Snatches of Thoughts
I’ve been thinking about how the Internet, and its associated constellation of technologies, has been disruptive to the old order recently. I started thinking about this after seeing some frankly alarming triumphalism online (in a private space, so I won’t link to it) among certain software engineers who assert that disruptions to the old order, particularly the old economic order, are an unblemished good. That if old manufacturing jobs are made obsolete, this is a good thing. That is old service jobs are made obsolete, this is a good thing. It was stated that bluntly. These assertions were part of a larger argument that disruption of the economic status quo would create space for newer, better forms of commerce to thrive. They believe they are creating forms of commerce that empower the individual, and level the field.
And if some auto worker or legal assistant is made obsolescent along with everyone else in her industry, well…so what? Stacked against acquiescing to the continued dominance of an increasingly arrogant global oligarchy, how can a few economic bumps in the road be allowed to slow progress? There’s an element of hero worship here, especially of those (almost always white male) programmers who got in legal trouble after they released some bit of data to the public, or struck some other bold, romantic blow against (sometimes imagined) injustice. The government and its corporate backers tend to wildly overreact to these events, and that only further convinces techno-libertarians of their virtue. Unilateral action against an unjust order can feel good. It can feel righteous. You’re crusading for the common good, who could stand against you? It’s very easy to begin to think of opponents of change as corrupt, especially when so many of them truly are.
But not everybody who cautions against a blind rush into the glorious distributed future is a shill for power. In any system, particularly ones with an unjust distribution of wealth, most people develop strategies for finding some measure of stability. The more unjust the distribution, the more intricate and delicate the strategies become. Disruption of that order may be needed, may even be overdue. But the towering edifice of Mammon you hate so much has a whole lot of little people clinging to its edges, because that’s the only place they could find that was above water. When that tower falls over, what happens to them? Where a programmer might see a bold, brave decision to let data be as free as it wants to be, someone whose job depends upon being able to navigate, curate, and disburse that data for a fee sees a trip to the welfare office.
All change, good or bad, has its costs. It is very easy to discount those costs, especially when they fall on people who aren’t like you or your friends. The sneering answer I got back when I poked at that was that individuals must adapt to change. If someone doesn’t want to learn to program and become a tech, well, fuck’em. Tell that to the 58 year old who is looking at a stripped out pension because his entire industry just got replaced by a beige box. Look him in the eye and tell him he should have joined a growth industry. That disruptive innovation you assumed was going to benefit all of society might simply lead to newer, different forms of injustice never seemed to occur to them.
I’m not just making things up to be scared of them. There’s a real world example of disruptive innovation being terribly destructive to many people, while enriching a privileged few. Amazon.com has virtually killed the brick and mortar bookstore in the US. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but I live in a city that you know is particularly literate with a particularly powerful book culture simply because it still has brick and mortar bookstores. And with the destruction of the old distribution channels, many of the mid-list authors have been more or less shut out of the market. Publishing is an industry that distributes information; new forms of information distributions have sent it through convulsions that have thrown thousands of people out of their life’s work, with very little to show for it.
I guess they should have all ignored their aptitudes and passions and gotten computer science degrees, instead.