Having watched the internet mutate from a vantage point of 1991 to the present, I often feel twinges online of what Frankenstein must have felt withering under his creature’s gaze. Creature is a word strongly associated with the non-human, but actually comes from a Latin word creare that means to “make, bring forth, produce, beget.”
When the internet first ripped society down its seams into warring political factions, we hardly seemed to notice the untended wounds. Still, our participation in the digital world can feel like complicity because we are willing participants in this mirror universe. Our digital counterparts — surrounded on all sides by unfolding plots — strive for authenticity and meaning. But therein lies the reckoning: The entire purpose of social media as we now know it is to shift the edges of authenticity and our world, until our minds dissolve to pixelated color and swirl contentedly around the internet’s profit drain. In other words, if the world had an actual edge, it would probably be the internet. We’d be well-advised not to fall off.
Given the recent spotlight shone on the advertisement technology industry of Silicon Valley, especially as it’s depicted in the documentary film “The Social Dilemma” (wherein tech start-up apologists convene around their shared desire to proclaim they meant well), writer Anna Wiener’s iconic book of autobiographical nonfiction, “Uncanny Valley,” couldn’t be more well-timed. Her story is relatable for so many Americans because it’s filled with unsuspecting privilege and power but features searing evidence of how turning a blind eye made her complicit.
What makes Wiener’s writing so filling and relatable isn’t necessarily its documentarian rigor. Arguably and more importantly, her work is imbued with questions everyone living under capitalism must ultimately confront: When we manage to find a blueprint for a stable future, even when that future trades in our individual well-being and undermines the well-being of others in our society, do we make the trade-in? When high-paying work involves manipulating people for profit, do we follow our conscience and take the knife of a pay cut amid ever-worsening uncertainty?
The shadow genre of Wiener’s book is that of an elegy. It is full of diagnostics and blueprints for what our society perhaps could have been with the help of technology — shown in counterfactual narratives in the form of conversations with the same empathetic insiders as “The Social Dilemma.” The documentary — with its premise of reformed insiders pleading with us to recognize the extent of their dangerous ambitions — is more of a eulogy or memorial for what went wrong partaking of the horror genre. We see their bygone era and line up along the sunset boulevard with long faces appropriate for a funeral, to mourn — while old ideas about technology stalk our present like a silent film star who’s not quite accepted her time in the spotlight is over. But the dreaded monstrosity of what was created years ago can be cradled in our hands; the tablets and the iPhones themselves are crypts of the past weighing judgement, as if Steve Jobs himself has snuck up from his grave to gauge our worthiness.
Social media and the misinformation it has spread haunts our society continuously, but hey, at least Mark Zuckerberg is still alive to be subpoenaed. Meanwhile, despite her initial misgivings, Wiener’s narrator feels she has to buy into the industry’s unifying goal of optimization for a while, to be “down for the cause” so she can earn a respectable income (an unlikely possibility in the publishing industry she left behind). Through her narrator’s assimilation into profit-driven corporate culture, she fast-exposes the inevitable consumer culture backlash — the inevitable dark underbelly of what is endlessly profitable.
Wiener documents with laser precision how allegations of sexual misconduct began to collide with new-age culture, glaring social inequality in the Bay Area and diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives. She refers at one point to the moment when fellow technology workers at “the social media company everyone hated” advised her and her colleagues of the “psychological experiments” being conducted there — it seems very likely we can all guess which company that is.
Despite such reproductions of inequality in new technology — further intensified by the unprecedented ability to make war without any human cost on the side of the aggressor, in an age of drones summoned by the same “click” used to herald an Amazon shopping cart — the early internet was a source of community. Such communities preserved families separated by vast distances and facilitated communication across space and time. There the matter stood: The internet was unquestionably thought of as being on our side while easing pain and promoting equality.
The internet was also remarkable in the ways it seemed to distill the world to a room. Multitudes were contained in its rivers of moving electricity — in hard drives of memory surging over desktops and in its transmission of syllables and paragraphs of invisible information. One of its purported uses was treatment of and creation of resources for the mentally ill, encompassed by a mythic one-size-fits-all concept: “compassionate technology.” I remember how my brother, a person with severe autism, was thrilled at the chance to engage with different internet worlds so artfully constructed and maintained he no longer felt compelled to interact with flesh-and-blood people. He stared into its dense web of realities — hybridized imaginaries of product placement — until one day it seemed the younger brother I’d known for many years had been body-snatched and ensnared. Yet the internet continues to feel like grace, like relief. We have all felt the internet’s captivating loneliness as a byproduct of our era.
This was the red flag I did not heed. Addiction runs in our family and this became my brother’s — he’s since lost touch with reality. His neurons were flooded with dopamine and he disappeared into the labyrinth of his room, looping around a drain of striking unreality that had presented its potential for addiction early. Conversations with him slowly became almost impossible and his rage nearly inevitable. Some might blame a flood of rogue chemicals from vaccinations for his autism — though perhaps scapegoating the internet isn’t a sensible position either. If the internet has a utopia for those like him, may he still find it. Still I wonder: If we focused on compassionate humanism rather than compassionate technology, is it possible that affordable and accessible care might have allowed him to function?
In so many ways, Wiener and I have nothing and everything in common. She went straight through college knowing precisely what she wanted to do and I dropped out for four years. She carved out a life for herself barely making enough to eke by in a fast-gentrifying Brooklyn, N.Y. and watched her career prospects — as a secretary answering phones at a small publishing house — slowly swallowed up by digital interfaces over the course of three long years. As a lover of literature and an English major graduating into a recession, I have come around to the idea of technology both undermining society and enhancing it — just from an incredibly different perspective than Wiener’s. For years I was captivated by virtual worlds and daydreamed about designing video games.
An investigation of this today would likely reveal just how much the landscape has changed. I was actually captivated by world-building in video games — which may have been novel and therefore profitable in the early-2000s. However, the internet is now not only in-and-of-itself a world we live in, but one also haplessly lived-in. My early exposure to the internet and close proximity to its transformations inspired my intense desire to avoid engaging with it as a career. I watched it turn on itself with rancorous ferocity like cancer against a host body, beginning with the online bullying and disembodied, tormenting voices of anonymous AIM chat room users.
At its outset, the internet felt like a frontier of limitless possibility. But as the allegedly reformed technology insiders can certainly attest, no one intended nor predicted what happened next — the like button encapsulated a truly unprecedented form of engagement driven by A/B testing. Needless to say, my attempts to avoid the internet under most circumstances have not proven fruitful. In her landmark book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” the philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff coined a term describing the power technology companies wield by forcing us to use their platforms: instrumentarian power.
Fittingly, the uncanny valley, a concept Masahiro Mori first introduced in the 1970s when he was a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, describes how as robots appear more human they become more appealing to us. That is, until their appeal morphs gradually into terrifying representations of intensifying dystopian reality and perhaps then begins to reflect back to us our human irrelevance and irresponsibility. Our lives, framed by a fear of enervation and the ruthless push to optimize, are always for sale. To restore our humanity — our selves — to ourselves, we must expand the frame, by recognizing the limitations inherent in our future and honoring their value. Otherwise, surveillance capitalism will continue to beget untold horrors.
Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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