LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: STRINGS ATTACHED
By Rob Carroll
English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley once quipped that “technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means of going backwards.” Microsoft’s Bill Gates said that “automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wrote that for a technology to be successful, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
Then we have businessman and ex-CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. He declared that technology “empowers people to do what they want. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”
Is Ballmer’s take the kind of public relations that Feynman was warning us about? Is it a valid counterpoint to Huxley’s barb? Does it account for the human variable—the inefficiency, as Gates put it—in the system? Or is it just a harmless declaration of what’s possible?
Yes, Ballmer was speaking as the CEO of one of the world’s largest technology companies, and yes, he did and still does have a vested interest in certain technologies flourishing—greater buy-in means more money in his pockets—but even with those points taken into consideration, I still think he was being earnest. And I do still agree with him…mostly.
I believe Ballmer is correct to assert that technology does indeed allow us to be more productive and more creative with our time and energy (technology has made the entirety of Dark Matter Magazine possible), but I also think Gates, Feynman, and Huxley are right.
There’s a cost to all this.
In order to reconcile the thoughts of Gates, Feynman, and Ballmer in a way that assumes no cost, we first have to assume that humans and our creations are efficient systems. According to Gates, automation will increase the efficiency of efficient systems, which makes reconciliation free of cost only if efficiency is in our nature. But it’s not. Even though the human mind is powerful, its energy expenditure in relation to output can be quite high. And even though the structures and systems we create can be quite magnificent and stunning in their complexity and effectiveness, efficiency is often sacrificed in favor of system bloat and bureaucracy, especially in capitalist nations. Businesses may seek efficiency to increase profits, but capitalism writ large seeks the opposite. Capitalism doesn’t solve problems or streamline solutions so much as it creates new industries to profit off problems and complicate solutions. (For example, why cut back on the production of waste when we can instead continue to produce and consume at the same level and just expand the waste management industry proportionally?) Capitalism also trends toward specialization and compartmentalization, which leads to obfuscation and feelings of isolation. We’re more productive at work, but our work feels less meaningful. We’re more creative, but not more creatively fulfilled. We are more connected, but also more lonely.
No matter how much technology advances, art will never become efficient. Craftsmanship will never become efficient. Neither will peace, love, diplomacy, or anything intangible that makes the human condition human.
The only true efficiency of the modern world is the fixed vector of money and power, and the direction of this vector points from those that have little to those that have a lot, and the velocity of this vector is fast and always increasing. Global free trade, sophisticated (and opaque) financial instruments, AI, automation, hyper-connectivity—these are the tools for more efficiently siphoning power and wealth to the elite under the guise of creating a better future for everyone. If it sometimes feels as though technology is leading us more into neo-feudalism than egalitarian utopia, you’re not alone (point for Huxley). For every new streaming option, we give a bit more of our own time and attention. For every new product, our own value as a product increases. For every extra hour of work, our cost of labor decreases. And for every new home built, the price of rent still rises.
The new social contract we all signed is not without its fine print. Yes, we got some perks. But there are strings attached.
In this issue of Dark Matter Magazine, nine stories examine the ways that we are used, abused, and exploited by powerful systems beyond our control, some of which hide behind a smile.
In “Patchwork Girls” author Lyndsey Croal spotlights the systems that exploit women in entertainment, treating them as disposable props meant to facilitate fantasies of sex and violence. In “Lullaby” by David Worn, we are shown how easily polite society will normalize terrible things as long as they’re packaged and marketed in the right ways. In “Helter Smelter,” author Mark Burnham confronts the horrific truth that some people in this world really do see others as nothing more than things to be consumed. Jennifer Lee Rossman’s “The Care Home” shows how the most vulnerable people in society are often required to place the most trust in others, and how terribly frightening it can be to have that trust betrayed. In “Binge,” author R. L. Meza gives a scathing indictment of the way we make productions out of other people’s lives for our own deranged enjoyment, and how we force our own narratives upon them as part of this twisted game. “Blueing” by Andrew Rucker Jones reminds us that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, especially when a person blinded by privilege crosses paths with a victim blinded by rage. “Salvage” by Sarah Fannon is a ghost story that haunts our desire to change what can’t be changed, control what can’t be controlled, and understand what can’t be understood by reminding us that we are powerless in this world of mystery, illusion, and death. “WonderYears Incorporated has no comment” by Caity Scott experiments with style and form to show how absurd and confusing it must feel to be exploited by a system you can barely comprehend. And finally, in this issue’s reprint story, “The Vampire Facial,” author Anna Fitzgerald Healy pokes fun at our willingness to put up with abuse as long as there’s something in it for us.
Copyright © 2022 Rob Carroll