Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future

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Why write about the future? I’ve never seriously tried to predict the future, a fool’s game if there ever was one. Most science fiction writers are perfectly aware of the contingent nature of the future, and prefer to think about how new technology, and the new abilities it affords us, might alter our lives and habits and culture and institutions.

Today, 24/7 technology reporting offers us constant, hazy glimpses of possible futures. In one, we might downvote an obnoxious stranger at a glance with augmented reality glasses. In another, we can live, work, and sleep in an autonomous pod on wheels. The details don’t matter, like whether the pod is made by Google or VW or Ford – what matters is whether this vision provokes desire or distaste in us. And by ‘us’, I don’t mean humanity as a whole, but individuals, all of whom have some degree of choice about how they approach that future.

Some degree. One of the depressing realities of the 21st century is how we’ve  become ensnared by global capitalism such that if you want to live, work, and socialise with your friends and family, you don’t have any choice about the technology you use. Sure, you can choose between Apple and Google, and Instagram and Snapchat, and Gmail and Outlook, but if you want a job, if you want to stay in touch with your friends and family, if you want to get invitations to birthday parties and weddings, you will use a smartphone, an instant messaging app, an email provider, all of which are made by the same three or four corporations.

Our seeming powerlessness runs head-on into the abuses of power by those very same corporations. Even if you are concerned about Facebook’s policies, what difference would it make if you deleted your account? Should you stop using Uber and use Lyft? Or not use ridesharing at all? Just how bad are we meant to feel about joining Amazon Prime and exploiting warehouse workers? If have no choice over what technologies we adopt, and if those technologies exert more and more power over our lives, how can we hope our lives will be better tomorrow than they are today, other than hoping that corporations won’t “be evil”?

I don’t know why Prof. Shannon Vallor’s book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, attracted so little notice when it was published in 2016. Perhaps it’s because she counsels a middle path between starry-eyed Silicon Valley techno-utopianism and deeply conservative techno-pessimism. Perhaps her formidable academic credentials are seen by journalists as inferior to working at Google as a design ethicist for a few years. I really couldn’t say.

Regardless, Technology and the Virtues is the most useful, thorough, realistic, and hopeful book I’ve read that explains how we as individuals, and as a global species, should evaluate how we should use and choose technology today and in the future. Vallor, a philosopher of technology at Santa Clara University, claims that today’s technologies are so powerful and pervasive that our decisions about how to live well in the 21st century are not simply moral choices, but that:

they are technomoral choices, for they depend on the evolving affordances [abilities] of the technological systems that we rely upon to support and mediate our lives in ways and to degrees never before witnessed.

which means:

a theory of what counts as a good life for human beings must include an explicit conception of how to live well with technologies, especially those which are still emerging and have yet to become settled, seamlessly embedded feature sof the human environment. Robotics and artificial intelligence, new social media and communications technologies, digital surveillance, and biomedical enhancement technologies are among those emerging innovations that will radically change the kinds of lives from which humans are able to choose in the 21st century and beyond. How can we choose wisely from the apparently endless options that emerging technologies offer? The choices we make will shape the future for our children, our societies, our species, and others who share our planet, in ways never before possible. Are we prepared to choose well?

This question involves the future, but what it really asks about is our readiness to make choices in the present.

Upon which principles should we make those choices?

Continue reading “Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future”

From Justice Leagues to Solos: The birth of a new Box Office meme

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Last weekend, a torch was passed in modern box office history. No longer would Justice League, Warner Bros’ supremely expensive $300 million superhero team-up that grossed an astoundingly low $657 million worldwide (and only $229 million in the US) be used by box office aficionados as the standard unit of measurement for other, better movies, such as Black Panther, which has grossed approximately 2.1 “JLs”.

That burden has now passed on to Solo: A Star Wars Story. With a budget of $250-350 million and a worldwide gross that, judging by its opening weekend’s dismal performance, could be under half a billion, the new standard unit is “Solos”.

This may strike you as being rather mean-spirited, but the jokes are borne out of a genuine horrified fascination of how two blockbuster franchises could have performed so poorly. Yes, Justice League came off the back of the execrable Batman v. Superman, but surely any movie with the so-called “DC Holy Trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (plus those two other guys) would at least manage a billion worldwide? And granted, perhaps people are getting tired of seeing four Star Wars movies in as many years, but who wouldn’t want to see another Han Solo adventure?

I’m not going to delve into why Justice League and Han Solo have performed so poorly (well, OK, briefly: a combination of bad movie-making, poor publicity, too many directors, and most importantly, an utter lack of interest in the subject matter). I’m more interested in how box office tracking has become a surprisingly popular pastime on the internet.

I’d long been curious about box office figures, largely via Box Office Mojo, which was the first website I’d discovered with free daily updates and good commentary. I can’t recall just how I stumbled into Reddit’s r/boxoffice – maybe I was excited to find out just how much money The Force Awakens had been making and wanted to read more hot-takes.  There are 33,200 members of r/boxoffice, which along with the massive Box Office Theory are the two main hubs of box office discussion.

I have a few theories on the rise of box office tracking:

  • More data: It’s only recently that box office data has been quickly and freely available to the general public. Both supply and demand have rise due to the growth of the internet in general; the data certainly existed in the past but wasn’t interesting to enough people to warrant publishing every day. These days, major films will receive multiple estimates a day, all of which fuels discussion.
  • Real-time data: Some territories including the UK and China now have fairly reliable real-time box office data, sourced or scraped from cinema websites. I found Applaudience for the UK via r/boxoffice, and Maoyan for China is particularly impressive.
  • Lack of transparency from other media: It’s much more difficult to obtain reliable revenues and audience numbers for TV, videogames, apps, and streaming services. Numbers occasionally leak out from industry insiders and paid reports, but for the most part, fans are left guessing – especially for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
  • Franchise and business fandom: The “MCU” and “DCEU” (Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe) are almost a century old and filled with passionate fans. It’s no surprise they’re intensely interested in how much money Ant Man and The Wasp could make, because that will influence the movies, comics, TV shows, and games that come afterwards. What’s more unusual is the growth of business fandoms, where people will identify with particular platforms,  brands, and studios like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Blumhouse.
  • A changing market: The explosive growth of superhero franchises is just fascinating to watch amid the general destruction of the cinemagoing audience, who are universally defecting to streaming services and video games.
  • The measurement of everything: We measure the worth of everything by numbers these days, like review scores on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Letterboxd. Box office figures provide a firehose.

And now for some sweet JL/Solo memes:

 

FYI, I thought Solo was fine. Justice League was awful, though.