Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Silicon Valley as a Colonial Power

Irish writer asks us to look more carefully at claims about “liberation”

  Angela Nagle has mixed feelings about what Silicon Valley culture has meant for her country:

The corporations eager to associate themselves with liberal egalitarian causes in Ireland and elsewhere include for example Apple, who were found to be paying 0.02 per cent tax thanks to Ireland’s liberal regime and whose core technologies come from public investment in research. Amazon, whose name was spelled out in the colours of the rainbow at this year’s gay pride in Dublin, is owned by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, with a personal net worth of $108 billion. Amazon has suppressed efforts to unionise its workers internationally but its low-wage, high-profit model and infamously poor working conditions caused its European workers to go on strike recently…

In our limited and shrinking national public discourse, closely monitored for deviant thought by a culture of militant conformism on the very social media platforms that champion this new vision of progress, we slavishly mimic US liberalism. But just as Ireland is busy collectively retweeting itself for enthusiastically coming into line with long-standing progressive norms elsewhere in Europe, many others across the developed world are beginning to question liberal premises. In his unsparing criticism of the plutocratic liberalism represented by Hillary Clinton, Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared, “this vision is coming to an end”. In the US the public conversation is grappling with the idea of the total decline of liberalism itself with books like conservative critic Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. As left-leaning commentators like Thomas Frank and economist Mark Blythe have argued, the election of Donald Trump in the US that stoked anti-immigrant sentiment was also a reaction against the ravages of economic globalisation. Just as the rest of the West is beginning to try to think its way through liberalism’s inability to deliver real material equality and imagine a way forward, Ireland is hoping to become its most credulous enthusiast. Angela Nagle at The Irish Times

Nagle and her compatriots had probably assumed that Silicon Valley liberalism was something out of the Declaration of Independence or Magna Carta. As fired Google engineer James Damore could tell them, it is, generally speaking, more about molding the attitudes, values, beliefs, and aspirations of the society that increasingly comes to depend on its products, as employees and consumers.

Nagle is the author of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (2017). From a review of her book:

Nagle attacks a liberal internet sunk in filter-bubbled complacency, drunk on the relative ease of expressing one’s politics in retweets, and obsessed with calling out the right-wing bogeyman.

Nagle links this stagnation to a poverty of thought: “The thing is, you cannot come up with new ideas if the intellectual culture of your movement is totally closed down. Which has been the case for years. That’s why the alt-right has been such a shock, because everyone was banking on the fact that everyone now agrees with us.” Roisin Kiberd at Motherboard

The social media companies will force us to define ourselves over against the specifications of our would-be programmers. And say what you want about the conflict, it will never be dull.

Hat tip: Eric Holloway

See also: Will AI liberate or enslave developing countries? Perhaps that depends on who gets there first with the technology. Karl D. Stephan: Zimbabwe, an African country well-known for its human-rights abuses, has received advanced Chinese AI technology from a startup company in exchange for letting the firm have access to the country’s facial-recognition database. So China is helping the government of Zimbabwe to keep tabs on its citizens as well.

Silicon Valley as a Colonial Power