Digital sucks – but an out-of-control tech backlash is worse

By Adam Tinworth

14/11/2017 | NEXT17 speaker Jamie Bartlett has written a thought-provoking piece for the UK magazine and website The Spectator, suggesting that the backlash against the tech industry is going too far:

This techlash is a welcome brake on the runaway tech train. But here’s the problem: it’s turning into a blind emotional rage against the machines. Perhaps it’s the wrath of disappointed expectation. Perhaps it’s a visceral unease that some company on the other side of the world has all this power over us on the basis of a deal we never really understood and now can’t get out of. My view, however, is that we are collectively behaving like a self-hating addict. The more we impulsively check, swipe and update, the more we hate ourselves for doing the very thing we dislike. Rather than take the blame, we lash out at the object of our pathetic addiction.

I've often thought similar things about the reaction to Fake News: the impulse is to blame Facebook or Twitter, rather than our own tendency towards amplifying stuff that suits our own prejudices: a manifestation of confirmation bias.

We don't have to pick up our phones. We don't have to have the Facebook app on our home screens. We don't need to check our messages while we're having dinner with our family - and yet I saw dozens of people doing just that on Saturday night.

Blaming machines for our own weaknesses is the most human of instincts. And it's true that some of these services re built to prey on our own psychological weaknesses, as we've discussed in the past - more than once. But we're still rational, thinking humans who can make decisions for ourselves, and we can no more completely blame the tech companies for our own behaviours as we can ice cream makers for the contribution their tasty, tasty product make to our own thickening waists.

The digital luddites

Responsibility is crucial. And unless we bear that in mind, Ridell fears that the consequences could be serious:

At the current clip, we’ll be smashing machines by 2020. I’m serious! Don’t bet against the next big political movement being anti-tech, because the tech revolution is just getting started.

What? Why?

If we’re becoming anti-tech now, imagine the rage when machines start taking jobs, our cars grass us up to the police for speeding, drones deliver our Echo, and our fridges are all online. If we turn on the tech too much, investment will dry up and regulations will damped innovation and take up. Then all the social and economic benefits of this remarkable revolution will be lost to our indulgence.

There's a careful line to walk here. On one side, we can blindly let whatever the masters of tech fancy doing to our society happen quiescently. On the other hand we can succumb to the backlash - and has happened in previous technical revolutions (The British smashing something worthwhile due to an attachment to an idealised past? That would never happen…).

But the winning path is in the middle - a more mindful approach to both the potential and risk of the tech we're building.

As digital thinker Euan Semple wrote recently:

I have often said that the Internet is a mirror. Much of the time we won’t like what we see in it but it does give us the chance to change. We are realising that we have to take that chance, deal with our societal challenges, and change for the better.

The internet has brought the worst of us into the light. How do we deal with that? That's the real test.

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