Hyper-Capitalist Tech Solutionism & Human Needs

Part III of the In Dark Times Silicon Valley Series

by Tedd Siegel


The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches…And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one…I need this. The paddle game and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches for sure…And this. That’s all I need.

Recently–over the last couple of months now–I’ve been concerned to try to interrogate Silicon Valley’s signature utopia of “technological solutionism.”

My starting contention was that Silicon Valley’s utopian optimism, it’s naïve confidence in the ability of tech solutions to simply banish societal problems, has rather suddenly and precipitously fallen on hard times (it has jumped the shark).

Simply put–and as a raft of national media across 2017 also testifies–it has become a matter of widespread popular reflection that tech solutionist utopianism has now metamorphosed into a full-fledged dystopian nightmare.

In my first and second installments of this post, I tried to characterize tech solutionism’s emergent dystopia in two related ways:

The first generally dystopian aspect I highlighted has to do with the manner in which Silicon Valley’s utopian solutionism, in offering up technologically inventive products and services, actually decides for us “what the problem is” so that a profitable tech solution can be seen to satisfy it. By making our most distinctly human needs increasingly responsive to the law of supply and demand, hyper-capitalist tech solutionism exhaustively recognizes human beings — everywhere and in every way–as primarily market actors. In so doing, it simultaneously both augments and also diminishes our human reality.

The second, related aspect had to do with an increasing discomfort felt by “those in the know” with the way that algorithmic decision-making is penetrating all domains of contemporary life, and how, by allowing this to happen, we are essentially turning over our collective pursuit of “the good life” to a big data-driven and hyper-capitalist “cybernetic functionalism” — one that relentlessly optimizes for the interests of advanced corporate capitalism, leaving diminishing opportunities for the articulation of properly human purposes. As Hans Jonas reminds us, cybernetic functions can sometimes appear teleological, but we always should remember that they serve a purpose rather than have a purpose — only living things have needs and act upon needs. As I have been saying in prior installments of this piece, and as Elon Musk, Ted Chiang, and Cathy O’Neil each point out, we forget this at our extreme peril.

These two significant aspects of Silicon Valley’s shallow solutionism, I am here suggesting, reflect a generally dystopian reductionism concerning the human condition. As I have said before; together they describe the essential ways in which high technology capitalism is fundamentally foreclosing our ability–as human beings–to advocate (both individually and collectively) for our essential needs satisfaction.

The Internet, the Public Sphere & Democracy

In the early 2000s, as Norwegian author and Media Studies professor Terje Rasmussen has written, it seemed to some people that the Internet was going to be the infrastructure par excellence for what Jürgen Habermas had been calling “the public sphere.” By this term, Habermas meant the informal, cultural/subcultural opinion-formation processes found in the civil societies of democratic states. These processes, partially mediated by the media, feed into formal decision-making activity, providing a critical sounding board for problems that must be solved by the political system.

The Internet, so the story went, was going to replace traditional mass media by cancelling the social division between speakers and listeners and making everyone a potential participant. In some senses, this has come true — it would not be incorrect to say that through the advent of blogs, YouTube, social media, “the public has transformed itself into narrators, reporters, editors, and broadcasters.”

Even back then, contra noted solutionists like Clay Shirky, there were others that were more skeptical. Along with Evgeny Morozov, there was also Jürgen Habermas, who, Rassmussen says, began to sniff a “communicative liquefication of politics” taking place in and through the information economy; and there was Benjamin Barber, who protested that he didn’t see how the Internet was going to be a contributor to what since the 1980s he had been referring to as strong democracy, where rational discourse and debate are essential conditions for reaching common ground in a multicultural society. Again, per Terje Rasmussen, the fragmentation of audiences into “isolated issues publics” was already understood, by the mid-2000s, as a consequence of the fact that the Internet addresses populations as “…consumers and private persons more than as citizens.”

In 2010, Malcolm Gladwell had a piece in the New Yorker called, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted.” “We are told,” Gladwell writes, “that the world is in the midst of a revolution…because the new tools of social media have reinvented social activism, upending the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will, making it so much easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” So much so, Gladwell further relates, that at an activist conference sponsored by Facebook, ATT, and Google among others, a State Department official told a group of cyber activists that “they were the best hope for us all.”

In reply, Gladwell writes that these are indeed “strong and puzzling claims…are people who log onto Facebook really the best hope for us all?” After all, the waves of anti-racist sit-ins at lunch counters in the 60s happened, Gladwell reminds us, without email, texting, Facebook, or Twitter. Why does it matter, he asks, who is eating whose lunch–on the Internet?

Social activism of the sit-in variety, Gladwell reminds us, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon, whereas the sort of activism associated with social media platforms are built around “weak ties.” Of course, there is also a certain strength in weak ties — especially where such things as the diffusion of innovation, matching buyers and sellers, and other similar things are at play. But where social media activism is wide and shallow, asking very little of a large number of people, transformative social activism, the kind that really challenges the status quo, is of another sort. Where this sort of activism asks people to make real sacrifices — think Red Brigades or the Mujahedeen — Facebook activism, Gladwell concludes, succeeds by “motivating people to do the things people do when they are not motivated to make real sacrifice.”

This brings us back to Benjamin Barber’s skepticism about the Internet and the role of the public sphere in relation to what he calls “strong democracy.” As Terje Rassmussen puts it, “the Internet and new media do not play a favorable role…their speed, reductive simplicity and tendency to polarization, the solitariness of their user interface, their bias toward images over text” and their “inclination toward segmentation rather than a single integrated community” create “niche knowledge for niche markets,” and so work against the possibility of deliberation and informed choices, tending instead to distribute illegitimate and confused information.

Alexander Hamilton’s Nightmare

In 2009, as Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein was headed off to take up his post in the Obama administration as the Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Harvard Magazine Editor Jonathan Shaw published a short piece entitled, “The Internet: Foe of Democracy? The article amounts to a sort of a check-in with Sunstein concerning his views on “things Internet” views which had first come to prominence with the publication of his 2001 book, “Republic.com.”

Following discussion of Sunstein’s lamentation over the conception of free speech emerging in “today’s communications market,” which emphasizes an “architecture of control by which each of us can select a customized free-speech package,” (fully consistent with Rasmussen, Gladwell, Barber, etc.) Shaw also recounts Sunstein’s remarks (likely taken from Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution) about what he considered to be “the one original contribution” of the American founding fathers.

Whereas the general consensus among leading figures of the Enlightenment in the revolutionary era followed Montesquieu in the assumption that “successful self-government ultimately required everyone to be alike,” the Founding Fathers, in contrast, “believed heterogeneity and diversity constitute a creative force…this idea turned traditional republican thought on its head.”

In a 2017 piece published on Quartz.com, economics reporter Dan Kopf interviews Sunstein, where he is seen to echo and extend these remarks. Where Sunstein previously said that the “self-segregation” promoted by the Internet “created numerous small republics of like-minded individuals of the sort that Montesquieu preferred” but which the founders considered to be self-destructive to self-government, here he also asserts that the idea of “the daily me” which was first promulgated by Nicolas Negroponte in the 1990s, while perhaps fun and convenient, is a big problem for society as a whole.

“We could call it Alexander Hamilton’s Nightmare, he says, “because it is really the exact opposite information environment of what he hoped the American public would have access to…what Hamilton said clearly in the Federalist Papers was that the disagreements between parties promotes deliberation and circumspection.”

* * *

I have used this discussion of the unintended consequences and side effects of the Internet for democracy, as seen in Rasmussen, Habermas, Gladwell, and Sunstein, as a way to recapitulate concerns I raised in the two previous installments of this piece, but with a slight reframing, for reasons that I hope will become clear later on.

As a way to summarize and thus conclude this introduction — I am here to say that I share Evgeny Morozov’s essential impatience with Silicon Valley thought leaders and their Delphic solutionist babbling about how the putative values of the Internet, whether it be openness, or participation, or whatever else, should be seen as the prized yardstick for assessing every field of human endeavor. Internet-based solutions are not the solution to all our problems. Further, hyper-capitalist technological solutionism is profoundly undermining “strong democracy,” replacing the informal working of the “public sphere” with an insidiously pale substitute–a shared platform supporting and encouraging small republics of like-minded individuals, held together with consumer-oriented, weak ties and resulting in a communicative liquefication of our democratic politics.

More importantly, however, I have also tried to argue that the unintended consequences and side-effects that arise out of utopian technological solutionism stem from a fundamental reductionism concerning the human condition, a decision to make our most distinctly human needs ever more responsive to the laws of supply and demand, effectively disabling (dare I say short-circuiting?) the ability of human beings to advocate, both individually and collectively (politically) for their needs satisfaction.

Talking About Human Needs Along with Human Rights

It may very well be the case that the repeated use of the expression “human needs” in the various parts of this article make some people a bit uneasy. In liberal democracies, at least until recently, the tendency has always been to favor “rights talk” over “needs talk” and to support progressive agendas by insisting on the importance of recognizing rights, widening the sphere of rights, and increasing the sensitivity to rights. Lately, there is some sense that this strategy may have encouraged those eager to call out the whole human rights thing as an elaborate fiction resting on dubious foundations (you can’t handle the truth!).

“Needs talk” on the other hand, tends to flag a moral, political, or economic discourse as decidedly “Marxist” in its commitments. Marxism, as a universalist political philosophy and philosophical anthropology, tacitly acknowledges the reality of human needs, while Western liberal political theory has pretty much denied that such language is at all relevant to economic and political theory.

Perhaps someone thinks that I am now straying far afield and wondering how you get from a critique of Silicon Valley solutionism to a decidedly Marxist theory of needs.

In reply, I will simply say that this direction here is justified in two ways: it is extrinsically warranted by Evgeny Morozov’s insistent demand that Silicon Valley’s claimed right to define itself (always and everywhere) only out of its own utopian logic, be denied.

And it is my contention that it is intrinsically justified by everything that has come thus far in this three-part article, via the characterization offered here of Silicon Valley’s hyper-capitalist solutionism and cybernetic functionalism as an emergent dystopian nightmare.

Human Needs & The Law of Supply and Demand

A key aspect of the Silicon Valley dystopia, I have asserted, is the central tendency of utopian technological solutionism to subject an ever-increasing array of human needs to determination by market forces, to “the law of supply and demand.”

It would thus be perfectly reasonable at this point to want to ask what is meant by human needs, and what it might mean to think about them as something described in some way other than through a consideration of market exchange value, the way in which we are generally trained to think about them. I have spoken of the Marxist acknowledgement of the “reality” of human needs. A host of questions naturally arise.

In speaking of human needs in their universality, are we making claims to their objectivity? Are we speaking primarily about material needs of human beings as living organisms? Or do we also mean something more, including social and cultural needs, among others? What about love, friendship, the development of talents and abilities, and social recognition?

Obviously, it is necessary to spend some time thinking about human needs per se before it can make sense to introduce the claim that the Silicon Valley dystopia is well-described as a “dictatorship over needs.”

In their 1991 book A Theory of Human Need, Len Doyal and Ian Gough step through a number of these issues. In their introduction, Doyal and Gough explain that their project began as an attempt to clarify a theory of human needs in order to help confront the rise of new movements of the Right in the 1980s which were seeking to challenge the legitimacy of liberal welfare state policies.

Along with this set of motives and concerns, two other principal threads, both of which are meaningful here, are discernible in A Theory of Human Need.

First, there is concern to avoid the pitfalls of revolutionary or authoritarian socialism in the articulation of a theory of needs. Any acceptable concept of need, they write, “must be designed so that it cannot be used in authoritarian and paternalistic ways.” Since welfare provisioning and effective democracy must be inexorably linked, per Doyal and Gough, the liberal welfare state “…must be sure to combine the individual right to need satisfaction with the right to participate in how such satisfaction is to occur in practice.”

Second, there is the issue, previously mentioned, of balancing rights and needs. “If individual liberty and privacy are too much ignored in the name of the collective,” Doyal and Gough write, then we risk discarding something essential; on the other hand, as the plight of the exploited and the deprived show, formal guarantees of political and economic freedom which ignore the material preconditions for their individual expression can undermine the principles of liberalism.”

Returning to the most central concern of the book, Doyal and Gough write that for quite some time, the trend has been for economists, sociologists, philosophers, liberals, libertarians, Marxists, socialists, feminists, and anti-racists all to describe human need as a “subjective and culturally relative concept.” But if the notion of objective need is groundless, they ask, “then what alternative is there but to believe that individuals know what is best for themselves, and to encourage them to pursue their own subjective goals and preferences? And what better mechanism to achieve this is there than the market?”

For what the authors call “the orthodox economist” the objectivity of need is suspect; preferences and demand are regarded as sufficient for the purposes of much “positive and normative economic theory.” As has been pointed out now multiple times, the prevailing attitude, easy for those of us raised in mature market economies to understand, is just this: that needs are something that get articulated in and through market exchange. Sellers present products and services; to the extent that they are addressing market demands with whatever it is that they are selling, then they can figure out how to sell and make a profit. In this way, markets are great experiments in needs testing. Sellers tell us we need something. If they are right, then people buy it. Buyers express their needs too. If smart producers are paying attention, they will no doubt address this addressable market. Similarly, with labor. If wage laborers and other workers offer their services to markets that need laborers, and they address it with the right skill sets, then both parties will get their needs met. And so, it goes.

The economists, Doyal and Gough explain, enunciate this in two fundamental principles of private sovereignty. The first is the subjective concept of interests — individuals are the only authorities on the correctness of their interests, or more narrowly, their wants. The second is that what is to be produced, how it is to be produced, and how it is to be distributed should be determined by the private consumption and work preferences of individuals.

The suggestion that some sort of objectivity (or even universality) should attach to human needs (which sort of follows if one goes about talking about “the human condition,” by the way) is suspect inasmuch as it is a threat to the abovementioned principles. Once you start talking about universal needs, people on the Right are always quick to tell you, you are legislating for others, and this of course is the slippery slope to authoritarianism.

As a result, and as is of course well-known by all, when the policy discussions turn in the direction of welfare state need provisioning (basic needs satisfaction) people on the right argue that it is better to turn to the market rather than to the welfare state. In fact, since basic human needs are to be taken as a dogmatic metaphysical fantasy, it is actually morally superior to do so, since everybody knows that there can be no real basis for agreement about principles of justice or consensual norms for determining which pattern of the distribution of wealth should be taken as the correct one. It’s worth pointing out that for economists of the Right, like von Hayek and Robert Nozick for example, the only way that welfare can ever even be morally justified is on the model of charity.

Never mind that under the sway of this model, there is the practical implication that the “preferences” of the well-off carry with them the same moral legitimacy as those of the poor. After all, Doyal and Gough explain, just because a majority might rank their preferences for food higher than for fashion does not mean that a clothes-conscious minority might not legitimately make the opposite choice.

Such choices, the Right concludes, are primarily to be understood as consumer demands, which either can or cannot be acted upon through the expenditure of income. To the extent that we speak about human needs, therefore, we are merely talking about a preference shared by many people which the government has been persuaded requires some special attention.

The Case for Radical Human Needs

As mentioned at the outset of the previous section, Doyal and Gough are looking to buttress welfare state provisioning by making a case for the objectivity of human needs over and against neoliberal economic arguments that only refer to market demands, and never to needs. As a result, the balance of the book is concerned to describe a table of objective needs and needs measurement for purposes of welfare state provisioning.

While InDarkTimes is editorially sympathetic to this position, it must be said that establishing the “objectivity” of basic human needs, as per Doyal and Gough, is not a shared priority. Earlier in this article I used the phrase “reality of human needs.” I did so intentionally, since in my view, the use of the term “objectivity of human need” drags along with it a complex baggage belonging specifically to the meaning and use of the term objectivity. The issue, as will hopefully soon be clear, is not merely semantic.

However laudable Doyal and Gough’s concern over the maintenance of welfare state programs to meet basic (universal) human needs, discussions about such things as “how human beings have the same potential to be harmed or to flourish” tend to lead quickly beyond the limits seemingly set by use of the term “objectivity,” especially where the concept of objectivity being entertained does not allow for the easy acceptance that socially or historically constituted facts can be possessive of some measure of objectivity.

Despite their workman-like commitment to their project (to make the world safe for democratic socialism) Doyal and Gough also tacitly acknowledge something like this. While defending a concept of need that is still protective of individual rights, they write, in something of an aside, that we mustn’t lose sight of the “the actual raison d’etre of redistribution” which is “the maximum development of the person.”

What kind of needs are we in fact talking about, where needs and their satisfaction are not determined exclusively (or even primarily) by market exchange based on supply and demand, and where needs are also not to be determined in some authoritarian fashion, by state planners and the like? What if we needed to talk about something different than the needs that social service bureaucracies, organized into large hierarchical units, deliver as predetermined services to passive clients? And what if we meant something else than the needs that priests and jurists, social workers and doctors create, that they alone are allowed to satisfy? What if the concept of needs being sought after was somehow more radical? What if we actually have alienated needs, such that we need to maintain a space for needs that we cannot properly articulate at present?

Listening to Tracy Chapman: Fast Car

In case you are “thrown for a loop” by the sudden wrenching of this (semi-academic) philosophical reflection on objective-universal-basic human needs toward an urgent questioning over alienated or radical needs, I want to end this third installment by encouraging you to listen, once again, to Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit, “Fast Car.” I can think of no more poignant popular expression of what is at stake in the term “alienated needs” than what unfolds in the lyrics and chords of this song (yeah, ok, I’m old. Steve Heikkila says I should also be listening to Kendrick Lamar).

Unless you actually think that this “fast car” and the “plan to get us out of here” are anything other than a wistful, desperate crap shoot, I think you will see clearly something of what I will be referring to in my fourth and final installment as “radical needs.” Of course, Chapman’s song-character knows it too. You can hear it in her tone of semi-resignation and sadness. She knows that even if she should be lucky enough to be “working as a checkout girl,” and should she be “promoted and move out of the shelter,” the consciousness of alienation that she feels will not be solved, not even if she ends up “buying a bigger house and live in the suburbs.”

The fast car, the ticket to anywhere, these things are an expression of a consciousness that has exceeded the bounds of the painful contradictions of a specific social and economic existence, but which has no determinate content to express as a plausible counterfactual. There is only “I had a feeling that I belonged, had a feeling that I could be someone…gotta make a decision…leave tonite, or live and die this way…So take your fast car, and keep on driving…

In the final installment of this post, called “Silicon Valley’s Emerging Dystopia: The Hyper-Capitalist Dictatorship over Needs” I step through the account of radical needs provided in Agnes Heller’s first book, “The Theory of Need in Marx” (1974) on the way to my final destination, a tour through the 1983 work “Dictatorship Over Needs: An Analysis of Soviet Societies” which I believe yields a conception that can fruitfully be applied to the present Silicon Valley case.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.” indarktimes.com