It seems that a lot of criticism of technology criticism goes along the lines of “it’s not the technology, it’s user error” — and along with this critique is often the very Whiggish idea that if we just come up with the right technology or abolish capitalism or what have you we will not have the problems with technology that we have today. What I think these critiques miss is that many technological developments are misused because they make a mockery of human limits. It’s a lot harder to have a proportional sense of justice, for example, if you can push a button and blow up a village in another country. The more powerful the technology and the more deeply this technology appeals to some base aspect of our nature, the more destructive it will be and the more we will be required to limit our free access to it if we want to have any chance at flourishing.
Social media platforms are the most prominent focal point of the tech backlash. Critics have understandably centered their attention on the related issues of data collection, privacy, and the political weaponization of targeted ads. But if we were to imagine a world in which each of these issues were resolved justly and equitably to the satisfaction of most critics, further questions would still remain about the moral and political consequences of social media. For example: If social media platforms become our default public square, what sort of discourse do they encourage or discourage? What kind of political subjectivity emerges from the habitual use of social media? What understanding of community and political action do they foster? These questions and many others — and the understanding they might yield — have not been a meaningful part of the conversation about the tech backlash.
We fail to ask, on a more fundamental level, if there are limits appropriate to the human condition, a scale conducive to our flourishing as the sorts of creatures we are. Modern technology tends to encourage users to assume that such limits do not exist; indeed, it is often marketed as a means to transcend such limits. We find it hard to accept limits to what can or ought to be known, to the scale of the communities that will sustain abiding and satisfying relationships, or to the power that we can harness and wield over nature. We rely upon ever more complex networks that, in their totality, elude our understanding, and that increasingly require either human conformity or the elimination of certain human elements altogether. But we have convinced ourselves that prosperity and happiness lie in the direction of limitlessness. “On the contrary,” wrote Wendell Berry in a 2008 Harper’s article, “our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.”