Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley Flickr user Vadim Kurland

The Information Revolution’s Dark Turn

A Scottish philosopher visited Silicon Valley, and he didn’t like what he saw.

The epicenter of the information revolution is, and has always been, Silicon Valley. There are other tech outposts—Seattle, Austin, even New York—but none have defined, and been defined by, the modern information society so completely as Silicon Valley has.

When it first broke out after World War II, the revolution was characterized by idealism and progress. The products and ideas that came out of it—email, online commerce, biotech—improved lives and changed the nature of government and economics. But sometime in the past few decades, the revolution’s original values gave way to something different. The new Silicon Valley is big, corporate, and it’s hungry for your data.

Alistair Duff, a professor of information society and policy at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, says we’ve arrived at a crisis. Duff says the freedom that characterized the early days of the information revolution has started to be supplanted by “the domination of information technology over human beings, and the subordination of people to a technological imperative.”

I spoke to Duff about the changing ideals of information society, the role of government in regulating it, and his recent visit to Silicon Valley. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

Kaveh Waddell: In your research, you say that we’ve gone through an “information revolution,” and you develop a normative theory through which to understand our new information society. Why do we need this framework?

Alistair Duff: We are lacking a framework for attacking the problems of the 21st century. The Industrial Revolution created a lot of creative and systematic thinking about how society should be run. I think after the information revolution, we need to do exactly the same thing.

I think we need the big picture, not just individuals working on privacy, or intellectual property, or the distribution of scientific information, or this and that—you need to approach it in a holistic, integrated way. Not many people are doing that, and I’ve tried to make a start in my Normative Theory of the Information Society.

Waddell: How soon after the Industrial Revolution did philosophers start sitting down to try and come up with a normative theory of those societal shifts?

Duff: The term “industrial revolution” wasn’t coined until [Arnold] Toynbee, the historian, coined it, in 1886. That was after its heyday. But before the era was christened in that way, there had been a massive amount of creative responses to what I would call the normative crises of the Industrial Revolution.

That’s what the whole socialist movement was about: A way to humanize the factory system, tame industrialization, and make sure it was steered in the direction of human welfare.

Now, have we had anything like that in our own era? We haven’t. So there’s an open field.

Waddell: In exploring your theory, you went to Silicon Valley to see what the information revolution looks like there. Did you see anything while you were visiting that helped you understand the information society or where it came from?

Duff: I saw a lot that was good. I wouldn’t want to condemn Silicon Valley carte blanche: There’s a lot of innovation going on; there’s a lot of new jobs being created. There’s a lot of the good side of capitalism going on. It’s a very pleasant environment.

But I think there is a dark side there, so it did confirm some of my theorizing about the information age. There is massive inequality, which is unacceptable. Inequality should not be so great that it crystallizes into class distinctions—master-servant relations—and I think you have that in Silicon Valley, to some extent.

And I think there are issues over abuse of data. In fact, some of the information corporations that I interviewed admitted that. There are issues over intellectual property—profound concerns over some of Google’s innovations. I think they are playing fast and loose in the name of copyright, all in the name of progress.

We need gadflies who will ask searching questions and not just buy into Google’s narrative of progress, and those of other companies in the valley.

Waddell: You interviewed some important people who took part in the information revolution when it was first happening. They kept bringing up the importance of idealism in their work. Is that a core value of the information society?

Duff: Yes, because information technology has a built-in capacity to bring progress, to emancipate, to make life better, to increase leisure time, to enhance communication, and to reintegrate a fractured humanity.

That’s the great potential of information technology. It is an enabling technology, and it can be used—and should be used, and often is used—to further valuable ideals, such as human communication, brotherhood and sisterhood, and liberty (something you Americans are very good at).

But it can also be abused, and we see that increasingly. To some extent, these ideals are still alive in Silicon Valley, but there’s also an abuse of information technology, and the threat of what I call “technocracy.” It’s a term we don’t often use now, and I mean by technocracy not the rule of experts, but the rule of information technology, the domination of information technology over human beings, and the subordination of people to a technological imperative. That is a real threat, and I think it is almost out of control.

Waddell: A lot of companies are working toward social good, but the social good they’re providing is sometimes offset by violations of privacy, or the profound work-life imbalance that you’ve written about. How do these social ills fit into this utopia that Silicon Valley is trying to create?

Duff: Well, they don’t. They militate against it. Privacy is under threat.

I’d like to take exception with [Apple CEO] Tim Cook. I’m with the state on that, absolutely. I think Tim Cook is out of his mind. It’s a clear case where the state’s rights prevail over the right of individual privacy, and I say that as an advocate of privacy. We’ve got to get common sense on privacy, not fanaticism.

But generally, privacy is under threat. Generally, privacy is retreating in little ways and big. For example, recent research showed that truckers were now leaving their trade because they are monitored so closely by controllers. And it’s traditionally part of  the dream of truckers everywhere to have a bit more liberty, a bit more autonomy, a bit of freedom. And that’s being taken away by information technology. And so in many places, privacy is in retreat. That is bad, and it’s one issue where ideals have been compromised.

Waddell: I want to go back to the Tim Cook story for a second. I have to say I’m a little surprised by your reaction. But Silicon Valley, as you probably noticed, has something of a libertarian streak. Do you think your reaction speaks to a cultural divide? In Europe, people understand the value of government in a different way.

Duff: In the Valley, I met anti-statism. I met it in executives from corporations, I met it in the ex-hippie community, the bohemian quarters. There is a very strong anti-statism in America generally, and in particular, California, and in particular-particular, Silicon Valley. And I think it’s a mistaken philosophy.

I have read [Robert] Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Murray Rothbard’sEthics of Liberty, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom—I’ve read it all, and it’s a flawed philosophy. The ultimate value is not liberty: It is justice. Liberty has to fit within the context of social justice. And where it violates justice, I’m afraid justice trumps liberty.

Libertarianism says that freedom is the paramount value. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m a follower of John Rawls, the great Harvard political philosopher, and in his Theory of Justice, he makes clear that justice is the paramount virtue in political life.

It should incorporate a great deal of freedom, including some inalienable freedoms, but you cannot trump justice with liberty in the way Tim Cook is doing.

Waddell: Do you think there should be a global norm or theory of how we arrange these values, or is there some amount of wiggle room for Americans and Europeans approaching things differently, or people in the Middle East or China approaching their values in the information society differently?

Duff: I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an attempt at a universal norm, and it includes privacy. I think there are certain things that should transcend nations. If privacy is a human right, then it should transcend national boundaries. But one wouldn’t want to impose one political system on the whole world.

So, certainly, as a European, I wouldn’t want to turn America into Finland. I believe in social democracy, but America isn’t going to turn into that anytime soon.

Waddell: Unless we elect Bernie Sanders.

Duff: Yeah! Well, these earthquakes can happen.

There was a privacy declaration by the European privacy ombudsman called the Madrid Privacy Declaration. That sort of thing is useful. I think Europe has been the gold standard on data protection, so we’ve got something to teach the world.

But it’s difficult. In my last paper, which is still under review, I’m arguing for a concept I call the fellowship of the net. I think that is something that we need to develop, because I think these great social-networking sites can get us only so far. We also need to buy into some ancient ideals of human community and what used to be called brotherhood, but you could maybe now call fellowship or connectivity. These should be universal ideals which could help reintegrate a world that is frighteningly fractured.

(Image via Flickr user Vadim Kurland)