Back in mid-May I wrote a piece looking at the puzzling phenomenon of people buying digital voice assistant technologies when said technologies actually don’t work very well. In that piece I suggested that one of the things driving such perverse behavior was the aristocratic yearning buried just under the surface of the descendants of those who threw off the yoke of tyranny almost 250 years ago. (Well, threw off the yoke for wealthy white folks, anyway; Americans remained quite happy to sit back and watch others labor under the yoke). Digital assistants now allow your average American consumer to complete the fantasy by filling their house with servants that they can order around.
I pointed out that the experience of actually trying to use a Siri or an Alexa did not in general produce feelings of benevolent condescension as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightened rule over our digital servants. By far the most common reaction is in fact rage.
Recently, a piece by Travis Andrews for the Washington Post confirmed that after being trapped in their homes for months on end with their servants, many Americans are discovering a dark side to themselves that confirms why people cannot be trusted with absolute power. Americans, it seems, really, really hate it when their servants get uppity.
Loving our Abusers
There is a single word that we should all banish from our vocabularies right away.
Even phrases like “the new normal.” And, definitely, “back to normal.” The last phrase in particular is now in the process of being ruined by partisan appropriation because it is nothing more nor less than a mendacious (if you are Pennywise or the Idiocratic governor of a state like Florida, Texas, South Dakota. . .well, basically most of them) or wistful (if a reasonably well-intentioned person) fantasy. If only things could go back to the way they were. When our world was organized almost completely around the need for businesses to make as much money as possible at any cost. When we didn’t have to deal with inconvenient truths like a systemically racist police force as the enforcer of the norms of a systemically racist society. Where we didn’t have to deal with the messy monumental contradictions of our history that we have literally overlooked for decades.
We need a phrase that is more descriptive and more honest. Let’s get back to dreaming. Let’s get back to the fantasy.
Because if there is one thing that the pandemic should have taught all of us it is that the previous “normal” many of us inhabited was an illusion founded on the extraordinary ability of modern capitalism to make us look away from what is right in front of us–and our willingness to be so diverted. The US had gradually, but also very obviously, become over the years a place where we had by and large stopped questioning–for the small number of people who ever did–that what is good for business (especially big business) is automatically good for the country as a whole. Where everything that was needed to build a society that is sustainable and resilient over the long-term has been scaled back, removed, or worse still, never introduced in the first place. A health care system. Worker safety protections. Sick leave. A robust educational infrastructure enhanced by smart decisions about when–and when not–to use technology. National institutions operating in the national interest rather than for partisan advantage and score-settling. Investing in a future defined in decades not weeks (you know, all those unfashionable concepts like “saving” and “stockpiling” and “keeping a little something in reserve”).
One of the things I have found most depressing about the pandemic is that it arrived right at the time when it was slowly beginning to dawn on people that our heavy reliance on information technology was just maybe not the most healthy things for us either as individuals or as a species. Some people were starting to have their own doubts, questioning why they couldn’t seem to be without their phones ever, or why being more “connected” via social media seemed to be making them more unhappy, or why managing the streaming revolution had started to seem like a full-time job (and one on which we were spending many times the amount we were supposed to have saved by “cutting the cord”). The dawning awareness was abetted by a stream of books from Silicon Valley insiders detailing precisely how our information technology is engineered to violate our privacy, ruthlessly exploit our personal information, and keep us addicted. Even people in government, who in general are still marveling over the speed and efficiency of the biro were beginning to take notice, and muttering about regulating Big Tech reached actual conversational volume.
Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly we were Zooming and WebExing and Prime Netflixing our cares away. We discovered new educational applications for information technology and some of them even seemed to be useful (and then there was the Fairfax County school system whose inability to manage their own platform turned their online schooling experience into a nightmare of racial and sexual harrassment and an almost unbroken torrent of extreme porn). People attended virtual triv nights and concerts and online meeting after meeting after meeting, the gradual disappearance of their will to live leavened slightly by the knowledge that in none of those meetings were they wearing anything from the waist down.
The PR campaign for infotech picked up pace almost immediately. Tech companies began running the same kind of soft-focus Serious Voice commercials as every other large company, offering “tributes” to our essential workers (they probably would have preferred a sick leave policy and hazard pay) and reassuring us that “we’re all in this together (as long as you can forget about all those times we stole your data and sold it to the highest bidder)” sentiments interlaced with pictures of amber waves of grain and gamboling puppies. And suddenly much of the tech media (who in general are simply marketers for the newest products and for the more general idea that the new Shiny will always automatically improve your life) began talking about how social media had now finally become what it was supposed to be (and hey, could you just all ignore all those other times we announced that social media had finally arrived. . . .). Now social media had, it seems, saved us.
All of this ignores the fact that social media was implicated in everything that made the pre-Pandemic USA not all that great to begin with. Our willingness to substitute the virtual for the in-person was something that we were chasing after with all deliberate speed, partly I suspect out of the happy delusion that if this torrid affair with our own narcissism didn’t work out, then there would still be a real human world to go back to. So we replaced human connection with friend (or “follower”) management. We shamelessly faked and filtered and branded our lives, whoring for likes and retweets. We crowd-sourced the “hive mind” for medical and technical advice instead of, you know, consulting a professional. We stood by as people were doxed and stalked and trolled and bullied because, that’s just the internet. We cheerfully embraced apps that were designed from the ground up not to attempt to address any of these problems, and in fact were often designed to facilitate them. We took all this at face value. Because technology is “neutral” and design is “neutral.” If information technology seemed to occasionally/consistently be producing problematic social behavior or undermining civic discourse, well that couldn’t possibly be the fault of the actual technology and our willingness to use it. It was “bad actors” or “poor design.”
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
One thing that capitalism in general and technology design in particular has always been able to count on is people’s desperate desire to be edgy and cool and be “on trend” in grabbing the latest thingumajig. The tech sector knows that people will buy literally anything as long as the element of novelty and “it will make you look cool in front of your friends” is pushed hard enough, and that they will even buy things when they don’t actually work that well.
As I wrote about in a previous post, this has been the enduring mystery of voice controlled applications like Alexa, Siri, etc. They don’t work that well. Sometimes they don’t work at all. And yet people have been buying them like toilet paper. In part this is a fascinating case study of the information that we use to make purchasing decisions. Many of our searches results are now being so carefully optimized by companies with lots of money to spend on this process, that only positive reviews float to the first page of Google (I’ve seen this, for example, with hiking and cycling App Komoot, which has some major and very obvious problems in routing and elevation calculation, that you will not find discussed in the “reviews” anywhere that I have been able to find). But with a little bit of digging, there is plenty of information out there about how badly these applications work, their privacy violating practices, and even their inherent ethnic bias.
But people don’t want to do a little digging. They want a little reassurance that their ready-made decision is in fact the right one. And as I pointed out previously, Americans in particular have a deeply held desire to be aristocrats. They want to treat their home as an enterprise that they manage like a CEO, ordering others to do their bidding.
Fortunately, as Andrews piece describes, spending time in close proximity with your digital servants seems to have finally shattered the illusion for some people. Now they are suddenly–suddenly!–realizing. . . these applications don’t work that well! Or sometimes at all! To his credit, Andrews avoids what would be a mighty strenuous eye-roll. And there is something funny about people finally being forced to confront their digital delusion head on. Yet it is also a disturbing look at just what it takes to puncture some of our tech-fostered illusions of progress, efficiency, and simplicity.
We’ve all been brainwashed by Downton Abbey (and for an older generation, Upstairs Downstairs) which barely hint at the class strife that formed the basis for master-servant relationships, particularly where live-in servants were considered. Servants throughout the ages have never been only helpless victims, however. Yes, the full weight of class privilege could be directed against them at any time, and it frequently was (including mechanisms such as rape). Yet servants had their own forms of retaliation; subtle go-slows, faked illness, quiet pilfering, and so on. The upper class aristocratic fantasy was one of perfect compliance, but the reality was always that servants resisted.
The really dark side of this situation was that when servants resisted too openly, the full fury of the Lords and Ladies of the Manor were directed against them. As Andrews notes, this is exactly what is happening when our digital assistants refuse to do our bidding. One Alexa user reports:
“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”
What is revealing here is the reference to lacking things to vent at (also interesting is “things” here instead of “people”). In most middle class and upper class households in Europe and the US, administering the servants was the job of women, and some of the most brutal treatment of servants was meted out at the hands of the lady of the manor. While high-born women possessed power and resources as a result of their entitled class position, they remained relatively powerless within their class because of misogynistic restrictions; much of the power they were able to exercise was often “borrowed” power (e.g. not being able to own their own property, for example).
But hey, wouldn’t we treat “real” servants better than we treat our digital ones? Frankly, I’m not sure. The substitution of “things” for people in the above quote is, as I said, revealing. One very important strategy adopted by late capitalism is to encourage consumption by blurring category distinctions. I’m sure we would like to think that we can keep fundamental distinctions clear in our heads (object vs. person, democracy vs. authoritarianism) but it isn’t at all clear to me that we can do that. The more we are encouraged to interact, and interact intimately, with things that bear some attributes of real people, the more I suspect we will begin to treat real people as things. Which, after all, is something that humans have already demonstrated they are all too ready to do, even without the aid of technology.
Tell me what you want, what you really really want
I doubt that for most people anything can penetrate the digital assistant bubble at this point. One thing that the last four years should have taught us is that a devoutly held belief is completely immune to reason, logic, evidence, reality. It appears that a lot of people devoutly believe that they need a digital servant to do their bidding, and that these devices will actually do as they have promised. As so many members of the upper class have found over the years, having servants is a royal pain the arse, but by the time you get to that realization you are so dependent upon them that you can’t let them go.
However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be a little more honest about what we really want from these digital assistants, and to push back against just a little of the Silicon Valley hype.
Despite the marketing hype, it turns out that we don’t want Smart Technology. What we want is Submissive Technology.
Despite the marketing hype, it turns out that we don’t want Artificial Intelligence. What we want is Artificial Obedience.