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A Marginal Sociologist on The Double Edged Sword of Technology

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While sitting at a local bar, I notice a couple uniformed police approaching patrons. Soon they are at my table, explaining that they are doing a “study” on drunk driving. I oblige, if only because I believe that social studies are interesting—and important—in terms of understanding our societies. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what will the data be used for?

Preventing drunk driving is, of course, a good use of data. Yet so many studies are done daily—and without our knowledge—in which data is continually mined. Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg in this regard; indeed Facebook and Google have collected unimaginable amounts of data on millions of people worldwide. Given that this questionable form of surveillance has affected people all over the world—regardless of their race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or whatever other intersectional identity that the Social Justice Warriors might invent—one could say that we all are equal in the face of corporate surveillance.

And that is just why this form of surveillance should be resisted. There was uproar when Edward Snowden announced that the U.S. government’s National Security Agency was surveilling innocent citizens. There were even nationwide marches against gun control when the citizens felt that their lives were endangered. Yet there has been no major response to the illegal corporate surveillance of innocent individuals. Perhaps, this is because we have come to believe that what is “convenient” in the modern world is good; we are unable to recognize that it is—in actuality—a thinly-veiled form of social control. And it is a form of social control which unites us all, regardless of our “identities”.

The use of social media for advertising is nothing new, and it has become a major discussion among footballers who are looking to capitalize on new avenues for profit. While scrolling through my Instagram account I found two ads come up: both asked me (rhetorically) “summer vacation in Algeciras?”. The red flag, for me, was this sales pitch; after all, anyone who has ever heard of Algeciras will know that it is a gritty port town. The only reason for visiting Algeciras would be to get out of the city as soon as possible, en route to the North African coast. I had a hard time believing that this would be the only advertisement offered to Americans hoping to visit Spain. After all, weren’t Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Granada or Sevilla more enticing tourist destinations? Of course they are…but this advertisement was tailored to me. I had been to Algeciras. Through social media—perhaps by crunching my data, sent via text or email—the system knew the places I visited and, indeed, those I would like to return to again.

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This is, of course, creepy. It is very creepy and it should make people uncomfortable that companies—not states, who are (at least ostensibly) beholden to the people—are watching individuals with the main goal of making money. Sadly, it seems that people are more content to go along with the status quo—like sheep—than they are willing to march against this postmodern form of surveillance. If this sounds absurd, it is because it is absurd.

For all the talk of “freedom” and “tolerance” that Silicon Valley (which has shown itself to be intolerant of American conservatives) spouts, shouldn’t they resist, rather than encourage, social control? Why should our travel—whether it be to Algeciras or anywhere else—be monitored? While we might regard internal passports as a remnant of the distant past (they were common in the soviet Union), we should be aware that this new electronic surveillance amounts to the same kind of social control. Our movements—domestic and international—are constantly being tracked. Perhaps the biggest threat to human freedom in the future is not state control, but corporate control. And this is one form of control which all of us, as humans, should be united in resisting.

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A Marginal Sociologist on Social Engineering Part 1: Technology

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Yesterday I found myself connecting through Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport. There were just nine gates in the small terminal I was in, so I headed to a nearby restaurant for a drink and a snack. To my surprise, there was no one around. No one working, at least. Each table had two Ipads—one for each chair—with menus, games, and even flight information on them. There were no waiters or waitresses. It felt like an odd wasteland, but I decided to play along. I touched the “drinks” page, scrolled down to “spirits”, chose “whiskey/bourbon”, scrolled down to “Jim Beam”, chose “double (plus 4 Dollars), chose a “non Coca-Cola Mixer” and selected “Ginger Ale”. Success (even if it meant spending more time on the Ipad than it would have to tell a server “One double Jim Beam and Ginger Ale please”). When it came time to pay, I was told to add a gratuity. But why? Would I be giving myself the gratuity? I took my own order, after all! And there were no servers whose service I could rate; after all, gratuity is given after the service has been conducted, not before!

I was bewildered. But the system does not let one order without paying; one must pay up-front in order to even get a meal! On top of that, one must swipe a credit card in order to pay! My attempts to pay in cash, needless to say, failed miserably. It was clear that the losers—in this situation—are those who do not have credit cards (this establishment, clearly, did not serve their kind . . . isn’t that discrimination?) and the limited number of servers themselves; those lucky enough to have kept their jobs in this technological utopia will be chronically under tipped because no one in their right minds should tip before seeing service.

Once the order was in, I decided to poke around the menu for a few minutes. I noted that it was available in a number of languages, which intrigued me (perhaps I should have been a marginal linguist, but I digress), so I scrolled down to “Turkish”. The translation was, predictably, atrocious. Likely, it would have embarrassed a five-year old. “Gluten Free of Charge” meals, Grilled Cheeses made of children, and “national bread” did not seem like very appetizing meals. Clearly, the restaurant had chosen to eschew human translators (like they eschewed employing a human wait staff) and instead relied on Google Translate. Unfortunately, the end result was an embarrassment. I felt like I was living in an episode of Black Mirror; I had found myself in a dystopian present dominated by the limits of technology. No, technology certainly does not make us “freer”; rather, it tends to erect more and more boundaries around us—it is certainly Max Weber’s “iron cage” of rationality.

 

A Bar Without Bartenders at Reagan International Airport…Black Mirror Much? Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

While the restaurant itself was kind enough to provide me a prompt reply to my complaint via email, this example stretches far beyond just one poorly run restaurant in the Reagan National Airport. Rather, this kind of technological rationalism—if left uncheck—will likely spell doom for human kind (and human freedom more specifically) in the long term. Peter L. Bergman and Thomas Luckmann’s 1966 work The Social Construction of Reality makes it clear that we, as human beings, are social creatures (For more on Social Constructionism, please see the Wikipedia page here. We need human contact not only to just thrive, but also to survive:

 

Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations. None of these formations may be understood as products of man’s biological constitution, which, as indicated, provides only the outer limits for human productive activity. Just as it is impossible for man to develop as man in isolation, so it is impossible for man in isolation to produce a human environment. Solitary human being is being on the animal level (which, of course, man shares with other animals). As soon as one observes phenomena that are specifically human, one enters the realm of the social. Man’s specific humanity and his sociality are inextricably intertwined. Homo Sapiens is always, and in the same measure, homo socius (Berger and Luckmann 1966: 69).

 

By severing our links with our fellow human beings—by privileging the technological over the social—we are, in actuality, setting ourselves up for a bland (and perhaps even bleak) future devoid of empathy and social interactions. While I have written about both the threats to empathy and ongoing cultural homogenization in the modern world before, it is useful to remember just why empathy—and human relations—are so important.

Empathy and respect for your fellow human beings are factors which can prevent tragic events like mass shootings and homicides; social alienation, however, are risk factors which can exacerbate anti-social behaviors and—ultimately—lead to violence. The first step of fascism—which the history of mid 20th century Europe provides a few examples of—is the dehumanization of the “other”. Once one sees “the other” as sub-human, it becomes much easier to dismiss and—in extreme cases—get rid of them; it is the process which Hannah Arendt outlines effectively in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the period Arendt writes about, this dehumanization was encouraged by state-led propaganda. In the current era, this dehumanization is encouraged by corporations and Silicon Valley, who constantly stress the value of technology for “making our lives easier”. The other side of the coin, of course, is that machination serves the interests of corporations (by driving down the costs of labor and increasing competition between the remaining human employees) but does not serve the interests of average human beings. Is technology really making things “easier”? Or are we just willingly accepting a form of domination and—simultaneously—sewing the seeds of our own destruction? Perhaps we should care about one another—our fellow human beings—than we should care about robots. Unfortunately, it seems like Amazon’s Alexa gets more respect than living, breathing, human beings do, and that is a very real problem. Otherwise, we will be left in a very bland world where restaurants look something like this, too bland to ever offend anyone:

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A…Bland New Eating Establishment. Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Take back your lives from corporate greed.

Take back your educations from radical ideologues.

Take back your countries from dehumanizing bureaucratization.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://world-visits.com/2011/12/flag-of-the-united-states

A Marginal Sociologist’s Take on The Rationalist Myth That Technology Sets Humanity Free: Two Examples from The Sports World

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Often, in the brave new world we all live in, we hear the praises of technology being sung. Phrases like “technology has brought us closer together”, “technology is shrinking the world”, or even “technology sets us free” have become common place. Unfortunately—for all the praise of technology—few people seem to realize that the world we live in is not the world of a century ago.

There was a time that technology—despite its drawbacks—arguably did more good than bad. Sure, motor vehicles have made travel easier than it was in the days of the horse-drawn carriage. And yes, electricity has certainly made things easier in the home after sundown. But what about the consequences of more modern technological advances? Have they all been as positive?

These days, we see companies embedding their employees with microchips—while a CEO says “it’s the right thing to do”. Is it really “the right thing to do”; is it really a positive development? Is sacrificing humanity in the name of productivity right? Or is it the kind of logic that could only be born out of late stage—extreme—capitalist society?

After a recent conversation with a designer for an American corporation, I started to question whether or not technology—in and of itself—was truly a wholly positive development. The designer told me that while computers have made creating new designs easier, it has meant that skills do not improve; (I paraphrase): “Re-creating designs on the computer is quick and easy while re-drawing designs [by hand] had been time consuming . . . but as I re-did them [by hand] I realized that my designs were better each time I re-drew them”. The designer’s comments made me wonder, when will people realize that technological advancements carry with them numerous undesirable elements and cause numerous undesirable developments as well? To get people thinking I will provide two examples from the sports world.

 

New Development I: 24 Hour News Media on the Internet and Television

It is often believed that continuous news coverage is positive because it provides people with information 24 hours a day and seven days a week (24/7) available at the click of a button. This, granted, would be a very useful service if only the news networks were not as biased as they are. Instead of being helpful, the 24/7 news networks have led us to believe everything we read or see, even if it is not true. This is because—in order to prove the necessity of 24/7 news coverage—content is often manufactured to fill in the gaps; this means that both producers and consumers of the news are not as discriminating as they may have been in the past. This is how fake news has become real news, and how Moldova’s Masal Bugduv (of Olimpia Balti) became a football starlet. In fake news stories the Moldovan footballer (who does not exist) was linked with Arsenal, and the New York Times even published a story about how the hoax of Masal Bugduv went viral. Unfortunately, many main stream news outlets “bought” Bugduv as the real deal long before he was revealed to be a hoax. This case is just one example of how 24/7 news media can lead people down the wrong path.

 

New Development II: Cellular Telephones

 Another popular misconception is that the advent of cellular telephones has made us, somehow, “more free”. We can now be reached at any time not only by friends and families, but also by non-friends and telemarketers. As if this were not enough, we can also be found at any time by the state and businesses through the GPS functions of our phones which track our every move—and even listen to us! (Indeed, while talking to my brother about the Ford Raptor Truck we soon found a Ford Trucks ad pop up on Instagram a moment later!). This is not a positive development, but when will we stand up to it? Recently, a college [American] football coach in the U.S. was forced to resign when a muckraking lawyer and author uncovered phone records that revealed calls to an escort service. While I won’t go into my thoughts on the illegality of prostitution, it is remarkable that—in the media world—a one-minute call made in private, a one-minute poor decision—can cost a man a lifetime of work. The decidedly unremarkable thing is that it can, especially in a world where anything you say and do can and will be held against you at any time. Of course, since this is a sports story, fans of the rival team are overjoyed since they brought down the opposite team. What they may not realize, however, is that the tables could turn at any time and that they too could become the victims on the losing end of this new surveillance society.

This type of society—which actively encourages social media use because it “brings people together”—yet also punishes failures to use it “correctly” (whatever that means)—is a dangerous one. It limits the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression. It trains everyone to think in the same one dimensional thought of corporate life: “Talk a lot, about a lot of different things, without ever actually saying anything. And never, ever, say something that ruffles feathers because its one strike and you’re out”. Its that easy because—in the world of late-stage capitalism—workers are easily replaced. The case of a Utah teacher who was almost fired for posting pictures of her own workouts on Instagram and that of a young Belgian girl who was offered a job by L’Oreal before being fired after posting a poorly worded (and imaged) Tweet during the 2014 World Cup in support of her country’s (Belgium) match against the United States are cases in point. Apparently, freedom of expression is only tolerated insofar as it helps the company’s bottom line (just look at how Kim Kardashian has amassed a slew of corporate sponsors despite her lewdness). The private sphere has become intertwined with the public sphere in the world of late stage capitalism: You are free to say or post what you want…unless it hurts the business (or the general sensibilities). This is why—unfortunately—I (as a writer who should have intellectual freedom) must also be aware that every word I write on this blog can—and will—be held against me due to its presence on the internet. This means that I am hardly a free writer, and that in itself hinders my ability to be creative. It is a vicious cycle to say the least.

While the champions of this kind of one dimensional thought make it seem that they are making the world a better place—by getting rid of the “rude” and “bad” and “hurtful” people—the reality is that there will always be “rude” and “bad” and “hurtful” people; there will always be a**holes. They cannot be erased. The only people who lose in the world of one dimensional thought and unchecked technological advances are the creative ones, the outsiders who dare think beyond the boundaries imposed by a so-called “rational” society”.