(2020-02-20) Danco Progress Postmodernism And The Tech Backlash

Alex Danco: Progress, Postmodernism, and the Tech Backlash. Anti-tech sentiment is far from a universal stance. But it’s more coherent, and therefore more dangerous, than I think most tech leaders realize. To really understand this movement, you need to recognize it as part of a reaction to something bigger than tech. It’s a rebellion against postmodernism.

What is postmodernism, and how did we get here?

100 years ago, we were right around the peak of a movement that straddled the 19th and 20th centuries called modernism.

Modernism fundamentally cared about progress

Then came the hangover. Postmodernism began as a conscious reaction to modernism: disillusion with absolute ideals and unstoppable progress; new emphasis on subjective experience and relative change

The common threads that tied postmodern art and culture to 20th century consumer capitalism were two forces: commodification and transformation.

We did it for art, and then we did it for everything else. Over time, we perfected the postmodern “front of house / back of house” service delivery model. The back of house grinds out commoditized ingredients, and then the front of house crafts an experience, transformed and re-transformed to delight the customer.

We know it’s not real, but we appreciate it.

Once you figure out simulacra you start see them everywhere, because we increasingly interact with representations of things, rather than things themselves

On the front end, our consumption gets increasingly varied, low-commitment, and disposable: we consume in the moment, knowing that tomorrow we’ll get to choose again. On the back end, ownership gets progressively abstracted away, and insulated from its consequences.

the modernists and the postmodernists have different ideas about how to build the future. The lazy way to think of it is that modernists care about what we can make, whereas postmodernists care about what we can get

To Peter Drucker, the modernist saw progress as an assertion of human power

  • The Landmarks of Tomorrow describes a change in society which took place between 1937 and 1957, whereby the precepts of the Cartesian world-view no longer hold sway. Cause is no longer the central concept in understanding the world, but rather pattern, purpose and process.[1] He described this as the post modern world.

Drucker understood that the 20th century mindset was different. To the postmodernist, progress isn’t inevitable; it is a leap into the unknown that may or may not pay off. The postmodernist thinks skeptically about risks and tradeoffs, what it means to take that leap, and under what conditions one should do so. This isn’t how 19th century leaders and nations thought about technological progress. This new attitude comes from finance, where everything is understood as a risk. This new attitude needed a new word, and we found one: Innovation.

Innovation is more than a new method. It is a new view of the universe, as one of risk rather than of chance or of certainty. It is a new view of man’s role in the universe; he creates order by taking risks. And this means that innovation, rather than being an assertion of human power, is an acceptance of human responsibility.

Innovation means identifying a window of opportunity to move capital in, assuming the risk of value creation within that window, and then exiting as the opportunity closes.

Oddly enough, the person who figured this out first was Karl Marx.

Frederic Jameson wrote in Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism: ...fancy way of saying “everything became memes, and then memes became everything”.

The most influential media franchise today, and arguably one of the most important software products today period, is a video game that makes billions of dollars a year by selling remixed dance moves and cool-looking weapon skins. (Fortnite)

(From Dani Grant & Nick Grossman – The Myth of the Infrastructure Phase) ((2018-10-01) USV: The Myth Of The Infrastructure Phase)

Software Century: software is a fantastic template for incrementally building the future, because it pulls itself forward in a positive feedback loop I call the abundance cycle.

Today’s tech industry really is a triumph of the postmodern work ethic. No one cares about your product; we care about your adoption. No one cares about what your technology does; we care about what problems it solves for users

The first commandment of tech is Build Stuff People Want

the modernist looks at Uber and asks: but where is the progress? It’s still the same car, and it still needs a driver. It moves the same speed, burns the same gas, and gets stuck in the same traffic. What has actually changed?

I think you can generally distill down most of anti-tech criticism into two main points

The first point is “The tech industry is the worst of late capitalism.” This critic argues that the prime directive of tech companies is to move fast and break things, exploit labor, regulatory and geographic arbitrage.

The second point is “These are just stupid apps.” This critic argues that we’ve gone all-in on an innovation economy that’s fine tuned to produce profitable but pointless bullshit instead of solving any real problems

And then there’s Peter Thiel. I’ve come to appreciate that one of Thiel’s more interesting and less appreciated points of view on tech is his assertion that we have stopped believing in the future.

he specifically calls out software as part of the problem. He wrote an essay called The End of the Future for the National Review in 2011

The economic decoupling of computers from everything else

how does one measure the difference between progress and mere change?

there’s a more interesting way that you can interpret this, which is that Thiel sees software as part of a broader culture war.

In this worldview, we lost the path to technological Eden when we stopped believing in the literal and in the inevitable. As Drucker called it 60 years ago, we chose innovation over progress.

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