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COUNTERLEXICON FOR A MEDIA-IMPLICIT TECHLASH

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In 2017, employees of Google circulated a petition, refusing to provide labor for a development project on behalf of the United States Department of Defense. The project was Project Maven, an “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team” intended to enhance the artificial intelligence of unmanned aerial vehicles, thus establishing “technology to augment or automate Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination for tactical Unmanned Aerial System and Mid-Altitude Full-Motion Video in support of the Defeat-ISIS campaign.”

The project was to have found autonomous ways for airborne drones to recognize and catalog human machines and faces. It would have been a significant boon for Pentagon surveillance efforts at mobilizing “artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning, deep learning, and computer vision algorithms” toward increasingly effective surveillance. [1] It would also have been a profitable move for Google, earning the company an eventual 250-million payout as well as likely consideration for lucrative subsequent contracts.

It would also have been a profitable move for Google, earning the company an eventual 250-million payout as well as likely consideration for lucrative subsequent contracts.

But then, as if against all odds, the petition from company staff put a stop to the project. Why against all odds? What makes this protest so hard to imagine, emanating as it does from the belly of the tech industry? To make matters more pressing, the protest against Project Maven was not the only successful recent protest to have been lodged against Google.

The very next year, in the fall of 2018, the company experienced a series of large-scale responses to its corporate culture of sexual toxicity, leading to the well-compensated departure of Andy Rubin (creator of Android), which itself then led to protests against the scale of that compensation. Just a month later, an internal dispute at Google led to the end of Project Dragonfly, a version of the flagship search engine, censored so as to produce only results friendly to regimens of social control by the government in China. And in November of this year, the company hired a consulting firm made famous for its union-busting, and then fired four employees—ostensibly for the illicit sharing of work product, but clearly for their roles in the preceding actions.

To make matters more pressing, the protest against Project Maven was not the only successful recent protest to have been lodged against Google.

In a public statement, employees identified these firings as the last straw, “an attack on all people who care about transparency and accountability for tech.” [2]

Students and faculty occupy Stanford Computation Center, 10 February 1971.

Exhaustion

These workers are right to protest, and they are right to demand an accountability that would extend into the entire tech culture. In fact, the weight of their demands can be felt even further, well beyond the sites and conditions of their own labor. In truth it would be a mistake to focus narrowly on tech culture, not least because it is the labor and not only the tech that brought the workers together in the first place. All sectors of life and work, and not only the tech sector, have been forced to reckon with new developments in telecommunication and computation. Therefore all cultures of life and work, and not only tech cultures in the limited sense of computer use, may be transformed by the critiques by tech workers of digital capitalist management, authoritarianism, militarism, and sexual violence.

Therefore all cultures of life and work, and not only tech cultures in the limited sense of computer use, may be transformed by the critiques by tech workers of digital capitalist management, authoritarianism, militarism, and sexual violence.

Frankly, I’m tired of the cultural priority that is granted to machines. I’m tired of politics that are interchangeable with the material interests and immaterial promises of untaxed tech CEOs. I’m tired of social media where real friendship is at best an accident or design flaw, or at worst a mere warrant for advertising delivery and data collection. I’m tired of seeing the unacceptable old injustices (like racism, misogyny, war, and the instrumentalization of human bodies) repurposed as reasonable compromises, acceptable-enough casualties of the new media.

I’m tired of devices that are commonly adopted by unspoken agreement even though they are composed from raw materials mined under deadly conditions and then assembled in sweatshops. I’m tired of any consensus in which this arrangement might be reformed through activities of art or gaming or theory or community, as if these could undermine the massive and multilevel exploitation on which an industry thrives. Yet I’m equally tired by the impulse toward luxurious detachment, as if resisting tech culture were somehow optional. 

Frankly, I’m tired of the cultural priority that is granted to machines. I’m tired of politics that are interchangeable with the material interests and immaterial promises of untaxed tech CEOs.

What the activities at Google show is that it’s not too late to mitigate complicity; and at the same time, that it will not suffice just to unplug once in a while.

Another Vocabulary

Most of all, I’m tired of talking about technology. I would insist, as science-fiction writer Joanna Russ did in 1977, that computation and telecommunication be situated within the longer-duration histories of violence and struggle, labor and tool-use. “Talk about technology is an addiction,” wrote Russ, while “the technology-obsessed must give up talking about technology when it is economics and politics which are at issue.” This is the reason to focus on the Google protests as episodes in the history of feminist, anti-racist, antiwar, and labor struggle.

In place of words like “technophile” and “technophobe,” we desperately need a better vocabulary. Words for living and fighting among new and old machines. Words to diminish the social value of such machines without pretending they can just be ignored. It is to this vocabulary that Evgeny Morozov adds when he reclaims the word “techlash” to describe this moment as one in which the industry finds itself busting unions, while defending totalitarian governments and serial harassers. [3] It is to the same vocabulary that Siegfried Zielinski contributes the idea of a “media implicit” analysis of culture that would pose an “exact philology of precise things,” situating our devices not only within a history of technology, but also within “overarching contexts, such as history, sexuality, subjectivity, or the arts.” [4]

Most of all, I’m tired of talking about technology.

In my new book, Dismantlings, I likewise seek to add to this vocabulary. The book is a counterlexicon of critical terms for the media-implicit study of tech culture. Drawing from the activist and literary writing of racial and feminist justice, in the decade and a half after 1964, I dig up some unfamiliar terms as well as some that are deceptively familiar: Luddism, a verbal and material combat against exploitative machines; communion, a kind of togetherness that stands apart from communication networks; cyberculture, a critique of the historical conjunction between technologies of automation and those of racism and militarism; distortion, a transformative mode of reading and writing; revolutionary suicide, a willful submission to the risk of political engagement; liberation technology, a synthesis of appropriate technology and liberation theology; and thanatopography, a mapping of planetary technological ethics for the age of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.


Matt Tierney, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Penn State. In addition to Dismantlings: Words against Machines in the American Long Seventies (now available from Cornell University Press) he is the author of What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post-Politics.


References
[1] United States Department of Defense. “Establishment of an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (Project Maven).” Washington, D.C.: 2017.
[2] Levi Sumagaysay, “Google workers protest to support suspended colleagues, ‘save culture’.” San Jose Mercury News, 22 November 2019.[3] Evgeny Morozov, “The Left Needs to Get Radical on Big Tech—Moderate Solutions Won’t Cut It.” The Guardian, 27 February 2019.
[4] Siegfried Zielinski, After the Media: News from the Slow-Fading Twentieth Century. Trans. Gloria Custance. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2013.

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