Andrew Pilsch Blog

The Banality of Dystopia

22 Jul 2014

So I’ve already kind of posted about Soylent and issues of time-indebtedness, but there is a really interesting essay up on The Guardian about Soylent, Google Glass, and the pretty terrible future Silicon Valley is generating. Entitled “The Tech Utopia Nobody Wants,” JR Hennessy argues that the reaction against Glass in San Francisco (including actual attacks on people wearing the device)

is the implied rejection of the kind of casual sociopathy which leads a person to become a surveillance camera, to put a computer between themselves and their every interaction with other people. The philosophy of Glass is inward looking. It improves the life of the wearer at the expense of those around them.

Which is, of course, Libertarianism, right? People forget or don’t know how pervasive Randian ideas are in computer science (lord knows it was all over Georgia Tech’s College of Computing when I was a student there).

Hennessy also connects this violent reaction to Glass to the recent proposal by some in Silicon Valley that maybe Soylent would work as a good solution to food stamps. He cites the following tweet as an example of this kind of thinking:

Give poor people @soylent so they can be healthy and productive. If you're on food stamps, maybe you're unhealthy and need to eat better.

— Justine Tunney (@JustineTunney) May 13, 2014

From these examples, Hennessy concludes with the following:

A divide is growing between the people who wholeheartedly embrace a radically new, radically self-centred vision of human life, and the people who do not … Traditions and shared values are redundant, inefficient, and must be optimised out of existence.

The backlash against this world is democracy manifesting itself; a tacit rejection of the ideological assumptions underpinning the personal tech revolution. People want to define the structure of their own lives, and Silicon Valley’s myriad product lines are an unwelcome intrusion into the way we live and interact with one another – and even the way we eat, sleep and procreate.

A simple fact remains: there is something intrinsically repellant about a world in which our food, jobs and personal relationships are replaced by digital proxies in the name of ultra-efficient disruption.

This mirrors a similar debate in higher education, as Bill Gates continues to disrupt higher education with reforms that don’t work and have no basis in pedagogical theory or practice. Underscoring all of these disruptions is the idea that what works in Silicon Valley is best for the rest of America. However, take a look at this Buzzfeed listicle of “25 Totally Excruciating Silicon Valley Problems” and tell me that doesn’t document life on a totally other planet.

The most interesting aspect of Hennessy’s piece is the question of utopia/dystopia in his account of technology disruption. We often modulate our reactions to the frankly terrifying changes brought about by these tech disruptions through imagery of dystopia, talking about Facebook as George Orwell’s Big Brother for instance.

However, to narrate another example, today I sent an important email to myself instead of a colleague. I do this all the time. In gmail’s threaded message view, my inclination is to reply to the last email, even if it is something I wrote. Gmail dutifully sends me the email but because I’m reading the thread in which I’m sending myself the message, it shows up just like any other reply I sent to whoever I’m writing to: read and not as a new message. Despite the commonality of this problem, it never mentions that I’m replying to myself. I only noticed it happened because the person to whom I wrote responded without knowing about the most recent information.

Besides just complaining about Gmail, where I’m going with this is that we often (rightly, I think) ascribe Google or Facebook or whoever this scary agency but then the tools they “give” us1—avatars of their own sinister, dystopian plans—don’t really work all that well. As another example, if Google is tracking us all the time, why is it so hard to get directions from where I live to where I want to go in Google Maps in their browser version?

The problem with rhetoric comparing these frustratingly malfunctioning tools to Orwell’s image of a dystopian future under Big Brother of “a boot stamping on a human face – forever” is that, at a fundamental level, the banality of Soylent is at odds with the potentially insidious ideology contained within its quivering, grey-ish goop. This disjunction suggests to me that we are living in a very, very banal dystopia.

I argued a few years ago in a seminar paper on Fredric Jameson, that the seemingly endless wave of dystopian movies and books responds to this banality, the banality of our dystopia, through recourse to what I called a “totalitarian nostalgia.” In franchises such as The Matrix (especially in the sequels) or The Hunger Games, dystopia is provided with a center and, specifically, a center with a face and an easily recognizable aesthetic, because in our banal dystopia, we are nostalgic for Big Brother because we are nostalgic for the possibility of revolution. You can revolt against a person such as Big Brother but can you revolt against a nutrient shake? wearable tech? email?

I’m thinking here of two things that I’ll conclude with. On the one hand, I’m harkening back to Nathaniel Rivers’s essay on infrastructure about which I blogged here and here. Rivers asserted that infrastructure is our debt to the nonhuman, a debt that is often invisible within the smooth operation of modernity. On the other hand, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s assertion in Walden that “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” So the idea that infrastructure constitutes a threat or a burden or a debt is an old process. I wonder, though, that in the absence of railroad barons or a Totalitarian dictator (and The Social Network sure tried to do this to Mark Zuckerberg), how do we react against an infrastructure unmediated through a concept of human evil?

I wonder if in the age of banal dystopias, are we also enmeshed in an era of dark or evil infrastructure?

  1. I’m thinking here of Amber Davisson’s awesome presentation on Google at RSA this year. Reminding audiences that Google isn’t building public infrastructure, she argued that each time we use a Google service, we pay for it with a little bit of our soul, some detail of our lives converted from memory into data. 

Andrew Pilsch


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