Virginia Heffernan’s Twitter bio once described her as “something like a critic.” Her reluctance to fully embrace the title is understandable, given that most of what passes as technology criticism today tends either towards gadget reviews or curmudgeons bemoaning the loss of what makes us human.
Somewhere along the line, critical writing about technology became equated with a reactionary disapproval of progress. How can one argue against this wonderful thing that is meant to make us fitter, happier, more productive? Yet, as Heffernan writes, “Every year another book with a title like The Shallows or The Dumbest Generation…condemns the Internet with no less righteous indignation than our Tory pamphleteer.” Our most widely recognized tech critics—Evgeny Morozov, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, and Jaron Lanier—declare the folly of thinking that technology is capable of solving all our problems, while their literary counterparts—Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith—worry that 140-character writing will erode their craft and moralize about the deterioration of culture.
It seems inconceivable to most of us that “our” leaders should stoop to the tactics of the world’s worst pseudo-democratic dictators who would go to almost any lengths, the less ingenious the better, to claim a popular mandate (and, for what it is worth, in my view it is inconceivable). Yet, at the same time, it is hard entirely to banish the suspicion that our own complacency could actually be blinding us to what those in power might be doing to get their way. There is also a very long pedigree to these anxieties about how far you can trust what the voters are supposed to have written on their ballot papers. Electoral fraud of that kind is as old as democracy itself, and was an issue even in the famous ancient Athenian institution of “ostracism” – usually taken to be a canny system of keeping the elite in check, and a far more radical deployment of popular power than any modern referendum.
Watching Game of Thrones this season, you may have asked yourself: Is something wrong with my television? Surely there is some other setting that would brighten up the inside of Bran Stark’s cave, or heighten the contrast between Cersei Lannister’s robes and the shadowy chambers of her prison cell. But no, that’s just the way the show is supposed to look. And Game of Thrones is not alone.