Technoevil and Evolution

Interesting article this a.m. on The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Beware Social Media’s Surprising Dark Side.” At the South By Southwest Interactive conference, academics and critics voiced their concerns about issues like worker exploitation in crowdsourcing, and racism in online gaming. Now I’m just enough of a Marxist to suggest that anyone who’s surprised by business finding new ways to get labor without paying a living wage is dangerously naive, and I think crowdsourcing is at least partly a new gambit in the old war between business and labor – a virtual Wisconsin, if you will. But that’s not what’s bothering me this morning. This article appears at an interesting moment in the nexus of online and in-person conversations I’ve been having recently about technology. One word I keep hearing over and over is “evolution” – as though being incapable of functioning without a smartphone makes one more evolved.

First of all, evolution is a terrible metaphor for what scholars have for decades been describing as “mediation” – the system of processes by which media (sometimes new, sometimes not) shapes subjectivity within a culture. After all evolution, as we understand it biologically, is an enormous system of processes which by its nature creates disproportionately more culs des sacs and abortions than it produces successful innovations. Just ask T-Rex or Homo neanderthalensis. The mechanisms that produce these changes are either too large and slow, or too abrupt and erratic (evolutionary theory allows for, and indeed depends upon, both types of change), to be tracked in the moment, and only in the long duree – after their effects have been in place for generations – are they properly analyzable.  Technophiliacs (yes, it’s a pun on necrophiliac) seem to willfully ignore both the attrition and the time necessary for evolutionary processes to take place. Technology may operate at a more rapid pace than biology, but any claims that new tech makes one a cybernetic organism and therefore the next step in human evolution are hubristic if not absurd.

Maybe the word the technophiliacs are  looking for is adaptation, evolution’s less glamourous … ummmm … nephew. Adaptation is one of the micro-processes necessary for evolution to take place. But again, adaptation doesn’t mean success or survival, and many of the adaptations that make us more “plugged in” make us weaker creatures. I read a few years ago something about how spending too much time on CRTs was changing the physiology of the human eye, making us cubedwellers less able to operate in direct sunlight. Read: cybernetic organisms cannot survive in the wild.

Technophiliacs also tend to gloss the labor exploitation and environmental costs that their ability to indulge in a “plugged-in” lifestyle relies upon. Where did the tungsten and other rare metals in your smartphone come from, and what are the labor conditions at the source? Where do the non-recyclable materials in your recently-discarded iPhone 3 go when you trade up? What degree of class privilege is necessary to facilitate your lifestyle, and what class and racial divisions do your lifestyle perpetuate and exacerbate? These questions will have more lasting consequences for the survival of the species, not to mention the planet, than whether or not your self-published (and poorly copy-edited) e-book gets more Facebook fans than the next cyber-yogi down the virtual block. But there’s no room in all the techno-guru gooeyness for these questions, which will get you pooh-poohed as unevolved by the more-plugged-in-than-thou.

I’m not a Luddite – I use, rely on, and enjoy technology. But I am a student of media history, and as such – having come of age as a scholar in the post-deconstructionist millennial 90s and 00s – am suspicious of technology’s role in society. Euphoric declarations of evolution and cyberliberation don’t make these things real, or even virtual. Every advance has a price. You just have to be smarter than your phone to recognize it.


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