A while ago, I hosted a discussion between animal rights activist Louis Ng and free software advocate Richard Stallman. The latter, known for his lack of social skills, struck me as someone who is perfectly aware of how his behaviour is affecting others but doesn’t give a shit. I don’t think his behaviour is very different to the rest of us who continue to buy dangerous products because we don’t give a shit about the environment, labour rights or state surveillance. At the end of the night, when my friends and I were in the coffee shop in Kent Ridge, the ethical conflict I’d felt about whether to get in on a smartphone or tablet (which was why I was interested in talking to Stallman in the first place) had ceased. A few months later I’d saved enough for an ipad, and I’ve just signed up for a new phone this month.
The concerns I have about Apple have not gone away. I still don’t believe the hype and never will. What concerns me is that Stallman and others like him might be principled, but they’re not particularly clever. A friend was staying a few nights ago and made a very good point about this in relation to art: why are leftists, artists and social activists always the victims of the state? Put another way, why are people such as myself who are concerned about technology and its uses always arts/humanities students? Can we call ourselves intelligent when we focus all our energy on learning to master tools that make us victims of the future?
When I was exploring Stallman’s site, I thought it was a relic of a bygone era, and that he has done nothing to progress. The people currently making millions from technology have. The internet is not the place it was. For one, it’s very beautiful. Two, it’s very insidious. Three, the rhetoric of ownership has entered a space that was once considered free. Stallman is correct in maintaining that liberty and freedom are principles worth being ostracized for. But I do not believe that ostracisation must be the result of refusing to own a phone and shouting at your potential allies. Nor does that ostracisation have to stem from being twenty years behind technology and out of the social loop. How about being ostracized because you’ve come up with cleverer, freer, more humane, tools for the future?
It seems to me that part of Apple’s success is their ability to change the way we think, and to incite an eagerness to learn something new. When I try a new device, I’m keen because I think this is something worth learning. It’s worth understanding and adapting not only to how that technology has been built, but the corresponding psychic shift that occurs. My mother can’t use computers very well because she doesn’t have an intuitive understanding of how they work; most people between early teens and late thirties do, because we’ve learned each new device as it’s (rapidly) come along. How we use those devices has then shaped other devices – so we’re part of the mental and physical history behind the technology we use now. How can you understand things if you never use them?
This will sound a lot like the “incite change from within” argument, but actually I am an English graduate anxious about her own irrelevance, who is simultaneously excited and horrified by personal technology. These little white devices (yes, all my devices are white) titillate the aesthete in me, but I am repelled by the idea of being yet another drone thumbing away at the screen on the tube. I still refuse to use my phone in high-density iphone scenarios as a matter of misplaced pride, but when it’s actually useful – when I am using the maps or watching TED on a five hour bus ride – I can’t help but give props to whoever developed the base technology, and to whoever made it beautiful. The fact that we have a device we can write on, take pictures with, create media with means the future must contain a progression of that. This is problematic, but I think it can be addressed creatively. Once again, Ivan Illich’s “The Right to Useful Unemployment” comes in handy. In 1978 he wrote:
No governing elite nor any socialist opposition can conceive of a desirable future that would be based on per capita energy consumption of a magnitude inferior to that which now prevails in Europe.
A future in which the world market of capital and goods would be severely reduced is as much a taboo today as a modern world in which active people would use modern convivial tools to create an abundance of use-values that liberated them from consumption.
By convivial tools, he means tools that are primarily used to generate use-values that are “unmeasured and unmeasurable by professional need-makers.” It’s funny because I think a lot of popular technology is doing that (i.e free tools for communication), but, as has been shown by the recent legal moves by Instagram, the idea of free use persisting is horrifying to those who believe that the supreme end of any technical achievement should be profit. Illich calls this impoverishing wealth – both in terms of personal and spiritual impoverishment, but also because relatively speaking, it impoverishes others. A collective effort by people who have not been schooled by computer scientists, but who have ideas about how computers might be used, can change the way things are going, and address the consequent resource consumption and pollution of technologies – and attitudes – that will be upgraded in less than a year.
Back to Stallman. His argument is “Don’t use it!” when really the argument should be “Here’s a cleverer tool to get around this.” The reason I say all this is because, as I mentioned, I am an anxious English graduate, and I am concerned that the mental shift caused by the introduction of new technology is not matched by the public’s (read: my own) general understanding of these technologies. More importantly, I feel that the people most able to critique these mental shifts, and potentially create alternatives, shoot themselves in the foot by not being able to actually put anything forward. Because I have read Frankenstein I am capable of picking apart a doomed monster/master scenario when I see one. But that’s it. And because I prefer to abstain from the modern world, when the shit hits the fan, I am liable to be drinking mead while copying out medieval poems on vellum, as my rights are signed away.
On another side of the dice, Stallman is very much involved in technology, but he didn’t seem to understand the psychological importance or impact, which is why his campaign is so dreary. The idea that we must face a future without the things we’ve invented (as a species) is horrifying. So increasingly, I feel compelled to drop the books and start consciously using the devices, programmes and software that is changing the world around me. I am taking baby steps: I have an old iphone 3 I intend to pull apart, started learning Java and am going to attempt the nand2tetris course. People often say that you shouldn’t study English because there’s nothing for you to do besides teaching or academia – I think our role hasn’t been invented yet.