Techno-Blowback: Five Case Studies

Technology is neither our friend nor our enemy. It is merely the tool by which our desire, paranoia and innovation shapes the world. It works great if we’re looking to level the playing and paying field in art and commerce. It often works better when we are using it to destroy ourselves. I broke down this techno-blowback for AlterNet.

5 Ways Techno-Gadgetry Is Bringing Out the Worst in Humanity

[Scott Thill, AlterNet]
“It’s not technology we have to worry about, it’s the humans,” Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, editors of the academic technology and culture journal CTheory, once argued to AlterNet, in an article about the Pentagon’s plan to fund packs of man-hunting robots. “Why blame technology? It generally does what it is coded to do. It’s the human sentient understanding of how to take cruel advantage of human weakness that’s the problem.”

Indeed, humans are exceptional when it comes to using technology to prey upon weaknesses, in themselves, their cultures and their markets. But even when technological solutions arise for navigating problems as mundane as they are obstructive, there tends to be some variation of consequence. Let’s just call it “techno-blowback.” As developmental biologist and cyborg theorist Donna Haraway once famously explained, “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” We can’t take technology out of our humanity any more than we can take humanity, and its dangerous games, out of our technology. So we walk the tightrope between both, trying not to fall as we steadily transform a cyborg future in which we may no longer be able to distinguish them anymore.

Below are five examples of that problematic merge, from least offensive to least humane, analyzing how everything from handy gadgets to user-friendly weaponry have changed the way we work, play and police.

iPods and iTunes: At first glance, Apple’s proprietary digital media player and application couldn’t come soon enough. Portable music players choking on clunky cassettes were driving us all crazy, especially since the music industry had steadily moved away from vinyl and tape to digital, although it decided to encode it all on wasteful compact discs. Apple’s iPod and iTunes changed that game forever, taking material goods out of the equation and providing in their place a seamless way to integrate music into our lives. Of course, it also killed the industry as we know it, according to some.

“Apple has destroyed the music business — in terms of pricing — and if we don’t take control, they’ll do the same thing on the video side,” NBC CEO Jeff Zucker complained in 2007. “Apple sold millions of dollars worth of hardware off the back of our content. They did not want to share what they were making.”

Complaints about Apple’s exclusivity continue to this day, enhancing the argument that its revolutionary innovations in digital music entertainment and distribution have padded its earnings reports rather than change the music industry for the better. And it’s also had arguable ancillary effects, from killing off the album to degrading sonic quality. “Apple has taken a detour down the convenience highway,” rocker Neil Young said in 2008. “Quality has taken a complete backseat — if it even gets in the car at all.”

On its way to redefining the rules of music ownership and sales, Apple has also dominated the discussion of what users can put on their iPods and iTunes, including how many people they can share songs with. Along the way, it has deleveraged the cultural power of music and its market, leading to increased piracy and less cash for everyone, especially the bloated major labels who fed like vampires on their harder-working artists for generations. For all its innovations, it’s arguable that we are still stuck with a music industry that is a technological upgrade of its former self, but still diminished. The fact that the music industry utterly deserved obsolescence is irony icing on the technology cake.

“iTunes is essentially the record store model ported to the Internet, with no other major innovation other than to sell songs individually rather than as albums,” Eliot Van Buskirk, music business columnist (and one of my colleagues) at Wired.com, explained to AlterNet. “Other companies tried to sell music online way before Apple did, but it took Steve Jobs’ charm — and the fact that the labels saw the then-Mac-only iTunes store as a test bed for rollout to the wider market — to convince them to sell songs online. That was iTunes’ crowning achievement, and it continues to pay somewhat well for major and indie labels alike, and even unsigned bands, through thin middleman services like TuneCore.”

But at what expense? Digital distribution has unmasked how easy it really is to share art and commerce, but it has also made it easier to avoid paying those who create both with increasing impunity. And while the world is full of well-meaning consumers who want to fully support the creators they admire, digital distribution innovations, from iTunes to the BitTorrent protocol, nevertheless excel at preying upon market weaknesses for that art and commerce. It’s a price we have to pay for a leveled playing field.

“ITunes pushed the industry forward, big-time,” Van Buskirk said. “Before that, there was no way for indie bands to sell their songs to a worldwide audience of music fans alongside the majors’ stuff — never mind one that let them keep about 70 percent of their sales revenue without going through a label, the way iTunes does. iTunes also led to less material waste, because music files don’t need packaging. But if iTunes has failed in any regard, it has failed to provide a real discovery engine for fans. Luckily, the entire Internet handles that pretty well.”

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