Big Tech’s influence on culture and society was first predicted nearly 70 years ago by French thinker Jacques Ellul. In his 1954 book, “The Technological Society,” Ellul argued that tech would have a tyrannical effect on humankind, and he blamed the problem on “technique” — the methods that bring about “absolute efficiency in every field of human activity.”
Technique, Ellul claimed, would lead to a future where each user will “have everything his heart ever desired — except, of course, his freedom.” Because technique, by nature, is totalitarian. It leaves little room for human invention, spontaneity or morality.
These days, we carry in our pockets access to more information than at any other time in history. We publish our opinions at will and with ease, we shop with abandon, we swim in a sea of content. And it feels like we control whether or not we buy the endless products and services Big Tech foists upon us. But we actually exist in a state of bondage.
If Big Tech were a parent, it would gently yet intentionally nudge its offspring toward a chosen end. This takes shape in small ways, such as with Netflix’s autoplay feature, which automatically decides that we should watch another episode. Or Apple’s decision to remove a physical home button from our iPhones so we touch and swipe our devices more often to remain within their “ecosystem.”
It appeared in Apple’s iPhone software update this year, when a “pregnant man” emoji was quietly added to keyboards. It’s seen in Google’s new (and currently stalled) “inclusive language” feature, which autocorrects gendered terms like “landlord,” “policeman” or “housewife.” Technique doesn’t beat you over the head with clear-cut instructions or force you into a grandiose sense of submission. It embraces the slow-burn over time, tending “irresistibly toward completeness,” as Ellul wrote.
Because like any good parent, Big Tech knows that patience is a virtue.
Elon Musk’s bold move to buy Twitter and take it private is a great example of pushing back on the technique of Big Tech. According to Ellul, an environment that is truly natural allows humans to achieve their individual, internally generated ends — your own personal life goals. These can include what kind of education you want to pursue, whether you will build a family, or what you want to contribute to your community.
A natural environment protects these types of core human freedoms, along with others such as speech, dignity and autonomy. In its current form – awash with arbitrary censorship – Twitter doesn’t do this. But Musk says he will – by enshrining free speech, making Twitter’s algorithms open-source and transparent, and verifying humans while invalidating bots and jihadists. Without this intervention, Twitter would continue to oppress humanity rather than liberate and dignify it.
In a world flooded with subtle Big Tech interference – such as encouraging you to spend money on their platforms while avoiding the regulations of a bank, or tweaking algorithms to ensure you buy products that boost their profits — how do we safeguard our freedoms?
We need to go from being passive users to the bosses of our own tech.
This isn’t actually so difficult, but it does require effort. First, win back your mornings and nights. Turn off your gadgets during the first and final hours of the day and give yourself time to think. Second, look for the ways Big Tech is steering your life choices, and then take the wheel and choose for yourself. Third, survey the gadgets, subscriptions and platforms you use regularly. Purge what doesn’t positively impact your time, energy, relationships, mind, body and soul. Cut ties with any tech company that doesn’t help you build something good or useful. Turn off the Netflix autoplay and autoplay previews features and decide what you want to watch on TV yourself.
Unlike Musk’s takeover of Twitter, this process won’t happen quickly, as you awaken from a years-long tech-induced stupor. But undoing the shackles of Big Tech’s technique will be worth it. As Ellul wrote: “At stake is our very life, and we shall need all the energy, inventiveness, imagination, goodness and strength we can muster to triumph in our predicament.”
Originally published in the New York Post.