The technological revolution in the “late capitalism” era

For the past two years now, of course, it’s been the global pandemic and all the seemingly endless emotional and economic turmoil it has churned up that has dominated the headlines and the airwaves, as well as our thoughts and worries. Never far behind that is our dawning awareness of just how much trouble we’re really in as a result of the planetary heating we’ve wreaked upon ourselves – in fact, if anything has managed to break through the grim daily litany of half-contextualized COVID factoids in these years, and truly imprint itself upon on collective consciousness, it’s the harrowing coverage of firestorms and floods, heatwaves and hurricanes, ever more constant, seemingly everywhere and nearly all of unprecedented intensity.

For most of us, that’s entirely enough mental noise to contend with. If you have any attention left to spare, however, and you haven’t yet tuned out everything not immediately germane to the pressing needs of everyday survival, you may have perceived the thing that’s been bubbling along beneath the surface of events this whole time – something maybe harder to discern than the parade of figures about case rates or wind speeds, novel variants and calving ice shelves, but no less consequential for that. It is the steady accretion of news items suggesting that we stand on the verge of yet another epochal technosocial transformation. The long-awaited and now perceptibly becoming actual advent of novel technologies like machine learning, so-called “artifical intelligence,” virtual reality and cryptocurrency certainly seems like it has the potential to remake everyday life just about everywhere, especially in combination with one another.

Do technologies make the world, though? Among those of us who spend our days thinking about this sort of thing, this is a vexed, long- and intensely debated question. Attempts to understand the social and political consequences of technological development have tended to cluster around two major schools of thought, positions that are called “technological determinism” on the one hand, and “social constructivism” on the other.

For many, technodeterminism might seem to be the more natural and obvious position: someone invents a given technology, it appears in the world, and the world straightforwardly changes in response. (Indeed, some technologies actually do work this way, and are so potent as catalysts of societal change that the language we use to describe them reflects this. We simply call them “the Pill,” “the Bomb” and so on.) And there are plenty of other examples of this happening, or seeming to, ready to hand – our collective history with the internal combustion engine, for one, which would surely appear to underwrite belief in a certain technodeterminism. The introduction of cars powered by internal combustion manifestly drove the structuration of urban form in every densely settled place on Earth, with only relatively minor differences in layout and organization of cities developed after its widespread adoption, wherever they should happen to be found. If you wanted to argue that given enough time, novel technologies do more or less directly change the world, you’d be hard pressed to find a better case study than that.

The converse position, social constructionism, is a little more nuanced. It argues that societies invest in and select for the development of technologies that reflect their existing values, and particularly their power dynamics. For example, consider humanoid robotics. There has tended to be far more interest in the development of humanoid systems and interfaces in Japan than there has been elsewhere on Earth. There could be any number of reasons why this is so, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that it might have something to do with the greater emphasis placed in Japanese society on the potential for shame, embarrassment or humiliation inhering in all interactions between human beings (and therefore the desirability of replacing as many of the humans we interact with on a daily basis as possible with unfeeling, unjudging synthetics). This would seem to bolster the contention that a technology can prosper and develop only where it finds culturally fertile ground.

In actuality, of course, things drop out somewhere between the two extremes. Where does this leave us, if we want to understand what the advent of cryptocurrency or machine learning or virtual reality might portend for us, and for the world we share? Instead of the crude binary of technodeterminism and social constructionism, what I’d like to propose is a soft constructionism, in which the hegemonic global culture we think of as “late capitalism” selects not so much which technologies we get in any absolute sense, but which versions of them thrive in our world.

Seen in this light, those technological choices will fare best which resonate most with the scarcity-based economics and deep-seated fear of the Other that already characterize our lives. Far from being “disruptive,” what they’re really offering is a continuation or extension of circumstances that are already familiar to us.

“Artificial intelligence” could mean just about anything. But what are the applications that actually receive investment? Of all the possibilities we might have been offered, the ones that are advancing most quickly appear to be those dedicated to police, surveillance and security functions — identifying exceptions from the statistical norm, tracking them through space and time, and placing bounds around their freedom of action. If you want a sense of the aesthetics driving this investment, to say nothing of the values, look no further than the lengthening list of ventures billionaire PayPal and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has named for figures from his Lord of the Rings fixation — the vendor of sinister “total information awareness” systems Palantir, the manufacturer of weaponized autonomous drones Anduril and so on.

Or consider virtual reality, that realm of putatively limitless imagination Mark Zuckerberg would be pleased if we described with the word “metaverse.” With a staggering impoverishment of sensibility, the verson on offer from Zuckerberg’s Meta not merely imposes an entirely artificial scarcity into a realm that might otherwise extend to the very horizons of the imagination, but turns that same expanse into a platform where cloyingly infantilized avatars doze through the self-same boring meetings they might have had on Zoom with dignity still more or less intact. It’s as if the entire universe and all of its wonders had been crafted by and for people with LinkedIn accounts.

And then there’s crypto. Crypto is a little different. It was always an ideological project – avowedly anarchocapitalist by design, offering no vision of society beyond a threadbare neo-Randian fantasy of contract relations undertaken between sovereign individuals — so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be awful. (If anything, given the long history of inventions that confound or undermine their original design intention, the surprise is that crypto appears to be enacting its awfulness so straightforwardly.) It nevertheless hurts a little to see the truly radical concept of a distributed autonomous organization, or “DAO,” originally intended to provide a trellis for endeavors assembling human and nonhuman partners, remade as mortifyingly tacky nightclub/bottle-service party for Supreme-stanning manchildren.

But surely these examples don’t represent the full potential of the technologies in question? As it happens, I come from an intellectual tradition insisting that any appearance of the word “potential” needs to be greeted with the greatest skepticism. There is no such thing as potential, in this view: there are merely states of a system that have historically been enacted, and those that have not yet been enacted. The only way to assess whether a system is capable of assuming a given state is to do the work of enacting it. This is why I tend to look askance at the more fervent enthusiasts for these technologies, making  breathless claims for their unlimited liberatory potential. In practice, the only realities that seem to be cropping out so far are markedly tawdry. And while it is certainly early days, and one should always be charitable, I think it’s fair to say that a pattern can already be discerned.

Virtually everywhere, technologies are touted to us on the promise that they will permanently displace human subjectivity and bias, annihilate the painful limits imposed upon us by our embodiment and our mooring in the real world, liberate us to be the sparkling Nietzschean (or really Olympian) creatures of pure will we ought to have been all along. And yet in every instance we find that these ambitions are flouted, as the technologies that were supposed to enact them are captured and recuperated by existing concentrations of power. They will not spontaneously bring scarcity to an end, or capitalism, or oppression. Laminated into standing ways of doing, making and selling, the only thing they seem to be capable of spontaneously reproducing is more of the same. The bottom line is this: those of us who dream of different, more hopeful, freer futures, and who still believe that technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality or the blockchain have a place in building them, will have to do the hard, painstaking work of proving this to be the case. We have our work cut out for us.