Technology and Oppression, 30 Years Ago and Today

Thirty years ago this week, the Super Bowl featured an ad (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) for the soon-to-be-released Macintosh computer, in which Apple implicitly compared the dominance of Microsoft operating systems and IBM computers to the oppressive dictatorship of George Orwell's 1984. Apple's Board of Directors apparently hated the ad, but Steve Jobs insisted that it air, probably because he understood how critical it was to building Apple into not just an identifiable brand but a statement of personal identity. If you use a PC, Jobs was saying, you're a drone, a cog in the wheel, someone who has been stripped of your individuality as you labor for the Man. Whereas if you use a Mac, you're a creative, youthful individual forging your own way in the world and subverting the dominant paradigm.

Part of the reason Apple has managed to sustain that brand identity for so long is that there was always some truth to their argument. Nobody really loved Windows, but you had to use it because everybody else used it. On the other hand, Windows in its many incarnations has usually been good enough, and even its occasional frustrations aren't exactly comparable to life in East Germany circa 1957. These days, we hear a lot about technology as a force of liberation, but not so much about technology as a force of oppression. But that may be starting to change.

A couple of days ago, a group of protesters showed up at the Berkeley home of a Google engineer who works on self-driving cars, distributing flyers saying that the engineer "is building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control, and automation." I suspect we're going to start seeing more of this kind of anti-technology protest in the coming months and years. Without knowing anything about the people who participated in this, I'm guessing that it's a group of young people whose fervent desire to be part of a revolution is being channeled in this direction, whereas if it had been a few years ago it would have found its expression in anti-globalization activism.

That isn't to say there aren't legitimate concerns about privacy and technology that we should all be thinking about—I write about them frequently. But shouting at one engineer at his house isn't how you produce change; it's the kind of thing you do when your real goal is to feel like you're taking on the powers that be, without actually accomplishing anything. The missing piece is persuasion, which skilled activists understand is central to any effective protest. I wouldn't be surprised if Code Pink got into the technology protest act before long, since highly visible and utterly useless grunts of protest is their specialty.

It's interesting that after going to the engineer's house, the protesters headed over to a bus stop where Google buses pick up employees to take them to the company's headquarters, and protested that for a while. You may have heard about the Google buses (other tech companies like Facebook have them as well), which have become controversial in recent months. Depending on your perspective, the buses are an efficient way to get employees from their homes in and around San Francisco to their workplaces in Silicon Valley, allowing them to work on the way and keeping some cars off the road; or they're a symbol of a two-tiered society in which tech overlords ride around in air-conditioned, wifi-enabled splendor while the rest of the proles shuffle to their badly-paying jobs in a city they can no longer afford to live in.

The thing is, the Google bus issue has really nothing to do with the question of the surveillance society. One concerns all of us, and the other concerns only those who live in the Bay Area. There's no question that San Francisco has indeed been besieged by a bunch of callow, prematurely rich tech douches whose pernicious influence has begun to rot the city. For instance, the Mission used to be a somewhat gritty neighborhood where recent immigrants could find cheap rent and excellent taquerias, and rub shoulders with dudes who had tattoos back when that meant you were a dangerous character. Today, the neighborhood has been taken over by the digital plutocracy, and a one-bedroom apartment there averages $2,600 a month.

This is a problem for San Francisco, but it isn't a problem for America, and certainly not for humanity. Nobody in Boston or Houston cares, or should care, about the price of an apartment in San Francisco. Inequality is a critical problem, but San Francisco's particular variety of inequality doesn't tell us much about how to address inequality in America, most of which has no Google buses.

In any case, we now have a situation where it isn't the hidebound, boring tech companies that are supposed to be the agents of oppression, but newer, more innovative companies like Google and Facebook. We're probably going to be seeing more political action aimed at them.

And to send you back, here's the 1984 ad:

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