Want to Fix Technopoly Life? Here Is a Plan. Implement It. Now.

December 28, 2023

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

Cal Newport published an interesting opinion essay in New Yorker Magazine called “It Is Time to Dismantle the Technopoly.” The point upon which I wish to direct my dinobaby microscope appears at the end of the paywalled artistic commentary. Here’s the passage:

We have no other reasonable choice but to reassert autonomy over the role of technology in shaping our shared story.

The author or a New Yorker editor labored over this remarkable sentence.

First, I want to point out that there is a somewhat ill-defined or notional “we”. Okay, exactly who is included in the “we.” I would suggest that the “technopoly” is excluded. The title of the article makes clear that dismantle means taking apart, disassembling, or deconstructing. How will that be accomplished in a nation state like the US? What about the four entities in the alleged “Axis of Evil”? Are there other social constructs like an informal, distributed group of bad actors who want to make smart software available to anyone who wants to mount phishing and ransomware attacks? Okay, that’s the we problem, not too tiny is it?


A teacher explains to her top students that they have an opportunity to define some interesting concepts. The students do not look too happy. As the students grow older, their interest is therapist jargon may increase. The enthusiasm for defining such terms remains low. Thanks, MSFT Copilot.

Second, “no other reasonable choice.” I think you know where I am going with my next question: What does “reasonable” mean? I think the author knows or hopes that the “we” will recognize “reasonable” when those individuals see it. But reason is slippery, particularly in an era in which literacy is defined as being able to “touch and pay” and “swiping left.” What is the computing device equipped with good enough smart software “frames” an issue? How does one define “reasonable” if the information used to make that decision is weaponized, biased, or defined by a system created by the “technopoly”? Who other than lawyers wants to argue endlessly over an epistemological issue? Not me. The “reasonable” is pulled from the same word list used by some of the big technology outfits. Isn’t Google reasonable when it explains that it cares about the user’s experience? What about Meta (the Zuckbook) and its crystal clear explanations of kiddie protections on its services? What about the explanations of legal experts arguing against one another? The word “reasonable” strikes me as therapist speak or mother-knows-best talk.

Third, the word “reassert” suggests that it is time to overthrow the technopoly. I am not sure a Boston Tea Party-type event will do the trick. Technology, particularly open source software, makes it easy for a bad actor working from a beat down caravan near Makarska can create a new product or service that sweeps through the public network. How is “reassert” going to cope with an individual hooked into an online, distributed criminal network. Believe me, Europol is trying, but the work is difficult. But the notion of “reassert” implies that there was a prior state, a time when technopolists were not the focal point of “The New Yorker.” “Reassert” is a call to action. The who, how, when, and where questions are not addressed. The result is crazy rhetoric which, I suppose, might work if one were a TikTok influencer backed by a large country’s intelligence apparatus. But that might not work either. The technopolies have created the datasphere, and it is tough to grab a bale of tea and pitch it in the Boston Harbor today. “Heave those bits overboard, mates” won’t work.

Fourth “autonomy.” I am not sure what “autonomy” means. When I was taking required classes at the third-rate college I attended, I learned the definition each instructor presented. Then, like a good student chasing top marks, I spit the definition back. Bingo. The method worked remarkably well. The notion of “autonomy” dredges upon explanations of free will and predestination. “Autonomy” sounds like a great idea to some people. To me, it smacks of ideas popular when Ben Franklin was chasing females through French doors before he was asked to return to the US of A. YouTube is chock-a-block with off-the-grid methods. Not too many people go off the grid and remain there. When someone disappears, it becomes “news.” And the person or the entity’s remains become an anecdote on a podcast. How “free” is a person in the US to “dismantle” a public or private enterprise? Can one “dismantle” a hacker? Remember those homeowners who put bullets in an intruder and found themselves in jail? Yeah. Autonomy. How’s that working out in other countries? What about the border between French Guyana and Brazil? Do something wrong and the French Foreign Legion will define “autonomy” in terms of a squad solving a problem. Bang. Done. Nice idea that “autonomy” stuff.

Fifth, the word “role” is interesting. I think of “role” as a character in a social setting; for example, a CEO who is insecure about how he or she actually became a CEO. That individual tries to play a “role.” A character like the actor who becomes “Mr. Kitzel” on a Jack Benny Show plays a role. The talking heads on cable news play a “role.” Technology enables, it facilitates, and it captivates. I suppose that’s its “role.” I am not convinced. Technology does what it does because humans have shaped a service, software, or system to meet an inner need of a human user. Technology is like a gerbil. Look away and there are more and more little technologies. Due to human actions, the little technologies grow and then the actions of lots of human make the technologies into digital behemoths. But humans do the activating, not the “technology.” The twist with technology is that as it feeds on human actions, the impact of the two interacting is tough to predict. In some cases, what happens is tough to explain as that action is taking place. A good example is the role of TikTok in shaping the viewpoints of some youthful fans. “Role” is not something I link directly to technology, but the word implies some sort of “action.” Yeah, but humans  were and are involved. The technology is perhaps a catalyst or digital Teflon. It is not Mr. Kitzel.

Sixth, the word “shaping” in the cited sentence directly implies that “technology” does something. It has intent. Nope. The humans who control or who have unrestricted access to the “technology” do the shaping. The technology — sorry, AI fans — is following instructions. Some instructions come from a library; others can be cooked up based on prior actions. But for most technology technology is inanimate and “smart” to uninformed people. It is not shaping anything unless a human set up the system to look for teens want to commit suicide and the software identifies similar content and displays it for the troubled 13 year old. But humans did the work. Humans shape, distort, and weaponize. The technology is putty composed of zeros and ones. If I am correct, the essay wants to terminate humans. Once these bad actors are gone, the technology “problem” goes away. Sounds good, right?

Finally, the word “shared story.” What is this “shared story”? The commentary on a spectacular shot to win a basketball game? A myth that Thomas Jefferson was someone who kept his trousers buttoned? The story of a Type A researcher who experimented with radium and ended up a poster child for radiation poisoning? An influencer who escaped prison and became a homeless minister caring for those without jobs and a home? The “shared story” is a baffler. My hunch is that “shared story” is something that the “we” are sad has disappeared. My family was one of the group that founded Hartford, Connecticut, in the 17th century. Is that the Arnolds’ shared story. News flash: There are not many Arnolds left and those who remain laugh we I “share” that story. It means zero to them. If you want a “shared story”, go viral on YouTube or buy Super Bowl ads. Making friends with Taylor Swift will work too.

Net net: The mental orientation of the cited essay is clear in one sentence. Yikes, as the honor students might say.

Stephen E Arnold, December 28, 2023


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