No Cure

Tech promises to cure any ailment, whether an unwelcome feeling or a global pandemic. But what if tech itself is ill? And what is a cure, anyway?

For any ailment—whether a fleeting unwelcome feeling or a global pandemic—there is a techno-cure. A new platform. Industry and governmental alliance recodified. And so on. The techno-cure offers an easy fix for what ails “us”—even if the us is actually a vague “we,” one that is not homogeneous, and whose members are not acted upon identically. If “we’re” already broken, so the logic goes, we can move fast and break things some more. And, we are told, if “we” actually are so very broken, chasing down a cure, no matter how frantically, makes good sense. There will be an app for that.

But what does it mean to “cure” something? The notion of a cure pivots on corresponding notions of concern and intervention. In order to produce the appropriate antidote, one must identify, hopefully precisely, the character of an ailment. Still, no cure is neutral—not even the very idea of curing is. An idea of illness is only determined in relation: to a baseline, to some quality of perceived and shared normality. In return, each cure brings with it its own trouble; some cures are no cures at all.

Inescapably, then, techno-cures are a dead end. The presenting complaint and the resulting cure are each a symptom of larger societal forces at work; if we can identify who is understood to be in need of a cure, who is worthy of it, and who receives it, we can follow each one to diagnose the system in which they occur. Once a diagnosis has been made, remedy may be sought. And at the ready, ever to hand, techno-optimism, and its kin, techno-solutionism, present us with a myriad of cures.

This techno-cure way of redressing the world is being called to account. Consider the hearings on Capitol Hill in 2020 on Big Tech’s monopoly power, the passage of Prop 22 in California, the stunning firing of Timnit Gebru from Google—technologists, policy makers, and scholars alike are all in the midst of running a system-diagnosis report. It focuses, broadly, on a question: Where—whether in the field of artificial intelligence or around the use of habitual media more widely—might an actionable ethics of technology reasonably flourish? This question has gone, perhaps irreversibly, mainstream: no one, even those previously inoculated against it, seems impervious now.

This has been called a “techlash.” Much of the emphasis has fallen on fuzzy terms like “Big Tech,” where Silicon Valley is treated as a specific, geographically bound ailment. But the problem is deeper, longer-standing, and more widespread than the temporality and geographies named imply.

The problem with technology is diagnosed multiply in Your Computer Is on Fire, edited by Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip. And this is so precisely because technology isn’t a monolithic illness, but a set of interrelated problems. Meanwhile, it is the ethics of the techno-crisis—how should we live, to borrow Peters’s formulation, “in the aftermath of ourselves”—that Sherry Turkle makes central in her new book, The Empathy Diaries. But perhaps most importantly, what must be remembered, as Jaipreet Virdi makes clear in Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History, is that returning to a state of “normalcy” is fraught, if not an outright category error. The impetus to cure can itself be a scourge.

In total, the techno-cure itself is the problem, as these three books make clear. And this cure-as-problem must be remedied before it’s too late—even, or especially, if it already is.


Eugenics Powers IQ and AI

By Natasha Stovall

Moving between an elegy and a litany, Your Computer Is on Fire chants the particulars of its singular, titular conception: contemporary technology is both already on fire (irremediably bad) and needs to be set on fire (destroyed). The argument is advanced by this definitive volume’s contributors across many lines of inquiry and disciplines; it is told via emblematic micro-stories of corporate, infrastructural, disciplinary, and human failure.

On the one hand, “this is an emergency”—in the words of Mullaney—requiring drastic, immediate attention. On the other hand, as Mullaney and each editor and contributor show, of course it is no emergency at all. That’s because, in the classical sense of the word, an emergency is an unforeseen occurrence. And, as Your Computer Is on Fire is keenly aware, this is anything but. Instead, the whole volume addresses at length both the crisis of the here and now and how we arrived at it gradually, via many preceding, interlinking crises.

The computer may be on fire now. But that’s only because it always was, and everything else that touches it is, too.

“Right now we are seeing the complete upending of ethical, privacy, political, and economic norms,” Mar Hicks argues in their introduction to the volume, “by powerful Silicon Valley corporations who are almost singlehandedly deciding what counts as misinformation, what counts as hate speech, and how much privacy you are allowed to have. In some cases, single individuals are making these decisions.” Names will be named and are. But not only. “Technology did not invent oppression,” Kavita Philip explains: “Historical injustices are being reshaped, revivified, and redefined by technology. It is not always possible, or even effective, to find one contemporary individual who is responsible for injustices.”

Instead, the book seeks to “destroy the very ground on which computational production, distribution, and use currently operate.” To do so, each chapter advances—via engaging with a rigorously specific space and time—“archival and lived traces” of the technological.

Cumulatively, the book is exhaustive in its re-situation of the computer. And it upends the obfuscation that surrounds some of digital technology’s most long-standing and seemingly intractable problems. The book does so while emphasizing tech labor, which gives it the feeling of being a not-so-secret manual for action and organizing those spaces (especially in the chapters by Hicks, Schlombs, Sarkar, Abbate, and Roberts).

The book, moreover, asks its readers to engage deeply with a number of key questions. Who is recognized by technology as a user or as a worker, and who is not? Who counts, and who is counted? For whom is the techno-cure available? And, for that cure (as contributions by Lawrence, Mullaney, Noble, and Thakor explore), who is mined as resource so as to provide it?

Diagnosis precedes attempts at a cure. Prognosis follows. We don’t have long, if any time at all. Your Computer Is on Fire refrains from mounting such an overwhelming critique that the reader may turn away, or one so vast it doesn’t invite action, denying letting readers off the hook via repression or turning inward to individuality as absolution.

The only chance at survival—let alone a cure—is to resign our individual, problem-perpetuating attachments in favor of the collective. This leaves us, in the words of Peters, with “the difficulty of learning to love, live with, and care for others. … The resolution, if not solution, may come to all those who learn to live together now so as to pass on a better world, and soon enough from this world.”

The book is far from just a list of ailments or a compendium of suggestions for techno-solutionism. Instead, Your Computer Is on Fire opens up a new way to think about the question, “How could we live now?”

Stripping away mystification and metaphor, each of these three books makes a claim for its own true cure and tool: history as diagnostic and the collective action that could redress it.

This ethical question is taken by Turkle’s The Empathy Diaries, a critical memoir in three acts. Turkle opens up the archives of her life, such that she becomes a subject to think with as much as an exemplary object about which to think. Whether uncovering the secrets of her family (and secrets are always multiple), examining the pain and joy of cross-class sociality and education at Radcliffe, or recounting evenings spent with Lacan, Turkle points her reader toward that which makes us human: vulnerability and, of course, the self-reflexive capacity for empathy. Along the way, Turkle offers an invaluable account, both personal and critical, of how “science and technology can make us forget what we know about life.”

It is in its third act that Turkle’s book provides a clear chronicle of how we came to our current point of technological crisis. Turkle, in fact, had a front-row seat to watch its unfolding.

Turkle joined the faculty of MIT’s nascent Science, Technology, and Society program in 1976; she was denied tenure in 1984, despite having one book out and a second under contract (the tenure decision was successfully appealed). Turkle was always positioned a bit outside that institution. This was certainly because of her training (she was an anthropologist and a psychoanalytically oriented clinical psychologist—both of which require distance and joining with the subjects under study and care). But it was also because of the work that her training yielded: Turkle is no techno-optimist, while MIT’s various labs run on the eureka of discovery and techno-evangelism.

Turkle’s critique of digital technology is one that scales from the smallest relations to the largest: from the individual home to a nation shedding democracy. As she has argued across her illustrious career, the relational, emotional life of a person—suddenly called a user—is in grave danger from the threat of technology.

What Turkle calls the “original sin” of artificial intelligence is not the creation of “smart machines” but the creation of “empathy machines.” The machines themselves now demand care, not just as infrastructure that must be maintained, but in the form of attentive engagement that redirects human-to-human conversation and companionship. Joseph Weizenbaum’s famed ELIZA experiment, Siri’s remediation of an assistant-housewife, apps that purport to perform psychological care: all these relationships are critically irreciprocal. And engaging with these empathy machines, in turn, reduces the human to an object, not a subject.

For Turkle, humans and their humanity are the ultimate cure. And, she argues, it’s not too late to “fix our crisis of intimacy and privacy. … We need one another. We are the empathy app. And we have the potential to do the right thing when it counts. It’s not too late to reshape the digital to serve the human.”


The Dark Matter of Digital Health

By Danya Glabau

Cures aren’t always what they seem, as Virdi’s Hearing Happiness makes clear. In part a critical memoir of her own life, this archival tour de force centers on d/Deafness, and, specifically, the obsessive search for a “cure.” Virdi considers centuries of questionable surgeries, tinctures, diets, and other remedies for deafness. These include dangerous airplane flights that momentarily modify the pressure in the inner ear, as well as amplification devices both analog and digital. Virdi gives us a searing history of techno-charlatanism, of peddling cures—both physically anodyne and deadly—for “restoring” hearing “loss.”

How the “cures” are peddled is, for Virdi, as much of interest as that they were offered. Such remedies don’t merely claim to repair a loss; instead, they claim to make a new kind of subject, whom one becomes as one hears (possibly again). Hearing Happiness is filled with archival advertisements for “Hearing Happiness”: the housewife who can tend the domestic hearth once more, the newly productive worker, or even a man now “fit” to serve as a soldier.

What emerges from this history, in case study after case study, is the “obsession, between ‘normal’ and ‘not-normal’ … , an ever-present commentary on the tragedy, the sorrow and shame, of difference, on the broken who are, or should be, disposable if incurable.” Virdi’s research tells the story of humans and devices. This might be moving, as in the case of Bloomsbury Group member Dorothy Brett and her beloved ear trumpet Toby. But they might be stories violent and coercive, as in the histories of hearing family members acting upon d/Deaf children without their consent: moving toward assimilation of individuals, if not the eradication of a culture.

This survey of cure and its politics, framed by disability studies, allows readers—either for the first time or as a stunning example in the field—to think about how notions of remediation are leveraged against the most vulnerable. Virdi shows us that the notion of cure “lies in the eradication and the violence that accompanies it, connects to both elimination of self and erasure of identity. It makes possible all that was impossible and unfathomable, delivers on demands but doesn’t always distinguish between the real and the fake. It only matters that it exists, this cure, and that it can deliver. If it fails to do so, then it’s not the cure’s fault. It’s yours. So much riding on a single word. Hope.” Another name for the same problem? “Cure.”

the techno-cure itself is the problem, as these three books make clear. And this cure-as-problem must be remedied before it’s too late—even, or especially, if it already is.

As these three books demonstrate, history may be the start of an antidote to the “techno-cure.” It is no accident that the four editors of Your Computer Is on Fire are historians, even if the volume draws contributions from anthropologists, designers, and information scientists.

Sherry Turkle is an ethnographer. But she is one who has always worked within the history of subjects and their objects. Here, moreover, she offers us her own history, which unfolded alongside digital and computer history in the making.

But preceding computing, Jaipreet Virdi shows us that we need to be suspicious of Big Tech and techno-optimism not just today. In fact, technology has long proceeded by, in Mara Mills’s coinage, “assistive pretext.” For example, technology not only claimed to assist those who are d/Deaf; it also ushered subjects toward new, profitable technological interventions based on these techno-cures.

Nor is techlash new; attempts at curing the techno-cure have been with us since at least the Phaedrus. But, following Sylvia Wynter, “The only cure will be a transformation of the whole society, and an entirely new knowledge order altogether—otherwise we will remain trapped in this.” Stripping away mystification and metaphor, each of these three books makes a claim for its own true cure and tool: history as diagnostic and the collective action that could redress it.


This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane. icon

Featured image: Presentation at the “Ars Electronica” museum in Austria of virtual-anatomy technology used for digitizing medical diagnostics (2017). Photograph by Ars Electronica / Martin Hieslmair / Flickr