Evgeny Morozov’s Response to Martin Schulz : Digital Thinking? Wishful Thinking!

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Nachdenklich: Evgeny Morozov fordert eine gerechte Verteilung der Macht. Er hält die Diskussion über neue Technologien für einen Kampf mit Schatten, der verdrängt, was wirklich wichtig ist. Bild: Nora Klein

The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, pleads in favour of a new left movement. But first of all the leftists must learn to penetrate the numerous layers of technological mystification.

          Every time we are asked to evaluate a new technology – be it a fancy biometric system for identification or a health-tracking app – we are in for three likely responses. Techno-pessimists would reject it out of hand – they simply hate technology and everything it brings. Techno-optimists would welcome it with open arms, for the simple reason that they love progress – and how can technology give us anything else? Techno-agnostics would say that it all depends, that any technology can be both good and evil. To me, agnosticism seems to be the right attitude and I sense that Martin Schulz subscribes to it as well.

          But there are two different kinds of agnosticism. There’s the naïve agonisticism – an agnosticism of equal probabilities – which posits that it’s equally likely that a given technology would end up promoting good or evil ends. On the face of it, this position seems to require a leap of faith that borders on religion. How is such an intellectual outlook even possible? Well, it’s possible only if we forget that the world where technology is to be deployed - our world - is marked by inequality and driven by conflict. Yes, in an ideal world everyone benefits from every technology equally. But in our world, the spoils and harms of technology are divided unequally and redistributing them in a more just manner is the most important political project of our times.

          (German version: „Wider digitales Wunschdenken“)

          The reason why such naïve agnosticism has taken hold of our imagination has to do with our tendency to treat technology as if it occupied a unique, autonomous domain – a domain that is hermetically sealed from the pernicious influence of “society” or “economy.” Anyone endorsing this view suffers from a perverse form of social amnesia: every time they are asked to evaluate a particular technology, they respond by claiming that everything we already know about the world – from history, political theory, economics – is invalid and that we have to start our analysis from scratch, without positing any macro-level structures, be it capitalism, neoliberalism, or the military-industrial complex. This tyranny of the micro perspective smuggles intellectual parochialism and the shallowest form of methodological individualism through the backdoor, so that, in the end, we are told that it all depends on how we choose to use a particular technology – it’s all about individual actors pursuing their own rational agendas, as if those agendas are not already framed by considerations of politics, economics, or security.

          Fortunately, there’s also the well-informed, radical agnosticism that refuses to treat technology as lying outside of society. This seems to be the view espoused by Martin Schulz. It’s an attitude that seeks to put our existing knowledge about the world to the noble task of predicting whether a given technology would align itself with the project of emancipation or the project of enslavement. This is an attitude that denies itself the luxury of social amnesia, for it knows that there’s plenty of evil in the world, that the NSA and Wall Street are not benevolent actors that deserve the benefit of the doubt, that most companies are driven by profit and that, left to their own devices, they would happily treat their workers like machines and the society at large as just a repository of free resources to be exploited.

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