/Ryan Faulhaber/posts/some notes on techno-pessimism

Some notes on techno-pessimism

Sun, Jun 27, 2021 - 3 min

Recently I’ve become entralled by Emacs. Part of the reason why I think is because, among other reasons, Emacs represents a lost horizon for what a computer program could be.

Emacs is easy to customize (assuming you know Lisp, which anymore may be a big assumption), and in my experience, easier than Atom or VS Code. In fact, I feel that I can do more in ten lines of Lisp than I can do in 100 of a JavaScript extension for VS Code. Emacs, in other words, facilitates you using it in a way that’s unique to you.

But Emacs is one of a kind. The convention for software in our world today is that you constrain a user’s ability to interact with the system. The high priests of software in the San Francisco Bay Area decide what a computer interface is, set the parameters for how you’re supposed to use it, and make anything else impossible.

The iPhone is the ultimate example of this. The iPhone is a computer but it is not a personal computer: it merely provides a certain amount of interfaces for interacting with it. If you want to change some part of your iPhone, you cannot unless the designers at Apple allow you to in the Settings app. In this way it makes me wonder if these horrible phones that we carry around are truly even ours.

When I first started writing code I was enchanted by the infinite extensibility of computers. Software seemed like it could do anything as long as you could write it in code. I still know this to be true, but the last 20 or so years of computing have shown that computing is being reduced to a set of platforms upon which you can build, and those platforms enclose on the possibilities of what computing can do. There’s no reason why a computer cannot be empowering, as was dreamed of in the 80s and 90s, except that it wouldn’t be profitable to do so.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that language itself and discourse set the parameters for how we discuss our world. For him, there was no “objective” truth as much as there were “discursive” truths. These discursive truths are an expression of power relations as well: those in places of power may set the framing for what is considered truth. It is hard not to see Foucault’s point as convincing.

In many ways this is what computing has become too: platforms, by having a disproportionate amount of power, are able to define how a user should interact with their system. When a user navigates to a website, for example, the user is on the turf of the website: the website can allow a user to click on certain things or disclose pieces of information, but on the terms of the website and not the user. The user is at the whim of the people who paid for the site to be built.

To be clear, I am not very sympathetic to the GNU philosophy. I don’t think using a computer is the most important thing a person can do. However it’s become clear that computers have become totalitarian machines of control, and the past 20 years or so seem to only vindicate this point.

And not only are they machines of control but things that stand in for and replace the social. Want to find a new job? Download an app! Want to find a romantic partner? Download an app! Want to yell at strangers over inconsequential things? Download an app!

This “techno-optimist” attitude that technology can overcome any social problem then becomes a grim omen: technology will enclose upon a social problem and turn it into an app.

I can’t help but think the Luddites came too early.