The Life Enhancing Technology
Institutional Communication Service
14 January 2020
In view of the two-day conference on “Rethinking digital myths. Mediation, narratives and mythopoiesis in the digital age” organised at Università della Svizzera italiana on 30-31 January 2020, we propose a series of insights into a few myths of the digital age, with contributions from our own faculty and from guest lecturers and researchers. After the first piece on the fall of the Cyberspace myth (Paolo Bory, Philip di Salvo), the second piece on the myth of analog media (Simone Dotto, Simone Natale), and the third piece on the myths in television and the myths on television (Luca Barra, Giuliana C. Galvagno), we propose the last analysis by Luca M. Visconti and Gabriele Balbi, professors at the USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, who critically reflect on a popular narrative: life-enhancing technology.
The digital world is efficient and democratic as much as it is thaumaturgic. It helps us eat healthier, train more regularly, take a rest or drugs, enjoy music or trips more easily, maintain better interactions with public bodies, and even reduce our carbon print.
Digital corporations offering apps (e.g. Facebook Messanger, Tencent, Tinder, WeChat, WhatsApp), e-marketplace platforms (e.g. Airbnb, Amazon, e-Bay, Uber), web sites (e.g. Baidu, Google, Instagram, YouTube, Wikipedia), and technological and “smart” devices (e.g. Apple, Huawei, Microsoft, Oppo, Samsung) often exploit this narrative (and several others) in order to increase their offer’s penetration with end- and business customers. Collectively—by means of self-narration and of narrative processes and institutionalisation, in collaboration with the media—, these companies have imposed the contemporary myth of life-enhancing technology (as an example, please refer to Google Founders’ letter at the occasion of the company’s 2004 IPO). Digitalisation develops a system of products and services around each customer, in such a way to augment his/her abilities, potentialities, and life quality. To do this it relies on its computational strength, information (the big data economy), extensiveness (the 24/7, always-on society), and increasing “smartness”.
Aetiology of the Myth
The economic and political interests supporting this myth are overt. Rather, we question how the life-enhancing technology myth has been possible within today’s socio-cultural milieu. Firstly, our society and markets are still profoundly indebted to the Enlightenment and positivism. Domination of reason over emotions, present (and, even more so, future) over past, and science over humanism has paved the way to a linear and optimistic vision of time, meaning that human knowledge is cumulative and thus augments over time. As such, progress is inevitable, inexorable, and even “natural”. Grounded in this vision, digitalisation has been presented as the “digital revolution”, hence constituting a fracture with the past—archaic, painful, dangerous, and primitive—that foreshadows a simpler, safer, and happier future. A life-enhancing technology, in fact. On top, a salvific ideology that is pursuable at a global and transcultural scale.
Secondly, the postmodern critique, which developed in the 80s and attenuated in the new Millennium, has eventually just strengthened this “techtopia”. Among the postmodern discourses that have paradoxically benefitted scientism, we highlight the postmodern celebration of individual power (i.e. personal agency). Digital companies have incorporated this discourse to argue that their products and services are to empower the consumer/the individual. Similarly, the postmodern valorisation of emotions and desires, in opposition to the positivistic valorisation of rationality and efficiency, is today contributing to the diffusion of the digital, since tech adoption has become the expression of a collective desire to remain connected, share, thrill and be thrilled. Some consumer researchers describe this social and market condition as the “networks of desire”, which Facebook’s mission “bringing the world closer together” well illustrates.
Consumers Confronted to the Myth
When digitalisation is salvific and the incarnation of progress, it becomes unquestionable. No consumer would dare describing himself/herself as old-fogey and reactionary. Confronted with a digital world qualified as “smart”, no one would accept to be “the stupid”. As Kozinets notes in the paper mentioned above, any opponent of the life-enhancing technology is marginalised and ridiculed, as a mere expression of anachronism, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and even abjection. A kind of Hamish, Quaker or hippy resisting the inevitable. In doing so, digital corporations gather massive consensus among supporters and silence their opponents. Albert O. Hirschman well noted that within functioning organisations, members have three options: loyalty, which they use to manifest consensus with the organisation; voice, which they use to manifest disagreement and support organisational change; and, exit, which they pursue when no change is possible. Today, whoever disagrees with the life enhancing technology myth stands in a situation of forced loyalty. Expressing disagreement would expose him/her to marginalisation and derision. In addition, when the digital becomes the ultimate standard, no alternative options are pursuable, which leads to a condition of market imprisonment (i.e. a locked-in condition).
We do not deny the merits of digitalisation on individual and collective well-being, yet we want to say that the life enhancing technology myth warns about the distorting and intimidating effects of the ideologisation of the digital to serve mere economic and political interests.