We were promised a bicycle for our minds. What we got was more like a highly-efficient, privately run mass transit tunnel. It takes us where it’s going, assuming we pay the owner. Want to go somewhere else? Tough. Can’t afford to take part? Tough.
Bicycles have a complicated place in society. Right outside this building is one of London’s cycle superhighways, designed to make it easier and safer to cycle across London. However, as Amsterdam found, you also need to change the people if you want to make cycling safer.
Changing the people is, perhaps, where the wheels fell off the computing bicycle. Imagine that you have some lofty goal, say, to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Then you discover how expensive that is. Then you discover that people will pay you to tell people that their information is more universally accessible and useful than some other information. Then you discover that if you just quickly give people information that’s engaging, rather than accessible and useful, they come back for more. Then you discover that the people who were paying you will pay you to tell people that their information is more engaging.
Then you don’t have a bicycle for the mind any more, you have a hyperloop for the mind. And that’s depressing. But where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity: you can also buy your mindfulness meditation directly from your mind-hyperloop, with of course a suitable share of the subscription fee going straight to the platform vendor. No point using a computer to fix a problem if a trillion-dollar multinational isn’t going to profit (and of course transmit, collect, maintain, process, and use all associated information, including passing it to their subsidiaries and service partners) from it!
It’s commonplace for people to look backward at this point. The “bicycle for our minds” quote comes from 1990, so maybe we need to recapture some of the computing magic from 1990? Maybe. What’s more important is that we accept that “forward” doesn’t necessarily mean continuing in the direction we took to get to here. There are those who say that denying the rights of surveillance capitalists and other trillion-dollar multinationals to their (pie minus tiny slice that trickles down to us) is modern-day Luddism.
It’s a better analogy than they realise. Luddites, and contemporary protestors, were not anti-technology. Many were technologists, skilled machine workers at the forefront of the industrial revolution. What they protested against was the use of machines to circumvent labour laws and to produce low-quality goods that were not reflective of their crafts. The gig economies, zero-hours contracts, and engagement drivers of their day.
We don’t need to recall the heyday of the microcomputer: they really were devices of limited capability that gave a limited share of the population an insight into what computers could do, one day, if they were highly willing to work at it. Penny farthings for middle-class minds, maybe. But we do need to say hold on, these machines are being used to circumvent labour laws, or democracy, or individual expression, or human intellect, and we can put the machinery to better use. Don’t smash the machines, smash the systems that made the machines.