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Gadgets don’t change the world, people do

Technology is a human creation with inevitable political implications, not an autonomous force

April 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

We often talk about technology as if it were a thing that happens to us. Peruse the technology section of any media outlet and you will find yourself reading about what technology is doing — giving us new capabilities, reshaping our social lives, disrupting stodgy conventions, overcoming barriers that restrain our innovation.

The one thing technology is not doing, it would appear, is being political. For many who work in or write about the tech sector, technology and politics are separate — and unequal — forces. Even avowed technoskeptics fall into this trap. In a recent essay in The Guardian, Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman maintains that “only politics can rescue you from bad politics,” but even so, he is forced to concede that “the most significant revolution of the 21st century so far is not political … Technology has the power to make politics seem obsolete.” If technology is, as he puts it, “dynamic, flexible and exciting,” politics is terminally gridlocked. These definitions can easily lead to a blanket defense of technology: Like it or hate it, at least technology is doing something.

In his 1997 article “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the historian Leo Marx shows that this way of thinking about technology has a long history. He is concerned less with the effects of specific gadgets than with the origins and characteristics of the very idea of technology. He writes, 

Contemporary discourse, private and public, is filled with hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change — pithy accounts of “the direction technology is taking us” or “changing our lives.” 

This way of thinking becomes dangerous when it leads us to treat technology like something that is distinct from the human sphere but able of acting on it powerfully and for the better. The problem, he writes, comes when we use “the word ‘technology’ as the subject of active verbs.” This grammar — perhaps best exemplified in the title of Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly’s book “What Does Technology Want?” — obscures the role humans play in inventing technology and shaping the uses to which it is put. Technology becomes an autonomous force, while politics is dismissed as a messy byproduct of larger forces.

Consider one ubiquitous contemporary example: Uber. We often talk about it as a technological innovation that just happens to have some political implications — maybe it puts some taxi drivers out of work or conflicts with existing regulations. When governments respond with measures that Uber opposes, the new laws are scorned as “antiquated regulations” at odds with technological progress. Uber is simply a new platform that expands transportation options, while the political issues are undesirable byproducts imposed by outsiders. When MSNBC runs an article called “The Complicated Politics of Uber,” the “politics” in the title refer to the various reactions of politicians, not the politics implicit in the very structure of ridesharing apps.

Technologies are not in danger of being politicized, because they are political from the start – however carefully these politics are obscured.

Instead of asking, “What might be the political implications of this technology?” we should ask, “How might this technology actually represent politics by technological means?” Uber is a well-capitalized legal entity with a business plan and a vision for its role in society, so it has intrinsic political implications well before it ever gets debated by politicians. Uber dumps heaps of money into lobbying, strong-arms state and local governments into compliance and threatens journalists who criticize the company. By selling its vast bank of travel data to city governments, it has become a data intermediary that local politicians rely on. It has even hired one of Barack Obama’s former top strategists — a clear sign that Uber executives understand that their project is political.

Uber is an easy target because its quick rise to power has made concealing its activities behind the concept of technology somewhat harder. But the same principle applies generally. Technologies are shaped from the beginning by human beings making political, value-laden choices about what gets funded and how programs are implemented. Technologies are not in danger of being politicized, because they are political from the start, however carefully these politics are obscured.  

When we speak and write, our subject should be the people and politics behind a technology, not the technology itself. But such investigation and analysis is woefully rare. As Evgeny Morozov laments in a recent essay for The Baffler,

In fact, the very edifice of contemporary technology criticism rests on the critic’s reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader matrix of social, cultural and economic relations.

If we follow Morozov in his insistence that technology reflects its social context, it will be easier to see how the concept of technology has become an instrument for hiding politics. The structural connections between apparently isolated phenomena will become easier to detect. Look at it this way: The problem isn’t that there’s a thorny, technological branch; the problem is that the political roots are infected with rot. Of course we should trim the thorny branches. But we must not then put away the clippers and think our problem has been solved.

Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He writes about social justice and political economy of technologies.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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