Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/social-media-organization-movements/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Post Capitalism

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Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

https://medium.com/@jonathantaplin/post-capitalism-f8d687d19c3

Do Racism, Conservatism, and Low I.Q. Go Hand in Hand?

This morning as I logged onto Facebook, I came upon this image. Having followed the Boston marathon and MIT shooting coverage initially, I lost some interest when it came down to the “hunt.” As much as justice matters to me, so does tact and class, and the sensationalism of manhunts always leaves me uncomfortable. I also knew it would be a matter of time before the political rhetoric would change from the victims and wounded to the demographic factors of the suspects—namely race and religion. And alas, it has.

However, what struck me most about this image posted above was the Facebook page it came from, “Too Informed to Vote Republican.” I wondered about this, recalling an old journal article I’d come across when studying anti-Islamic attitudes post 9/11. The paper referenced a correlation between conservatism and lowintelligence. Uncertain of its origin, I located a thought-provoking article published in one of psychology’s top journals, Psychological Science, which in essence confirms this.

Hodson and Busseri (2012) found in a correlational study that lower intelligence in childhood is predictive of greater racism in adulthood, with this effect being mediated (partially explained) through conservative ideology. They also found poor abstract reasoning skills were related to homophobic attitudes which was mediated through authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact.

What this study and those before it suggest is not necessarily that all liberals are geniuses and all conservatives are ignorant. Rather, it makes conclusions based off of averages of groups. The idea is that for those who lack a cognitive ability to grasp complexities of our world, strict-right wing ideologies may be more appealing. Dr. Brian Nosek explained it for the Huffington Post (link is external)as follows, “ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simple solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies.” For an excellent continuation of this discussion and past studies, please see this article from LiveScience(link is external).

Further, studies have indicated an automatic association between aggression, America, and the news. A study conducted by researchers at Cornell and The Hebrew University (Ferguson & Hassin, 2007) indicated, “American news watchers who were subtly or nonconsciously primed with American cues exhibited greater accessibility of aggression and war constructs in memory, judged an ambiguously aggressive person in a more aggressive and negative manner, and acted in a relatively more aggressive manner toward an experimenter following a mild provocation, compared with news watchers who were not primed” (p. 1642). American “cues” refers to factors such as images of the American flag or words such as “patriot.” Interestingly, this study showed this effect to be independent of political affiliation, but suggested a disturbing notion that America is implicitly associated with aggression for news watchers.

Taken together, what do these studies suggest? Excessive exposure to news coverage could be toxic as is avoidance of open-minded attitudes and ideals.  Perhaps turn off the television and pick up a book?  Ideally one that exposes you to differing worldviews.

*Please note comments that are offensive, defamatory, discriminatory, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise inappropriate will be automatically removed by the author’s discretion.

References

Furguson, M.J. & Hassin, R.R. (2007). On the automatic association between American and      aggression for news watchers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33,1632-1647.

Hodson, G. & Busseri, M.A. (2012). Bright minds and dark attitudes: Lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice through right-wing ideology and low intergroup contact.Psychological Science, 23, 187-195.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/millennial-media/201304/do-racism-conservatism-and-low-iq-go-hand-in-hand

LOpht’s warnings about the Internet drew notice but little action

NET OF INSECURITY

A disaster foretold — and ignored

Published on June 22, 2015

The seven young men sitting before some of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lawmakers weren’t graduate students or junior analysts from some think tank. No, Space Rogue, Kingpin, Mudge and the others were hackers who had come from the mysterious environs of cyberspace to deliver a terrifying warning to the world.

The making of a vulnerable Internet: This story is the third of a multi-part project on the Internet’s inherent vulnerabilities and why they may never be fixed.

Part 1: The story of how the Internet became so vulnerable
Part 2: The long life of a ‘quick fix’

Your computers, they told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

“If you’re looking for computer security, then the Internet is not the place to be,” said Mudge, then 27 and looking like a biblical prophet with long brown hair flowing past his shoulders. The Internet itself, he added, could be taken down “by any of the seven individuals seated before you” with 30 minutes of well-choreographed keystrokes.

The senators — a bipartisan group including John Glenn, Joseph I. Lieberman and Fred D. Thompson — nodded gravely, making clear that they understood the gravity of the situation. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Thompson said.

What happened instead was a tragedy of missed opportunity, and 17 years later the world is still paying the price in rampant insecurity.

The testimony from L0pht, as the hacker group called itself, was among the most audacious of a rising chorus of warnings delivered in the 1990s as the Internet was exploding in popularity, well on its way to becoming a potent global force for communication, commerce and criminality.

Hackers and other computer experts sounded alarms as the World Wide Web brought the transformative power of computer networking to the masses. This created a universe of risks for users and the critical real-world systems, such as power plants, rapidly going online as well.

Officials in Washington and throughout the world failed to forcefully address these problems as trouble spread across cyberspace, a vast new frontier of opportunity and lawlessness. Even today, many serious online intrusions exploit flaws in software first built in that era, such as Adobe Flash, Oracle’s Java and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

“We have the same security problems,” said Space Rogue, whose real name is Cris Thomas. “There’s a lot more money involved. There’s a lot more awareness. But the same problems are still there.”

L0pht, born of the bustling hacker scene in the Boston area, rose to prominence as a flood of new software was introducing such wonders as sound, animation and interactive games to the Web. This software, which required access to the core functions of each user’s computer, also gave hackers new opportunities to manipulate machines from afar.

Breaking into networked computers became so easy that the Internet, long the realm of idealistic scientists and hobbyists, gradually grew infested with the most pragmatic of professionals: crooks, scam artists, spies and cyberwarriors. They exploited computer bugs for profit or other gain while continually looking for new vulnerabilities.

Tech companies sometimes scrambled to fix problems — often after hackers or academic researchers revealed them publicly — but few companies were willing to undertake the costly overhauls necessary to make their systems significantly more secure against future attacks. Their profits depended on other factors, such as providing consumers new features, not warding off hackers.

“In the real world, people only invest money to solve real problems, as opposed to hypothetical ones,” said Dan S. Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who has been studying online threats since the 1990s. “The thing that you’re selling is not security. The thing that you’re selling is something else.”

The result was a culture within the tech industry often derided as “patch and pray.” In other words, keep building, keep selling and send out fixes as necessary. If a system failed — causing lost data, stolen credit card numbers or time-consuming computer crashes — the burden fell not on giant, rich tech companies but on their customers.

The members of L0pht say they often experienced this cavalier attitude in their day jobs, where some toiled as humble programmers or salesmen at computer stores. When they reported bugs to software makers, company officials often asked: Does anybody else know about this?

CONTINUED:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/business/2015/06/22/net-of-insecurity-part-3/

Fueled by outrage: Why social media ultimately drives us apart

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!

Above: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!

Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

Clearly it didn’t turn out that way.

If anything, social media has driven us further apart. On top of the filter bubbles that push us toward more extreme and entrenched beliefs, social media has become an environment fueled by outrage.

Outrage is viral, outrage is easy, and with anonymity — or at least distance — screaming your outrage on social media or even launching personal attacks carries no consequences. Expressing outrage makes people feel good, allowing them to believe they are doing something to bring attention to things they think are problems. Outrage often masquerades as strength and action, and requires no admission of vulnerability or weakness. Outrage sells pageviews. And outrage is the easiest emotion to elicit.

Think about how social media platforms are designed. They are often anonymous, allowing people to yell, scream, and name call, all while remaining safe in hiding. Even when anonymity is not allowed, the physical distance between participants means nobody has to ever face one another.

The short message nature of many of the platforms also serve to discourage in-depth conversations while being perfectly designed for expressing outrage. Consider Twitter’s 140 character limit. It’s virtually impossible to have an intelligent debate in 140 characters, but the format works just fine for name calling, ad hominem attacks, and expressing outrage. Add in the fact that it is largely anonymous, and allows anyone to address anyone else, and you have a nearly perfect platform for outrage and bullying.

Compare social media conversations to real life conversations. What percentage of the people who tweet nasty things at celebrities, or even at other regular people with whom they disagree, would say these things to their face? Maybe one percent?

How many people would start real life conversations the same way they start online conversations? Imagine meeting someone at a party, “Hi, I’m Francisco, and I’M OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” and then having five people standing nearby repeat, “YES!!! I’M ALSO OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” Sane people don’t talk this way in real life but this is exactly how people communicate on social media when they post and repost links about the latest thing that has them outraged, and then follow it up by shouting down anyone who dares to disagree.

The end result of all of this outrage is that valuable, well reasoned conversations disappear from social media. As Sam Altman of Y-Combinator said recently, “Most smart people I know have decided to just not discuss anything sensitive because of the Internet lynch mob looking for any slight mistake.” Fittingly, in reply to his tweet, some people attacked Altman for what they viewed as his insensitive use of the word “lynch mob” while others accused those leaving the public conversation of being cowards — essentially they were outraged that outrage is driving the reasonable people away.

As outrage has come to be the dominant culture of social media, what started as a way to connect people has largely become a way to attack people or simply express anger. Like a giant dysfunctional family consumed with animosity and who thinks yelling is the appropriate way to communicate, social media interactions are far more likely to consist of expressions of outrage, accusations, and name calling instead of conversations. Ultimately, what was supposed to bring us together is serving to drive us apart.

http://venturebeat.com/2015/06/21/fueled-by-outrage-why-social-media-ultimately-drives-us-apart/

Technophrenia

It’s not the machines we’re really afraid of. So what are we afraid of?

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umair haque on Jun 15
Quick — why do we have such a complicated relationship with tech? One that’s not easily summed up— but conflicted, torn, fraught, unsure? After all, we love it—while we loathe it. We mock people who use Ubers — but grudgingly call them ourselves. We don’t want to be reduced to objects, numbers, lines of code—perish the thought — but we’re happy if our friends, lovers, and colleagues are. We’re scared that the robots will take our jobs, that we worry that the algorithms will log our every keystroke, that we’re afraid that the machines will police our every carefully guarded thought. But who’s programming the algorithms, being served by the drones, and tapping the screens? We’re not just techno-anxious: we are also vertiginously tantalized, seduced, thrilled, and tempted by the very world of endless easy pleasure the code, the machinery, the mechanism promises.

There is more to our deeply conflicted, uneasy, fragile relationship with technology than fear. It’s not accurate to call it “technophobia”. In this little essay, I’m going to describe it as “technophrenia”. I think we’re not just afraid of what the machines might cost us — we’re also afraid of what they might not cost us. There is a paradox in what technology has become, does, and offers — and it is that paradox that leaves us uneasy, unsure, uncomfortable.

I’m going to advance a simple thesis: the definition of technology has been diluted, diminished, and lessened almost to the point of meaninglessness — and certainly to the point of triviality, pointlessness, and superficiality. And that paradox is what is truly underlies our schizophrenic, conflicted, ambiguous relationship with meta-modern machinery: that we love them as uncertainly as we loathe them. But what about us?

Allow me to explain.

Let me use the example of my glasses. They are the simplest piece of technology I own — and yet they are the most transformative. Why?

Techne, the Greek root of the word “technology”, means “skill”. Technology, the enlargement and extension of man’s skillfulness, is a miraculous, magical thing because it alone gives mankind the power to transfigure the very world. When I put on my glasses, something almost magical happens — just as every poorly-sighted child discovers in wonder. I’m able to see clearly. Techne. As a simple example, my glasses help me to see better. They enhance my skill, my techne. It is in that sense that they are “technological”.

The greatest breakthroughs of the twentieth century were in part technological. Once, technology meant stuff that went to the moon…cured fatal diseases…extended the human lifespan. Salk’s polio vaccine, the moon landings, antibiotics…all these were what technology once referred to. They were miraculous breakthroughs that altered lives, vast explosions of technethat enhanced human skillfulness.

Now, “tech” means something very different: apps that…hails taxis…summon butlers…automatically call dog walkers…gadgets that remind you have a meeting…turn on your thermostat for you…let you stream your favorite show…and so on.

It’s not that the latter is bad. But it is a fact that the latter is trivial. In no reasonable way is an app that calls a taxi or a butler or a thermostat comparable to a moon landing or a vaccine. Such devices may yield us small morsels of convenience, ease, and luxury — but they are not breakthroughs that alter lives and redraw the boundaries of human potential.

So how did technology get demeaned to “tech”? I’m going to draw a line between technology — the real thing — and “tech”: its modern-day imitation. In the same that we now eat “food-like products”, and watch “news-like programming”, so too we are presented with “technology-like” things: stuff that isn’t really technological, but merely pretends to be. This is what is popularly called “tech”. But tech is to technology what Doritos are to food: an empty, hollow simulation of the real thing.

Technology is transformative because it explodes the limits of techne — of human skill. Read that last sentence again. The little story of my glasses contains in it what is familiar to us all: the magical, enchanted power of technology.

Transformation is why technology is so magical, so miraculous. Through it, man can ascend beyond his natural birthright, and give himself rebirth — from a stinking, starving, cunning beast, to a civilized, enlightened, powerful being. All that is contained in the magic of techne. Techne, skill, endows man with the shining opportunity, to face his greatest necessity: to become his best. Not merely a slave, a predator, or a king. But something smaller still, and infinitely greater: fully himself. A being who lives a life seared, brimming over, overwhelmed, with meaning, happiness, purpose. And if you think about it for a moment, all that is what glasses give me, and countless others.

And so the question we must ask is this: does the stuff of the “tech” industry enhance skill…at anything…especially anything worthy? In what sense does it transform not just merely our stuff — but ourselves? I may be able to summon a butler or a taxi or a private jet or a dog-walker with unimaginable ease. But the simple face is that my skill at anything truly meaningful has not increased one bit. If anything, it has probably declined — for I am something like a king without an empire.

“Tech” is a paradox. For tech itself has demeaned, denigrated, and diluted the very idea of technology — from miracles of skill that alter human destiny, to trivialities that trap us in self-indulgence. But that is not skill — it is merely gratification and vanity. Apps that limit people full of limitless potential…to be…walking apps, libraries of selfies, carefully performed “lifestyle choices”. All those are “tech” — but they’re not techne. They do not expand or enlarge human skilfullness in any way. You may be laden down with all the latest “tech”. But will it help you become that great novelist..doctor…musician…artist…programmer…anything?

Technology, techne, is transformative, fundamental, magical — because it is the sudden joyous explosion of skill at mastering one’s best self. “Tech”, on the other hand, seems to be mastering us.

That, I think, is why so many are so afraid of “tech” — but embrace technology. Tech threatens us with a kind of split, between who one could be — and who one is reduced to. Not merely because it might take their jobs, or their careers, or their time. But because it might, with efficiency’s kind smile, erase their dreams and their destinies. And imprison their truest, best selves, in irresistible, glittering cages made of indolence, vanity, and convenience. Cages of which they themselves are the most enthusiastic jailers.

Nope. There’s no Matrix, no confederation of the robots, no Skynet. There doesn’t need to be. It’s not the machines that we truly fear. But what the machines might turn us into. Something even less than machines. People who can’t be ourselves without them.

The true fear, I think, in technopanic, is this. Not merely that we will become servants of machines. But masters of machines — who, imprisoned in glowing kingdoms of pleasure, as helpless as children, can never cross the desert, climb the mountain, ford the river — and discover their true destiny. Beings who never discover that freedom is not merely supremacy; for the ruler still depends on the ruled. It means independence. Sovereignty. The right to choose to suffer, struggle, dream, imagine, rebel, defy, love, wonder, dare. For the true self cannot be born otherwise.

Tech oligarchs are deathly serious about buying off the grim reaper.

4 Ways the One Percent Is Trying to Buy Their Immortality

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Humankind has long dreamed of immortality. Surely, somewhere, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth awaits, allowing us to escape our inevitable fate of non-existence. Not surprisingly, some very wealthy tech executives are determined to buy their way out of that inevitability. These guys are living the high life and they don’t want it to stop.

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, is worth somewhere north of $2 billion, and a member in good standing of the one-percent club that is projected to control half the planet’s wealth by next year. While economic inequality does not appear to weigh on him, other forms do. “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead,” he told the New Yorker recently. His thoughts on death? “Basically, I’m against it,” he told the Telegraph newspaper.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison has similar deep thoughts. “Death has never made any sense to me.” A billionaire many times over, he has contributed over $400 million to research so far, much of it through his Ellison Medical Foundation, in his quest to live forever. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, Pierre Omidyar of eBay have all placed hefty bets on science, and sometimes pseudo-science, to make sure they stick around a long, long time. “The talent migrating into the field is like nothing I’ve seen in my 40 years in the field,” Ken Dychtwald, a gerontology and longevity expert told Time magazine,  “and they’re convinced there is nothing you can’t do if you can turn biotechnology into information technology,”

The ethics behind the search for immortality are dicey, to say the least. “There will be breakthroughs in the next 15 or 20 years that will have to do with aging itself—actually stopping the biological clock,” Dychtwald told Time. “And I think that really rich people are going to get access to it… Imagine a time when ten thousand really rich people get to live forever, or not have to get dementia.”

Research into life extension costs a lot of money, and it seems reasonable to assume that if there are indeed breakthroughs, those various immortality pills, injections or whatever are going to cost a lot of money, too. Which raises the question, what about the rest of us? If there seems to be a budding confrontation between the economic haves and have-nots, what can be said about a world where there are mortals and immortals? Not to mention the fact that in a world straining to provide resources for 7 billion humans having a normal lifespan, people who never die are going to put a real strain on things.

“Extending the average human lifespan is a great example of something that is individually desirable by almost everyone,” Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist and bioethicist told the Washington Post, “but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do.” Without an incentive to adapt in order to survive, said Fukuyama, social change would grind to a halt and dictators could rule for centuries, not decades.

Undaunted, these wealthy tech barons move forward, as confident in their quest to live forever as they were in founding their digital empires. For them, the traditional pace of science moves too slowly. Institutions like the National Institutes of Health, they believe, thrive too much on consensus and are not willing to take the risks that lead to major breakthroughs. “We want to jailbreak them [scientists] from existing research institutions and set them free,” reads the manifesto for Breakout Labs, Peter Thiel’s grant-making group. “It’s those who have an optimism about what can be done that will shape the future…I believe that evolution is a true account of nature but I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society,” Thiel told the Post.

Not every fabulously wealthy tech giant agrees with the goals of these immortalists. Bill Gates wrote on the website Reddit that he believes it is egocentric to seek to live forever when so many people on Earth lack basic needs and are dying of curable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Gates feels the resources would be better spent helping millions of people live normal lifespans rather than extending the lives of a relatively few multi-millionaires and billionaires.

Here are four prominent proposed pathways to immortality whose research is being supported by the modern tech oligarchy.

1. Avatars and artificial brains. Russian scientist Dmitry Itskov, 31, believes that immortality can be achieved by the year 2045. On his website, 2045.com, Itsky solicits money from the wealthy and in return promises the end of death within 30 years. He states the goal is, “to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” His plan involves four steps. First, the development of a robot or “avatar” that is linked to our present selves by way of a computer chip. This is to be achieved by 2020. Following this, the human brain will be transplanted into the avatar. The target date for this achievement is 2025. By the year 2035, human consciousness will be transferred or downloaded into an artificial brain within the avatar, replacing the biological brain. And finally, by 2045, consciousness will evolve into a sort of Internet of global consciousness, with no need for a physical presence at all. Robots that have developed their own artificial intelligence will carry out necessary physical tasks. Humanity will have transformed into something else entirely.

If it sounds farfetched, that’s because it is. But the world’s tech sector has bought into the idea that humanity’s knowledge, because of the technology they have developed, will continue to grow exponentially, and what we know now will be dwarfed by what we know in five or 10 or 30 years.

2. Ending death by disease. Brian Singerman, a venture capitalist and partner in the Founders Fund, and his partners, including Peter Thiel and Sean Parker, are placing their faith and their wallets in the hands of biotech companies that are busily studying ways to cheat death. These companies are looking for ways to cure cancer and end the scourge of aging. Says Singerman in Inc. Magazine: “We have a company that’s charged with curing all viral disease, we have a company that’s charged with curing several types of cancer. These are not things that are incremental approaches. It’s all fine and good to have a drug that extends life by a certain amount of months or makes living with a disease easier. That’s not what we’re looking for. We are not looking for incremental change. We are looking for absolute cures in anything we do.”

Singerman believes that within 10 years all viral disease will be curable, and within that same time frame we will have a clearer understanding of what aging is, what causes it, and how to begin to stop it.

3. Genetic tinkering. Human beings are not roundworms. But breakthroughs in human life extension might have started with the lowly roundworm. In 2001, scientists burrowed down to the cellular level and added an extra gene (known as SIR2) to the roundworm. Normally, the roundworm’s lifespan is about two weeks. The roundworms with the extra gene lived for three weeks. This result mimicked the results obtained with calorie restriction, another way scientists have prolonged life in test animals. That may not sound like much, but if scientists manage to add a comparable increase to the normal human lifespan, we’d all live a third longer life. And that’s just the beginning. Ultimately, there are scientists who believe we can genetically turn off the aging processaltogether.

4. Cryogenics. No, Walt Disney is not frozen in some secret vault, waiting for the day when he can lead his Mickey Mouse empire again. But Ted Williams, baseball legend, is. Called cryogenics, the theory is they freeze your body (or, if you are feeling a bit short of change, since the process can cost up to $200,000, just your head), wait until science discovers a cure for what killed you, and then thaw the body out, revive and cure you. Critics of this method point out that at our current level of technology, by freezing the body, we are damaging the cells beyond repair. Imagine, for instance, a bag of frozen strawberries. Once defrosted, the formerly plump firm fruit is now soft and mushy. That is pretty much how the defrosted body would turn out.

But true believers dissent. Alcor, a leading cryogenics firm (and one of the recipients of Peter Thiel’s largesse), states on its website, “We believe medical technology will advance further in coming decades than it has in the past several centuries, enabling it to heal damage at the cellular and molecular levels and to restore full physical and mental health.”

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
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