Do You Oppose Bad Technology, or Democracy?

David Golumbia
11 min readApr 24, 2019

Calls to Limit the Use of Bad Technologies Only by Law Enforcement and Governments, Largely Via “Ethics” and Self-Regulation, Exacerbate Rather than Ameliorate the Anti-Democratic Harms of Digital Technology

Recently, more of us have started to realize just how destructive digital technologies can be. That’s good. As someone who has been nearly screaming about the topic for over two decades now, I can only say that it’s about time.

Yet one of the most prominent strains of this criticism is one that we should be almost as concerned about. Among other things, it is a big part of what got us here in the first place.

This line of argument says that the solution to a technology being deeply destructive is to prohibit governments, and only governments, from using it.

Source: https://www.securityindustry.org/2019/02/21/state-legislation-to-curtail-facial-recognition-technology/

Not just “governments,” of course, but inherently, democratic governments, since authoritarian governments aren’t going to take the work of activists and critics seriously to begin with.

Only in the digital age, as far as I know, has such a perspective even been mooted as reasonable.

Rather than being a fringe perspective, it’s a core part of the most prominent ideology associated with digital technology. The ideology, called by scholars cyberlibertarianism (a term developed by philosopher of technology Langdon Winner) or the Californian Ideology (a term introduced by media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron; media studies scholar Fred Turner has also done particularly important work in recent years tracking these politics), combines fundamentally right-wing political assumptions, including opposition to government, with, in the words of Langdon Winner, “ecstatic enthusiasm for electronically mediated forms of living.”

WIthout cyberlibertarianism, it is difficult if not impossible to understand the arguments some technology critics are recommending.

The latest and most pervasive example of this argument is found regarding facial recognition technology (FR), especially FR fueled by machine learning technology; related concerns have come up regarding autonomous vehicles, among other technologies. Critics have rightly pointed out that FR is discriminatory, perhaps unavoidably so, because there is no…

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David Golumbia

Professor, Writer on Digital Studies, Language, Theory