'Good Words' for February 2019
This month's edition of Good Words is focused on technology, specifically Big Tech. The giant private companies that make up Big Tech dictate more and more of our online experience and, but extension, modern life.
"Technology" is too broad a term to call good or bad, since a pencil is as much a piece of technology as Facebook is. There's no denying, however, that neither is equivalent. Tools, devices, and platforms are all different and should be treated differently. My intention in sharing these critical articles is not to call people to the Luddite life (which was more a labour movement than anything else, but I digress). Rather, I want to encourage a healthy skepticism.
Smoking used to be ubiquitous in the West, now it isn't.
I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell – Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo
Even if you wanted to cut Big Tech out of your life, you really can’t, not completely anyway.
These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.
Amazon, Google, et al. are in control and, as the final Good Words article argues, they're out of their depth.
We'll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes – Interview with Cal Newport, GQ
I’ve smoked a tobacco pipe a handful of times in my life, in my backyard with a friend and some scotch, in a chair reading C.S. Lewis, and with my brother one Christmas. I proposed taking up the habit and my wife laughed, then she swiftly forbade it. Smoking once or twice a year is one thing, but twice a week, twice a day? That’s something else, even leaving aside the problem of addiction. Why don’t we see abusively engineered tech products the same way?
How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny – Jon Askonas, The New Atlantis
Why do all the glorious gifts of Silicon Valley seem to be turning to ash? It might be because Silicon Valley thinks humans are pretty swell, but also that we’re idiots. Yes, their creations were designed to help us and make us happy — they misread human nature, though.
Much of the politics of Silicon Valley is explained by this Promethean exchange: gifts of enlightenment and ease in exchange for some measure of awe, gratitude, and deference to the technocratic elite that manufactures them. Algorithmic utopianism is at once optimistic about human motives and desires and paternalistic about humans’ cognitive ability to achieve their stated preferences in a maximally rational way. Humans, in other words, are mostly good and well-intentioned but dumb and ignorant. We rely on poor intuitions and bad heuristics, but we can overcome them through tech-supplied information and cognitive adjustment. Silicon Valley wants to debug humanity, one default choice at a time.