The three stages of our relationship with Tech, according to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard
When I joined Google in 2013, the company was regularly ranked number one employer globally and received millions of applications every year. Seven years and countless controversies later, attitudes towards Big Tech have drastically changed, a backlash which The Guardian and then more news outlets have referred to as “Techlash”.
The question of where such a swing in public opinion leaves us has been troubling me for some time. One the one hand, trust in large tech companies has never been lower. On the other, their stock price and the number of people using their products has never been higher.
Is it possible to love and to distrust something all at the same time? To make sense of this tension in philosophical terms, I had to go back to my philosophy textbooks from high school. I believe Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard might have a fruitful answer, even though he wrote over a hundred years ago.
Consider Kierkegaard’s theory of the three different stages of life, which he laid out in his first published work Either/Or. During the aesthetic stage, we put the emphasis on the things that bring us immediate pleasure without necessarily considering what those things do to our communities at large. Later, in the ethical age, we become aware of the necessary trade offs and start to find pleasure in committing to long term projects and relationships that have a net positive value beyond our individual selves. But Kierkegaard clarifies that between the two stages comes a period of irony, where we reject everything that is offered to us and are deeply conflicted between the things that we need and the things that we want.
I believe Kierkegaard’s analysis offers an explanation for our shifting attitudes towards Tech.
1990s, 2000s: The aesthethic stage
Most people’s attitudes towards Tech in the years 1990s and 2000s was nothing short of idealistic.
As a dreamy eyed graduate, you could join a big bank or consulting firm, have massive economic impact but not find spiritual solace in the mission of your organisation. You could work for an NGO, be in alignment with your values but strapped for cash. Or you could take a job in Tech and have all of the above.
Tech at the time gave the exhilarating feeling to be part of something much bigger, a technological, economic and cultural revolution that would change the world for the better. Platforms offered endless opportunities to invent new business models and, as a professional, to figure complex things out. Bean bags and ping pong tables were the external traits of a working culture which deep down, welcomed differences and ‘being yourself’.
For many, taking a big tech job felt like taking their revenge on life. Engineers who for long, in banks, NGOs or governments had been seen as the nerds, were finally heard and placed in the limelight. For LBGTQ+ employees like myself, tech was a refuge.
When I applied to Google in 2013, I thought about what that company meant to me. YouTube had helped me come out as gay by opening me up to a community which, coming from a rural background, I had never had the opportunity to encounter. Thanks to YouTube I finally felt accepted. YouTube had shown me the value and power of openness. I was bought in the dream of Tech and determined to let more people and organisations experience it.
My experience was not an exception. We collectively fell in love with Tech for both the immediate benefits it brought into our daily lives and for the ideals it represented.
But then our relationship with it soured.
2010s: The irony
Since the late 2010s, our relationship with Tech has started to change as we have become more aware of the toll its products can take on society. I distinctly remember when that shift occurred for me. It was a story about experiments that a research firm had conducted on social media and which showed that the posts users saw and the frequency at which they saw them could directly impact their mental health. In hindsight and with everything we now know about the pervasiveness and power of social media, such a finding seems unsurprising. But at the time, tech products were for me still in the category of aesthetic things which are good in and of themselves. The realization introduced cognitive dissonance. How can a product which I so enjoy myself be at the same time so harmful to others, in a different context?
Story upon story, the years 2010s have made us realize the hidden sides of Tech and with them the things we did not know we wanted in the first place, like privacy, or digital wellbeing.
These new desires have introduced tension and contradiction. We want tech to make our lives easier, but we do not want to share our data away. We want to improve our online reputation and have more followers, but we want to stay safe from criticism. We lament the size and power technology platforms have, but we crave the efficiencies of scale their very size allows.
The ironist according to Kierkegaard does not propose a new vision for society. They question the world around them endlessly and point out the flaws in new initiatives or lines of thinking.
Much akin to the philosopher’s views, the answer a lot of people have resorted to now is rejection. It is easier to reject Tech outright than to face its contradictions, which often times are a reflection of our own.
The media in particular has at times been guilty of irony by analysing every new tech announcement from the angle of rejection instead of digging through the dilemmas of the Internet.
I believe this is doing a disservice to our ability to fully step into a new stage.
2020s: The ethical stage?
Fully stepping out of irony if we follow Kierkegaard’s line of thinking requires that we resolve our contradictions when it comes to our relationship towards Tech. This will be done by designing and committing to long term principles which are good for society as a whole even if they are not always good for ourselves individually.
Already, we are seeing signs of the changing times. The French government is defining through a democratic process what constitutes ‘hate speech’ on social media, so it can better be combatted. Microsoft has committed to become carbon negative by 2030. Many of my friends are taking resolutions this year to be more mindful about how they use their phones or certain apps.
We should not view the process of rule-making as a loss of freedom. Much like the establishment of democratic government itself was a process of subordinating people to rules so they can paradoxically become more free from one another, the rules we design for the tech industry have the potential to free up our time and our mind space.
These are in a way very exciting times for system thinkers to work on tech issues. What should be the rules of the Internet? Which are the ones which companies should impose upon themselves? Which are the ones which governments should democratically craft? Which are the ones which we should create for ourselves as individuals?
In his book, Kierkegaard makes it clear that the ethical stage does not come with less happiness or less enjoyment than the aesthetic stage. Humans find in stability and commitment a joy which they do not find in wild dreams. Similarly, I believe the tech industry is ripe with opportunities for change, from creating economic opportunity to close the income gap to helping solve climate change and protecting the institutions that we hold dear.
Rule-making for tech will mean taking responsibility. It’s a mission that will call on principled and smart regulators to step up. It’s a mission that will require citizens to be informed and engaged. And it’s a mission that will take mission-driven tech insiders.
All three options have to progress concurrently so we can create the rules for the ethical age of the Internet.
Let’s get to work.