In celebration of cynicism

Sometimes you just have to meet techno-capitalist fervour with a raised eyebrow

In this age of global connectivity, god complexes and breathy enthusiasm for rectangles, it is hard not to catch a fever. The manufactured rapture of Silicon Valley is contagious – watch enough keynote speeches and you’ll start to believe a slimmer phone will solve the world’s problems.

By all means we should celebrate technology and what it can do for people, but we should also question the ambitions of private companies to map and control data. One of the best ways to do this is to bring a piss-taking pin to the Panglossian swell.

When a picture emerges of Mark Zuckerberg striding past rows of journalists wearing Samsung Gear headsets, how great it is to tease the dystopian overtones. When Boston Dynamics releases a video of the new Atlas robot doing impressive things with boxes and doors, how heartening it is to focus on how the machine looks like a drunk idiot.

Even at its most optimistic, the toilets on the spaceships don’t work.

This attitude is not limited to the British, but we have a heritage. British science fiction comes with a thick layer of grime – from George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, through to John Wyndham and John Christopher, to JG Ballard and Anthony Burgess, our view of the future tends to lean away from the promises of mid-20th-century billboards, or lean so far into them that they collapse. It is lived in, broken, in need of a shave. Even at its most optimistic, the toilets on the spaceships don’t work.

(Above: Some 'Hipster friends using their phones on a summers day')

It’s easy to lose track of this tendency when we’re bombarded with bimonthly updates. We can talk with 25 people on Skype? Great. We can dictate edits on Google Docs? Awesome. We can add new filters to our photos? Fantastic. These things are, in themselves, useful. They come seemingly free of charge and allow us to do more with the tools we have. But the psychological effect is one of attrition – if you aren't excited at first, you will be by the 17th extra feature. It’s a numbing drip feed of enthusiasm.

When profit-driven companies are in the driving seat, cynicism isn’t only tolerable, it’s essential to calling those powers to account.

Personal devices are one thing, grand geopolitical ambitions another. As Julia Powles points out in her recent piece for The Guardian, even the most worthy aims of big tech companies, such as Google’s Jigsaw project and Facebook’s Internet.org, can be underpinned by imperial mindsets. There is much to be championed in these projects, but when profit-driven companies are in the driving seat, cynicism isn’t only tolerable, it’s essential to calling those powers to account.

So let’s topple the billboard. Let’s champion mockery and its power to turn choreographed keynotes into absurd spectacles. Let’s add a pinch of perspective to hype around smartphones and meet techno-capitalist fervour with a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance at that broken toilet.

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