A Marxian reading of Technology

Tonight I attended my first meeting of the Jacobin Magazine reading group. Jacobin Magazine is a leading leftist magazine, providing cultural, social and political commentary from a polemical leftist perspective. The reading group meets once a month in Brooklyn and provides a semi-structured conversation for readers of the magazine. This month’s topic was technology. And tonight’s readings were Technology and Socialist Strategy and Red Innovation.

Red Innovation dealt with some of the anxieties the labor force currently faces, about being automated out of a job. It brought context to this topic by discussing the history of government investment in research and development, society’s role in intellectual property rights and generally proposing a social structure that would encourage innovation without realizing some of the anxieties of de-skilling, greater unemployment or increased inequality.

Technology and Socialist Strategy dealt with the topic of technology in a slightly different way. It brought to bear different strands of Marxian theory. From discussing Marx’s approach to technology (he was generally impressed with technology, but saw clear, inherent class based problems), to Gramsci’s Fordist romance, to the late-century English labor movements - this article was a much more textured look at technology’s role in labor force and social development. One of the main lessons I took from it, and from the discussion tonight, was that any technology reflects the system in which it was built. The technologies we live with today, and the anxieties they provoke, are inherently tied to the system in which they were produced. Conversely, technologies produced in a post-capitalist system might look, feel, perform completely differently. A question that could follow from this is - will new, completely different technologies possibly usher in post-capitalism? Or does the causal arrow only flow one way?

Some of the discussions tonight, especially about technology’s role in government reminded me a lot of the general O’Reilly premise that with enough smart, efficient technology, government services can benefit everyone. This is generally a well accepted premise, and government’s not so secret love affair with technology is something we should look at critically. The same government that monitors our use of the internet, or phones, or deploys drones across the world to “accomplish goals in our national interest,” can easily be painted as a neutral, benevolent purveyor of technological efficiency for its citizens (cutting wait times at the DMV with an app, for example).

I’m far from a technophobe, but I also don’t view technology as a neutral, value-less force. Technology carries values, and we should be careful when we promote one technology over another or technology writ-large over no technology.