One for the luddites

Technology initially appeared to be the perfect storm, something that would enable each of us to fulfil our intellectual potential. During the time of the electrification of western society at the start of the 20th century, David Nye spoke of ‘the American technological sublime’, a concept established on the assumption that the rise in mechanical influence and intelligence would play a central role in the formation of Americans’ sense of selfhood. Technology, it was thought, would inevitably become a platform for individuality, to express the right to the self and celebrate our unique distinctiveness. Fast forward 100 years, and the reality, couldn’t be further from this notion.

In his literature in the 20th century, Henry Adams, whose father Charles was the secretary of Abraham’s Lincoln’s presidential administration, spoke at length of dehumanising effects of technology. Against traditional thought at that time, he predicted that it would pose a series of social challenges and questions and would eventually stifle human expression. To see evidence of his concerns, we needn’t look further than the stratagems of major companies of today, who have eroded the social and moral fabrics of our society in pursuit of profits.

Much of human social interaction is being shunned by our addiction to the machines and as a result we have lost the basic right to privacy. Apple and Google were reported in The Drum last month as having received a surge in requests from the US government to obtain user data after requests for such material surged to a six-year high in the first half of 2017.  With every passing day,  Adams’ view that new technology ‘had become a nightmare at a hundred kilometres an hour’ appears an accurate one with the luxury of hindsight. Gus Hosein, executive directot of Privacy International this week echoed the concerns of luddites such as Henry Adams. “From October onwards, people applying to visit the US will have to hand over their social media accounts and passwords” he predicted. It is becoming clear that man is disciplined to the machine, and that we will be unable to liberate ourselves from these mechanical sounds of phone messages and recordings that occupy our lives on a daily basis.

The relationship between technology and humanity as it stands today is indeed being transformed, and in turn places us under more risky conditions. Around the time of their conception, the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter promised to emancipate us and to serve as a forum to express our idiosyncrasies. Yet beneath the surface lies a far more unsettling reality. Yesterday I was listening to the audio rendition of Franklin Foer’s Guardian long read, which centred on the proliferation of algorithms used by the likes of Facebook to track and study customer behaviours, with the purpose of accumulating and eventuality selling the data. This method has dictated much of how corporations and marketers formulate their marketing ideas, essentially cutting corners, while media companies heavily depend on them to recommend and deliver streaming content and adverts.

Back in January, John Hegarty declared a rallying cry to creatives not be discouraged by the suffocating influence of these algorithms and reject the atomisation of humanity. ‘It would be wonderful if we could simply feed a number of assumptions into a databank and wait for the suggested actions’. Indeed, many marketing professionals believe that this is the future — predictable, assured and safe. But life is not like that and neither is marketing’. Hegarty proceeded to highlight the examples of Steve Jobs and James Dyson, who did not depend on predictive analytics and data to tell them what to do. Rather ‘they built those companies by backing their own beliefs, innovating with technology that changed the way we think and behave, and then communicating those beliefs through the use of broadcast and other media. Persuasion and promotion’.

It is however important to consider that technological disruption is a healthy practice which is provocative and has transformed the possibility of reaching a mass target audience. While ’creativity’, has indeed come out of the spotlight, it will ultimately remain be an essential ingredient to any successful campaign. In the meantime, whilst computing grows at the expense of humour and engagement, nothing will ever an improvement on human interaction. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are responsible for our actions and ultimately decide how much technology we permit to influence our lives and that Facebook connects us only if we permit it to do so.

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