Part 1: Against Primitivism

⇠ back | date: 2019-11-24 | tags: anarchy, culture, technology | duration: 04:27 minutes

This is the first of two blog posts that will be slightly more philosophical than other texts on my blog.

For some of my regular readers this thesis might not be particularly radical, but I still feel like it warrants being said.

What is primitivism?

I think this is the most important question to ask and one that has many answers. Depending on who you ask, and what their political background is, the answer might be "a joke", or even "a slur".

In simple terms, primitivism yearns to return to a simpler time, removing technology from human lives as much as possible. This is meant to address one of the largest sources of anguish and anxiety in our modern society, removing it from the equation. In many places primitivism even frames itself as revolutionary.

The problem with this analysis is that it is inherently linked with privilege. This can take many forms. A mild form would seek to abolish the internet, personal computers and phones, arguing that letting people return to real-life communities will result in more happiness and a more "natural" life.

This fails to acknowledge that these technologies are life saving for many, giving both social outcasts and various disabled people a space to have a community.

But most often it is not those affected who make the case for these measures. Usually it is white, able bodied men that fail to understand how their perception of society is skewed because of their own biases.

An even more extreme form of primitivism would reject more general technological advancements, arguing for things to be "good" because they are "natural". This analysis, even more so than the last, ignores challenges that those who propose these solutions don't have to deal with: what about medicine, what about artificial aids?

Against the internet

It is true, that in the modern world technology has been turned against us. Large companies control the way that people interact with technology, track them, and more. While it is possible to live outside of this system, only a few people actually do. Even a lot of technologists (software developers, hackers, ...) don't fully manage to decouple themselves from the corporately controlled tech bubble. i.e. how many hackers use Google, Twitter, etc.

On some level it is understandable that the narrative of primitivism has emerged. This is not to say that these ideas are in any way new, but in a way they are making a comeback in certain leftist circles.

For someone who doesn't know how to code or has only minor technical literacy, this fight might seem lost. Approaches like the one previously outlined seem welcome. I feel it is important to point out though that the demographic of people coming to this conclusion is already skewed. More vulnerable people that are dependent on technology have a different analytical framework and come to radically different solutions (more on that in a future post)

It is this narrative that inspired these posts, at least in part. I feel that to proclaim to "blow up the internet" (for example) is lazy and counter revolutionary at it's core. It frames all conversation about improving technology and using it in our struggles to liberate ourselves as regressive, and somehow collaborative with an abusive system. Suddenly instead of talking about strategy to our solutions you are thrust to justify your work to people who misunderstand it's basis and see it as part of the thing you are trying to fight.

Misunderstanding technology

So what do I mean by that, and do I have an example? I'm not trying to say that someone has to be a programmer to critique technology. I'm arguing that the same level of engagement people would expect of someone doing art criticism be extended to tech.

There is this notion that computers are fundamentally flawed, not because they are fallible and replicate a human's biases, but because of their foundational inner workings: binary! The sheer fact that computers operate on the basic assumptions of truths and falsehoods means that there is to assume to be universal truths.

Not only are conclusions from this hypothesis often shallow and reductionist, they also misunderstand the performative, interpretational nature of computers. On the wire every signal is analog. It is the translation to binary that gives them meaning. But: this does not mean it is representative of a truth, it is merely a projection of an assumption. The same way that axioms in mathematics are not "truths", but rather assumptions to build discoveries on top of.

The same can be applied to binary data: on the wire all data looks pretty much the same. Again, it is an interpretation that turns something into a text or a picture. There is no truth to data, only relative perspective.

Computers are indeed fallible and as flawed as the humans using them. But this is precisely because there is no underlying truth to computing, only the interpretations of those who make the instructions. This is why I argue that machines are merely an extension to ourselves rather than any "autonomous" system.

I say "autonomous" (in quotes) systems, because it is another term that is deeply misunderstood. But this time it is because the creators of these systems want it to be misunderstood. This is what the next essay will cover.