Techno-Moral Panic at the Disco

Postcard from America

by Kaleem Hawa

The 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (hereafter titled ‘The Forum’ ) took place last January. There, the congregation of the young were presumably reminded of their mortal limits by a coalition of the Davos elites, their sermons from the Swiss mount largely comprising a vision of soft incrementalism, a series of staid and technocratic proposals for what our collective futures might look like.

The secular word for this has been ‘neoliberalism’. The left finds comfort in the much-abused paternoster, lest they be asked to democratise the point they’re making outside of the self-replicated caste that is interested in employing a vocabulary like this. Also, I guess ‘rot of the spine’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Ultimately, neoliberalism has become more affect than useful designation, a stand-in for things that don’t sit well with us. Not that this denotative shift is not warranted; for incrementalism, triangulation, or any of the synonymous bowel movements, are really about vagueness. That is, a vagueness of intentionality, not of process—the latter is often hyper-specific, making room for the dilution of civil liberties by tradeoffs, that most rational calculus of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits. It’s why lobbying works; it’s why we have a climate disaster; and it’s always the dominant mythology of the establishment liberal, consoled as they are by ‘unity’ candidates and civility’s red lines.

I am rewriting this postcard from America on the eve of the 2020 Nevada caucuses for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Panic! at the Disco are from Nevada, as you might have heard). It has been a tough enough decade already, but this January we heard that humanity is soaring. Advances in technology and science are poised to transform virtually everything—from human disease and ageing, to work, the environment, government, and education. Klaus Schwab, the spiritual shaman of The Forum, is fond of referring to these changes as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (TFIR). The Forum’s perspective on TFIR is that the unprecedented growth in innovation across various fields—artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, clean energy, genomics, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things— signals a future which, if managed appropriately by the responsible caretakers, can produce prosperity and progress to be shared by all.

For most, these pronouncements are disheartening. This isn’t new or particularly interesting, and many have diagnosed the underlying problems before. We’re one of the most connected, informed, and mobile generations ever, facing a lingering unhappiness, anxiety, and inequality that belie all the cocktail-party optimism and politesse around progress. And abstracted out far enough, everything can be ‘progress’ really—further away from where it once was. Policymakers aren’t blind to this: They talk the talk of skills retraining, of a universal income. But at the point where we have conceded that our new normal is not just inevitable, but desirable, the ideas that become available to us are compensatory, never visionary.

It must now be pointed out that the language of ‘visionary structural reform’ is a comfy hideout for a few types: the bloviator, the ignoramus, the lay-about. But it’s also the earnest base of the revolutionary, and the movement-builder. Strange bedfellows, political coalitions.

Living in America has made one thing clear: when the young ask, ‘who is our progress for?’, they mean, in effect, ‘why are we allowing technology companies to become public utilities?’ They mean, ‘Why is the Bronx’s public infrastructure in such disrepair?’ They mean, ‘Why are Arabs still under mass surveillance?’, and, ‘Why were they ever?’

The responses from my social class’ evolved forms are often condescending in what they ignore. What use are online courses for skills retraining if one quarter of rural American communities don’t have access to the broadband internet standard? Is anti-trust reform the best that can be done to weaken the predatory tendencies of the tech giants, or can we embrace bolder ideas like compulsory licensing and data portability? What are promises of government transparency really worth in the absence of an empowered and adequately-financed public media system?

When I read or hear that there is a craving for a new ‘New Deal’ in tech, for a Marshall Plan in education, I think maybe it’s a sign that we are re-energising our spirits in support of ‘that vision thing’, which seemed so hard in '88 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But then I think that maybe limping into yet another year has left us susceptible to campaigns that appeal to our nostalgia, weakening the effort to build popular support for a moral world as a precursor to legislating towards one.

I am also struck by what is not being talked about in America; the belief that the present moment is a nadir for the protection of the vulnerable is judged as naïve or even counterproductive even by my progressive friends. A lot is left dangling and unsaid. The Europeans have endorsed a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that enshrines fundamental rights to the protection of personal data, that requires machine-made decisions to be readily explainable, and that affords citizens the right to appeal for human intervention in automated decisions. Who is at the forefront of a North American equivalent, speaking a vision that puts human agency at its heart and only uses much-fêted technologies as a means to achieve constrained and regulated goals?

I have always been fascinated by these acts of unsaying. It is evocative when done in literature—understated writing, writing that doesn’t reveal its hand, sparse writing. They are discursive methods after all, learning to talk or write about someone or something through comparative structures, through omission and ambiguity and sardonic distance. But these manners can be coded: much of the communication of the upper classes is non-verbal, it’s in glances, and inflections, and fashions, and reputations, and institutional signifiers. In this sense, a decision to avoid explicitness can be just as much about ‘good writing’ as it is about nodding to those who are in on it. And I guess it depends who you’re communicating to, a signal that is harder to cross when one uses sturdy, ‘morally-indignant’ cables.

Ultimately, the point is taken, and I am guilty of it too—writing a piece about a national election without mentioning any of the candidates. Vagueness is hot, all the opportunities it provides to be misunderstood. But so is dancing, and we don’t need any new religions.

KALEEM HAWA is an editor at the Oxford Review of Books.

Art by Abigail Hodges