Once upon a time, the word “technology” might have been applied to something such as a new design element that reduces frictional losses in a gear set. Today, the word is often shortened to “tech” and it typically means: finding new ways to insert a layer of fussiness into some aspect of life that is not yet subject to
fussiness “optimization”, and then collecting rents from the friction this introduces.
We do a lot of clerical labor to register ourselves with entities that have figured out ways to intervene in matters that were once direct and straightforward. For example, you have to download the Parkmobile app and set up an account before you can park your car in Santa Cruz, if you are anywhere near the boardwalk. Maybe you are ready to unwind on the beach after a hard day, or maybe you have a carload of kids with low blood sugar, two of whom desperately need to find a bathroom. But you are going to have to find a cell signal, register your credit card and make a password before you can go on your way. Of course, since the app freezes during the final step, you’re not sure you really did pay for parking, or if instead you will be paying an $85 parking ticket at some point in the future. It’s super relaxing. Ask me how I know.
If you don’t have a smart phone, you are out of luck. You may be paying taxes to maintain the street but you can’t park on it, since you are not quite a full citizen.
Whatever unforeseen transformations of the world they brought, breakthroughs like the steam engine and the telegraph (and indeed the Internet) were productive, as they introduced new efficiencies that percolated through the entire economy. But it is hard to avoid the sense that today’s “tech” is more often a tax on the real economy, inflicting costs that don’t show up in any ledger because they are paid by you and me in the coin of nuisance.
To be sure, technology in the good old-fashioned sense sometimes gave rise to what Ivan Illich called counter-productivity. He famously added up the expense of maintaining, fueling and insuring a car, converted that expense to hours (at some typical wage), placed that number beside the number of miles traveled in a year, at speeds typical of the congestion caused by too many cars, and discovered that in terms of miles travelled per hour of your life spent in service to the automobile, it was no better than walking. But the automobile brought with it new environmental externalities, transformed the city in such a way as to preclude other modes of locomotion, and concentrated wealth in new structures of political power (e.g. General Motors) that were less accessible to influence by ordinary citizens.
But the counter-productivity of today’s “tech” that I have in mind is not of this sort. It is not an unintended consequence, due in part to collective action problems (e.g., the congestion caused by everyone else also using a car). Rather, the very business model of tech, often, consists of adding layers of control to activities that don’t need them, and then locating that gratuitous, extra control in systems that need constant updating. The rents collected are various in form, some of it taking the form of hostage-taking, since the dysfunction that comes with failing to maintain and update the extra layer of bullshit can cripple any operation.
But the bulk of the rents are paid in the frustration and uncertainty that accompany tasks that were once simple and easy. Of course, this isn’t really rent, as it doesn’t benefit anybody. But neither is it a cost that registers anywhere in the system. It’s just part of the vast, subterranean economy of shadow work we do to make things more convenient and legible for some IT system that is profoundly stupid, compared to human beings when they are allowed to go about their business without being harassed. We also do emotional labor to keep ourselves on the non-felonious side of the very natural, Unabomber tendencies that are the only rational response of a self-respecting person to being constantly fucked with in this way.
You can think of the push for driverless cars as an attempt to apply the business logic of information technology to personal transportation. Let that sink in for a moment. We are talking about the movements of your body being subject to what is essentially a kind of remote control.
The first thing to know about driverless cars is that they are not offered in response to consumer demand; it is very much a top down effort at social engineering for profit.
Given the engineering challenges of autonomous vehicles sharing the road with human drivers, which have turned out to be far more challenging than was thought even five years ago, automation on this front at scale would likely require human driving to be made illegal.Autonomous vehicles only make sense within the more comprehensive vision of the “smart city,” in which the burden would fall on residents to adapt themselves to the needs and convenience of systems they have little say in. Ian Bogost offers a convincing thought experiment about the terms on which the public will have access to roads as public infrastructure comes to be financed and planned by partnerships between municipalities and tech companies. “It's easy to imagine that crosstown transit might soon require acceptance of non-negotiable terms of service that would allow your robocar provider to aggregate and sell where you go, when, with whom, and for what purpose.” One can imagine the removal of street signs, those eyesores that aren't needed by autonomous vehicles, tipping us further into dependence on the cartel. Bogost writes that “other, stranger realities are possible. Imagine if walking across the street required a micro transaction to ensure safe passage. Violations might be subject to tickets or fines—although more likely, your local transit vendor would already know where you are thanks to your smartphone, and just debit your metered service plan accordingly.”
But never mind hypothetical futures. We have plenty of basis on which to conclude that the mindset of IT is very different than the industrial mindset that built a more or less reliable world. At a COMDEX computer expo back in 1997, Bill Gates compared the computer industry with the auto industry. He said of the computer industry, “The openness, the innovation, it’s really unequaled. . . . The price of a mid-sized auto, it’s about double what it used to be. . . . And if you take that and say, what would those prices be if it were like the PC industry, the car would cost about $27.” As embellished in urban legend, he went on to say, “If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”
According to legend, General Motors issued a press release in response, stating that if GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:
1. For no reason at all, your car would crash twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road, you would have to buy a new car.
3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. You might have to re-install the engine as well. For some reason, you would simply accept this.
4. Apple would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast, and twice as easy to drive, but would run on only 5 percent of the roads.
5. Oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would be replaced by a single “general car default” warning light.
6. New seats would force everyone to have the same size butt.
7. The airbag would say “Are you sure?” before going off.
8. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key, and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.
9. The Macintosh car owners would get expensive Microsoft upgrades to their cars, which would make their cars run much slower.
10. GM would require all car buyers to also purchase a deluxe set of road maps from Rand-McNally (a subsidiary of GM), even though they neither need them nor want them. Trying to delete this option would immediately cause the car’s performance to diminish by 50 percent or more.
11. You would press the “start” button to shut off the engine.
In the mind of Bill Gates, automobiles stand for stagnation, the dead weight of industrial legacy. The fact that they work somehow fades from consideration. It’s amazing how ready we are to abandon this standard of assessment and still regard a product as acceptable, if it has a forward-thinking sheen to it. Or it is forced upon us.
“Half of U.S. adults think automated vehicles are more dangerous than traditional vehicles operated by people, while nearly two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle, according to [a 2019 Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll]. In the same poll, about 63 percent of those who responded said they would not pay more to have a self-driving feature on their vehicle, and 41 percent of the rest said they would not pay more than $2,000. . . . The findings are similar to those in a 2018 Reuters/Ipsos poll. They are consistent with results in surveys by Pew Research Center, the American Automobile Association and others.”
Paul Lienert and Maria Caspani, “Americans Still Don't Trust Self-Driving Cars, Reuters/Ipsos Poll Finds,” Reuters, April 1, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-selfdriving-poll/americans-still-dont-trust-self-driving-cars-reuters-ipsos-poll-finds-idUSKCN1RD2QS.
Other findings consistent with these are collected from opinion polls conducted by various industry groups, insurance institutes and consumer advocacy groups and available at Saferoads.org.
“Lyft Co-founder Says Human Drivers Could Soon Be Illegal in America,” according to a headline in Business Insider, December 15, 2016. In November of 2017 in Automotive News, Bob Lutz, the head of GM, suggested that driving will be outlawed in twenty years. Bob Lutz, “Kiss the Good Times Goodbye,” Automotive News, November 5, 2017, http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20171105/INDUSTRY_REDESIGNED/171109944/industry-redesigned-bob-lutz
A lot of this is driven by a shift that took place within tech companies at the turn of the century. There are reasons for the shift, but essentially it involved a shift away from viewing a customer as someone to be served and viewing him instead as something to be monetized. The arrival of smartphones, designed from the ground up as surveillance devices, only encouraged the mindset, among tech companies, that users are embodied, walking data sets that should be mined. Nothing like a sophisticated moral understanding has grown up in the tech community regarding this shift (I write as an insider). Recently, I went to a major league baseball game. The web site that sold me tickets insisted that I install the MLB app on my phone. As a tech guy, I figured out how to get the QR codes for my tickets to print without installing the app on my phone. I took my printed pages to the game and they scanned me in but the lady who did so gave me a lecture about how I was not supposed to do that. The entire stadium was designed as a massive data collection machine, with cameras for facial recognition everywhere, correlating your face with your purchases in the various food vendors, as well as with the credit card you used to make those purchases. This behavior on the part of major league baseball is of a piece with an entire conceptual model. The ubiquitous employment of the pejorative "consumers" instead of "customers" should have been our first clue.
In Philip K Dick's seminal work UBIK, there is a scene were our protagonist is attempting to enter his apartment, and the door speaks to him, demanding a nickel (or some amount) to enter. And, as the character doesn't have the correct change, he ends up hacking apart the door to get in. This is often cited as a libertarian solution (charged each time you go through a door) but in reality it reflects our new paradigm of software as subscription; you no longer own something, but to use your own thoughts you need to pay for them on a regular basis. We see this in the model of Uber, Lyft, and various food delivery systems, and if self driving cars come about, we will see this in the basics of moving about a city. This also takes away the act of learning to drive and transforming it from a basic skill to, at it's highest form, an art.
There is a strain of thought in the United States (possible the western world) that wants to engineer the perfect solution, and in so doing, remove the art of an act from it. This is seen in gadgets such as a Sous Vide, which cooks a steak by boiling it to the correct temperature, after which you put it on a grill to get the hash marks. I cannot think of a better example of the loss of art/craft in modern society. William Morris would turn over in his grave.