‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed in 2011, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents.
Airbnb makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.
An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee.
This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.
There are good reasons to feel excited about this new generation of startups. They create new efficiencies, for a start. They enable individuals in need of services to find people ready to provide them. They activate a community’s latent resources – spare rooms, unused cars, gear tucked away in tool sheds – creating new markets for renting and sharing, and new lines of income for micro-entrepreneurs. Sure, they are disrupting the status quo – but so what? Given the state of the world, our societies could do with a little disruption. The companies that own the social operating systems are valued in millions and billions, and who’s to argue with that? Those of them who have figured out how to monetise their communities are highly profitable engines of economic growth.
But we must also take a critical view. The new social operating systems are demolishing established industries, and destroying jobs and lives in the process. While they create new jobs, these are not the same jobs in the same industries. Blue collar bodies litter the scenes of these acts of creative destruction. Taking a broader view on the implications of these developments, we might ask whether young tech wizards are really the best people to be redesigning social systems. We are rapidly moving into a world that is thoroughly configured by software design. We have never experienced such a world before. We have no idea what kinds of problems these new designs will create. Will social reputation systems serve as a reliable subtitute for the consumer protections offered under law in existing service-based industries? The answer is unclear. The same goes for worker protections. The sharing economy offers real opportunities for cash-strapped micro-entrepreneurs. But this economy is built on precarious labor. Micro-entrepreneurs lack health care, workplace insurance, and superannuation. We need only look back to the 19th century to see the conditions that prevail when a workforce operates without a social safety net.
Diving deeper, there are some important philosophical questions that are being ignored in the startup bonanza. The basic ethical question of whether society wants to be disrupted, for a start. Startup entrepreneurs treat societies and economies as raw material to be hacked. Did we citizens ask to be hacked? The answer, quite simply, is no. What right, then, does a tech startup have to ‘rearrange the bits’ of social reality, regardless of the human costs of the activity? Capitalism has always been a force of creative destruction, it is true. But the new generation of social operating systems take disruption down to street level, where it directly impacts the lives of ordinary people, as opposed to corporations. From an ethical point of view, this is a highly questionable activity. Yet the ethical question is rarely, if ever, addressed in the business press. Only outsiders, such as tech critic Evgeny Morozov, seem to be sensitive to these issues. From a west coast perspective, the tone of Morozov’s critical missives smacks of the bitter impotence of an east coast intellectual railing against the fact that the world has changed. In reality, it reflects an ethical sensibility that is notably absent from the dominant discourse. We should clone Morozov many times over.
Diving deeper still, we run up against the ontology of Silicon Valley, its underlying theory of reality. This ontology can be summed-up in the phrase: ‘Hack everything!’. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, champion of the hacker way, hackers see the world as an imperfect prototype. Zuckerberg claims: ‘Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo’. On the face of it, the hacker way is appealing. Who doesn’t want to play around with creative alternatives and explore the possibility of making things better? The hacker way makes perfect sense when applied to machine parts, circuit boards, and code. Applied to social reality, however, it has alarming ontological implications. Treating reality as raw material to be hacked changes the way that we think of it. Reality shows up as a neutral field of resources that can be moved about, uncoupled, recoupled, tinkered with, and exploited. It’s as if the world were just an n-dimensional field of object-resources. Nothing has inherent value. Everything is manipulable.
Is this a healthy way of looking at the world? We could have a long discussion about this. Is it a responsible point of view for digital architects setting out to revision the structure of society? My guess is that most people would answer no. Yet this is the ontology of some of the most successful new companies in Silicon Valley. It is the unquestioned background for entrepreneurs and investors at the forefront of the social startup boom.Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) would not have been surprised by this state of affairs. Heidegger died as the internet was being built. But his critique of technology, developed through the the 1940s and 50s, anticipates the internet and casts social operating systems in a critical light. From Heidegger’s perspective, the hacker way, applied to social reality, reflects an alienated view of the world. Heidegger calls it: ‘technological enframing’. From the standpoint of technological enframing, reality appears as a field of abstract resources amenable to manipulation. If software is eating the world, it is because the world has been enframed in a technological light, reimagined as a set of valves, wires, and diodes to be hacked.
Technological enframing is more than just a way of thinking about the world. It is a way of revealing ‘Being’, or reality. Heidegger’s major insight, introduced in Being and Time (1927), is that human beings are ‘world disclosing’ entities. We disclose the world in different ways depending on how we engage with people and things. When we ‘let beings be’, taking a hands-off approach to dealing with people and things, respecting their right to exist independantly of our concepts and concerns, reality appears as realm of infinite depth and mystery. But when we come at things with the demand that they meet our needs and fit with our concepts and systems, the world shows up differently. Reality appears as the mirror of our own activity, full of more or less useful stuff at our disposal.
This is technological enframing. Heidegger looks back to antiquity to understand how technological enframing came to dominate in modern societies. In ancient times, Heidegger maintains, human beings had a different way of dealing with things. They let beings be. Artisans and craftspeople stood back to let being reveal itself before representing it in art. Farmers learned to work with the climate and seasons; craftspeople with the grain of wood and stone; hunters with the migratory flows of beasts, birds, and fish. This receptive attitude toward nature continues today in indigenous societies. Yet, it seems quaint and outmoded in the industrious world of technology. In the European world, Heidegger argues, the shift came with the rise of science and machine technology. Scientific conceptual frameworks enabled men to categorise the world, while machine technology gave them the tools they needed to dominate it. Thus commenced the wholesale enframing of nature, which continues to this day. Instead of standing back and accommodating ourselves to reality, we ‘set upon’ and ‘challenge’ the world to reveal its hidden wealth. In a disclosive rejoinder, nature becomes resource. Heidegger writes: ‘The earth now reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil a mineral deposit. … Air is set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy…’ Everything becomes an opportunity for objectification and exploitation.
Heidegger was wrong about many things. His conservative politics (Heidegger was a committed member of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1934) have led many to assume that his philosophy is not worth reading. Yet, in this one respect, Heidegger is undoubtedly correct. Technological enframing is a definitive feature of modern life. We adopt this point of view (or something like it) in our daily practical activities. Planning involves enframing. Project management involves enframing. We enframe the world by sidelining any serious reflection on the things that we are dealing with, conceiving them as mere resources or capacity that we can apply in a systematic way. In our defence, we might argue that this is a pragmatic way to live. If I’m building a house, I don’t need to meditate on the ‘being’ of things; I need to know what tools I need to build the house, what materials I need to purchase; what cash flow I can tap into to fund the build, and what legal codes I’m required to observe. Tools and materials, money and practical knowledge: these are the kinds of resources that we need to get things done. The rest is for philosophers. We simply can’t walk around ‘letting beings be’ and hope to keep up with the demands of practical life.
It is true that sometimes we need to enframe the world to get things done. It doesn’t follow, however, that Heidegger’s critique is mistaken, and it certainly doesn’t follow that we should ignore the warning that it presents. The fact that technological enframing is an important feature of contemporary life supports Heidegger’s argument, instead of standing against it. It indicates that we need to be mindful of the way that we engage with the world, assuming that we want to avoid treating people, living beings, and other natural phenomena as mere resources. This is precisely what Heidegger finds objectionable about enframing: it diminishes the ontological standing of things. Consider the example of a river. The river may have run its course for ten thousand years. It may have spawned a trillion fish and nurtured a billion ecosystems. But the moment that humanity builds a hydro-electric dam on the river to convert its energy into electrical power, technology takes ontological precedence. The river becomes a supplier to the grid, a source of electricity production. The people who live on the river may disagree, but chances are they are on the outside of technological society. For governing technocrats, the river is a resource. It is something that functions within a technological system created by humankind.
This is the fate of everything in a technological age. Nature, the world, and everything in it becomes a function of technology. It is understood in terms of a technological system created by humanity, not as an autonomous power independant of human existence.
Let’s bring this back to the critical perspective we were developing on the ethics and ontology of Silicon Valley startups. How does Heidegger’s critique of enframing apply?
First of all, Heidegger’s critique casts the ‘hack everything’ attitude in an unflattering light. Instead of being a simple, pragmatic way of looking at the world, the hacker way can be seen as an ontologically-transformative attitude that enframes reality as field of manipulable resource. This attitude is unproblematic when applied to inanimate objects. It is highly problematic, however, when it is applied to the social and economic structures of human life. Human life is not hardware. Social and economic systems are not strings of code. To treat society in this way reflects an impoverished point of view, symptomatic of an alienated experience of the world. It diminishes human life. It may be where the money is, but it is no way to build a better world.
This leads us to a second insight, which will be even more troubling for progressive startup entrepreneurs. The discourse of the ‘sharing economy’ puts a feel-good spin on technological disruption. By emphasizing the aspect of sharing goods and resources, we are able to portray social operating systems as the cutting edge of the ‘new’ economy, where people come first and social benefit is paramount. There clearly is a great deal that is new about social operating systems and the companies that design them. If Heidegger is right, however, there is also a deep line of continuity that links them to the ‘old’ economy that they are trying to replace. Proponents of the hacker way claim that they are trying to make the world a better place. Yet, in seeking to hack the fabric of society, they contribute to the grey malaise that industrial capitalism forced on the world, treating human beings as things to be manipulated and exploited for profit.
The new startups may not lop the tops off mountains and strip mine their resources. But they perpetuate the callous disregard of industrial capitalism just the same. This conclusion will jar with the self-assessment of tech progressives, many of whom are genuinely concerned to make a positive difference in the world. We must note that it only applies to a subset of tech entrepreneurs – those who treat social reality as raw material to be hacked. It is possible to design social operating systems that are based in a more respectful and circumspect outlook on the world. We need to take a human-centred approach to software design that puts real people first.
If you want to positively rewire the social and economic fabric, take a deep dive into the world and engage its complexity. Go into local communities and ‘let being be’. Find out what makes local economies tick. Identify their pain points and design social solutions for them.
Immerse yourself in the reality of life. Don’t forget that you are designing for human beings.