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Ender's Game: The Problem With "The End of History" In Technology Debates

BY Nick Judd | Monday, April 29 2013

Enough "The End of History." Can we get to "The End" of this repetitive conversation about "techno-utopians?"

Monday morning, David Rieff joined the small chorus of contrarians that seems to form whenever someone is poised to suggest a role for communications technology in an increasingly transnational world. His induction was a jeremiad that rolled several futurists with rosy but dubious ideas, like Ray Kurzweil, along with "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection," a forthcoming book from the director of MIT's Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman.

Zuckerman devotes his time to theorizing and studying constructive roles for new technologies in global activism. While I haven't read the book, which has yet to be released, his work is generally more concerned with navigating a way forward through the present than it is with lingering on a utopian future. To make what he must have assumed was an original point about the dangers of technology, Rieff, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, steers a windy counter-argument across the now-fallow field of post-Cold War international relations. As Francis Fukuyama did in "The End of History," the essay that offered American democracy as the last word in geopolitics, Rieff argues, Zuckerman puts all of his hope in the horizontal networks and Internet-driven activism of 21st-century connectivity. It's not only fanciful, Rieff implies, linking Internet activism to 20th-century democracy-building, but also potentially harmful. New elites created in the course of attempting to build some new techno-utopia could, deliberately or otherwise, create human suffering similar in scope to the damage wrought by Western pursuit of continued empire.

I'm going to call Rieff and his fellow traveler, Evgeny Morozov, the "Enders" — both because of their fondness for using Fukuyama to hang the neoliberal project around the neck of anyone else who dares essay into technology's role in society, and because this bumptious argument has reached the end of its utility.

Not that Zuckerman isn't trying to salvage some scrap of useful thought. In a rebuttal defending his book, he writes:

We can acknowledge that many promises for technology are overblown and that technology alone is unlikely to bring an end to disease, ignorance, and poverty. We can recognize that these visions of technology are influenced by ideas about politics and economics that often go unconsidered. And we can use these reflections not to belittle those who build tools and those who celebrate them, but to develop new tools that better address inequities and imbalances.

The core argument of my book is that many of the tools and techniques we've built in the past 20 years embody an uncomfortable assumption: The interests of our friends and family are more important than those of people across the globe. If we are uncomfortable with this assumption, we can examine it and build tools with different aims, perhaps to amplify the voices of people typically excluded from the media. We need a practice of examining and questioning the politics of our technologies, because technological progress is changing how we communicate and how we know about the lives of others.

There's more fruitful ground here for Rieff and Zuckerman to disagree. After all, in a past riff on calls to intervene in Syria more than a year ago, Rieff — invoking Fukuyama, natch, only this time against humanitarians instead of technologists — argues that the interests of friends and family really do matter more.

Here's what he says:

Infatuated by their own good intentions -- and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality -- those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them -- and clearly they haven't -- nothing will. Welcome to the second decade in a row of humanitarian war.

Rieff has also inveighed against a technological, and technocratic, elite before. Here he is in 2010, for The New Republic, framing a skeptical view of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

A century of advertising should have taught us that it is not only in war that truth is the first casualty. So if we choose to rely, as global development work increasingly does, on the new 'philanthrocapitalism'—to use the title of a recent bit of journalistic hagiography about the charitable work of Gates and his billionaire peers—we should not complain when such institutions apply to philanthropy the same techniques they used to vastly overstate (let's be charitable) the qualities of their products, while ignoring their defects and limitations.

"Technological solutions" to challenges of poverty, he writes, are more often than not a "poisoned chalice." He points out that Gates noted the spread of new farming techniques in Asia that "averted famine" in the 1950s and 1960s — although those techniques also created a market for "chemical and petroleum-based fertilizers [farmers] could not afford."

He heaps a similar level of deserved scorn on Invisible Children, the California-based NGO that launched the "Kony 2012" viral video last year. Intended to turn a brutal war criminal terrorizing a region of central Africa into an international celebrity, putting pressure on U.S. officials to ensure his capture, the campaign had a lot of idealism but not much forethought. The video, Rieff wrote, is "peddling" a "a cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge."

How good of Rieff to agree with Zuckerman, who wrote at the time, "I think they genuinely believe that the key to arresting Kony is raising awareness and pressuring the US government. I think, however, that they are probably wrong." What's more, he later adds, "these simple narratives can cause damage."

Going back three years, we find Rieff has a history of painting opponents with that "techno-utopian" brush. And he mounts an assault on the role of technology in international politics that actually works. But we have to go back only a year to find Rieff in total accord with his new ideological arch-nemesis about what "techno-utopian" means, and his latest post misuses the label. What changed?

"Enders" like Rieff seem to have been sucked into the gravity well of an intellectual black hole sometime at the end of the last century or the beginning of this one. Such an anomaly would prevent all light from escaping, so while the universe advances into the 21st century it would appear to Rieff exactly as it was when he was first caught by the event horizon. When matters at hand are as they long have been, such as the by-all-accounts problematic accountability of Western international development programs, or an "awareness" campaign's atrophied sense of context, his outdated intelligence on global dynamics is still useful.

The same general argument against neoliberalism applies because that's what we're actually talking about when we discuss billionaire philanthropists or Western NGOs meddling in international affairs. We all know that the bits about technology are rubbed on top at the last minute, a contemporary varnish, so it's just fine if Rieff does the same.

The problems start when Rieff, or some other Ender, applies the same critical framework to a conversation that's rooted not in international affairs but in the politics of technology. Zuckerman's argument is useful because it is concerned more with "a practice of examining and questioning the politics of our technologies" than with Rieff's obsession, the overbearing feelings of Western elites and how they influence movement on the international stage.

The road has been well paved for someone who wants to place the idea of any particular technology in that context. Morozov does this to great effect in "Net Delusion," where he explains the Internet as a democracy-bringing shibboleth for denizens of particular Beltway culture — and, rightly, that this is a harmful fiction to allow Beltway-goers to keep.

But there are fewer existing trails in public discourse for understanding the politics of a technology itself. It would work to frame browser accessibility in the context of discrimination against people who are blind, or apply the knowledge that some facial recognition algorithms can be functionally racist to the conversation about our growing surveillance society. Of similar utility are works explaining the political decisions that go into a technology, such as Facebook's absence of a "dislike" button, or how Twitter navigates the global maze of copyright and censorship laws, or even the innovator's dilemma that makes it easier for technologists to never launch a product at all. Tim Wu knows about these examples because there are many of them in his book about the history of media innovation, "The Master Switch." Wu, also a presumptive target of Morozov's, knocks the polemicist's new book "To Save Everything, Click Here" for being not just "hostile" but also "abstract." It did not have many of these concrete examples. But "To Save Everything" worked just fine for Rieff — he tells readers that he blurbed the book.

"Enders" like Rieff seem to conflate an admission that the world of 2013 is a more transnational and interconnected place than the world of 2000 with the hyperbolic claim that this is a permanent or an absolute good. Convenient, because they can see exactly where the conversation will finish when that's as far as it goes. But begin to discuss what effects this has on politics, and what effect politics might have on continued connectedness, and the point moves far beyond the Enders' horizon.

Maybe it's because fewer people can bridge geopolitics with the inner workings of new technologies that there's a strong demand for the argument that it's unnecessary to do so. But until more people get over the falsehood that the only way to discuss technology is as an extension of the neoliberal project, that's all commentators like Rieff will allow it to be. The only ones asking questions about how to design technologies that shift control or deploy existing technologies in opposition to an existing balance of power will be those billionaire philanthropists and Western diplomats Rieff so vehemently derides. And if there's something Rieff and Zuckerman might agree on, it's that those elites shouldn't have exclusive control of the answers.