Contesting Silicon Valley’s Default View(s) of the Future

In recent work I raised a number of questions about the views of prominent Silicon Valley figures and, in particular, their rather idiosyncratic framing of the ‘Digital revolution’. (See ‘Beyond the global emergency: Integral futures and the search for clarity’ on the new Work page of my weblog.) I did so for a couple of reasons. One is that within US culture generally, but also in within what might be called the broad ‘futures community’ there, it’s common to take the view that ‘technology’ is the dominant force in ‘creating the future.’ With a background in STS (Science, Technology & Society) studies that view has always seemed naïve. Technologies are outgrowths of social processes without which they would not exist. They are never value-free or autonomous. The specific forms that they take and the functions they perform are ever and always outgrowths of social, cultural and economic processes. These, of course, get overlooked, along with the very specific interests embedded within them and driving change in very specific, mostly self-interested, ways.

The other reason for renewed concern is that some of the richest high-tech companies in the world (including the all-too-powerful ‘Internet oligarchs’) appear intent on believing that they have some sort of God-given right to ‘invent the future’ in their own delusional self-image. So it was good to recently find an article with the following heading: In an age of machines, it’s humans that matter. The author, Kentaro Toyama, who is based at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, clearly knows of that which he speaks. He quotes Google CEO Larry Page as declaring that: ‘I think we should be training more people on how to change the world. Obviously, technologies are the way to do that…that’s what drives all the change.’ Tim Cook of Apple also contributes the view of Steve Jobs to the effect that the latter ‘convinced me that if we made great products we could change the world.’ Finally, Toyama quotes Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg’s view that ‘the richest 500 million [people in the world] have way more money than the next 6 billion compared.’ He adds that ‘You solve that by getting everyone on line.’

In my own ‘global emergency’ piece I also quoted Zuckerberg and drew on evidence that questions Google chief scientist Ray Kurzweil’s preoccupation with what he calls the ‘singularity’ (the moment when humanity is overwhelmed by artificial intelligence machines, departs this world and ‘goes virtual’). As someone who has read a great deal of science fiction for a many years I think it’s vital to recognise the difference between fact and fiction. So it concerns me that what one might call the ‘default future’ advanced by these people and their cash-laden organisations looks more and more like the early dystopias that I read decades ago. In other words I question the worldview, values, priorities, goals, social interests etc. of these currently powerful players.

So it was good to read Toyama’s contrasting view that ‘technology doesn’t add a fixed benefit. Instead it amplifies underlying human forces.’ He continues: ‘amplification explains a broad range of man-machine interactions. It explains why the Internet boosts free speech in America but stifles dissent in China and spreads misinformation in Russia. And, it explains why a technological golden age in the world’s richest country isn’t enough to end poverty – Americans don’t seem to care enough about it.’ He says a lot more in the short space afforded by an Op Ed piece in the Guardian Weekly (vol. 193, no. 2. p. 20). But his overall point is simply that ‘amplification reaffirms human agency in an age of machines, as well as the power of non-technologists to cause meaningful change. The technology industry will keep building faster engines, but it’s up to us as human beings to decide where we go.’

I’m now wondering how long it will take for this more hopeful view of the future to emerge and, equally, how long it will take for the millionaires of Silicon Valley to take a more modest view of their achievements.