Techno utopianism, faux neutrality, Mars and stars

A Letter

Kevin Kelly solicits images of a happy technical future; the result is a collection of purportedly positive outcomes which taken together have a thread of something sinister about them—shiny machines devoid of flesh and blood. Paul Raven, writing in Futurismic, eloquently rejects his tech determinism:

[Kelly’s post] points to a widespread and stunted understanding of the word “technology” as meaning “electronics and computers,” when in fact the Greek root of the word addresses techniques, skills, and competencies alongside the tools needed to do the job. Agriculture is a technology; democracy is a technology. Technology does not begin and end in the garages of Palo fucking Alto. Technology is not (just) a smartphone with an app for locating a flunky to make you a sandwich.

This is a valuable point not only as a counter to techno-utopianism (or Kelly’s mealy-mouthed “protopianism”), but as a thoughtful criticism of design practices: much user experience design has as its target a floaty, euphoric “seamlessness” or “ease of use.” We’re supposed to just flick an app or unbox a device and be delighted at how quickly we understand how to use it. But what assumptions are being made about our own competencies in that scenario? What experiences are we abandoning when we worship effortlessness? What of tools that take a lifetime to learn?

Zeynep Tufekci digs into the problem with Twitter inserting favorites into our timelines: the practice perverts what was previously a quiet, intimate exchange into a public display. Tufekci laments the already meager opportunities for sending social signals across the network, and lambasts Twitter (and design practices in general) for considering “engagement” a more valuable metric than meaningful—if more difficult to measure—human interaction. “Experiments to platforms are fine, within ethical confines,” she writes, “but in human systems, one should always always listen to the humans, not just look at imprints of their behavior.”

Jon Stone declares in The Guardian that there can be no neutral stance when it comes to GamerGate; John Walker similarly unpacks the notion of neutrality, outing it as a desire not to take the politics out of games, but to ensure that the only politics present are one’s own. In the Times, Ginia Bellafante connects sexual harassment with economic conditions that make women vulnerable: women subject to sub-minimum wage standards are more than twice as likely to experience harassment as their standard wage peers. So the story goes that sexist institutions and practices devalue women’s work and enable gendered harassment, while women who dare to enter spaces previously marked as for-men-only are met by harassment deployed to keep them out. At least one woman is standing her ground.

Secret Gamer Girl breaks down how perceptions of women’s credibility play into systems of abuse. Her own experience is especially telling: as someone who appears masculine in person, but who inhabits the web as a woman, she has directly experienced both the blanket authority given to men and the comparable ignorance presumed in women. Maddy Myers writes of modifying her attire and subverting her own femininity in order to be accepted within the gaming community. While the games industry may be an exceptional example of this subjugation, it’s hardly an outlier.

Elon Musk wants to send a million people to Mars, at half a million dollars per ticket. Casey Cep bemoans the end of stars.

I read somewhere, but now can’t seem to find it, that writers gravitate to dystopias (rather than the reverse) because it gives them something to work with; a utopia is by definition empty.