The Futures is Ours to Decide – It’s Time to Put Our Mouth Where Our Money Is.

by , under Blog Posts, Economics, Education, Technology

A couple of months ago an esteemed educationalist – a Knight of the Realm no less – came to the school I teach in to do some training. One part of his remit was inviting us to think about the future of education, and he began by excitedly delivering a slick speech about how children would soon not need libraries or museums or books at all. They would travel through virtual Shakespearean London in fully immersive 3D digital environments and go back through history via the time machine of YouTube.

It was a fascinating presentation, but part of it troubled me. I approached him afterwards and challenged him: we might be heading towards a future without physical books or museums, but surely we need to ask if this is the sort of future we want?

He was rather taken aback. It seemed that in the excitement of being one of the lucky few to whom Apple send their latest products, and in the whirlwind of being invited to launches of the latest digital devices, he’d forgotten that we actually have a choice about whether or not these products are going to make our lives better.

Indeed, in the light of recent announcements by big corporations, I would go further: unless we exercise choice about the technologies we adopt, we are abdicating ourselves from the throne of human responsibility. When we accept Amazon’s (rather far-fetched) drones without asking if we really want them, we become no more than drones ourselves – insentient machines whom companies can take cash from by simply exciting our fried circuits with the ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’ of novelty.

Google Glass is a fine example. In a socio-political context where it has been revealed that all of the big-tech companies have been cooperated with governments to allow them to snoop on us, it seems quite unbelievable that Glass could be any more than an April Fools prank. Really, Google want us to wear a device that allows live-video streaming of what we are seeing, audio recording of all we are saying – of neighbours and family members and unsuspecting people we happen to be near in bars and cafes – and we are meant to nod and say ‘yes please‘?

Clearly, the technologies that gadgets such as Glass employ are stunning. But we must not then be stunned by them. Because it is possible to have such tools, does not mean that we should adopt them. Instead, we should consider them critically and carefully, reflecting on what they might do to us as people, as societies, before we accept them.

The future that is desirable is not always the one that corporations want us to desire. Just because a product is heavily advertised, does not make it necessary to our contentment. Advertisements are media carefully targeted to get under our skins and into our minds and hearts – but only as a way of accessing our wallets.

It’s easy to think that in market economy only what we want will be successful. But this is too simplistic, especially when so many millions are spent telling us what it is that we should want.

It’s time we put our mouths where our money is – to speak up where corporations have expected us to pay up. It’s time that we the people committed to taking stock of the future we would like for ourselves and our children.

Perhaps it is one without real museums or physical books or libraries. Perhaps it’s one where children enter the school gates and put on goggles to be virtually taught by e-teachers. Perhaps it’s one where we are happy to be under constant surveillance, and have this information used to fire laser-guided ads at us onto screens just centimetres from our eyeballs.

Perhaps it is. But if it is not it is up to us to us to act. Corporations and governments will not do it for us. We have the market system; perhaps it’s time to turn over the tables and demand the future that we desire for our own enrichment, not the one that huge companies tell us to desire for their own profit. Which is why rather than waiting 30 mins for a robot drone to buzz through the skies and land a book at my feet, I’ll take a stroll down to my local bookshop and buy it, and talk books to the nice lady who runs it and perhaps take some time to be human.


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  1. Marika Rose

    I agree with you that we need to think about what sort of future that we want to create and where technology fits into that; but I fundamentally disagree that the way to build a better future is through individual consumer choice. As has been written about elsewhere (e.g. http://by-strategy.tumblr.com/post/38008160316/boycotting-amazon-is-boycotting-ukuncut-or-why-a), a total boycott of Amazon is literally impossible; capitalism no longer works in the sort of way where we can work out where a corporation begins and ends. Systemic problems need systemic solutions. That doesn’t mean that as individuals we have no responsibility for thinking about these issues, but it does mean that we can’t solve them as individuals: we need to work out what it means to work together to transform political and economic structures. Ethical consumerism isn’t just an impossibility and a distraction, it actively participates in the very system it supposedly challenges.

  2. KB

    Good corrective. Yes, it is going to require a means of working together rather than as individuals. Seems that that is so much harder as the system works to, in Houellebecq’s language, ‘atomise’ us.

    The perennial question then – getting back to debates we’ve had before – is how this action begins, or whether it even does before the system collapses? I’m still very interested in this, and the way the language of technology and limitlessness functions to prevent this.

  3. Marika Rose

    Well, I don’t really know. I’m partly convinced that Zizek’s right to suggest that we don’t exactly know how to effectively disrupt the system and so what we need to do is to start, for now, by understanding the system and the way in which it forms and is formed by us. And part of that is understanding the way that technology functions within capitalism and therefore the ways that it could function differently under a different system. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live in a world where something like an Amazon warehouse was fully automated such that no one had to do the boring labour of getting things off shelves and then driving them to people’s houses, so that people were employed for fewer hours, but in a world where that didn’t translate into immiseration and poverty?

  4. KB

    Ha! The guy who gave the training session said very gravely ‘if your job could easily be done by a robot, you need to be worried.’ And my thought was, this stump speech you’ve clearly given a 100 times could easily be given by a robot, so YOU should be worried!

    Part of that is understanding the way that technology functions within capitalism and therefore the ways that it could function differently under a different system.

    Yes. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, and have some thoughts about the way connected technologies *may* represent a step-change in the way this happens. But I need to run it by some smarter people first. Hoping to do some writing on this as a sort of follow-on/up from After Magic in the NY. I have this hunch though that perhaps theologians are going to end up the best-placed people to comment on technology in this respect.

  5. Marika Rose

    Ha, that’s funny, because as a theologian I’ve been thinking I need to read more Marx, and probably also some contemporary Marxist theorists on post-Fordism. If theologians lead the way in thinking this stuff through, honestly, I’ll be surprised.

  6. KB

    *very* surprised! But we can hope 🙂
    Had just been thinking that if theology is a study of alterity (is this a fair definition? Be interested in thoughts on that) then the effects of connected technologies are right in that ball park. Who should I be reading as the best introduction to philosophy of technology?

  7. Marika Rose

    Well, first, theology. I don’t know what it would mean to understand it as a study of alterity. How can you talk about what’s other if you don’t talk about what is the same; and then how is theology different from philosophy? I don’t know that it’s possible to define theology as such. I find Philip Goodchild’s idea that theology is talk about God (where God is understood as the source of the value of values) pretty helpful. And I’m largely convinced by Dan Barber’s argument that theology is a specifically Christian practice, such that the task for philosophy is to work out how to liberate itself from theology. Is that helpful at all?

    Philosophy of technology isn’t in any way my specialty. Personally I’d start with Marx’s Capital, especially his discussions of automation. I’ve found Novara (http://novaramedia.com/) pretty helpful for starting to think this stuff through. Essentially, though, I don’t think we can talk about technology outside of social and labour relations.

  8. KB

    Thanks – that’s all v useful and helpful. Funny that all of these things (mathematics included) end up so difficult to pin down once we examine them closely.

    I’ve done first book of Capital. Read it along with David Harvey’s free iPod lectures, which were excellent. And yes, the labour/social relations are so central. I’ll check that link out. Found Sennett’s The Craftsman a nice meditation on the ideas around the topic too.