My latest Locus column, “Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech,” looks at how science fiction can make us better critics of technology by imagining how tech could be used in difference social and economic contexts than the one we live in today.
The “pro-tech” side’s argument is some variation on, “You can’t get the social benefits of Facebook without letting us spy on you and manipulate you — if you want to stay in touch with your friends, that’s the price of admission.” All too often, the “anti-tech” side takes this premise at face value: “Since we can’t hang out with our friends online without being spied on and manipulated, you need to stop wanting to hang out with your friends online.”
But the science fiction version of this goes, “What kinds of systems could we build if we wanted to hang out with our friends without being spied on and manipulated — and what kinds of political, regulatory and technological interventions would make those systems easier to build?”
A critique of technology that focuses on its market conditions, rather than its code, yields up some interesting alternate narratives. It has become fashionable, for example, to say that advertising was the original sin of online publication. Once the norm emerged that creative work would be free and paid for through attention – that is, by showing ads – the wheels were set in motion, leading to clickbait, political polarization, and invasive, surveillant networks: “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.”
But if we understand the contours of the advertising marketplace as being driven by market conditions, not “attention economics,” a different story emerges. Market conditions have driven incredible consolidation in every sector of the economy, meaning that fewer and fewer advertisers call the shots, and meaning that more and more of the money flows through fewer and fewer payment processors. Compound that with lax anti-trust enforcement, and you have companies that are poised to put pressure on publishers and control who sees which information.
In 2018, companies from John Deere to GM to Johnson & Johnson use digital locks and abusive license agreements to force you to submit to surveillance and control how you use their products. It’s true that if you don’t pay for the product, you’re the product – but if you’re a farmer who’s just shelled out $500,000 for a new tractor, you’re still the product.
The “original sin of advertising” story says that if only microtransactions had been technologically viable and commercially attractive, we could have had an attention-respecting, artist-compensating online world, but in a world of mass inequality, financializing culture and discourse means excluding huge swaths of the population from the modern public sphere. If the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has you convinced that money has had a corrupting influence on who gets to speak, imagine how corrupting the situation would be if you also had to pay to listen.
Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech [Cory Doctorow/Locus]