Tech isn’t the problem—capitalism is

Every other day, I’m reading a column blaming tech for something. People are too busy and don’t take time to appreciate life. People are on their cellphones all day. People sit at home watching House of Cards instead of going out for a walk or doing something nice. Literacy and the written word are coming to an end because of the pernicious influence of computers. Even staid publications like the New York Times have gotten in on it, and people who are otherwise entirely reasonable, with excellent critical thinking skills and the ability to articulate arguments deftly and well, fall into the blaming tech trap.

It’s an easy one. Worth at least a few column inches, it can be used to quickly whip up some outraged commentary, backed perhaps by some cherrypicked statistics — 86% of youth report using emoji, 75% of the 18-24 bracket prefers Buzzfeed over the LA Times, whatever. Especially at more conventional publications, these sorts of commentaries are extremely common, but even tech/online-based media and orientated publications indulge in the periodic column bemoaning the state of society and tech’s role in it.

The logic of such commentaries usually starts with an assertion that tech has infiltrated every aspect of our lives — there really is an app for that. Then comes the attitude that this is negative, that access to applications and tools to track our lives sets a dangerous precedent. We spend more time with our eyes glued to our phones than looking at the world around us, we engage with the internet more than we interact with people, etc etc. Tech, we’re told, is bad because it’s a distancing tool that’s creating a fractured and fragmented society filled with people drifting in their own planetary orbits.

When it comes to looking for things to blame as we evaluate the current state of society, though, we’re missing something critical. The problem is not tech: It’s capitalism. Admitting the real source of the problem creates an opportunity to address it. Capitalism has adroitly managed to evade responsibility and neatly slip its leash, but we should be able to exercise greater critical thinking than that and bring it to heel. Capitalism and tech are deeply intertwined, of course, but let’s not confuse the two.

We’re constantly enmeshed in our devices because we have to be. Most of us work in professions with an unreasonable expectation of employees, believing that we should be available at all times to perform all labour. That’s been facilitated by tech, which makes it easier to contact people, but tech shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. It’s capitalism that took advantage of this opportunity to work it, turning it into something that could be used to control employees and keep them constantly within arm’s reach. The person who refuses to be constantly available or who exercises discretion in terms of the kind of work performed after hours won’t last long at a company and certainly won’t advance in terms of salary and rank.

Tech feeds into capitalism feeds into tech. With the advent of mobile phones, it got much easier to contact people — better yet, a job could supply and pay for a phone, creating a sense of obligation for employees provided with the technology. The need for constant availability feed into the requirement that people keep their phones on, check their email repeatedly, pay attention to texts, answer calls from work-associated numbers, be always on edge, imagining when they might get contacted — and there’s no way to know if a contact is frivolous or not.

Before, a consistent on-call state was really only an issue for physicians. Medical providers were (and are) expected to work on-call shifts in case they were needed, and many ask for calls about patients in critical condition even when they aren’t on call. Thus, an OB might be called at any point during her shift to deliver a baby — a paediatrician with neonatology training might in turn get a call asking for assistance with a preterm baby in distress. That same OB might request that if her patient arrives at the hospital in distress, she be contacted, whether or not she’s on call. There was a cultural understanding and expectation here — of course people who are saving lives need to be able to use technologies to do so.

That same expectation created a precedent, though. Suddenly meeting capitalist needs has become as important as saving lives. People in a variety of industries, including those that might not spring to mind as those that might develop emergencies, find themselves needing to be accessible at all times. Upper management need to be around in case something ‘crops up,’ whether it’s a walk-in freezer gone bellyup or a server gone down or a PR crisis. Meanwhile, lower level employees have to be ready to fill in shifts, to swarm in to actually fix problems that managers only hear about and then delegate, to address issues that arise on the ground level. Suddenly an entire company is on the phone list and the ability to contact people instantly feeds to an increasing level of contact, even if it’s not particularly necessary.

We’re living in a culture of instantaneous expectations. That’s in part due to tech, which has facilitated the ability to theoretically respond immediately to a query, need, or concern. But it’s also driven by capitalism, which swooped in to take advantage of this as soon as it became evident. Capitalism drives the tech to make it even easier to keep people busy, to extend their working hours, to put them at the mercy of their employers.

Should we be mad at phone manufacturers and app builders and the like, or should we be angry at capitalist structures that bring us here?

Image: phone, Raindog808, Flickr