Over at Technology Review, the always-great John Pavlus has an interesting piece on the ‘virtual dumbphone‘. In the face of technology’s incredible capacity to distract us, he suggests ‘scorched earth’ approaches like abandoning a smartphone for a dumbphone is too drastic. Instead, he argues this:
What I need isn’t “freedom” from technology, but self control: the ability to choose when and where certain features of my gadgets are appropriate to use, and when they are not.
It’s an interesting idea, and one I think will become increasingly common. What started as Freedom will inevitably morph into digital objects that change in function dependent on the time of day, location, or proximity to other devices.
What intrigues me, though, is the doubled sense of self-control here: what I need is the ability to control when and where I cede control to technology. I’ve said this before, but digital technology seems to represent the pinnacle of tools that both create, and then satisfy, desire. When I cannot stop checking Twitter, my craving for a flow of novel information is inextricably linked to the structure through which I have become accustomed to receiving easily digestible chunks of stuff.
Pavlus argues that, given the multifunctional nature of the smartphone, it would be silly to simply cast aside all those features for the occasional need to do away with distraction, and it’s a compelling notion that appeals to a certain sort of pragmatism.
That said, I also think it’s worth thinking about the following idea: what does technology designed to refuse desire look like?
Both Pavlus’ argument and the entire pantheon of modern digital tech is aimed at maximizing functionality. While you could make the Tim Cook-esque argument that ‘hard decisions must be made’ regarding functionality, even the iPad – stripped of some of the functions of the computer – is meant to perform a dizzying array of tasks. All of it is an ever more efficient, concentrated conglomeration of machines that are now better at doing ‘that which we always wanted to’.
What’s perhaps more important, though, is that the ideology underpinning this tech is the satisfaction of desire. Even the stripped down, mono-functional device is praised for the way its efficiency lets one perform the task at hand, the desire for productivity and the fetish for the product becoming one and the same. Particularly when we consider modern digital tech as emblematic of modern techno-capitalism, the whole structure works at more and more efficiently satisfying particular needs, whether those we might argue are ‘given’, or those that, like, say, the ability to work from the road, are themselves products of late capitalism.
What I mean to say is that there is this enormous cultural inertia rooted in global economic practices that says “satisfy your desire”–even when your desire is simply to do more and better work–that works on ‘both ends’ of the consumer equation, the construction of needs and their satisfaction. Looked at this way, digital technology is not a solution to a pre-existing set of problems, but the logical extension of the supremacy of global capitalism. This is, no doubt, an oversimplification–my Skype chats with family in India, or pseudonymic activist mobilization through Twitter seem to be clear counterarguments–but it is still in some way true.
So what might it be like for the CEO of a large tech company to get up on stage and say “here is a product that does less”? Or: “Hey, listen, we here at Widgets Co. know what your life is like. We know that you are a creature utterly wrapped up in your own personal libidinal economy, and even though you know that watching that beautiful art film on Netflix will make you happier, you often watch Two and Half Men instead. So here is the new iThing–and it will refuse your desires. It will not simply cut off function, but tell you how to spend your time according to your pre-programmed parameters.”
Part of me believes this is what we really wanted Steve Jobs to tell us all along. We wanted to be told not only what technology can do, but what we should do with it. We wanted the Father to instruct us, to enforce the Law, to tell us how to behave against our instinctual push. Maybe this is why people like the idea of curation, or any other number of filtering services. Maybe the problem with the tyranny of choice is that the discourse and material networks that underpin it made us forget that what we really desire is tyrants.
Naturally, I’m getting a bit far-fetched. But what I do think is interesting is how, with various bits of software and technology now designed to direct and focus attention or time, we have reached a strange point in the development of capitalism in which we create products to deliberately not let us do things–or if we’re not quite there yet, that it will happen soon.
So what happens when Mrs. CEO gets up on stage and says “here is a product that does less” – and we respond by saying “My God. It’s brilliant.”? Is it then that, oh hope of hopes, that capitalism starts to eat itself? Is there a certain horizon or threshold at which, when the crystallization of massive networks of production meet, we arrive at a point where capitalism has produced a commodity that undercuts its own libidinal predication?
Put another way: what happens when, after two centuries of desperately saying yes, capitalism starts to produce products designed to say no?