The technology pages of news media can make for scary reading these days. From new evidence of government surveillance to the personal data collection capabilities of new devices, to the latest leaks of personal information, we hear almost daily of new threats to personal privacy. It’s difficult to overstate the implications of this: The separation of the private and public that’s the cornerstone of liberal thought, not to mention the American Constitution, is being rapidly eroded, with potentially profound consequences for our freedom.
As much as we may register a certain level of dismay at this, in practice, our reaction is often indifference. How many of us have taken to the streets in protest, started a petition, canvassed a politician, or even changed our relationship with our smartphone, tablet or smartwatch? The question is why are we so unconcerned?
We could say that it’s simply a matter of habit, that we have become so used to using devices in such a way that we cannot imagine using them any differently. Or we could, for example, invoke a tragic fate in which we simply have no option but to accept the erosion of our privacy because of our powerlessness against corporations and governments.
These are, however, retrospective justifications that miss the kernel of the truth. To reach this kernel, we have to excavate the substratum of culture to uncover the ideas that shape our relationship with technology. Only here can we see that the cause is a profound ideological shift in this relationship.
Over the last few hundred years, it has been one characterized by deep ambivalence. On the one hand, we have viewed technology as emancipatory, and even, as David Nye, James Carey and other scholars have argued, as divine. On the other hand, we have seen it as dehumanizing, alienating and potentially manipulative -- a viewpoint shaped by historical figures as diverse as William Blake, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Charlie Chaplin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ned Lud, Samuel Beckett and Karl Marx. However, over the last 20 years or so, this latter perspective has largely been thrown out of the window.
There are many areas of culture that witness this shift, but none does so as lucidly as science fiction film. Even when set in the future, science fiction explodes onto the silver screen the ideas held about technology in the present. Indeed, the success of many of the best science fiction films is undoubtedly because they illustrate their time’s hopes and fears about technology so clearly.
Those of the late 20th century clearly suggest the prevalence in American culture of the old fearful view of technology. The 1980s, for example, saw the advent of personal computing, innovation in areas like genetic engineering and robotics, job losses brought about by industrial mechanization, and the creation of futuristic military technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars).
Lo and behold, the science fiction films of the time betray cultural fears of keeping up with the pace of change. Many explore the dehumanizing effects of technology, depicting worlds where humans have lost control. "Terminator," for example, conjoins fears of mechanization and computing. The human protagonists are powerless to kill Schwarzenegger’s cyborg directly; it ultimately meets its end via another piece of industrial technology (a hydraulic press). Another classic of the era, "Blade Runner," is a complex thought experiment on the joining of technology and humans as hybrids. The antagonist, Roy, whom Harrison Ford’s Deckard must kill, represents the horrific synthesis of unfettered human ambition and technological potency.
The 1990s was the age of mass computing and the rise of the internet. In response, new technological metaphors were created, with the 1980s’ imagery of hard, masculine technology replaced by the fluidity and dynamism of the network. In "Terminator 2," Schwarzenegger’s industrial killing machine is obsolete, and no longer a threat to humans. Instead, the threat comes from the T-1000, whose speed and liquid metal form evoke a new world governed by the data stream.
The '90s also witnessed increasing virtualization of everyday life — a trend reflected by Jean Baudrillard’s identification of the Gulf War as the first truly virtual war. Films explored the loss of the real that virtualization implied. "The Truman Show" and "The Matrix" both involve their protagonists being “awoken” from everyday life, which is shown to be artificial.
However, this view of technology as fearsome is seldom expressed in the sci-fi films since 2000, while it’s also difficult to identify many common themes, or many iconic genre examples. Is this simply because sci-fi as a genre has exhausted itself (as Ridley Scott has claimed)? Or is it symptomatic of something deeper in the culture?
The answer becomes clear when we consider two recent examples that do express fears of technology. "Transcendence" and "Her" join a long line of sci-fi films that portray artificial intelligence as out of control. Both, however, were not huge commercial successes. Was this because they were simply bad films? Not necessarily. While "Transcendence" was poorly received, "Her" was a thematically sophisticated exploration of love in a virtual age. The problem was that both missed the zeitgeist. No one really fears artificial intelligence anymore.
The notion that technology is fearful relies upon three assumptions: First, that technology and humans are self-contained and separate from each other (the old dichotomy of man and machine). Secondly, that technology has its own nature -- that it can determine human life. (As legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan once put it, “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”) Thirdly, that this nature can direct technology against humans.
However, the last 20 years have seen a dramatic erosion of all three assumptions. In particular, we no longer view technology as having any intrinsic meaning; the medium is no longer the message. Instead, its only meanings are those that we give it. For us, technology is a blank slate; it’s cultural matter waiting for us to give it form. Allied to this has been a new sense of intimacy with technology: a breaking down of the boundaries between it and us.
Perhaps the key driver of this has been technology’s centrality to the foremost pursuit of our times: the quest for the authentic self. This quest tasks us with finding ways of demonstrating to ourselves and others what makes us unique, special and individual. Technology has become a powerful way of doing this. We see it as a means of self-expression; it allows us to fully be ourselves.
The smartphone is the exemplar here. The cultural understanding of the smartphone was initially driven by BlackBerry, who positioned it as a corporate tool. Such meanings have long since lost resonance. Now, smartphone brands position their products as central to relationships, creative expression, play and all the other things that apparently make us authentic individuals. Apps are important: The customization of experience they allow helps to make our smartphones unique expressions of ourselves.
This association of technology with ideals of the authentic self is not confined to smartphones, however. Many researchers into artificial intelligence no longer aim to create ultimate intelligence; instead they replicate the "authentic" qualities of humans through creating machines that can, for instance, write music or paint.
Only recently, at the launch of Apple’s smartwatch, Jonathan Ive claimed that "we're at a compelling beginning, designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal," signifying a new frontier in the quest to eliminate the boundaries between ourselves and technology.
Similarly, the Internet of Things promises to make us the center of our worlds like never before. This is a world in which we will know about medical issues before we have even felt the symptoms, be able to alter the temperature of our home from wherever we are, and be warned in advance when we are running out of milk. It is one in which it’s claimed technology will be so in tune with our needs that it will anticipate them before we have.
Thus, we now view technology not just as empowering but as self-actualizing as well. Because it’s positioned as key to our authentic selves, we are newly intimate with it. This sounds utopian. It seems as if technology is finally reaching its potential: It is no longer the threat to human freedom, but its driving force.
Undoubtedly, there may be great pleasure in this new utopia, but this does not make it any less ideological. As Slavoj Zizek points out, ideas can both be true and highly ideological insofar as they obscure relations of domination. Indeed, it is the wrapping of technology in the "jargon of authenticity" (to borrow a phrase from Theodor Adorno, another critical theorist) that makes this new "ideology of intimacy" so seductive.
In the past, it was easier to critique technology because the dichotomy of man and machine clearly kept it separate from us. As such, we were able to take it as an object of analysis; to hypothesize how innovations might affect our freedoms for better or worse. This becomes infinitely more difficult in a context that has conflated ourselves and technology. We struggle to achieve the distance needed to critique it.
The result is that we become blind to technology’s dark side -- its potential to be misused in ways that encroach on our privacy. How can we see the privacy implications of our smartphones when we see them first as the key to the authentic self, or the Google Car when it looks so cute, or Google Glass when we believe that it will allow us to transcend our bodies to allow a new mastery of the world.
It is, though, a question not just of blindness but also of will. The injunction to treat technology as an extension of our authentic selves encourages a kind of narcissistic love: We love technology because we love ourselves. In Freudian terms, the ideology of intimacy incites us to invest our love in the technological object through presenting it as key to the pursuit of our ego ideal. Thus, we do not want to really separate ourselves from technology because doing so would be experienced as a traumatic loss, an alienation from part of ourselves. Perhaps this is the true power that the ideology of intimacy holds over us.
Yet somehow we need to take a step back, to uncouple ourselves from the seductive devices around us. We need to end our blind devotion and rediscover critical distance. This way we can start to view technology as it is: as both the key to our freedoms, and also their greatest threat. If we don’t, we may discover too late that the new technological utopia is actually a poisoned chalice, with profound implications for our privacy.