Sherry Turkle and Capitalist Brainrot

This is reposted from my site, engiqueering.com. You can read the original post here



Lately my reading habits have been a little all over the place, but like, in a good way. I spent most of March and early-April slogging through Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. I first read Turkle a few years ago for a university course that was supposed to be on AI and ethics. It was actually the Luddite Report because the instructor changed last-minute from the head of the CS department to a retired-humanities-professor-turned-adjunct. He knew enough to talk about using technology, but not nearly enough to talk about the ethics of basic software development practices, let alone the nuances of how artificial intelligence even worked.

That said, Turkle isn't the worst. A lot of her work is based in pretty sound psychological theory and the research she does to prepare for her books is actually better than what a lot of people in the tech field have to offer. The guiding premise of the book is that, in a lot of ways, we're letting the illusion of conversation provided by technology interrupt actual interpersonal interaction in our daily lives. Some of her most prominent examples are from teenagers who express feeling ignored and slighted by their parents who won't stop checking emails and messages during dinner, conversations with people who admit to using their phones and computers at inappropriate times, and a whole lot of people who really cement the idea "perhaps living in a digital panopticon is a waking nightmare."

Another good point she raises, and a very consistent underlying idea present in what many people she spoke to said, is that our modern social media landscape has made the constant dopamine hit of an endless stream of entertainment so prevalent in our lives that boredom actively makes many people anxious. Not even a mild anxiety either, some people are experiencing severe stress and unease simply because they are bored. This is bad for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that solitude is an important part of good mental hygiene. If our brains are always on, there's no time to sort through and process what things we've recently seen. Not to get all "social media bad", but an always-on culture marked by a complete lack of self-reflection sounds very, very descriptive of our current media landscape.

After reading it, I've actually been much more critical of myself and how I use my phone around others. Every time I pick it up now when someone else is around I find myself asking, "am I checking this because I think there's something I should look at, or am I checking it out of impulse?" And you know what? The first week after it really stuck in my mind that fear of boredom was driving a lot of my impulses to pick up my phone, I stopped picking it up so much I've had to turn up my ringer because I keep losing the fucking thing. I do get bored sometimes, but it isn't as anxiety-inducing. I can sit quietly for longer and I generally feel less constantly stressed.

Which makes this next part suck because Sherry Turkle has some real bad brain worms.

The first half, maybe two thirds, of this book was really insightful. Just page after page of going, "hm, yeah, that's a really good point. I'll incorporate that into my belief system." Then I hit a problem that I don't think I can even begin to untangle in a single post: capitalist ideology has its claws dug really deep in tech-criticism.

Those high-quality interviews I mentioned earlier start to get kinda scarce in this part of the book, instead replaced by a lot of CEO's, middle-managers, and coasting professionals who are all extremely interested in pushing the idea that asses in chairs is the only way to do "real" business. For her example of how technology is ruining communication, she talks about how several works at a company have part of their performance metric based on how often they show as "Available" on the company messaging app. This leads to a lot of workers feeling like they are constantly at work, even when they have been off the clock for hours, because they continue to send and receive work-related messages late into the night. Managers reprimand employees for having an availability time below an unreasonable expectation and become irate when their direct reports don't immediately respond to messages outside work hours.

When I hear this, I hear about out-of-control management enabled by labor laws that have yet to catch up to modern work. The words "worker abuse" ring out in my mind like a message from some angry deity of the proletariat.

When Sherry Turkle hears this, her response is that the problem is technology for making the abuse easier. This is the theme for a lot of the rest of the book: some problem resulting from capitalist-consumerism's influence on our media, academic institutions, and concept of work isn't the fault of a capitalist death cult dead-set on turning everything into a for-profit enterprise, it's the fault of technology for making the job easier. The solution to living in a corporate surveillance state isn't to make corporate surveillance illegal or to impose some kind of meaningful penalty, it's for everyone to individually fight in an unending arms race against corporate billionaires. The solution for workers working dozens of hours unpaid per week responding to a constant stream of messages isn't new labor laws, it's for CEO's and managers to willingly adopt worker-friendly practices.

This isn't just a problem Turkle struggles with though. A lot of modern writing on tech and tech ethics is EAT UP with capitalist brainworms. Whenever issues are discussed in the tech sphere, the solution always stops short of worker protections or regulating corporations. Programmers, in their infinite wisdom, see every issue as a nail to be driven down with the hammer of taking some data metric and passing it to some code. The same way Turkle thinks the solution to companies using technology to abuse their workers is for executives to simply stop doing it, tech workers seem to think the solution to their mistreatment is to work for a different company or transition to a role using a different tech stack. I've heard other people in the field say they want to escape their shitty job by making themselves "more marketable" when all of their problems are stemming from abusive management present across the industry. We need a union, y'all.

All of that said, it's a good book.

I've been reading a few other things as well but this has already gotten very long, so I'll have to save those for another post.


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