In Bookforum, Siva Vaidhyanathan laments the “spectacular contortions” of tech-utopians whose narratives of social progress lionize technology while doggedly ignoring politics. Economic development, educational access, carbon emissions, housing shortages—all these challenges wither in the thought of writers whose prose is “exclusively in the inevitable tense”:
[Tech-utopian writers] know what they are doing, of course. The audiences at major trade meetings, the World Economic Forum at Davos, and the Aspen Ideas Festival have no taste for actual politics. They want clean-sounding, gee-whiz predictions and solutions. And with airport bookstores bulging with copies of Atlas Shrugged, these two titles would fit just fine on the same shelf.
This final point nicely captures one reason why tech culture has proven, somewhat surprisingly, to be an awkward partner to liberal politics. Only a few years ago, it was commonplace to hear companies like Google discussed as natural allies of the left. Part of this was Bush-era self-flattery (they’re hip, young, and full of smart, innovative empiricists!); part of it was the image intentionally cultivated by these companies; part of it was a hope that Democrats might benefit from a sympathetic industry, the way Republicans benefit from the largesse of oil companies. But with the perspective of a few years, it’s become clear that the tech world’s alliance with the left is somewhat rocky (for vivid proof, look no further than the constant squabbles in San Francisco, which both camps call home).
This is because, as Vaidhyanathan suggests in likening tech-utopianism to Ayn Rand, the industry has a distinct aversion to critiquing power. It’s not so much that tech-utopians are all anti-government zealots, like Randians. But in their giddy excitement about the potential for disruptive technology to remake pretty much every social institution, they skip over thorny questions to which the left is committed by principle: What do the people affected have to say about the change? Does it aggravate or ameliorate existing inequalities? Put to this test, it’s not clear that many popular tech solutions are as attractive as they seem. Take MOOCs, which are constantly proffered as the solution to higher education’s alleged ills. It’s important to ask: do they really provide wider access to college education, or do they merely offer a pale imitation of college instruction? And if so, can they really benefit the non-traditional students to whom they’re marketed, or will they invisibly entrench existing educational inequities (a four-year degree and lots of personal attention for middle-class kids, a MOOC for poor ones)? Or: does a smartphone that can predict your next move, or remind you to take that medicine, raise more privacy concerns than it’s worth? Or: is the much-lauded “sharing economy” an unfair route around taxes and regulations that traditional industries have to pay? Or: does Apple CEO Tim Cook’s courageous decision to come out mean his company’s nauseating record of tax evasion is beyond criticism?
There aren’t easy or simple answers to any of these questions. (Well, except the last one.) But that’s precisely the point: decisions that affect the trajectory of everything from education to communication to transportation are matters of common concern, inextricable from value judgments and therefore from debate and argument. What’s striking about tech utopianism, then, is not its politics but its anti-politics—its breezy posture of having no stance at all. The vocabulary of efficiency, innovation, and disruption pretends to take no interest in the vocabulary of fairness and equity. But this anti-politics, with its corresponding reluctance to critique power, is the very thing that—the rhetoric of disruption aside—entrenches power, benefits elites, and alienates the tech world from the left. It’s too bad that the culture of TED talks and thoughtleading has become so intoxicating as to obscure this inescapable fact. The gulf between tech’s potential and its reality isn’t, to borrow a word from the utopianists, inevitable.