We live in a world that is so connected to the internet that infrastructure and social relationships are facilitated through consumer technology that is built and maintained by big tech. Consumer technology is a byproduct of a culture that is so obsessed with image over essence that it annually spends more on fashion than college tuition. Homes in America contain more TVs than people, and nearly 40 percent of our food goes in trash. But it wasn’t always like this.
Industrialists and business tycoons became very rich from selling war supplies to the Allies during World War One, and this bolstered a cultural elite who wanted to maximize their profits and power by competing in every possible market. But there was a problem: the majority of the American population had understood scarcity and frugality as ways of life for centuries, and therefore wouldn’t easily subscribe to the consumerist lifestyle that was envisioned for them.
The solution to this dilemma was described by a senior partner at Lehman Brothers named Paul Mazur. In 1927, he wrote in The Harvard Business Review that, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
The chief tool to create this new mentality was advertising that no longer sold products themselves, but rather focused on selling the idea that buying products would fulfill emotional and social desires.
Edward Bernays, the mastermind behind this shaping of the new American mind, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and a man who developed propaganda for the American government after World War One. Using his uncle’s ideas, he discovered that consumers could be made to desire things by manipulating their unconscious response to symbols. Instead of conveying rational information to influence how a consumer thinks about a product, Bernays realized that it was much more effective to influence how they feel about a product.
Consumerism isn’t just relegated to the consumption of material goods. From colonial era pamphlets and newspapers to 20th century television programming, the consumption of information dictates the direction that a society takes. It’s important to consider not only the consumption of the information itself, but more so the way that the content is consumed.
Marshall McLuhan was a media theorist who argued that, when it comes to cultural exchange, the medium is the message. In other words, the method of interacting with information has a greater effect on cognitive organization than the actual information itself. Starting with the Gutenberg bible and movable print, a singular cultural perception began to form as information became homogenized and dispersed in repeatable ways. The dominance of oral/ auditory traditions thus began to erode as visual traditions with singular points of views spread.
Marshall McLuhan left us with the message—and warning—that our relationship with technology is not one-sided since it shapes the ways we think and feel, and therefore shapes our perceptions about what constitutes reality. But McLuhan wasn’t the only voice warning us about a hopelessly synthetic future; anyone who’s read Brave New World by Aldeous Huxely can understand the danger that shallow information dominance poses to individual freedom—and humanity itself.
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman echoed McLuhan and Huxley and furthered the argument that a society obsessed with entertainment naturally reduces information to meet the needs of commodified sensationalism. Before the age of television, a common person probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize the president of the U.S. walking down the street, but would likely be able to recognize their written word. But after image based media became dominant, the reverse was true. With the development of television, the rational substance of political rhetoric took a backseat to the importance of appearance.
Postman noticed that, “a medium can only sustain a certain level of ideas.” Whereas books and even newspapers contain information that must be actively engaged with to understand, television requires only a passive attention to the programming that it delivers. The effects of this new medium had profound implications for cognitive and social organization in McLuhan’s and Postmans times, but the dominant medium of our day has made things even worse.
The smartphone is an ubiquitous aspect of modern life, and like every other medium before it, there is a profound message that can be gleaned from the way people interact with this technology. As cellular and processing technology becomes even more complex, there is growing concern among researchers about the consequences that this medium has on adult thinking and child development.
It seems strange that constant access to millions of terabytes of information would reduce a person’s memory and ability to learn, but that’s exactly what researchers are finding out. Heavy phone users only have to be near their phones to trigger these cognitive deficits, meaning that the presence of their phones has an affect—even when users aren’t engaged with them. This medium’s message of corporate enterprise into our lives seems to agree with Huxley’s vision of a bleak future.
Along with reduced memory and learning abilities, smartphones may also reduce attention spans. Studies have found that people’s attention is often divided by apps and bites of information designed to compete for our attention. And the more rich the content (richness meaning visual stimulation), the more distracting it is.
The list of social and cognitive effects of smartphones goes on to include evidence that texting actually rewires our brains and constant attachment to our phones makes us less moral and empathetic. So is the medium of smartphones making us worse off? Or is the corportized, data mining, profit-driven paradigm that developed them to blame for these negative effects?
Unfettered consumerism and the awesome power of digital technology created our current state of human commodification. It’s important to consider that many of the Silicon Valley giants that fueled the tech boom were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand and her personal philosophy of objectivism.
This way of thinking was marked by unbridled selfishness and the opinion that altruism was a lowly and weak behavior. Rand believed that the unfettered pursuit of personal wealth and power were the keys to creating a stable and free society, and she also felt that people only deserved love once they’ve earned it through merit.
Objectivism fueled the Californian Ideology, which essentially accepts that the level of a nation’s technology determines its social and cultural values. This thinking clashes with the essence of enlightenment humanism in favor of technological determinism. In other words, many of the people who built Silicon Valley—and the technology that you’re using—had a vested interest in themselves and their systems over the ideals of universal freedom and democracy.
They believed that they could build systems that would solve economic, political, and social problems in radically profound ways. They believed that achieving their ambitious visions ultimately meant a better world for humanity. But instead of making a better world, corporatized technology has increased income inequality, corrupted public discourse, and made individuals less free.
But Silicon Valley wasn’t just built by the freethinking and innovative entrepreneurs that inherited the country’s post-war wealth. The U.S. military has been crucial in shaping the direction and growth of some of the biggest tech companies though defense contracts and grants. The first semiconductors were built under government contract in the early fifties, and military funding was crucial for the development of radio and computer technologies.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has gotten billions in funding from the Department of Defense to develop technologies that became popular consumer products. These include voice recognition and GPS, and DARPA is known to invest in high-risk projects that wouldn’t find funding in the commercial sector. We should also remember that David Packard from Hewlett-Packard was Richard Nixon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1971.
Given that Silicon Valley was built by so-called “Randian Heroes” and the military industrial complex, it should come as little surprise that technologies coming from there have destabilized democratic values and human rights around the world. Whether it’s Apple’s abuse of workers in China, Google’s ever escalating invasion of privacy, or Facebook’s role in spreading dangerous misinformation, it seems apparent that the Randian dream is still alive. Big tech has been responsible for destabilizing democratic values while claiming to be champions for them.
The underlying current flowing from Silicon Valley advances an invasive campaign of controlling peoples’ hearts and minds. Not necessarily by controlling the information that people receive, but rather by controlling the medium itself. By controlling the production of hardware and managing the internet (which is now an infrastructural commodity), big tech rules the dominant medium of social discourse, which in turn controls the message of society itself.
There is no doubt that technology can enhance human learning and understanding, but if the internet contains enough information to learn about virtually anything, why are so many people living in different information ecosystems? Could it be that the technology is designed to appease customers’ biases to feed them information that will keep them engaged with the medium? What if the medium was designed with a more humanistic purpose in mind?
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” Aldo Leopold wrote these words to guide us in developing more harmonious relationships with the land, but exploitation of it has increased rapidly since he published A Sand County Almanac in 1949.
The current state of data mining and human commodification wouldn’t be possible without our inherited views of nature being instrumental to human desires. Our society has yet to even develop a reasonable biocentric ethic that sees the lives of other sentient creatures as intrinsic, so how can we expect to develop a universal land ethic to mitigate human caused climate change? Environmental ethics is a relatively new development in the western philosophical tradition, but respect for animals and nature are intrinsic to cultures that haven’t had their indigenous heritage washed away.
There are many non-western cultures that we can look to for lessons about ethics to create better relations with non-human animals, plants, and systems. Buddhism has had a functional biocentric ethic for thousands of years, and there are many lessons to be gleaned from eastern thinking when it comes to respecting animals. Many indignous american cultures were skilled and knowledgeable foresters whose environments became overgrown after european diseases destroyed their civilizations—so why not give these cultures more say in forest management projects?
The fact is that we must deeply question the value systems that drive exploitation, suffering, and needless death before we can make any meaningful progress towards reforming big tech’s unethical practices. We must develop a holistic land ethic that honors the intrinsic value of all life and every ecosystem before we can even start to talk about issues related to the ethical treatment of human beings. The medium of digital technology is showing us that as long as we as a society excuse exploitation, we will be exploited.
Consumerism has come to define the western lifestyle, and this value system has created the oppressive culture born from big tech. We must acknowledge the inherent connection of all things and realize that not being guided by a land ethic means that we aren’t being guided by ethics at all. We must develop a society that honors the intrinsic rights of life and ecosystems on this planet.
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