Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
More Mystifications of Capitalism (2019-05-07)
C. Osborne, february 2016
I can't leave Joanna Russ' work without zooming in on another node to consider what she had to say in more detail, especially because of two earlier thoughtpieces, Sprinkle a Little Technology On It and The AI Conundrum. This node is included in Russ' collection To Write Like a Woman, in her essay "SF and Technology as Mystification." Having begun her published writing career in science fiction with the story "Nor Custom Stale" which gives an early sense of the uncanny nature of her writing in the genre, Russ gave considerable thought to the social and technical areas tied to it. This specific essay includes a brilliant few sentences that set out the not so subtle pressure on academics in the humanities to uphold the illusion that they work in what is unnecessary and somehow have such great independent wealth they don't actually need to be paid for it. All part of the pressure to act as if education that depends on literacy is an unearned luxury for the poor and a birthright of the rich. That's not the node I am going to zoom in here though. Instead, consider this quote, a paragraph from page 36:
Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that surrounds us; hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing, autonomous process that we cannot control. If you add the monster's location in time (during and after the Industrial Revolution), I think you can see what is being discussed when most people say "technology." They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. Such mystification is easy to spot when silly people do it. I recall a student of mine who said that technology was evil and then hastily excepted his stereo set. When intelligent people do it, the mystification is harder to see. Yet technology, so used, is a non-subject and to talk about it is bound to be non-discourse. Either the talk becomes digressive and serves as a pretext for everyone displaying his or her academic speciality (the most harmless form non-discourse can take), or it is downright false.
Let's try a few examples that are not quite as fraught as Elon Musk apparently cultivating a crop of lawsuits on not so social media. How about – technological change is inevitable, and the newest technology has to be adapted as quickly as possible. That's a pretty common message, all the more for sounding at least half plausible in the sense that change is inevitable, in the most trivial sense. Still, let's experiment with swapping the word "capitalism" in and see what we get, bearing in mind that we are trying to unpack the demystified message and there is no requirement that we agree with its content. "Capitalism is inevitable, and the newest capitalism has to be adapted as quickly as possible." Okay, I bent the rules a bit by dropping the word "change" from the first part, but then this is parallel to taking an adjectival form of technology in the original. The unmystified claim doesn't impress me any and is hardly true, though any diehard capitalist fundamentalist would disagree, of course.
Here is another one, pulled from one of the myriad on-line dictionaries that plagiarize each other shamelessly even when that means they repeat mistakes. The original is "An example of technology is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world," which gives us "An example of capitalism is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world." I am quite serious about trying this one out. Russ wasn't claiming that every statement about technology or that literally uses the word is mystifying technology, it's just good to draw out the nuances a bit. I actually like this one because it reminds me that a key element of capitalism right now is the ongoing propaganda that conflates "the internet" with capitalism, as if it is impossible to have easy access to real time information under any other system. That is far from the case, setting aside for now the growing question of whether it is such a good idea after all as implemented. (This is what I mean by "nodes," ideas and considerations that insistently connect to others in a way that makes you sit and think about them.)
The more common statements about technology come from the media, whether advertising or – well, advertising. I can no longer pretend that "product reviews" are anything else. And they mostly aren't directly using the word "technology," as in this, the latest come on from apple to persuade people to but a new iphone, "All-screen design. Longest battery life ever in an iPhone. Fastest performance. And studio-quality photos. Trade in your current iPhone and upgrade to iPhone XR." After a point I am not at all sure why you would want some of the features they have added to these phones in a device that can be easily dropped in the toilet or down a sewer grating on a bad day. But evidently, I digress. The advertisement is supposed to be about technology, right? Except it is really about capitalism, in particular capitalism's desperate need for churn. Somehow profit must be dragged out of the people who still have money for something other than necessities, and convincing them they most have the most advanced and feature-full of whatever new "tech" is out there is one way.
Why go for all this mystification? Russ explored in detail how the first reason is that capitalism is a massive system of theft, and it needs some pretty hefty obfuscation and fig leaves to keep it from being overturned. Between that and the drive to pretend that actually academics don't really have bills to pay otherwise they wouldn't be academics – or writers, or nurses, or whatever ill-paid but actually socially necessary job you might want to pick. Oh yes, I do think there is such a thing as academics who do socially necessary work! Not all academics alas, as the hall of shame at the chicago school of economics for several decades remind us. That is another node to be examined in a greater detail in a different thoughtpiece.