2020’s first installment of Metal Machine Music will be a little thin, I’m afraid. Life has been getting in the way of newslettering lately—a trend that’s likely to continue—but there were a few things I wanted to share with you.
Making the most of the techlash
First, and mainly, I wrote a long piece for the new issue of Logic that just went online this week. It’s called “From Manchester to Barcelona,” and it’s an attempt to think through the relationship between capitalism and the internet (or “tech,” if you like). The ideas in it have been percolating for awhile, and have gone through multiple iterations, so it’s gratifying to have it out in the world.
Here’s a quick summary of the main points:
The techlash is a constructive development, but it’s mostly been performing the labor of the negative: it has done the (invaluable) work of demolishing the old techno-utopian-libertarian pieties, but it’s still far from clear what new ideologies will rise up to replace them. There’s a bit of a scramble for hegemony at the moment when it comes to the next big narrative about tech: different camps are putting forward different alternatives, but no clear winner has emerged.
So far, the left has played a very small (perhaps nonexistent) role in this conversation. There are no shortage of brilliant left thinkers out there thinking about tech—read Logic!—but it’s safe to say that a clear left agenda for tech hasn’t yet materialized. If you read Bernie Sanders’s interview with the New York Times editorial board, you’ll see what I’m talking about: when asked about tech, he has trouble differentiating his approach from liberal antitrust.
How does the left come up with an agenda for tech? What’s the tech equivalent of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and so on? A good way to start, I think, is to put capitalism at the center of our story. Even in the midst of the techlash, tech is too often thought about in isolation from capitalism—or when the word is invoked, it’s used imprecisely. This is a problem, because if we can’t think about capitalism clearly—or acknowledge that such a system even exists—we’re going to have trouble thinking about tech, much less coming up with a plan to improve it.
The bulk of my piece explores how tech acts through and within capitalism, as an agent and accelerant of its core dynamics. I examine how tech intensifies capitalism’s tendencies to generate imbalances of wealth and power, and to heighten the hierarchical sorting of human beings according to race, gender, and other categories. Towards the end of the piece, I also offer some provisional thoughts, drawn from the past and present of social movements, on how to combat these tendencies by democratizing (or dismantling) tech.
Anyway, read the piece and tell me what you think.
Before I let you go, some of the things I’ve been reading lately:
Inioluwa Deborah Raji, Andrew Smart, et al, “Closing the AI Accountability Gap: Defining an End-to-End Framework for Internal Algorithmic Auditing”
Aaron Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work—2”
David Karpf, “On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths”