‘Decomputerize?’ Over My Dead Laptop!

This week, I wrote a dystopia of the dystopians, an extrapolation of current wishes among the anti-tech among us about dangers and regulation of technology, data, and the net. I tried to be detailed and in that I feared I may have gone too far. But now The Guardian shows me I wasn’t nearly dystopian enough, for a columnist there has beaten me to hell.

“To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution,” declares the headline over Ben Tarnoff’s screed.

He essentially makes the argument that computers use a lot of energy; consumption of energy is killing the planet; ergo we should destroy the computers to save the planet.

But that is a smokescreen for his true argument against his real devil, data. And that frightens me. For to argue against data overall — its creation, its gathering, its analysis, its use — is to argue against information and knowledge. Tarnoff isn’t just trying to reverse the Digital Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. He’s trying to roll back the fucking Enlightenment.

That he is doing this in the pages of The Guardian, a paper I admire and love (and have worked and written for) saddens me doubly, for this is a news organization that once explored the opportunities — and risks — of technology with open eyes and curiosity in its reporting and with daring in its own strategy. Now its writers cry doom at every turn:

Digitization is a climate disaster: if corporations and governments succeed in making vastly more of our world into data, there will be less of a world left for us to live in.

It’s all digitization’s fault. That is textbook moral panic. To call on Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fuelled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.”

The Bogeyman, in Tarnoff’s nightmare, is machine learning, for it creates an endless hunger for data to learn from. He acknowledges that computer scientists are working to run more of their machines off renewable energy rather than fossil fuel — see today’s announcement by Jeff Bezos. But again, computers consuming electricity isn’t Tarnoff’s real target.

But it’s clear that confronting the climate crisis will require something more radical than just making data greener. That’s why we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

To decarbonize, we need to decomputerize.

This proposal will no doubt be met with charges of Luddism. Good: Luddism is a label to embrace. The Luddites were heroic figures and acute technological thinkers.

Tarnoff admires the Luddites because they didn’t care about improvement in the future but fought to hold off that future because of their present complaints. They smashed looms. He wants to “destroy machinery hurtful to the common good.” He wants to smash computers. He wants to control and curtail data. He wants to reduce information .

No. Controlling information — call it data or call it knowledge — is never the solution, not in a free and enlightened society (not especially at the call of a journalist). If regulate you must, then regulate information’s use: You are free to know that I am 65 years old but you are not free to discriminate against me on the basis of that knowledge. Don’t outlaw facial recognition for police — as Bernie Sanders now proposes — instead, police how they use it. Don’t turn “machine learning” into a scare word and forbid it — when it can save lives — and be specific, bringing real evidence of the harms you anticipate, before cutting off the benefits. On this particular topic, I recommend Benedict Evans’ wise piece comparing today’s issues with facial recognition to those we had with databases at their introduction.

Here is where Tarnoff ends. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the greatest progressive newspaper of the English-speaking world coming out against progress?

The zero-carbon commonwealth of the future must empower people to decide not just how technologies are built and implemented, but whether they’re built and implemented. Progress is an abstraction that has done a lot of damage over the centuries. Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.

Save us from the doomsayers.