Is Silicon Valley Nudging Us Towards an Authoritarian Future?

Yves here. Most NC readers are tech/Silicon Valley skeptics, but even so, it’s useful to highlight the tight connection between authoritarianism and the illusory quest for certain, and how Silicon Valley promotes both. Look at the mundane example of FitBit: users believe that recording their fitness activities and tracking their health data will make them healthier. There’s no evidence that these devices work any better than a New Year’s resolution, but they do make some users more neurotic. Fitbit claims it sells only aggregated data and depersonalizes it, but I’m not the sort who is willing to allow use of my health data.1

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Humans are an anticipatory species. Our ancient turn from foraging to agriculture habituated us to planning ahead — focusing on when to plant, what kinds of crops to expect. We’ve evolved culturally to want to know what’s coming our way.

But in this season of shattered expectations, a virus blows up our best-laid plans and mocks our carefully crafted models. When the future catches us unawares, anxiety surges. Right now, millennials are worried. Teachers are worried. Retirees are worried. The rich are worried. Hell, even Donald Trump is getting worried.

We know enough to see that the future is likely to bring not only devastating pandemics, but climate disasters, rising inequalities, threats to democracy, and painful social upheaval, but we have no idea when, where, and how the specifics of these calamities will strike. How do we stop panicking and forge ahead effectively?

Margaret Heffernan, whose previous books have challenged received wisdom on topics ranging from our obsession with competition to the cognitive traps that blind us, proposes in her new book, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, that when it comes to the future, we’re approaching it all wrong.

One of our most serious problems is an addiction to prediction –we’re suckers for sages and gadgets that promise to reveal what lies ahead. Some of us consult astrologists, while others follow financial forecasters — two professions, Heffernan wryly notes, that took off together in the wake of turn-of-the-century financial panics and share a similarly bleak track record on accuracy.

Often, we look to pundits for revelations, but research has shown that the big names — the Tom Friedmans, Paul Krugmans, and Alan Greenspans — tend to see consistency where it doesn’t exist and get seduced by their own models, even as contrary evidence piles up.

What about the gurus of Big Tech and Big Data? Can’t they offer any certainty? Not so fast, warns Heffernan. Algorithms and apps may promise to divulge the future, but they just as often reveal little more than their creators’ biases and errors – which can be quite harmful when it comes to serious matters like law enforcement, job hiring and who gets a mortgage.

All this searching for certainty, Heffernan holds, is really just the commercialization of a dangerous fantasy: that the future is knowable, and that certain special people or processes can reveal it.

It isn’t and they can’t.

But you won’t hear that from California’s Wizards of Oz, busy issuing their latest prognostications: This is the year of virtual reality! Driverless cars by [fill-in-the-blank]!

In a recent podcast with Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Heffernan points out that not only are these oracles frequently wrong, but they are based on the faulty claim that human beings are so many collections of data points and that everything about us can ultimately be known, precisely measured, and mapped onto the future. To this assertion, she replies that all you have to do is look at the list of books Amazon recommends for you – the ones that you’ve already read or did and couldn’t stand—to know that this is baloney.

She senses that many of the gurus of Silicon Valley don’t even believe their own data-driven hype anymore. Heffernan sees them as quietly and insidiously turning from trying to make forecasts about us to “trying to drive and dictate our behavior and cloak that under the guise of prediction” – a topic they are just now touching upon on Capitol Hill following a year-long Congressional investigation into the practices of tech giants.

Manipulating us is a profitable business model, and there, warns Heffernan, lies the road to an authoritarian future paved with the exploitation of our lust for certainty.

For Heffernan, Silicon Valley executives are not only threatening our economic and cultural diversity, but force-fitting us into a narrow, impoverished definition of life. Do we really want our future determined by people (largely white, male, affluent) obsessed with extending longevity without understanding what makes it worth living? Whose vision does not adequately include women, people of color, or just about anyone who didn’t share their dorm room at Harvard?

Yet as Heffernan sees it, the more we surrender to automation and outsource ourselves to devices, the more we are cut off from our imaginations and human capabilities. We become narcotized recipients of the future rather than active authors. We become enslaved.

So, what to do? Though Uncharted was written just before the pandemic hit, it seems uncannily suited to this unexpected moment in its explorations of the ways and means of taking charge of our destiny. She sees the coronavirus as giving us a crash course in uncertainty and a chance to give up comforting delusions.

The first thing we have to do is realize that we live in volatile environments that get more complex by the day. A complex world, Heffernan explains, is not the same as a merely complicated one. Complicated environments are linear and follow rules, like an assembly line, but our globalized, interconnected world is becoming less linear, more fluid and fraught with contingencies. Like it or not, we’re going to have to accept that much of our experience lies beyond prediction or influence. But giving up prediction doesn’t mean that we can’t be prepared.

Part of preparing means getting past our sense of helplessness and drawing on what Heffernan calls “the creativity of human interaction” – the very thing Silicon Valley swears it is promoting, but may actually be diluting. Her book illustrates the potential for this collaboration in cases where diverse assemblies of people have worked together to envision the future, making messy progress by fits and starts but eventually getting somewhere they didn’t necessarily expect. She finds inspiration, for example, in Ireland’s forays into deliberative democracy, a process which informed two landmark socially progressive referendum votes on abortion and marriage equality. In both cases, the country randomly picked citizens to study the issues, gather information from experts, and deliberate among themselves. The outcomes, which surprised nearly everybody, show that ordinary people from different backgrounds can effectively collaborate with each other and with experts to shape the future.

Heffernan is also keen on the kind of flexible, long-term thinking and adaption to multiple possibilities stressed in scenario planning (a method first developed in the military), as well as ambitious, open-ended, generation-spanning projects like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where physicists collaborate to pursue human knowledge without any particular hard targets or concrete goals, and whose approach – which would seem terribly inefficient to a corporate CEO focused on quarterly earnings – has yielded such unexpected wonders as the World Wide Web. To embark on such projects, we have to summon our “primal optimism” and the courage to think big and work towards the best future we can imagine, without forgoing the humility to take meaningful small actions, the impact of which we can’t know.

Heffernan encourages us to experiment, even though the experiment may appear to fail, and to learn from people such as artists, who see ambiguity and uncertainty as vibrant sources of discovery and exploration. She wants us to hone our sense of ourselves as active agents existing in a rich field of possibilities, rather than passive pawns stuck in a plotline written by others.

This idea of our fundamental agency may be more critical than ever as authoritarianism rolls back democracy around the globe. Heffernan notes the close link between determinism and authoritarianism, pointing out that autocrats and corporate executive alike seek to eliminate our sense of choice and invite us to surrender to a false sense of certainty. In reality, our experience is alive with possibilities if we can remain alert to them — especially to those that don’t fit our preconceptions. If we can hold onto our power to choose, she reminds us, we can remain free.

We also need to shed our fixation on efficiency and short-termism, the kind relentlessly promoted in business schools and corporate boardrooms and productive of monstrosities like shareholder value theory, which turned corporations into predators, and the gig economy, which splinters communities into conglomerations of competitive individuals and erodes the trust that is vital to our survival in difficult times.

A pandemic, Heffernan observes, smacks us with incontrovertible evidence that the solution to our biggest problems requires that we own them collectively and work together to find a solution, as individuals, communities, and nations. Such emergencies are whole systems phenomena, requiring intellectual, political, financial, medical, and social capital that demand input and coordination from broad coalitions of disciplines, institutions, people, and industries. They require cultural analysis and sensitivity as much as scientific expertise, collaboration even more than technology, and voices from the highest and most ordinary walks of life.

We only make advances if we trust in the legitimacy of a whole system in which we are all meaningful, active participants.

It’s on us. Because there’s not really an app for that.


1 Please don’t attempt to lecture me on this since my set up is radically unlike that of most Americans.

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  1. Glen

    I read a while back pre-pandemic (but cannot remember where) that many Silicon Valley app developers were not allowing their children to have smartphones or use apps like Facebook on PCs because they were concerned about how the use of these were warping their children’s development.

    1. Temporarily Sane

      It’s well known that Silicon Valley developers and oligarchs limit the influence the tech gadgetry they ceaselessly push has in their own lives. Steve Jobs, for example, strictly limited the amount of time his kids could use their cell phones and tablets.

      Like the ‘end of privacy’ the brave new world of all tech all the time is only for the rubes and suckers of the plebeian classes who took tech industry evangelizing (i.e. marketing) at face value and signed up in droves for psyop surveillanceware like Facebook.

      Getting billions of people to willingly destroy the fabric of their societies by giving a bunch of sociopathic serial commodifiers control over their lives was the greatest bait and switch scam in the history of the world.

      1. GettingTheBannedBack

        The new marker of being rich is whether you can afford privacy. Has everyone enjoyed the salacious stories of Zuckerberg, Brin etc? No me either, since they are never printed. And will never be printed.

  2. Ron

    Look at the research at top computer science conferences like SenSys and UbiComp. You’ll find the basis for lots of privacy invading technologies of the future. I think this is driven by the grad students who are mostly young males who tend to think spying on people is cool or something like that. But perhaps its driven by the funding, which comes both from government and corporations. Part of it is the fascination with what is possible. The same thing that drove nuclear scientists to develop the nuclear bomb.

    1. Dirk77

      I can only speak for myself, but the eagerness to work on ends that are at best misguided and often immoral is because of the intellectual challenge they provide. It is also driven by the desire for others to appreciate us. In my case it was also because I valued only doing, not being. By being I mean appreciating, say, just sitting on your porch and listening to the wind in the trees. Or playing a game for itself instead of as a means to improve your skill or win some silly bet with someone else. In my case, I realized in only doing, I was harming myself mentally if only because you get caught in obsessing about things – such as the future. To me now, if you are only doing you aren’t really alive.

  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    “What have we got that they haven’t got?” those at the top look for a means of control
    Land – Feudalism
    Money – Capitalism

    The land scam (feudalism)
    We will let you use this piece of land and leave you with enough to provide a basic subsistence existence and we will take the rest of your produce.

    The money scam (capitalism)
    You do the work, and we will pay you a wage that will provide a basic subsistence existence and we will take the rest as profit.

    As the money scam (capitalism) replaced the land scam (feudalism) the UK’s aristocracy barely noticed. They lived in luxury and leisure and other people did all the work.
    The Classical Economists could never imagine those at the bottom moving out of a bare subsistence existence as that was the way it had always been.

    They can’t let you know money comes out of nothing, this is their control lever.

    Economists do identify where real wealth creation in the economy occurs, but this is a most inconvenient truth as it reveals many at the top don’t actually create any wealth.
    This is the problem.
    Much of their money comes from wealth extraction rather than wealth creation, and they need to get everyone thoroughly confused so we don’t realise what they are really up to.
    To hide these fundamental truths, they have to turn economics into a complete disaster area, where no one knows what is really going on.

    I bet you didn’t realise your economy was on a suicide mission.
    Global policymakers led economies straight into financial crises because they had no idea what they were doing.
    At 25.30 mins you can see the super imposed private debt-to-GDP ratios.
    With neoclassical economics policymakers run the economy on debt until they get a financial crisis.
    1929 – US
    1991 – Japan
    2008 – US, UK and Euro-zone
    The PBoC saw the Chinese Minsky Moment coming and you can too by looking at the chart above.

    As we can see everyone has been doing what the US did in the 1920s and lead their economies towards Great Depressions
    It was inevitable really, they were using neoclassical economics.

    Japan discovered:
    1) You could avoid a Great Depression by saving the banks
    2) Kill growth for the next thirty years by leaving the debt in place

    Those at the top love being in control, the more the better.
    The trouble is that they are always blinded by their own narrow, short term, self-interest and make a complete mess of things.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      They got started straight away ……

      Mankind first started to produce a surplus with early agriculture.

      It wasn’t long before the elites learnt how to read the skies, the sun and the stars, to predict the coming seasons to the amazed masses and collect tribute.
      They soon made the most of the opportunity and removed themselves from any hard work to concentrate on “spiritual matters”, i.e. any hocus-pocus they could come up with to elevate them from the masses, e.g. rituals, fertility rights, offering to the gods …. etc and to turn the initially small tributes, into extracting all the surplus created by the hard work of the rest.
      The elites became the representatives of the gods and they were responsible for the bounty of the earth and the harvests.
      As long as all the surplus was handed over, all would be well.

      Their techniques have got more sophisticated over time, but this is the underlying idea.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        For a 2,000 year-old version of what you just wrote, check out “Bel and the Dragon,” a story that appears in the Greek Septuagint version of “Daniel.” It was the footprints that gave them away.

    2. Sound of the Suburbs

      Adam Smith reached a similar conclusion ……..
      “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

      2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as the bottom half of world’s population
      They are still the same.

      My hypothesis does seem to hold up.
      I was watching a documentary on ancient Egypt when I saw evidence that they actually knew they had just made the whole thing up.
      There were two links to the gods, the priests and the Pharaoh.
      Over time the priests began to become more powerful and a threat to the Pharoah.
      Akhenaten just changed the religion, so the old priests no longer had any power and he became the only link to the new, single god.
      A clever move by Akhenaten, but everyone else had got rather attached to the old beliefs and gods, and weren’t entirely convinced when he just changed everything at the drop of a hat.
      As soon as he had gone they went back to their old ways.

      1. rob

        the staus quo in egypt. may have had no use for Akhenaten, so he just had a “re-branding” of his message… and they called him Moses. And found new followers.. And went looking for a new land….. so the story goes. his son king tut got the egyptian gig.

  4. DakotabornKansan

    Nicholas Carr’s essay, “The love that lays the swale in rows,” is also an excellent read about the challenges of high-flown rhetoric about technology.

    “We can allow ourselves to be carried along by the technological current, wherever it may be taking us, or we can push against it. To resist invention is not to reject invention. It’s to humble invention, to bring progress down to earth. “Resistance is futile,” goes the glib Star Trek cliché beloved by techies. But that’s the opposite of the truth. Resistance is never futile. If the source of our vitality is, as Emerson taught us, “the active soul,” then our highest obligation is to resist any force, whether institutional or commercial or technological, that would enfeeble or enervate the active soul.”

  5. Henry Moon Pie

    The motivating force behind this behavior is the fear of our environment that humans felt once we had withdrawn from the forest and become dependent on agriculture. That fear and our need for security drive us to want to “know,” i.e. control the future. The most fearful among us are the most powerful who are obsessed with attempts to escape our inescapable connection with the Earth that spawned and shaped us. Fleeing to Mars, downloading one’s “consciousness” into a supercomputer, feeding on the blood of the young, etc. are all examples of this frantic and often ridiculous effort to transcend being human.

    We need to be headed in exactly the opposite direction because by rediscovering who we really are can enable us to return to living in harmony with the Earth and its other creatures and with our fellow humans.

  6. The Rev Kev

    By coincidence I was just reading an opinion piece at RT talking about how Silicon Valley has changed and warped the values of the present generation of kids with all the devices that they manufacture. A key section of this artcle says-

    ‘Starting in 2014, just as Generation Z was entering college, a strange new phenomenon began surfacing on campuses across the country. Students, who are traditionally the staunchest defenders of free thought and the least likely to be prudes, began tossing around vague concepts carried over from the internet, such as ‘safe spaces,’ ‘microaggressions,’ and ‘getting triggered.’’

    So some of these kids were trying to recreate in the real world what they had in their digital worlds, hence cancel culture and safe spaces. Lots of food for thought here-

  7. RBHoughton

    Persuasive prediction of an authoritarian future. Glad I’m old and soon to leave the stage.

  8. Darthbobber

    And if the future is certain, then it is also fated, and attempting to exercise agency becomes beside the point. Nothing to do except patronize the best readers of the portents.

  9. David in Santa Cruz

    The “addiction to prediction” is hardly something new — in fact it was at the core of every ancient society. Human sacrifice, anybody?

    The oracles of Silicon Valley are simply its latest practitioners. Don’t let them slice-and-dice our children so that the rains will come. It’s going to rain anyway! Better to fill the granaries in the wet years so that we can all share bread in the dry ones.

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