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Aldous Huxley once said, “In an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is the sin against the Holy Ghost.” There are abiding assumptions against which we can hardly be too vigilant. One is the assumption that Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman, makes when he says, “Technology is not really about hardware and software any more. It’s really about the mining and use of this enormous data to make the world a better place.” This is the today easy assumption that the availability of “data” will work to achieve the transparency that opens societies up for the exercise of freedom that is democracy. It is one thing to ask whether this causal string of events (“data” transparency public discourse democratic institutions) is actually borne out historically. It is something else altogether to see that the terms involved are so duplicitous, taken separately or in relation to each other, that they constitute more of a problem for thought than a solution. And it is something else again to believe so wholeheartedly in the trinity of data, transparency, freedom that one speaks as a prophet, so certain of the inner mechanism of history, past and future, that to say otherwise is indeed a sin. Mark Zuckerberg, who parses Facebook’s mission as to “make the world more open and connected,” recently claimed, “We don’t wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making money….There are a lot of really big issues for the world to get solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” Data mining and saving the world, the Internet as budding Valhalla, the tools that save humankind from itself—these are all elements in a utopian vision or regulative ideal that, I would argue, are harmful in their present form. I would argue that “data” is only as good as the interpretive mind that reads it, that can read it by seeing its significance in more than one context. I would argue that the Internet as a model for community—indeed, an ideal community without borders—is deeply flawed, that without borders there is no community at all. I would argue that the optimism borne of the belief that our tools or technological progress will save humankind is part of what most centrally ails humankind, and I say this not only because it is hard to imagine the window between the invention of the ballistic missile and the anti-ballistic missile closing. That is, for as long as this window obtains, so does the opportunity for disaster, the possibility that over time becomes a near certainty.
In the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” the telos of all human progress is the elimination of inefficiencies, rather as Huxley had it. We must bear in mind, however, that these “inefficiencies” overlap considerably with the resistance that is reality. The regulative ideal guiding the online experience is the absence of inefficiencies, a frictionless surface in which nothing obstructs movement, and it is this same ideal that has become the single greatest force in the offline world. The telos to which all things today converge is the absolute obviation of resistance. Evgeny Morozov tries to envision the future from a Silicon Valley perspective. “If Silicon Valley had a designated futurist, her bright vision of the near future—say, around 2020 or so—would itself be easy to predict. It would go something like this: Humanity, equipped with powerful self-tracking devices, finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered too, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again.” Morozov goes on with his rather extended hypothetical. Technology will make the backroom deals of politics impossible. Political parties are replaced by the users who used to bowl alone coming together—exactly once—to vote, and disband forever more. The unimaginable wealth of data dries up the swamp pit of Washington lobbying and pay to play. Voters are pressured, gamed or otherwise incentivized to vote directly from their smartphone, saving them a trip in the self-driving car.
We must have the courage for a hermeneutical turn. We must be the first, as leaders in the field, to resist messianic fantasies. Such ideals exert the profoundest influence, narrowing the landscape of the imagination. While America has long been automobile-centric, it has always been possible to imagine things otherwise. Our faith in the Internet is such that we cannot imagine a world without it going forward. We ought at minimum be agnostics in this far-from scientific faith among cyber-intellectuals in the Internet for what we consider progress, the promotion of democratic sentiments and parliamentary government. We should not anticipate the dawn of a neoliberal paradise.
An assumption dating back to 1989 is that the democratic forces of the world had won and that all borders had been thrown open to techno-capitalist consumerism, the natural outcome of the lifting of barriers to trade. This has for so long been the operating assumption that it lies at the basis of much of what the IMF has done in the world for the last 50 years. Funds are extended in exchange for so-called free trade. And it was this assumption that made the Francis Fukayama thesis on the end of history plausible. Starbucks, MTV, and Google were inherently liberating. What wasn’t understood sufficiently was the degree to which we were seeing ourselves in the other. Just because North Korea wants to exist in a less than splendid isolation does not mean that authoritarian regimes cannot employ all the technologies we associate with the Internet toward their own ends. Authoritarianism today has been repackaged. Marx’s Grundrisse is out, Apple electronics is in. Che Guevara is out, keeping up with the Kardashians (conspicuous consumption) is in. Much of the developing world has discovered that hedonistic consumerism looks pretty good, and they have taken to it much as Elizabethian Europeans once did to tobacco and native populations to fire water.
Concrete support for the case I am making can be found in the great expectations that attended the so-called color revolutions of the former Soviet Union. The true beneficiaries of them have been Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, terra incognita with respect to the end of history. Sports cars and pricey holidays, it turns out, coexist quite well with despotism. Surely we should never forget that the Roman citizen traded in the vote for bread and circuses. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have only given democracy promotion a bad name. The persistence of authoritarian regimes in Belarus, China, and Iran has nothing whatever to do with a Western failure of the will. If we have largely lost the courage to promote democracy in the world, it is perhaps the result of a fundamental misreading of history, a hermeneutically unsound approach.
It was a part of the conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union collapsed because of contraband photocopiers and fax machines, which then promoted samizdat. Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America had broken through, communicated to the world that toothpaste and toilet paper need not be precious commodities. Cold War triumphalism, after decades of funding more and more advanced munitions, left in its wake, in the absence of geopolitical bipolarity, the conviction that technology and modernization were deadly to repressive regimes. But this has to no small degree been an ideology in the service of existing power. Big global capital has never done better. The Inter