Mistaking Technology for Capitalism and Capitalism for Technology

Technology is not merely bundles of wires, silicon, and touchscreens; it is a way of systematised thinking that emulates capitalism.

Why is modernity such a fucking slog? Why does the house always win, and why is the house never you? Your phone company has no way of refunding you when they overcharge you, but can seemingly clear out your savings account with little or no input, let alone action, required from you. For this, we can thank technology.

Not just “technology” as the bundles of wires, silicon, and touchscreens upon which we may consume pornography and high-interest loans. Technology as a way of systematised thinking and being that emulates the operations of those infrastructures. Just as our paleolithic ancestors were shaped by their tools, walking upright and developing dextrous thumbs as they became more dependent on stone hand axes (“damn kids are just walking around staring at their stone axes all day!”), so too are we. In our emotional, political, and intellectual lives.

Technological thinking goes to the Greek-ass roots of the word technology, meaning techne - or, roughly, skilled craftsmanship. Techne as facilitation; moving points A and B closer together, whatever they may be, of the attainment of an as-yet undefined goal. The spectrum between the artist and the craftsman is will: the craftsman builds to a design, dictated by a customer or a standard template, and the artist creates what he or she wills. In capitalism, technology drives the reductionist way it assimilates more domains - geographical, ecological, intellectual, and emotional. Whipping them to service producing returns on investment.

Think about climate change. Efforts to curb climate change have focused largely on “what works,” approached as though it’s a problem waiting to be solved rather than a process in desperate need of stopping. We try things - we ban plastic straws, we disincentivise the use of plastic bags, we propose a smart bin to make it easier to recycle (a real thing!). We know intuitively that none of these efforts will reverse the ongoing climate desolation, because we know that there are people with much more power than us continuing to boil us all in a large pot. And our best idea to cool down is to change the water, but the fire’s still on, and the same people are controlling the hob. We need to stop the people boiling us, not solve the problem of boiling in the abstract.

Refusing to see this led Conservative MP Sam Gyimah to argue, in a talk to the CPS think tank, that capitalism justifies its own existence with the conveniences it provides to consumers. He invited Justin Welby to “debate capitalism over a Deliveroo pizza, with an Uber dropping us at home afterwards.” Glossing over the obsession with “rational debate” that has attenuated the brain function of most liberals (and he is most certainly a liberal), Gyimah makes Welby’s point for him: a slick interface and a pretty basic application of APIs and mapping technology have masked a fundamental transfer of wealth and power from workers to owners, presented as consumers. The means are the ends, and damn the consequences - because technology hides the tools that society uses to become “neutrally optimised”, justifying the outcome by hiding that this is done for specific ends.

Techne, devoid of social context, is merely skill - but in context, all skill, all facilitation, every wire, is connected for someone’s end and someone’s purpose. The more that is assimilated, the more elements of life are captured by the logic of technology, draped like a trench coat of neutrality over the body of the public flasher that is late capitalism. There is no neutral optimisation of society as a system - only optimisation for some end. That is: Uber doesn’t oppress workers, bosses oppress workers.

Technological thinking, as systematisation for its own sake, serves to eliminate the idea of external legitimacy - driven by moral desires and our contested understanding of social need - with internal legitimacy, which is essentially technical. It is useful to obfuscate the social processes that facilitate the domination of everyone by like three billionaires. They essentially tell you that there are some things - values - which do not exist, or exist in unimportant ways, and then there are other things - “The Facts.” These things, “The Facts,” tend to be related to capital: yes, Hackney has lost its nightlife, but house prices are up. The fun you have in a seedy, semi-legal club is not “The Facts,” but the price of a house… that is a classic example of one of “The Facts.”

It is precisely the emptiness of a life lived on this set of “The Facts”, disenchanted, fragmented, isolated, and with a greater purpose no more than “economic prudissitude” (anything more ambitious is, of course, irresponsible and naive) that leaves so many staring into the middle distance. It’s all for facilitation, it’s all techne, but we begin to suspect all that we might be the craftsmen of our own existences, rather than the artists.

The near-religious devotion to austerity by liberals is a product of techne thinking. Society is “for” efficiency and productivity: but what are we producing, and for whom? If you’re an idiot, then you’re convinced that efficiency and productivity, driven as it is by technological advancement, simply facilitates all our goals (if those goals are to be marketed to more efficiently, then maybe you’re right), whatever they may be.

In the very same Conservative party conference in which Theresa May announced austerity was over, Matt Hancock - the first minister of Health and Social Care to be sworn in to his post on a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and generally a cheerful moron who should not even be in charge of a dull pencil - has announced that his solution to the NHS housing crisis is “apps.” There are a series of choices being made by powerful people to apportion fewer of our society’s resources to GP’s covering more people with greater medical need than ever, and to square the circle by facilitating easier contact (allegedly). Technological thinking is a trick: it is a swap of a secondary process for a primary process, pretending we have no power over the primary process. But we do: we choose these things, and then pretend we’re powerless.

When the river is dammed up, its banks defined by flood walls, and those flood walls maintained by men in jumpsuits and clipboards adhering to schedules, a natural process has been subjected to control - the inputs are determined, the boundaries of the system are determined, and the desired outputs (not to mention the method by which they are all to be measured) are set down. Intellectualised for easy analysis. Dis-, as Adorno and Horkheimer write, -enchanted of its power.

Disenchantment is the process by which mythology, the intellectual system in which man is in the thrall of nature, is replaced with rationality. Disenchantment is demythologising, and we demythologise to attain power over nature. Rather than sacrificing people so the sun rises tomorrow, we set up solar panels to pretend we tamed the sun. Disenchantment of social relations, if it is done hierarchically, merely makes that hierarchy feel natural.

More insidious than the so-called sharing economy are the data titans, standing astride all of life like a shitty colossus powered by our collective uncle’s aggrieved posting and penchant for irreverent customised mugs. Because they disenchant all of us. The process of disenchantment in the enlightenment drove the frontiers of capitalist exploitation to nature, and reclassified some humans as “merely” part of nature (phrenology, anyone?), to be exploited along with the earth. The data titans make understandable, analysable, comparable, and controllable everything you do. “The facts” about you are those which are discoverable, and those which pertain to your usefulness as a producer and consumer.

Disenchantment of people, and the social relations between them, reifies hierarchy. It leaves some people’s subjectivity roughly intact, and renders others as mere objects of study. The only humans left are Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon, and Charles Koch’s son Wyatt, with his t-shirt company. The rest of us, those who sell our labour, are just nature (euphemistically referred to as Human Resources), whose productive capacities are nurtured and harvested.

Technological thinking, shaped as it is by industrial organisation, data analysis, and even the fucking seed drill, sees the world as fundamentally optimisable. But there is always a hand holding the hammer.