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Technological Determinism, Dystopian Worldviews, and Narrative Fallacy

By Michelle Johnstone

Writers aware of utopian and dystopian responses to technology tend to be cautious in applying a prophetic spin when writing about technological innovation (Kling 1996). Jenna Wortham, a journalist for The New York Times, forgoes this caution in her “On Technology” essay, “How Alexa Fits into Amazon’s Prime Directive” (2017). The article is Wortham’s review of the benefits and implications of Amazon’s new voice-activated, Siri-esque smart assistant, Alexa.

Alexa is a small wireless speaker that responds to voice commands. Wortham begins the review by describing Alexa’s ever-expanding list of programmable tasks: Alexa can “order you an Uber or a pizza, check your bank balance, control your TV, turn your lights on and off and even measure your car’s carbon-dioxide emissions” (2017). Alexa can also place an order on Amazon for any product available on the e-commerce platform. Arguably, Alexa offers “a much more efficient and manageable life, one in which you can outsource mundane tasks while you do something more important, like spend time with your family” (Wortham 2017). So, what’s not to love?

Wortham only briefly flirts with the life-enhancing features of Alexa before launching into a critique of how the device is deeply embedded in Amazon’s quest for “omnipotence” (2017). Or, their mission to be the retailer we turn to for everything from dish soap to men’s Handerpants. She finishes the article with a distinctly dystopian reflection on the need for instant gratification and our lack of willpower: “We are being conditioned, as a population, to never wait, to never delay our gratification, to accept thoughtless, constant consumption as the new norm” (Wortham, 2017). Not only does Wortham paint a dystopian picture, her closing argument also exudes an air of technological determinism.

Technological determinism (TD) is “the belief in technology as a key governing force in society . . . [It] affirms that changes in technology exert a greater influence on societies and their processes than any other factor” (Mackenzie & Wajcman 1999). Importantly, technologically deterministic arguments tend to reduce human agency and the ability to choose in the face of new technology, erasing the complex processes through which technologies are accepted (or not) by a given society, workforce, or social group.

Another way we can think about technological determinism is as narrative fallacy. Brad Stone, in his book “The Everything Store,” recalls Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ definition of narrative fallacy as “the way that humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but over-simplified stories” (Stone 2013, iv). These over-simplified stories are precisely the type that technological determinism lends itself to, and that Wortham falls prey to in her review of Alexa.

While focusing on the individualistic effect Alexa might have on our behaviour, Wortham fails to address some of the more daunting implications of Amazon’s new smart assistant. Regarding Amazon’s aforementioned quest for omnipotence and the role Alexa plays in that scheme, Stone writes the following about the e-commerce platform’s immediate ambitions:

[Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos’ long-term goal is to sell everything, everywhere . . . He will attempt to move faster, work his employees harder, make bolder bets and pursue both big inventions and small ones, all to achieve his grand vision for Amazon — that it be not just an everything store, but ultimately an everything company (Stone 2013, 27).

To make her dystopian claims stronger, Wortham could have impressed upon us the economic misfortune the loss of brick and mortar stores might impose on small businesses and the labour displacement that could occur at the non-human hands of Amazon’s delivery drones and automatized distribution centres. Wortham privileged the cognitive and behavioural implications of Alexa but she ought to have pointed to all of the jobs that could be erased and replaced with drones. Just as Uber moves towards the self-driving car, Amazon moves towards self-delivering household goods.

But Alexa, on her own, is not likely to produce any kind of change. If the changes forecasted come to pass, they will do so through multiple channels: policy, consumer participation, economic means, and so on. Contrary to Wortham’s argument and to popular belief, we—as consumers—have a great deal of control over what new technology we choose to accept and what we choose to leave behind. Ideally, as time goes on, we will become more and more adept at assessing what kinds of innovations serve us, and which ones are detrimental to the fabric of our political and economic lives.

References

Kling, R. (1996). Hopes and Horrors: Technological Utopianism and Anti-Utopianism in

MacKenzie, D. A., & Wajcman, J. (1999). The social shaping of technology. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Rotman, D. (2016, September 01). How Technology Is Destroying Jobs. Retrieved January 28, 2017, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/515926/how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/

Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Smith, M. R., & Marx, L. (1994). Does technology drive history?: the dilemma of technological determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Wortham, J. (2017, January 24). How Alexa Fits Into Amazon’s Prime Directive. Retrieved January 28, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/magazine/how-alexa-fits-into-amazons-prime-directive.html

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