and “to struggle,” meaning that nostalgia is literally a “struggle to go home,” which paints a brighter picture in the mind than simply pining for the past ever could (I love the notion of the past being “home”).

Then of course, there is the longest ever Greek word at the end of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae. This amalgamation takes advantage of the unique characteristics of the language (I always thought of Greek as a language of addition, which is hard to explain – it’s like it’s a bunch of puzzle pieces waiting to be fitted together, especially its nouns) to invent a new term for stew that includes all of said stew’s ingredients (an English translation is impossible; the lone accent mark at the end, added because of the language’s rules, is hilarious in this context):

λοπαδοτεμαχοσελαχογαλεοκρανιολειψανοδριμυποτριμματοσιλφιολιπαρομελιτοκατακεχυμενοκιχλεπικοσσυφοφαττοπεριστεραλεκτρυονοπτοπιφαλλιδοκιγκλοπελειολαγῳοσιραιοβαφητραγανοπτερυγών

Sigh – nostalgia for when I first read that play in 2006. I have always felt like Greek was a superior language to English, since its freedom from relying exclusively on syntax for meaning gives its extra resources for creatively arranging its words. The gap between Aristophanes and Plato in the originals and in English is a testament to this. 

Anyway, I came across a word today that gave me the rush I was talking about, although it is not an exotic word and is cobbled together from common components (I mean, even a delicious stew can be made from cheap ingredients, right?) Writing for Time, Siva Vaidhyanathan unleashed “technonarcissism,” a term that pops up here and there but is far from mainstream. He explained it this way:

“There’s a widespread and erroneous assumption that new technologies radically change how everyone lives. In reality, such change is slow, stunted, complex, and uneven. The wealthy and educated who tend to read and write about new technology obsessively also tend to exaggerate the cultural and economic influence of technological change because they embrace it.”

Indeed (this would be a Greek way to start a sentence, with a particle!); for years I was in my own Twitter echo chamber because I followed mostly venture capitalists and virtuoso technonarcissists like John Gruber of Daring Fireball and Ben Thompson of Stratechery (this was when I worked for a startup in Chicago). My world became one in which the release of the iPhone in 2007 was a momentous, earth-shaking event(well it definitely was for Apple’s shareholders), Twitter was supposedly a platform for the masses, and institutions from taxi drivers to makes of Adobe Flash makers were just purveyors of “legacy” crafts primed to be crushed under the wheel of “progress.” The nadir (peak?) of this thinking can be seen in empty pronouncements such as this one from Thompson (couldn’t get the embed to work, so I’m just quoting) mocking concernd about the current bubble in “tech” companies:

” “This time will be worse because the real world is affected.” Or this time is because tech is actually affecting the real world.”

What is “tech” and what is “the real word”? These are the broadest of descriptive strokes. “Technology” as a category is curious, as Leo Marx has argued in a great paper. It is essentially the rebranding of blue-collar activities – working with machines – into white-collar ones so as to achieve a degree of class separation in which the already well-off can be generously construed as agents of change (“leaders,” in the anti-democratic parlance of our times). From this shift – made possible mostly/only by appeal to a scientific-sounding Greek word; and yet we are constantly lectured about how non-STEM fields don’t matter! – we get a culture obsessed with “innovation,” an activity that is distinctly unavailable to the underclasses.

The vagueness of “tech” also makes us see mundane advertising firms like Google and Facebook as world-changing companies in their own category, as Peter Strempel has explained:

Google is no more a technology company than auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations, or food conglomerates. The latter all use and develop technology, too, but we name them according to their products and services, not the tools they use to develop and sell them.”

I mean, Bank of America makes more software than Microsoft does, but you would never see any self-regarding tech writer call BofA a “tech” company. Evgeny Morozov was onto something when he hypothesized that Google’s reorganization into Alphabet was driven in part by embarrassment – that despite all the bluster about solving “big problems” and all of its exclusive perks, the search giant realized that it was just an advertising firm, with a business model like that long-written off medium, free broadcast TV, that continues to be an important media stream for the less privileged (who, as a bonus, don’t have to put up with excessive data collection and tracking while in front of the boob tube).

The business about the “real world” in Thompson’s tweet is even more revealing about the technonarcissist outlook. How, exactly, can “tech” (whatever it is) ever not affect the “real world”? “Tech” here is configured as something that exists in its own plane – an extension of the digital dualist conception of reality – almost god-like and not subject to the same experiences as everything and everyone else. Religion may be declining in the West, but these sorts of myths – about the saving power of technology in particular and of progress in general – continue, as John Gray has explained in his excellent book “The Silence of Animals.”

Accordingly, we get countless “real world” people – taxi drivers, hoteliers, booksellers, et al, as described in a Nick Bilton article excerpted by Thompson in another tweet and presented only with “gotcha” commentary rather than any real compassion for these individuals – displaced by (“imaginary world”?) actors – smartphones, tablets, “the Internet,” startups – that are presented as vanguards of an unstoppable, historic, and not-of-this-real-world force (innovation?!). But the latter group owes its success to mundane things – carrier subsidies, ads, government research, rich VCs with a decades-long windfall from Reaganism – that bankroll its illusions of grandeur.

In other words, they are part of the real world (everything is) but the class separation afforded by terms like “technology” and access to vast amounts of capital, to the degree that “failure” and not making any money (Amazon is a great example) are not the catastrophic events that they would be for say a mom-and-pop business, makes them come off as special. And so we get narratives about how technology is “changing everything” and doing so “faster than ever” in large part because the members of the technonarcissist class spend all day moving from one gadget to the next, calling out confirmation bias even as they labor to disprove threatening narratives (such as Jill Lepore’s takedown of “disruption”), and ruminating on the meaning of Google’s logo change.

All of this involves the “real world,” so why the insistence that this time is different, regarding the aforementioned bubble? Some of it is probably the shame Morozov hinted at. As Paul Krugman has explained many times, for all the hype about “tech” writ large, its effects on productivity and wages have been meh-ish. It’s hard to know if Facebook, Microsoft Excel, or Uber have made the world a better place for most people. Indeed, the implication of tech in affecting the “real world” in the current wave of funding – as opposed to the apparently meaningless bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s – is one that relies heavily on negative signaling, such as the protests of taxi drivers over Uber and the frustration of booksellers with Amazon. So while the technonarcissist tech press basks in the convenience of services built upon huge stores of exploited labor, many others suffer and let everyone know about their fresh wounds.

The realization that this has happened could be taken as evidence that “tech” is indeed affecting the “real world” (it could not be otherwise, after all), sure. Mostly, though, it is proof that, far from the “progress” narrative assigned to so much commentary from the non-reading tech commentariat, age-old forces of capitalism, from advertising to automation, are now more than ever succeeding at separating the haves from the have-nots, just as “technology” itself appropriated and consolidated the wares of “manufacturing” and “machining” into a new, all-conquering term.

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