The ‘techlash’ as a momentum for change: Fear and scepticism amidst digitalist infiltration and data abuse: Essay by Prof. Dr. Holger Rust, economic sociologist, pragmatist and publicist

26. February 2020

The ‘techlash’ as a momentum for change: Fear and scepticism amidst digitalist infiltration and data abuse

Essay by Prof. Dr. Holger Rust, economic sociologist, pragmatist and publicist

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

It became hard to miss at some point: dealing with the social ramifications of transformation processes, most of the bachelor’s and master’s theses that I supervised quasi-automatically started off their research efforts with a recurring motif, formulated in the following or similar way: ‘The digital age is advancing and unstoppable.’

It became quite evident that these scientific publications were reproducing a widespread sense of helplessness that we were being ruled by an ‘idea’ or ‘system’ offering absolutely no opportunities for human agency, or, at best, only very small windows for superficial change. There is a sense that this transformation is so profound that critics, looking for a dramatic term, made use of the medical term ‘digitalism,’ which originally described the intoxication from ingesting the digitalis plant. Since 2010, this term has been rattling around the many utopias and dystopias (another buzzword) created by our fully datafied artificial reality.

Like it or not, the term ‘digitalism’ also conjures up other images. When, on 15 August 1989, a 32-bit chip prototype produced in socialist East Germany was presented to the then chairman of the State Council, Erich Honecker, his thin voice expressed the following piece of poetry: ‘Neither an ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of socialism.’ Replace the word ‘socialism’ with ‘digitalism’ and the ‘unstoppable progress’ of the digital age mentioned above turns into a subtly resonating historico-philosophical principle: a type of ‘historical materialism 4.0’. Indeed, soon after this utterance, version 1.0 of this historical materialism came to an end.

Is history repeating itself on different terrain? It might. Thankfully, though, we are currently seeing a powerful formation of a scene of critics. The term coined for them, which onomatopoetically condenses the way they struck into the brave new system of artificially intelligent digital convenience products, underscores that they might have to be taken seriously: ‘techlash’.

These people are in no way stubborn swing rioters, scared chickens, or scribbling ‘war profiteers’ peddling an opportunist philosophy of impending doom. They increasingly include highly reputable critics and ecologists, denouncing the resource usage of the mass-datafication, and prominent figures of the IT start-up scene itself – all too often, repentant inventors with billions in the bank. Some of these former garage greats are indeed now shockingly outspoken, comparing our addiction to data with the addiction to hard drugs. Very recently, the journalist Maria Ressa corrected a much beloved image at the innovation conference ‘Digital Life Design’ (DLD) in Munich, which, for a long time, was the high mass for near-religious digital utopias: ‘Data are not the new oil. They are the new plutonium.’

The public falls back on its learned helplessness. It will not help to repeat again and again that the ‘narrative’ (another one of those words) of artificial intelligence as the invention of a Silicon Valley-based Dr. Frankenstein is not only nonsense but also catastrophic for innovative solutions to human problems. We will see if this argument is effective. But this is exactly the challenge we are faced with. The ‘2020 Challenge,’ if, towards the end of my essay, I may use one of those snappy buzzwords myself.

Indeed, ‘neither an ox nor a donkey’ will be able to ‘stop’ digitalism but only a small scene of imaginative innovators and expressive engineers, who understand the current techlash as a momentum for change and themselves as the spearheads of an intelligent art.

Prof. Dr. Holger Rust is an economic sociologist, pragmatist and publicist. He lives in Schleswig-Holstein. His book ‘Rettung der Digitalisierung vor dem Digitalismus’ (Rescuing the digitisation from digitalism) was published in 2019.

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