In the current Guardian, American novelist Jonathan Franzen writes “What’s wrong with the modern world?” Franzen retrieves cranky German polemicist Karl Kraus from the 1930’s to buttress a literary critique of the cultural evaporation accelerated by Big Capital solutionist appropriation of the Internets. Perhaps because there are so few public techno-critics in literary culture in the 21st Century, Franzen seems to own this space for an epic rant (and new book) that pierce our culture’s enamoration with all things interactive, online, gamified, and ultimately, trivial. In the face of the scale of real-world problems faced by our civilization, Franzen is warning that our distraction with the entertaining and trivial, and our failure to invent beneficial alternatives, is costing us our culture:
“… the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.”
Franzen nails our obsessions with cool Silicon Valley “fixes” to the convenience problems of life (or perhaps those problems faced by well-off 20-somethings). He wonders whether our enchantment with sleek design (e.g., Apple products) has created an obsession with coolness as defined by Big Tech. You can’t help but admire the reframing of Apple’s design-led capitalistic optimism in this bit of story:
“Mac versus PC. Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn’t even matter what you’re creating on your Mac Air. Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of DOS operating systems and early Windows.”
As a “Hodgman” type myself, I’d recommend the social truth of that critique. I posted a rail about the Mac interface and closed hardware a couple years ago, but was too timid perhaps to take on the coolness factor. I am perhaps one of the only design professors at OCADU with a PC laptop … to which I’ve affixed the Apple logo sticker to confuse my students and peers into thinking I’m “with them.” But I’m not really, I’m with Franzen.
I’m also with Morozov. If you’ve read Evgeny Morozov’s recent social critiques of technological solutionism, whether in open dialogues or dialectics with columnists or his 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here, you already know where we’re going. Franzen is joining a backlash against Silicon Valley smugness and monopolization of culture and access that includes Morozov and Jaron Lanier. Morozov enjoins a continuing movement of thinkers since systems theorists Norbert Wiener (Cybernetics, 1948) and Hasan Ozbekhan’s 1968 The Triumph of Technology: “Can Implies Ought”, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, and yes, Marshall McLuhan.
Technology ethics has seemed something of a suppressed discipline for the last decade or so. As the new wave of Web 2.0 firms figured out how to make themselves extremely rich while making people happy sharing cat photos on Facebook, the North American impulse was to celebrate what looked to be the return of a magical economic and social force. Those urging that social purposes might change the tech rather than tech changing our norms were considered, well, cranks and Luddites. The occasional mea culpa is not going to change that. Morozov’s arguments are certainly a minority view, and Franzen’s points are getting lost in ad hominen attacks (a weird Millennial backlash against his arrogance that we would never have launched against previous generational authors, such as Mailer or Updike).
We should ask at least one critical question of all technological fixes to the supposed problems of our times: “What possibilities are lost with this solution? What value might be destroyed as a possible consequence?” OK, that’s two questions, but I’m sure you’ll have many more if you read these authors with an open perspective toward the social meaning of innovation.