The Case Against Techno-Optimism

Technology is often cast as the solution to society’s woes, the ‘great equalizer’, the precursor to social progress. But does ‘techno-optimism’ hold up on closer examination?

It’s time that we admit that we are in a tech bubble. Not just the literal economic tech bubble that has overinflated the value of start-ups and technological innovations, but a bubble of inflated expectations.

It seems like every day I encounter a new headline extolling the democratizing power of the Internet, or describing the next start-up set to change the world. Tech CEO’s, like Google’s Sundar Pichai, make sweeping claims about technology’s social impacts: “Every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.” Some have even gone as far as to claim that Silicon Valley is the new epicenter of social change.

Embedded in these grand claims is an unspoken ideology: techno-optimism. Techno-optimism is the belief that as technology improves, people’s livelihoods will invariably improve – that technological progress inevitably gives way to social progress. Technology will serve as the world’s great equalizer passively leading us to social and political liberation. And while this is a compelling story to tell ourselves, the reality is that technology often intensifies rather than alleviates structural inequality.

Before you accuse me of being a Luddite, I, like all the other digital natives of my generation, live a life heavily dependent on digital technology, social media, and the mini computer / camera / miracle texting machine that I carry in my pocket at all times. However, I want to recognize that  the benefits of technology are often distributed in uneven ways. Given that the vast majority of our technology is developed by the private sector for the purpose of generating profit, technology often benefits those who have enough capital to provide tech entrepreneurs with a ‘return on investment’. In addition to intentionally catering to the already privileged, those who develop technologies – typically highly educated white men – sometimes unintentionally design technological systems in ways that privilege their identities and bodies over others.

Let’s take for example a straightforward technology: a thermostat. In my office in Los Angeles, I’ve been known to hide a space heater under my desk to compensate for the frigid temperatures in the building, shivering under my thick sweaters despite it being over 80 degrees outside. Our building temperature is set to approximately 70 degrees – cool enough to comfortably wear a suit on even the warmest days. However, women, whose metabolic rate is on average lower than men, often find these temperatures to be uncomfortably chilly. These gender differences aren’t a matter of mere coincidence – but are actually programmed into thermostats through Fanger’s thermal comfort equation. Here we see how technology perpetuates gender inequalities in the office, enforcing a system that prioritizes men’s comfort over women’s through seemingly apolitical means, by seemingly apolitical means.

Even everyone’s favorite technological innovation, the Internet – which has doubtlessly revolutionized the way  we communicate, connect, and innovate – is also guilty of reinforcing existing systems of power. The induction of the Internet has intensified the global disparities established by imperialism, or a way of governing in which one country dominates the political, economic, and cultural life of another country to the benefit of the imperial power. The inequalities produced by imperialism are often framed as a divide between the ‘Global North’ – which includes the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and parts of East Asia – and the ‘Global South’ – which primarily refers to Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Likewise, the Internet has produced a new ‘digital divide’ that reinforces these power dynamics. Eighty percent of households in developed countries have Internet access versus 34% of households in developing countries. Low-income countries without access to the ‘information superhighway’ or the literacy necessary to successfully navigate, are put at a further disadvantage by being excluded from participating in the global information economy. Rather than act as the ‘great equalizer’, the Internet ultimately maintains the power of the Global North over the Global South.

Some might say that these patterns are reflections of the social contexts that these technologies exist in, rather than a political bias inherent to the technologies themselves. However, institutional inequality can often become embedded within the designs of technologies. For example, many technologies that are familiar to us – buses, skyscrapers, escalators – were designed in ways that exclude people with disabilities. The modification of some of these technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities was not a logical progression of technology, but rather due to the efforts of disability rights activists that organized for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I use these examples to illustrate that technology is political and that its tendency is to benefit those more privileged, not that it must always do so. Organizations like Research Action Design use community-led research and collaborative design to develop technologies that actively support social movements. One of their current projects, an app called VoterVOX was developed in partnership with Asian American voters with limited English proficiency, connecting them with bilingual translators so they can overcome language barriers established in the voting process.

Because of its wide ranging social impacts, we must cast aside superficial notions that technological advances will lead the way to social progress. We must be as critically engaged with our technological developments as we are with legislative acts and political elections. And ultimately, we must continue to organize our communities in our pursuit of political liberation.

The Luddites, who are often portrayed as backwards technophobes, were actually fierce labor activists who understood that the machines they were destroying were designed to enrich the wealthy at the expense of their livelihoods. They understood that political organizing – not technology – was the only way toward a more just and equitable society. Technology will continue to shape our society in profound, and sometimes unexpected ways. In the next two decades alone, up to 47% of the world’s jobs are likely to be automated, creating greater prosperity for the owners of capital and highly skilled workers at the expense of the most vulnerable. Will the technological elite continue to brand these transitions as ‘disruptions’ on the way to global progress? Or will we too be driven to smash the machine?

Alexis Takahashi (aka ATAK) is a multiracial organizer who loves plants, sushi, and disrupting capitalism. Her personal superpowers are cat whispering and laying in trees.