The Master’s Tools


Cover photo: Madrid, Spain, 2013: Installation of 150 fake security cameras on building facade with the intention of not watching over anything. © SpY

Cover photo

Madrid, Spain, 2013: Installation of 150 fake security cameras on building facade with the intention of not watching over anything. © SpY

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As always, around this time of the year, tax agencies worldwide are busy inspecting and collecting the previous year’s levies. It is a harvest season in the nation states’ fiscal calendar. We learn about the newest “winners” and “losers.” We may read the latest updates on how the five wealthiest men have doubled their wealth in the past four years, while five billion people have descended deeper into poverty.

Looking at the Forbes Top 10 Richest Men, three characteristics immediately stick out: they are all really men (it is not just a figure of speech); they are all also white; and, besides Bernard Arnault and Warren Buffett, they are all former or current CEOs and owners of relatively new technology companies: Amazon, Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX, X, Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, and Oracle.

While the existence of capitalism, the destruction of nature, the domination of women, or the impoverishment of five billion people surely do not boil down to a group of wealthy men, their group portrait is quite indicative of our times. The industrialists, the technological frontrunners of the 19th and 20th centuries, are long gone from the top. With remarkable speed, those who own and control digital, communication, and logistics-transportation technologies have amassed massive wealth and power.

The Forbes list reminds us how every new technology impacts our societies. They shape us and our interactions; redistribute power and wealth; change the course of wars. The emergence of a new technology may result in the wiping out of forests, mountains, an entire species, and countless communities as new raw materials are extracted to satisfy its appetite for “progress.” Technologies, as such, are neither good nor bad, but they are also not neutral. They are born at the intersection of different interests, struggles, needs, and ambitions. When speaking of the agricultural, industrial, or digital revolutions that result from the arrival of new technologies, we can summon the highly confrontational and violent image of a revolution where new forms of life or new social organizations break loose from an “old regime.”

In the past few hundred years, technological development has been dominated by profit instead of social or environmental needs and considerations. In the circular logic of liberalism, what is profitable must be good for society because what is good for society must be profitable. Only technologies that can be turned into shareholder profits are incentivized for mass adoption. This makes the social and environmental impacts of new technologies secondary to concerns over profitability. In turn, new needs and problems result from their impacts, resulting in new profit opportunities — we are left in a vicious spiral of “technological solutionism.”

As a result, the core of technological development has moved further and further away from society. Technologies are increasingly leading and governing social development instead of communities and societies making these developments meet their actual needs. Silicon Valley has more power over millions of people worldwide than the millions of people have over any of the algorithms written there. Developed behind proprietary walls and closed source code, we do not even know exactly how these algorithms enable, forbid, enforce, or manipulate our behaviors: the human user is merely a node in the network from which data, clicks, attention, and mental space are extracted to the largest possible extent. The maxim “if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” increasingly describes technologies that we actually do pay for.

A society cannot be free unless its technologies support a free and democratic social life. As the black feminist Audre Lorde noted, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

A society cannot be free unless its technologies support a free and democratic social life. As the black feminist Audre Lorde noted, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Toxic technologies infect people as well. For instance, the crucial question is not merely developing non-racist surveillance models but breaking out from the vortex of technological control and bringing society and its technologies into democratic processes. What kind of technological basis would empower a free society and free individual?

Valentina Ramanand’s essay will explore how starting in the 1960s, women were gradually pushed out of computer science and programming; with the gender balance flipping as soon as the industry began to show significant financial potential. “Keeping women away from the tech field means keeping a big part of the population, with its new perspectives, resources, dynamics and solutions, away,” Ramanand concludes. “Until we will be able to break with dynamics imposed and taught by the patriarchal and capitalist system, this digital revolution will not change the quality of life for the better; all the contrary it will probably worsen it.”

To improve the quality of life, we must first of all understand the technologies we use. Who has built them, and for what purpose? How do certain technologies, if adopted in scale, shape our social interactions and relationships? And how can we shape these technologies? What opportunities do they offer for profit, centralization, and domination, and what opportunities for common good, decentralization, or liberation? By answering such questions, we can form a moral and political basis for adopting and rejecting certain technologies and lead technological development in a free, democratic, and ecological way.

Maria Edgarda Marcucci’s article deals with current developments in military technologies. Starting from Israel and Palestine, where the most primitive forms of settler colonial violence are combined with the most advanced technologies of surveillance and destruction, Marcucci enters the global production of military technologies. She argues that so-called “dual-use technologies” — e.g., drones with military and civilian applications — drive this development. In uniting private companies, universities, and defence ministries into a single industrial complex, these efforts lure civil society into military imperatives.

In another article, Juraj Bednar goes deeper into the transition to “digital cash” that has gained new speed in national bodies and the European Union. Marketed primarily with anti-money laundering arguments and as “progress” against “archaic” metal coins and paper notes, Bednar argues this transition is about to lead into a hyper-controlled era of surveillance capitalism where every transaction is available for authoritarian crack-downs and toxic marketing; where undesired people can be shut off from economic and, thus, social life with a push of a button.

Finally, a fourth article, Sara Marcucci’s review of Kate Crawford’s book Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence, will continue the exploration of artificial intelligence technologies’ social and ecological impact.

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