Technology, itself, cannot be “evil”

This post was originally published on February 4th, 2013, over at my other blog.

In many of the tech-heavy circles I run in—start up culture, Silicon Valley or tech industry culture, and, to a lesser extent, even hacker culture—there is a profound apathy for and reticence to engage with people of more passionate politics. On the other hand, in many of the politically active circles I run in (especially mainstream anarchist communities), radicals and moderates alike seem to have a deeply ingrained distaste for technology.

Oh, sure, they begrudgingly use technologies. But, much like a cigarette smoker may feel obligated to preemptively point out the unhealthiness of their habit, for some reason, it seems necessary to preemptively note one’s own hypocrisy for complaining about Facebook on Facebook.

This reached a head today when I saw someone I respect for their politics and work and lifestyle and kindness and everything else I know about them proclaim that “the Internet is clearly evil.”

Ugh. I replied:

While I can appreciate and even share much of [the author’s] perspective and approach to this situation, there is a lot of ignorance evident to me in this thread. As a radical and a social justice technologist, that bothers me a lot.

Most technology, like most hammers, are actually simply knowledge-things, i.e., physical (or electronic) manifestations of ideas. If you understand the idea, you can learn to talk to the technology. If you can talk to the technology, you can at least influence it to awesome effect. And if you can influence or even outright control the technology, then you don’t need to fear it to such an absurd degree as to call an inanimate, amoral thing “evil.”

At the end of this admittedly verbose message are links to a few simple browser tools I recommend you install to better shield yourself from the kind of advertising and tracking you are concerned about. But my point is this:

It is foolish and self-sabotaging to see a tool used for evil purposes and conclude that the tool itself is evil, rather than the way it is being used. To use a crude and simple analogy for the sake of illustration, would you condemn the Pink Pistols, an organization that trains LGBTQIA people in the use of firearms for self-defense, as loudly as I suspect many of you would condemn the National Rifle Association? You would be foolish if you did.

Technology has no morals, nor ethics. Technology simply exists. It is functionally a sophisticated hammer, which is little more than a sophisticated rock. This doesn’t mean a world that has hammers in it is the same as a world that only has rocks in it, as in much the same way that the birth of a new person (or subculture, or movement) shapes the world in which they were born, so too does the birth of a new technology.

And that means we need to understand it, treat it with respect, learn how to communicate with it, and imbue our interactions with it with the same values and principles that make us ethical, compassionate human beings.

That is what I do not see Facebook doing. And it is also what I do not see you doing[…].

A famous phrase is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The recently-coined corollary is, “any sufficiently technical expert is indistinguishable from a witch.” Think about what the “good guy” magic-users in your favorite stories did with their awesome powers. Glenda the Good Witch and Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example, both used their “magic” to share knowledge and offer—not take, but offer—leadership and assistance (for what is compassionate leadership if not an offer of assistance?).

The Web is actually a fantastic example of a technology that gave individual people (like you and me) more control over their experience of advertising than any other in the history of advertising. Why else do you think Big Content like Disney and Viacom and Clearchannel spend so much money to buy laws that criminalize the most basic facets of computer use? (We are all already computer criminals, whether you know it or not.)

Ad blockers, mentioned earlier in this thread, work because everything you see on your screen is determined by your User Agent (hereafter UA), the technical term for “thing you use to browse the Web.” The UA is the extension of your biological tools, like your hands, and can still be commanded with precision just like your hands can be. I wrote in 2009 that, “To many designers, […] the fact that users can change the presentation of their content is an alarming concept. Nevertheless, this isn’t just the way the Web was made to work; this is the only way it could have worked. Philosophically, the Web is a technology that puts control into the hands of its users.”

You can learn to talk to your technology if you want to and have the community support to do it. But even if you don’t, you can rely on other Glenda the Good Witches and Obi-Wan Kenobis (like me, I dare say, acknowledging the arrogance inherent in this statement) who do.

In other words, like it or not, The Revolution is going to need Information Technology people. It is in no one’s interests to demonize some of the tools we need to use to make the world a little less unfair. So, please, don’t.

As promised, here is a list of useful software that I recommend everyone install, since they block ads and marketing trackers and require literally 5 minutes to learn (in total, not individually):

If you’re willing to put up with an additional learning curve, then also consider installing:

I’m happy to discuss this topic at further length and in further depth, so anyone interested in doing so is invited to send me a “friend request” or have a look at my website:

Sorry this was verbose. This matters to me. And it’s personal. Thanks for listening.

My friend conceded that “when you give the argument that a tool is ethically neutral, i agree with you up to a point. I definitely, you know, like freedom fighters with guns and hate cops with guns.” But still, my friend had a legitimate grievance, and I wanted to make sure that point wasn’t lost either:

And I don’t disagree with you […] that there are currently more people and more societal resources that seem hell-bent on using this particular tool for evil rather than for good. Just the other day, I posted:

…what I’m saying is, firstly, that the environment in which we live currently both actively provides material support for dreaming up and manufacturing Shit We Don’t Need as well as actively punishing people who do things that are purposefully designed to mitigate some of the world’s horror.

Secondly, moreover, what I’m saying is that there is such an obscene disparity between the available resources for the former versus the latter that I am thoroughly disgusted to the point of hourly depression by both the existence of this disparity and, further, the ways so many people are seemingly NOT vocally and continually disgusted by this disparity.

I just don’t think it serves us in this case to say the tool is evil rather than what people are doing with it. That kind of thing really muddies the waters, which, bluntly, helps cops, not us.

One of the reasons this kind of thing hits me so close to home is because of the many ways people often seem to care more about protecting polite fictions than a person’s well-being. As a hacker (which is not limited to technical “witchcraft,” mind you), my expressly articulated purpose is to align more people’s expectations with what is possible, not what is polite.

Moreover, when terrible things I know are possible are already happening while at the same time people who could do something to help mitigate or even prevent the terrible thing from happening opt to protect a polite fiction, I get angry about it. And I don’t think anyone who’s apathetic or greedily self-serving in the face of such terrible things deserves the honor of being called an ethical person.