There is a serious downside to use of computers and mobile devices, according to recent medical and social science reports. Several essays and books likewise point to the danger. Nonetheless concerned parents or stressed-out workers still reach superficial or incorrect conclusions about the internet and tech devices. For example, some well-meaning people say internet problems are due strictly to content. Don’t view porn and other trash, they continue, and you will be OK.
To better understand the influence of technology, learn something about the founders of some important companies—their philosophy, the culture of their businesses and more.
It feels odd to distinguish between the old internet and the new internet. The old internet was a tool for the military and for research facilities. As it grew, the internet had a populist aura. The feeling was that the internet is a friendly companion, a community, an extended family of pioneers. That language is still around but it does not apply to the new internet. By about 1995 the internet had become fully commercial. Yes, the content of the internet ranges over every taste, perspective and interest. But it is largely controlled by a small number of companies. The big players in today’s internet business oppose ideas of democracy and communal decentralization, writes Jonathan Taplin in Move Fast and Break Things (Little Brown, 2017). “The dominant philosophy of Silicon Valley [is] based far more heavily on radical libertarian ideology.”
Modernity (which dates from 1500, let’s say) remarkably elevates the dignity of each individual. This is a singular achievement. No longer can someone’s career or lifestyle be determined by the caste of one’s parents. No longer can someone be denied opportunity because of one’s ethnic group or gender. Of course, modernity does not always deliver on its promise. But compared to pre-1500 days, modern individuals enjoy immense freedom.
Libertarians take the otherwise good notion of a liberated individual to its extreme. They believe that, writes Taplin, attaining one’s individual happiness is the only moral purpose of life. That doesn’t mean that a libertarian walks down the block and knocks over older people in the way. A libertarian might sponsor a youth outing or visit the elderly. Simply that the criteria for any behavior is its potential to reward the individual actor—be it financially, psychologically or even spiritually, when defined in an individualistic way.
The big players of the new internet are moral arbiters each onto him alone (and it is a white male culture). They oppose any universal governance of the internet. They succeed—by their definition of success—because they are free to break the bonds, to go beyond, to be above, to push anything aside in the name of liberty. Taplin says their credo is: “Who will stop me.” The men who created the new internet “believed that they had both the brilliance and the moral fortitude to operate outside the normal strictures of law and taxes” and other restraints. They “truly believe that technology can deliver happiness” by its very nature. Thus critical to the success of the big tech companies “is the ability to maintain the illusion that they are working for the greater good even while pursuing policies that serve only their own needs.” Some tech giants give away money and sponsor anti-poverty programs. It is possible that in doing so some of the tech giants are totally sincere. In fact, for some the illusion is their reality.
We take the internet for granted; likewise cyberspace, the dish and cable box, mobile devices, apps and programs of all kinds. This technology is our default position. We don’t concern ourselves with the philosophy of the internet’s big owners. We assume the best whenever our mobile device helps us hail a ride or when our computer allows us to post a blog. We take it as obviously correct when Mark Zuckerberg says, “To improve the lives of millions of people [connect them] to the internet.” We hardly consider the downside of Zuckerberg and others promoting a world of isolated individuals who fend for themselves with a lifeline called the internet. We are content enough with the assumption that the way to better health care is through more and faster connections to web-doctors, cyber-insurance plans and computer-linked pharmacies with a drive-up window staffed by a robot. Better education? On-line courses. Better work experience? Robot colleagues. Better sports fandom? Watch the game on one’s own device…at the stadium, no less.
Is tech really an improvement? Or at a minimum a neutral force? A subsequent column will consider tech presumptions in light of Catholic philosophy.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.