Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto
Last week's Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa featured more than just the Governor-General's controversial remarks about climate change, creationism, astrology and other bugbears of reason. I was part of a session on "trust and expertise in the post-truth era," where some sad but unsurprising things were noted.
With the advent of social media and crossfire accusations of fake news, many traditional sources of expertise – government, the mainstream media – are now actively distrusted. Business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have lost traction. Corporate CEOs with sky-high salaries aren't trusted, but neither are academics (sad!). Meanwhile, peers matter more than strangers with credentials.
These findings, quantified in the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, offer statistical confirmation of what most of us already suspect. One finding, though, struck me as outlandish. The most trusted sector in the economy, well above food services (66 per cent), consumer goods (63 per cent ) and the despised world of finance (54 per cent), is technology – trusted by 76 per cent of those polled "to do what is right."
But this is objectively bizarre. The self-appointed gods of Silicon Valley have made no secret of their contempt for the constraints of democracy. They may value people as potential consumers, slices of market share for the next ballyhooed product roll-out, but these are individuals reduced to handy cash nodes, not bearers of rights or entities worthy of respect.
The ubermenschlich libertarians of the tech world, people such as anti-suffragist Peter Thiel and master of bafflegab Tim O'Reilly, are hailed as oracles. This despite the obvious fact that their techno-utopian futurism is socially exclusive, male-dominated and willfully blind to its own environmental and political costs. It's a very nice world if you're on the inside, no doubt, but for the bulk of the globe's population, a postnational regime of unfettered "innovation" with attendant regulatory capture and shirking of tax burdens is a living nightmare. And it's the present, not the future.
So what accounts for the high rate of trust for these priests of the transhuman, with their promises of eternal life for the lucky few and distracting phone apps for the rest of us? It's a potent brew of wonder at what Mr. O'Reilly likes to call the "magical user experience" and a kind of aspirational luxury-logic, where we overlook labour abuses and sexual harassment because of the slick product-promises they underwrite.
One can see the appeal of tech trust, of course, the secular faith in device-enabled ease that moved people to heap flowers outside Apple stores when Steve Jobs passed into the ether. But comfort always comes at a price, and hiding the costs behind the glow of your screen does not change that reality.
Technology is actually more an environment than an economic sector, as omnipresent and comprehensive as the air. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi circa 1977, it surrounds us and penetrates us. Unlike the Force, however, it is mostly executed in proprietary formats that demand constant upgrades, plus media platforms and search engines that look public but are in fact private corporations with hungry shareholders to feed.
But wait, you say: The toys! The toys! This is Candyland in your hand! Who doesn't love that?
Quite a few people, actually, although they tend to be ignored because they are the disenchanted and the disenfranchised. They realize that the apparent democratization of social media invites false consciousness, while the liberations of phone-extended consciousness enable soft slavery. You don't have to be a Luddite to think that, so, far from trusting the purveyors of our everyday zombiehood, we should be subjecting them to the sharpest possible criticism.
Indeed, why not be a neo-Luddite today? The sly ensorcellments of Silicon Valley conceal cynical realities of oppression and entitlement. It's a long con that could do with some debunking. In an earlier moment of the tech revolution, actual visionaries such as Neal Stephenson and William Gibson demonstrated what an unevenly distributed future looks like. Poverty and suffering are not illusions or glitches in the system; they are part of its intrinsic logic.
Government and media may be imperfect but at least they claim to be in the service of the people. The tinpot deities of tech don't even do that. Why do we give them the time of day, let alone our money and our loyalty? Trust me, resistance is not futile. Better yet, trust yourself.