Is technology the great liberator that its prophets like Steve Jobs and his millions of followers make it out to be?
Not really, says York University professor Derek Hrynyshyn. In fact, far from making the world a more equal and democratic place, supposedly paradigm-shifting technologies like the internet and social media are just new ways for the powerful in society to keep above the crowd.
Since his passing in 2011, thousands of eulogies have been written about Apple founder Steve Jobs, most of them addressing his business acumen, his design smarts and his uncanny ability to see farther into the tech future than almost anyone else.
At the end of the day, though, none of those traits are what truly gave Jobs his aura of other-worldliness, one that’s likely to keep permeating our culture for some time to come (indeed, six years after his death, Jobs is still the most talked-about tech entrepreneur, more than Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk).
No, his defining feature was his gospel that technology can be not just a tool for social progress but a humanizing influence, a way to bring people together and create a more liberating, more egalitarian world.
What makes the Jobs legacy most interesting is that while his simplistic aphorisms often downplayed tech’s importance in favour of more central concerns in life, such as love and happiness (“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people”), the Apple ethos —one that has now spread like a contagion into every nook, cranny and startup in the tech environment— is undoubtedly that tech will not only change the world but save it.
Social media platforms are no different from traditional mass media, in that they’re fundamentally designed to promote and sell products. In that way, social media platforms and activity are just new (and more insidious) versions of the capitalist enterprise.
“Social media is described as promising a new, golden age of participatory cultural interaction between empowered users, creating a new society based on sharing, collaboration and harmony,” says Hrynyshyn in his new book “The Limits of the Digital Revolution: How Mass Media Culture Endures in a Social Media World”.
But in reality, says Hrynyshyn, social media platforms are no different from traditional mass media, in that they’re fundamentally designed to promote and sell products. In that way, social media platforms and activity are just new (and more insidious) versions of the capitalist enterprise.
In fact, contrary to the hype, as tools for the marketplace to learn more about their customers, social media platforms can only exacerbate the divisions between the haves and have-nots, says Hrynyshyn.
“This disjuncture between what writers tell us social media makes possible and the actual developments in our world and culture calls out for us to rethink the optimistic visions of the implications of internet-based social media for our society,” writes Hrynyshyn.
This calls out for us to rethink optimistic visions of the implications of social media for our society and its politics, economic and culture. A healthy dose of skepticism about the extent to which social media change everything is overdue.
More broadly, for all their revolutionary potential, technologies like the smartphone are also easily manipulated to serve the powers that be. “The smartphone is the most vivid example available of how technology can be – simultaneously – both good and bad, enabling and disabling, inspiring and disillusioning,” writes John Naughton for the Guardian. “The technical capabilities of modern phones are formidable and the ingenuity of the apps that harness those capabilities are often mindblowing. But at the same time, smartphones are also surveillance devices made in hell – pocketable slot-machines using GPS chips to track one’s every move, click, swipe and shake.”
Hrynyshyn says that the first step towards reimagining the relationship between society and technology is to put the rosy claims from tech proponents like Jobs under the microscope.
“This calls out for us to rethink optimistic visions of the implications of social media for our society and its politics, economic and culture,” says Hrynyshyn. “A healthy dose of skepticism about the extent to which social media change everything is overdue.”