Computers are bad

As things are today, computers are causing enormous harm to the world. It’s not just that they’re contributing to global warming (the enormous kaiju looming over every other problem we’ve all made for ourselves), either. Computers are damaging people and societies in clear, present ways right now. They’ve facilitated the rise of far-right political movements, aided genocides and the escalation of totalitarian policing, and created a world of normalized, pervasive surveillance both state and corporate. They empower people, sure, but mostly only within the confines of the status quo: reinforce the status quo and you’ll get rich, push back on it and you’ll be made an example of.

Computers as they exist today seem mostly to work as a force multiplier for capital. Capital investment, in narrow-but-expanding regions of the economy, can radically reduce the labor required to operate a service or produce a good. And simultaneously, they’ve allowed employers to squeeze workers harder than they had since the 1930s. Digital Taylorism is making it easier than ever to wring work from employees on the clock, whatever the cost to the employees’ wellbeing. Ubiquitous instant communication has let bosses extract labor from workers even when they’re off the clock. The two have combined to roll back some of the hardest-won gains of organized labor.

Our phones enable faceless corporate entities to spy on us every hour of the day so that someone can try to sell us something. Some spies are at least conscientious with our data, because it’s most valuable to them when only they have it. Others are just trying to make a quick buck, and couldn’t care less about keeping that data safe. These spies drive political messages, cultural production (hi Netflix!), and even policing. It is not meaningfully possible to opt out of being spied on.

Most technological development in computing ultimately supports these ends. So long as large-scale data processing and computerized services exist mostly to extract data from us, software like Kubernetes serves the spies better than it serves people. Better phone hardware helps them keep you engaged, feeding them data. Better integrations make it easier to share your family pictures with the spies, because if you want your friends to see them you’re more-or-less stuck putting them in one of the various “free” services that exists to spy on you in exchange for hosting.

Faster CPUs may make things nicer for us, but thanks to the magic of capital concentration, they benefit the spies more. Cheaper storage makes it easier to save more information about us, and faster cell phone service helps fill that storage. “Frictionless” payments just add a new middleman spy on top of the bank spying on us and the payment processor spying on us. And all this comes at the expense of the people paid near-starvation wages to extract the raw materials of computing from the bowels of the Earth.

Modern computers are opaque, so we can’t see who’s spying on us and how. They’re limited, so we can’t freely prevent the spying or work around it. They’re complex, so it’s hard to learn to understand and control them for ourselves. Computing is a force multiplier for any force that happens to come along, and so long as capitalism is the greatest force in town, computing will serve capitalism’s ends above all else. The automation computing enables makes our executives richer, not our workdays shorter or our lives better.

Out of the Tar Pit

It’s not enough to try to silo ourselves off from the “corruption” of capitalism: the GPL hasn’t stopped governments using Linux spy on half the planet, or to murder children in faraway places. Emacs doesn’t suddenly stop making coding more efficient if the code you’re writing is going to be sold to domestic abusers to spy on their partners. openssl works just as well for securing the trackers in your browser as it does securing your email. It doesn’t matter whether you adopt “open source” or “free software,” neither can actually meaningfully hamper capital when it uses our code against humanity. Computing with a human face, as it were, requires tearing down capitalism rather than just hiding from it.

But it’s not hopeless: another world is possible. We can imagine a world where capitalism doesn’t dominate our lives. And we can imagine a different computing, one shaped by the needs of people rather than the needs of profiteering spies and repressive governments. Computing is a force multiplier for any force that happens to come along, and there are other forces. The optimism of the people who believed computing would democratize the world, tear down borders, and usher in a new age was misplaced, but not because computing cannot help do those things.

A computing wielded in service of people, rather than profit, can achieve so much. We would sacrifice the annual shiny new thing, but we would win the world. Imagine pouring the collective might of automation into eliminating the most dangerous work instead of the most expensive. Imagine working toward a phone that lasts 10 years rather than a phone that weighs 10 grams less, slowing ecologically destructive & worker-killing extraction. Imagine an internet truly oriented toward tearing down the vestiges of international borders rather than selling ad space.

So long as we are bound to capitalism, we cannot achieve these things. Capitalism forces us to labor toward its ends to survive, and that gravitational pull will try to warp anything we do to benefit itself. We can’t defy it as individuals. But capitalism is not inevitable, and it doesn’t have to last forever. Another world is possible, and it’s worth fighting for.