the scapegoat dev

Critiques of technology's impact on culture didn't age well

an AI generated picture of a techno nun

I've been reading a lot of Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul lately, and it makes me wonder what the authors would say seeing today's internet.

Despite all the negative effects on a societal scale, the computer and its connectivity to the world have allowed me to be part of so many creative, convivial, human communities. How would one weigh this against uh, the alternative of speaking Alsatian in a small village growing my own potatoes and listening to stories about Christ?

Would there, for example, be a street art scene as rich as the current one without the internet? Probably not. Would there be all the weird and amazing music we have? Nope. Would we have mastodon, where I can connect to queer communities across continents? Of course not. Yet those communities, their stories, their culture are so worth experiencing.

My point here is that if I am into street art, it takes me about 10 minutes of googling and joining a forum or two and get access to groups of artists that are pushing things forward. In the 1980s, I'd have to move to New York or something and hope that I can hit it off with people at a party.

A more concrete example, I was into pico-8 pixel games. Within a few days, I had really hit it off with a 50-year old russian tracker music scene veteran and an absolutely over-productive russian pixel artist teenager, and we made a dope game. It actually hurts to repeatedly see video games, the internet, chat platforms painted as some agent of cultural impoverishment.

Sure, I could speak some Francogerman dialect, and surely it'd be worth preserving if a community existed around them. However, I speak English because it allows me to connect with many more people. Ultimately, it is my language and the language of my peers, and these peers come from all around the world.

To me, Illich's and Ellul's and co's opinions come in part because they have the point of view of people with the privilege of traveling and experiencing other cultures through their European priests/philosophers/anthropologists' eyes; a vision steeped in colonialism, really.

There's a lot to be said for the loss of personal autonomy and self-actualization through the commoditization of our environment, but loss of culture ain't it. If anything, the internet and computers have disrupted both cultural insularity and mass-media conformism.

You could say that this was all written in the 1970s. However, not only are they trying to make a more general statement about "technology" as a whole, there are strong echoes of that way of thinking even today. For example, out of L'intelligence artificielle n'est pas une question technologique, we have a whole chapter echoing the following idea:

Le risque principal de cette "dictature" délibérée ou de facto des algorithmes est que ces identités enferment la société. À commencer par sa jeunesse. Lorsqu'on est jeune, on est encore plus vulnérable à cette dynamique de réduction à une identité.

Translated (by GPT4 no less):

The main risk of this deliberate or de facto "dictatorship" of algorithms is that these identities confine society. Starting with its youth. When one is young, they are even more vulnerable to this dynamic of reduction to an identity.

Really? Youth are more vulnerable to being reduced to single identities? Ironic, if you ask me.