On Tech Shaming

The progressive community claims to care passionately about issues of class and environment, and the intersections between. These issues are an important part of social justice movements, as they are intertwined with so much in our way of lives and how we interact with the world. One of the many areas in which they collide is in that of technology; the devices around us that are such an important part of our lives. Our phones, our computers, our tablets, our e-readers. Yet, they come with a high environmental cost, and, of course, they come with a heavy and complex load of class signaling.

I’ve talked before about how technology has obvious environmental issues. For every new device made, there’s a corresponding use of resources involved in construction, shipping, packaging. There’s also the human angle, the pollution caused by the production of hardware, the people who work at low wages and in dangerous conditions to make our shiny new toys. Technology is increasingly designed to be obsolete quickly, forcing people to replace perfectly usable goods because they have no alternative, and that in turn leads to massive buildups of waste. Even progressives conscious of the issue seem unsure about what to do about it, and have trouble turning obsolete technology into something useful for themselves or others.

And, of course, there’s the sheer class issue that not everyone can afford technology, and among those who can, there are varying degrees of access. Some people can afford to buy iPhones and carry expensive mobile plans. Others rely on basic phones issued by pay-as-you-go providers. A great class gulf lies between both, as does a significant technology gulf, with one person having access to much, much more as a consequence of the technology she has at her fingertips. This can be especially visible in the form of Apple tech in particular, which has a long history of use as a class signaling device.

Those who can afford it flaunt it, and some of those people are progressives, who, one would think, would know better, because progressives are very invested in the idea of ‘shaming’ and how it’s a bad thing. Slut-shaming and fat-shaming and their ilk lurk in myriads of progressive conversations as people remind each other that it is important to avoid judging the behaviour of others, to be setting up divides between different groups of people by establishing a line in the sand that determines good and bad. To participate in shaming behaviour is to commit a progressive sin, to speak out against it a virtue.

Technology shaming, though, is very real in many progressive communities. Not just in the sense that many people like to flaunt new acquisitions, but in the way they talk about technology. There’s the sneering at people who aren’t as knowledgeable about basic software, for example; people who turn up their noses at given content management systems for blogging or can’t believe someone doesn’t know how to use a given social network. There are also the raging operating system wars, in which people proclaim the superiority of one or the other and begin to imbue their choices with an almost moral imperative: you must agree with me that this is the best, because I say so.

And there is the hardware shaming that goes on too, the pitying looks for people using older computers and phones, for those who can’t afford the newest, brightest, shiniest thing when it comes out. For those who might actually choose to use an obsolete or older but still usable device simply because they believe that things should be used up and worn out rather than thrown out when they no longer glitter. For them, many progressives have little to say, other than that their choices are distasteful and they should really update their technology; look, for example, at the way people mock those who don’t use smartphones and are content with their older devices.

Why do progressives persist in a behaviour (shaming) that they’ve labeled as bad when it comes to technology? Especially when what they’re doing actually comes with some incredibly loaded subtext? Any time we start talking about updating personal tech, we’re also talking indirectly about the environmental cost of doing so and a person’s subsequent environmental footprint. I bought both a new laptop and a new phone last year, and both of those purchasing choices came with an environmental load, one which I can’t magic away simply by waving my shiny new devices in the air and talking about how wonderful they are, even if they make me fit in progressive circles because now I have the right technology (a function of my class status).

And any time we’re telling people that they’e bad people for not owning the right thing, we are colliding very directly with class issues. For centuries, people have been under pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and that became more acute in the 20th century than perhaps ever before. Right now, it’s especially awful because of the growing gap between rich and poor and the disappearance of the middle class; there’s no one there, in the middle, anymore. And when we talk about how people should own this or that, become part of a technology movement, we’re eliding the fact that these things are not possible for everyone, that in fact they may be wrapped up in very complex class feelings and relationships with the world.

Technology itself is a thing that carries immense potential and power, and it’s not a neutral thing. To pretend otherwise is foolish, and to pretend that everyone has access to the same level of technology is absurd. Discussing technology as though it has no environment and class implications may be enjoyable for progressives who want to have their cake and eat it too, but they need to face facts: everything we do is loaded with meaning, and that includes which phone we use.