Embedded values and dreams
by Ken Myers
“The earliest proponents and champions of the internet spoke in glowing terms that directly drew from the legacy of Enlightenment dreams. They were breathless over the sheer marvel of digital communication and distribution of information across time and space. They sang familiar choruses that praised scientific knowledge and innovation as the inevitable means of human progress. The creation of what seemed like a parallel universe in cyberspace amplified existing questions about the presumed nature of reality and its limitations, and offered new possibilities of unlocking humanity’s full potential. Internet technology became a cultural container that would catch all of our turn-of-the-century hopes of fixing the age-old quandaries of human suffering and global conflict. As such, the internet was always a value-laden technology: It was never neutral and it was never just a tool. It was designed to promote individual freedoms over structural constraints, and the market for its subsequent digital media and services wrapped the technology within a morally valanced story about information being power, and digital connection promising prosperity, equality, and happiness. (As far as I know, nobody has ever promised anything remotely close to that list of social goods about a hammer!)
“As the technology evolved and found new life in cloud computing, data-driven services, and user-generated content through social media and blogging, a new industry of digital media and startups took center stage in Silicon Valley. The remnant of software engineers and countercultural utopians who defined the earlier companies like AOL, Microsoft, and IBM, were overshadowed by a new breed of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs whose eyes were trained on the fresh and exciting outside-of-the-box modes of creativity found in companies like Google, Facebook, and YouTube. Like the Gold Rush settlers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs emerged as modern-day heroes. They were praised for their ‘rugged individualism’ and capacity to strike out on their own, making their mark through sheer ingenuity and wits as they ran headlong into a new untapped digital market that brimmed with potential reward.
“With a sure faith in the capacity to engineer and design solutions for virtually any puzzle that arose, startup culture’s celebrated mantra to ‘move fast and break things’ gave companies license to privilege the virtues of disruption and innovation over and above social responsibility. Unfortunately as we have all seen, this starry-eyed belief — that any emergent problem can be fixed with better programming or better algorithms — fed a willful blindness to the polarizing and radicalizing tendencies of social media and the digital landscape. As these troubling dynamics began to clearly affect American civic and political life in 2016, these tech companies have been increasingly called on by consumer advocacy groups, government officials, and scholars alike to address the ways in which the priorities that were embedded in their technology's design and platform’s policies have unintentionally led to deleterious consequences for American democracy.
“Despite Silicon Valley’s desire to imagine itself as an enlightened industry that delivers services and products that are universally inclusive and empowering, the confirmed biases found among venture capitalists to favor those entrepreneurs who are young, white, and male signal the degree to which the digital industry privileges certain voices and perspectives over others. And insofar as every technology is imprinted by the cultural ethos it was borne out of, it should not be surprising to discover that the internet and its digital landscape inextricably mirrors American society in all of its glory and all of its shame.
“If we are to recognize how our digital technologies carry within them the values and perspectives of their makers, their culture, and their societal assumptions, perhaps we should be asking: Whose values or dreams are embedded in the design of our apps, platforms, and digital experiences? What type of world was this technology supposed to make possible and encourage? What kinds of lives are these technologies meant to enhance? And how is it shaping mine?”
— from Felicia Wu Song, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age (InterVarsity Press, 2021). Felicia Wu Song talked about this book on Volume 154 of the Journal.