The redemption story is one of the most popular and pervasive narrative tropes. From religious texts such as the conversion of the Apostle Paul to modern media such as for example Star Wars’ Darth Vader finding his way back to the light. Redemption is satisfying because it reifies, crystalizes the idea that there is meaning and good in the world that will – in the end – win.
Redemption stories are by definition very much tied to a real or fictional person’s life and experiences. While there are many stories of one individual’s redemption standing for the redemption of a larger group of people (for example in many German movies playing in the years 1933-1945 with Nazis finding their humanity as a collective cultural push towards detaching one’s own personal or family history from the knowledge of one’s ancestors’ crimes and evil) the focus of each story stays on the one person. The one shift of perspective or position.
When it comes to the digital sphere, Germany is really not on the global map. While a few startups might have moved to Berlin Germany itself has this tendency to do its own thing, to be happy with itself. A large part of that comes from Germans loving to write and speak and talk German basically separating themselves and their discourses from the rest of the world. But lately I’ve been seeing a pattern in international digital or digital-adjacent spaces that Germany has been perfecting for years now. I call it the fallen tech-optimist.
In the 1990ies and the early 2000s Germany had its own share of Internet preachers. People claiming that the Internet would change everything (that prediction does hold some water at least in western societies though not as predicted) and that the digital future would be great. These people – usually men – went on TV shows explaining the Internet or blogs or whatever. The term “disruption” wasn’t as popular back then, but that was the basic narrative. And it did have some value especially in a society as conservative and change-averse as Germany.
But after a few years nobody needed the Internet-explainer figures anymore. Invitations to talk shows started drying up and the message could no longer be “everything will be fine soon” because a) the Internet was already there and most people were using it so it was no longer a future narrative but everyday life and b) issues started becoming very visible. Issues like online harassment, stalking, right wing extremists organizing, people getting their money stolen by scammers etc. The position needed to change and the German conservative media (with the FAZ leading the way) pushed the “fallen tech-optimist” hard.
It started with Evgeny Morozov who had made the shift from Internet-positivist to conservative pundit very early, and continued with Sascha Lobo who had earlier led the German pro-Internet crowd claiming his Internet-optimism having been a “mistake”. The whole thing culminated with the Frankfurt Book Fair giving its Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Jaron Lanier for his condemnation of the Internet and the digital in general as kind of a declaration of war against the Internet and the digital sphere.
The redemption of Internet positivists to its harshest critics was very useful to conservative media: It provided a very simple but credible narrative underlining what they had been pushing and hoping for for years: That the Internet was bad and should go away. And if it couldn’t go away it should at least be changed in a way to stop the riffraff from just publishing stuff.
A very similar movement can be seen in a lot of media around the world currently. People who used to work at Google, Facebook, Apple or wherever now publicly atone for the errors in their ways by writing at the Guardian or the New York times or by creating new projects to deal with the problems within our digital spheres. Problems such as “fake news” or “algorithms” or “AI” or “something something attention”. And it provides a very interesting intersection of different biases and social norms and structures of power that’s worth having a closer look at.
Mainstream media is asking the technologists who created something they perceive to be a problem to on the one hand apologize and on the other hand tell people how to fix it. What’s really happening here?
First we have a media landscape under great economic stress pushing hard against many things that are effectively threatening their own position of power. Whether you believe that so-called “fake news” is a problem or not it seems to be quite obvious that “fake news” is mostly the stuff not provided by established, old media properties. “Fake news” is a convenient shorthand for these other media platforms eating our lunch. And don’t get me wrong – there are many platforms pushing all kinds of the intellectual equivalent of toxic waste into the Internet and its readers’ brains – but we’ve also dealt with the rainbow press for decades if not longer. The digital debate here seems to be – at least partially – a proxy war against the competition.
Secondly we have a mainstream frustrated by certain issues and problems associated with digital platforms and/or the Internet. Frustrated because there seem to be no easy or to be honest any real solutions in sight. The apologies and stories of redemption do serve as a form of public sacrifice, as a way to have someone declaring their “guilt” and taking “responsibility”. But for this to work it’s essential to have people with the right tags associated beg for all our forgiveness. The mainstream needs for example the inventor of the Like button to atone for his sins of making Donald Trump president. As ridiculous as that sentence sounds and is.
Finally, thirdly, media asks the people who created the problems in the first place and who usually made a lot of money doing it for solutions of how to fix things. And this is where the whole thing turns into a really funky rollercoaster. Because the people who build the software systems (and implicitly structured the sociotechnical systems we live in) did not suddenly change their mindset or approach – they are still engineers or technologists. So they’ll use the same (mental) tools and approaches to solve the next problem(s). More software, different software to fix what software messed up. Terms such as “algorithmic accountability” are being thrown around without ever asking why we as a digitalized society keep asking engineers and programmers to solve social or political problems.
The digital builder redemption story serves as a valve, as a way to let out some anger about a changing and possible worse world while at the same time reenforcing the power structures that have led to the world we have right now.
Recent years have seen a push towards more and more STEM and engineering in every part of our lives. Because it makes sense: Engineering is characterized by standardized metrics as basis for analysis and development. “If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Improve It”. Things that you cannot measure need to be put into metrics before they get thrown out as “soft” or “pointless”. You need to obey the engineering MO if you want access to mindshare and in the end money.
But if we are really honest: The issues within digital spaces often don’t need people able to play 16 dimensional chess to solve. Especially women and female lead organizations have been coming up with concrete suggestion upon suggestion for improving digital spaces when it comes to harassment and the protection of people in digital social contexts. Many other new challenges such as people posting naked pictures of people against their will are already handled by existing laws and there are already – again largely created by female lead organizations – numerous suggestions on how to handle these things.
There are obviously still complex issues that need closer analysis. Digital lives lead to new forms of context collapse, transnational conflicts of different laws and legislation as well as massive issues of centralization and aggregation of economic and therefore political power. Be neither of these problems can be solved by just adding some more tech, by getting the next startup or whatever by tech people funded.
We keep seeing people from tech contexts framing political, social or economic problems as tech problems because that’s what they know how to handle. When all you have’s a hammer, all you see is nails. But more often than not “artificial intelligence” or “algorithms” or “data” or not the problem but if at all just the technical expression of the existing systems of power and their actions. Of course we can debate whether Facebook needs to be more transparent about how its newsfeed sorts content for each and every user. But the de facto monopoly of one company with a very specific understanding of how the world is supposed to be and work still stays the same. We’ve just created more things that people as individuals have to take responsibility for without potentially having the skills or just time to do so. Click “OK” if you accept the algorithm.
The public flagellation of tech and tech people while still looking at them for analysis and solutions is an expression of how devoted western cultures have become to the ideas of the universality of STEM. How much of a fetish it has become to put everything into data that can be easily parsed and visualized “data-science” style.
Instead of trying to tech the issues out of tech, this could be the point at which we remember that there are actually people who have devoted their lives towards analyzing issues and situations like the ones we have right now. Sociology and political science and so many other humanities have been dealing with these things for decades. Maybe it would be time to get them to the table, find inter- and transdiciplinary approaches of analyzing digitally driven social systems. Or we could throw more money and attention at a bunch of people who already have way enough of both of those things hoping that this time, they’ll definitely will do better. What was that quote by Einstein about insanity again?
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