CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Information technology and the culture wars
, July 5, 2014
Cultural commentary, of any stripe, tends to overlook the relationship between technology and humanity. It is referred to in particular instances and for particular purposes, such as boycotting this product or supporting another based on a political stance made by its maker.
Where there is commentary on the impact of a technology, it tends to be either full of praise for progress or lamenting the demise of humanity. Conflicts within the world of technology, say Apple vs Microsoft, are often seen as geeky conflicts with little reference to real life.
Culture warriors, be they progressive or conservative, tend to use technologies as tools, and think of their makers as beholden to the same values that they are.
This is a mistake, and one that was seen most recently in the case of Brendan Eich.
Eich had been appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation when it was revealed that he had donated to a campaign to support California’s Proposition Eight, which defended traditional marriage. Lurid headlines hit the internet about him being a “homophobe” and calling for his head. A few days later he resigned.
This then prompted an attack in reprisal on the “gay mafia” and Mozilla from conservatives, outraged that Eich had been “forced to resign”, with some even claiming he had been fired. The conservatives denounced Mozilla and were disappointed in Eich, who apparently wasn’t fighting for his job and the principles they held dear.
For folk at home it looked like a typical political battle over principle. The progressives wanted Eich to recant. The conservatives wanted him to fight. However, he did neither.
On his blog, Eich simply stated that “under the present circumstances I cannot be an effective leader”. He made no further comments on the issue of same-sex marriage, but wrote a bit about how much he believed in the mission of Mozilla.
This is perplexing for persons used to political warfare. Eich has not recanted his support for traditional marriage, nor has he stopped supporting Mozilla and the tech community which ousted him.
The most likely reason is that he’s telling the truth. He resigned from Mozilla not because he was forced out but because he couldn’t do his job effectively.
This is not to dispute that this was ultimately caused by the pressure from LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists.
But it does suggest that, to Eich, Mozilla’s mission is as important to him as his political stance.
Which, to persons outside the tech scene, just doesn’t make sense!
Mozilla is a company, not a political cause. If this were true, Eich should either have stayed in his job and jettisoned some of his principles, or he should have denounced the company, because it’s just a company.
The controversy makes sense only if one accepts that a tech company is not just a business, and that technologies are not “just tools”, but bring with them a particular perspective on life and human existence, and that this perspective brings with it a system of values that operates independently from wider political discourse.
This system is just as important as other concerns are for those who are part of the tech scene, because it shapes the wider culture.
Computer technology deals primarily with information, about who has access to what and how they access it. Mozilla has been at the forefront of a movement in technology that emphasises openness and the individual’s ultimate control of his use of the technology.
This is a complex topic, but one that’s of great significance in a world that is now largely beholden to the sway of private corporations which produce everything from banks to missile-defence programs and which can even control how individuals communicate with each other.
I’m not suggesting that the pressure exerted on Mozilla by LGBT groups and their fellow-travellers was justifiable. I think Eich’s critics violated the very principle of the independent merit of technology.
But, in the circumstances, I think Eich’s subsequent actions were reasonable, and even honourable. He still has great stature in the tech world, and only time will tell if he ends up being blacklisted. However, I think this unlikely.
We’re facing more and more challenges when it comes to the intersection of technology and life, ranging from particular technologies to the politicisation of those technologies. The more we get to grips with the distinctive features of the world of the folk who make the technologies, the more adequately we’ll be able to deal with these challenges, and the more we can make an impact for the common good.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).