29 August 2012

One lesson from Apple v. Samsung (and other recent events)

An interesting lesson from the entire Apple v. Samsung affaire was that there are certain things that cyberpunk got right. And there are other things that the literary-cultural movement got wrong. But it got much more right than it got wrong.

The movement in computer technology drifts not, as technoutopians (including many cyberlibertarians) would have it, toward greater openness, greater flow of information and ever-increasing substantive degrees of personal freedom, as government structures founder ineffectually in a rusty, industrial-age obsolescence. Instead, the apostles of personal computing and networking have ushered in the same Coke-and-Pepsi choices that have characterised the rest of late-capitalist modernity. The vast majority of computer users have the choice of Windows versus Mac OS, PC versus Apple. And that choice constrains to a significant degree what you can and cannot do, unless you have a degree of willpower and technological savvy which allows you to do end-runs around proprietary structures and programmes which govern not only your machine, but the potentially infinite number of other terminals and users to which you are connected. Rather than being empowering, this level of technology only erects another dimension of illusory choice.

Aesthetically, as well, Apple in particular set the trend toward a superlative form of modernist design: sleek, monolithic, monochrome capsules which exude ‘trendiness’ and ‘convenience’, which less-enlightened megacorporations are seeking to emulate. Note that, for the Apple product, the end user is of secondary importance, even an afterthought – Apple Corporation tells you what is and isn’t ‘cool’, what is and isn’t ‘hip’, what is and isn’t allowed. What do you mean, you want to use Adobe Flash? What, you want to add more memory to your white-and-chrome monolith than the extra 512 MB that the Corporation very generously deigns to permit you to purchase built-in? That would totally throw off the design, man! Begone, vile square (pun intended)! Megacorporations may not have taken up the brutalist glass-and-steel-ziggurat visual style in the exact way envisioned by, for example, Blade Runner and The Matrix, but Apple’s vision is every bit as hypermodernist, consolidated, monolithic and dictatorial, even if the sleek, smooth curves put a slightly friendlier face on the aesthetic.

But the real audacity of Apple was to tell its consumers through a clever and insidious advertising campaign that by conforming to its consolidated, top-down, end-user-optional vision of computing, they are being ‘rebellious’ and ‘countercultural’ (just like Einstein, Dr King and Gandhi!), and generally ‘thinking outside the [PC] box’. Put this way, of course, the technoutopian vision looks downright naïve.

To their everlasting credit, the likes of William Gibson, Philip K Dick and Edward Neumeier did envision a future where this level of interconnectivity and corporate dominance served to keep people quiescent and constrain people’s choices in a sort of dystopia, rather than liberating them. They fell prey to the same error as the technoutopians they critiqued, however, in that they thought that government would be made obsolete as networking increased and computing became more ubiquitous and sophisticated. (OCP doesn’t run the cops, per se, but they do have free run of the courts and the legislature, as the concerted efforts to pass SOPA and PIPA, as well as DMCA-prompted crackdowns on file-sharing websites, have borne witness!) Coming from the other angle, of course, we have Evgeny Morozov pointing out how networking and social technologies are tools which determined and savvy authoritarian governments can potentially use to their advantage. There are certain elements of Facebook, indeed (particularly the ways in which it compromises user privacy), which could very readily adapt themselves to a corporatist form of authoritarianism.

There are a number of other things we have seen cyberpunk get right in the meantime, one of which is the rise of activist forms of cyberanarchism, represented by the likes of Julian Assange and Anonymous. They aren’t exactly hard-boiled, hard-drinking cybernetic ninjas… that I am aware of. But even so, they do seem to be motivated by a sense of rather understandable dissatisfaction with and alienation from the (increasingly consolidated, increasingly opaque, increasingly unaccountable) direction technologies and their applications have taken.


  1. Great post! Whenever people ask me what I think the future will look like if we don't change course, I tell them to read or watch the manga/anime Akira. If you take away the psychic children, I think you have a pretty realistic picture of a future dystopia.

    Unfortunately, so many people think a future dystopia will involve a kind of drab, East German-style police state. I say "unfortunate" because this picture is the result of failing to see how the evolution of capitalism, and not some evil conspiratorial cabal, is really the problem. People end up looking for some group of very bad men (neo-Stalinists, the Illuminati ,etc) as opposed to critiquing the logic of the system we live under.

    That is not to say we cannot criticize certain actors within the system, but to a certain extent, I think there is a kind of logic that pushes actors to engage in certain behavior.

    I know a few people who work for big corporations and they often admit that their company exploits workers in the Third World and they do feel bad about it, but there is a sense of resignation, a belief that there is no other way to survive in the global economy.

    On the other side of the political spectrum, you have some deterministic Marxists who think that the growth of giant international corporations is laying the groundwork for socialism, which is of course, inevitable. I am not that optimistic, but I don’t believe in the “there is no alternative” concept either.

  2. Hi John! Very glad you approve! (I love Akira, by the way. Massively entertaining and incredibly well-animated, even if it did descend a little bit into weirdness-for-weirdness'-sake toward the end.)

    I don't even necessarily think that the dystopians who don't necessarily have the complete big picture are necessarily wrong about the things they focus on. Neo-Stalinists and neo-Trots are a problem; it's just that we ought to be hunting them in our own backyard (among the National Review crowd, for example), rather than in countries like Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine which have for the most part rejected Stalinism. (Zyuganov is pretty retrograde, but he's in a far worse position to affect the world than is someone like, say, John Bolton.) Even the adherents of 'deep politics' and 'deep history', like Peter Dale Scott, do latch onto the big picture about late capitalism sometimes.

    And you're absolutely right about the particular variety of deterministic Marxism which endorses big business for the sake of bringing about communism later. The heirs of Deng Xiaoping seem to have been running China for the past thirty years, and (to paraphrase Orwell), if one were to look from Chinese Communist to American corporate capitalist and back again, already it would be impossible to say which is which.

    - Matt