Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The tech industry’s God complex is getting out of control"

As with so many topics, I first heard of this idea from or via Izabella Kaminska.
Here's a January post at her personal blog titled "God complex" although her ref riffs go further back than that.

From Salon:
The tech industry's God complex is getting out of control 
Lawrence Olivier as Zeus in "Clash of the Titans"
The Greeks had a word for this, I thought, as I worked my way through Marc Andreessen’s most recent epic tweet storm.
The venture capitalist — who has suddenly begun treating Twitter as his own personal pulpit for delivering Silicon Valley’s version of the Sermon from the Mount — was explaining to his 124,000 followers the awesomeness of the “superpowers” that emerging technology has bequeathed to each and every one of us:
A new age of wonder is at hand, Andreessen declared; a miraculous era in which our smartphones and network-accessible Web services and 3-D printers and Uber-on-demand-everything have made us all veritable demigods. The amazing things we will do with these superpowers will overwhelm the naysayers who worry about inequality and job loss and economic decline. With our new superhuman abilities, we will all be mighty Avengers, equipped to save the world from any possible crisis, and able to develop our individual potentials to the highest maximum.
But all I could think was be careful what you wish for, as I recalled my favorite — and most pithy — Greek myth, the story of Salmoneus.
Salmoneus, ruler over Elis, was a wealthy and unjust prince with an arrogant heart. He had founded a beautiful city and called it Salmonea, and he grew so overbearing in his pride that he commanded his subjects to give him the honors and offerings due to a god. He wanted to be taken for Zeus himself, and he traversed his country and other parts of Greece in a chariot meant to resemble that of the Thunderer. To accomplish this, he tried to imitate lightning with torches launched through the air, and thunder with the hoofbeats of champing horses which he drove over a brazen bridge. He even had people killed and then pretended that his lightning had struck them down. From the heights of Olympus Zeus noted his folly. He reached into the thick of the clouds, drew forth a real thunderbolt, and hurled it at this mortal, raging in madness and insolence below. The bolt shattered the king and destroyed the city he had built with all those who dwelt in it.
The story of Salmoneus occupies just one paragraph in “Gods and Heroes,” a 700-page compilation of Greek myths and legends put together by the 19th century German writer Gustav Schwab. But it is still one of the best definitions of the concept of hubris you are likely to find. And like all good Greek myths, its relevance to current affairs remains undimmed. The aspiration to have superpowers like gods is an invitation to trouble.

So watch out, Silicon Valley! Because Marc Andreessen is hardly alone in tech circles in his passion to imbue the fruits of the computer age with ecstatic digital millennialism. The Rapture is coming — only it will be delivered not by Jesus, but the Silicon Chip! At its most grandiose outer reaches, the rhetoric encompasses the dreams of post-Singularity immortality spun by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, who is convinced that it won’t be long before we free ourselves from all mundane restrictions by downloading our consciousnesses into the matrix. (Seriously.) But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the new tech zealots display annoying habit of applying the same rhetoric to the most trivial of exercises.  Consider the start-up that calls itself Superhuman – it produces  software that allows you to seamlessly update your calendars via email. (Seriously?)

Andreessen situates himself between the sublime and the ridiculous, with the added fringe benefit that he is a prominent funder of many of the companies that he believes are handing out superpowers hither and yon. And he’s worth taking seriously, because of course there is plenty of truth to this digital transhumanism. Smartphones are amazing, connecting us effortlessly to the sum of human knowledge and artistic creativity, able to summon limousines in a single click. Accidentally leave your smartphone at home, and you may well feel crippled for the rest of the day. (Or liberated, because as Peter Parker well knows, superpowers can also be a curse.) There’s a lot of digital empowerment going on these days, faster even than we can keep track of....MORE
We linked to another of her God pieces in May's "Forget Piketty or Lewis, this is the must read article of the month"