Charismatic technology

Charismatic technology - the connection between politics and the high-tech sector

In the Startup Nation, the government adopts technological solutions for any problem that may arise, and reaches a position of power of the kind that leads to a political-administrative crisis

In the current public debate about the new government, the technology industry is raising its voice. There was the letter which warned against the planned legal coup, there was an organized protest, and in recent days, venture capital investors have already warned that investment in the country may come to a stop. These raise the question of how, if at all, the sector is related to the deep crisis in Israeli politics.
With measured caution, and without underestimating the importance of economic, social, demographic and other factors, it must be admitted - it is related. There is the clear, well-documented and fairly agreed-upon context across many countries on earth, which includes the assumption that the information revolution and the establishment of social networks created simplistic and cheap possibilities to spread a lot of wrong information quickly, which in turn contributed to the decline of the press, reduced trust in institutions and gatekeepers, and weakened democracies. But the connection is much deeper than that, and it concerns not only the economic and social changes that the sector creates in general structures, but also the way elected officials and bureaucrats in Israel have adopted worldviews and mechanisms that belong to the sector to solve problems.
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איור ruten tech מדור הייטק
איור ruten tech מדור הייטק
Charismatic technology
(Credit: Yonatan Popper)
For about two decades, the State of Israel has been captive to the "Startup Nation" narrative, boasting its transformation from exporting oranges to technology and its establishment as a wellspring of quality personnel. The large capital that the industry generates or attracts is usually measured and published with obsessive positivity, often at the expense of other equally important sectors, which further contributes to the extreme attention it receives. There is of course nothing wrong with development, cultivation or general pride in a profitable or unusual field, but the dominance that this sector has taken in the Israeli public not only dominates the headlines, but also seeps up. And today it is possible to identify ideas, a world view, and a course of action that this sector promotes in political and public discourse.
The basic principles behind these behaviors come from the worlds of technology and include three components: solve, innovate and regulate. According to analyst Evgeny Morozov, these principles outline the hegemonic concept that every activity of the sector is in itself a positive force in the world, competitiveness is necessary to develop additional services and that the power of the sector can be moderated through rules and laws. With these principles it is easier to understand the general approach according to which every technology is a hammer, and every problem is a nail. And as long as technologies are deployed, success will come. This is an equation that the state applies to any problem, in the same "inevitable" and "natural" way for any technology, no matter if the social and political problems are far more complex than any that a for-profit corporation faces. Nevertheless, the narrative is the same: if the technology exists - we want it, if there is a problem - we will deploy it.

Is the Israel Police seeking to strengthen its enforcement capacity? It deploys cameras equipped with artificial intelligence on Israel's roads and continuously records the public space; Is there a burden on the legal, health or welfare system? We will look for artificial intelligence tools that will prioritize files according to predetermined indicators. And if a pandemic broke out? We will operate a tool to locate all mobile devices on all residents of the country. And what if there’s a shortage of teachers? We will promote a hybrid system of studies. Does the financial system require reform? We’ll initiate a celebratory hackathon to solve problems using blockchain technology.
These mechanisms do not work equally in all countries. There are countries where it is not possible to adopt, assimilate and then deploy new technologies on a large scale to the country's residents and there are countries that can. There are countries that produce clear frameworks to protect the privacy of residents and there are those that do not. There are countries where it is not possible to plant surveillance devices on suspects' phones without a warrant, and there are those where it is. There are countries that outline a policy to monitor all of these through experts from academia and layers of bureaucracy, and there are some who are in the habit of asking technologists from the private sector to lead the programs.
What is the problem with this concept? It includes many ethical flaws such as biases, fake information, and concentration of power. It passively relies on economic mechanisms to achieve social goals, and no less important - includes exaggerated promises regarding the technology to present a complete, proper solution, or one that at least definitely serves the citizens, not rule or power. Adopting a flawed method that is not intended for running a country in any case creates a vacuum of responsibility, reduces attention, reduces imagination and the ability to solve problems in a complex and holistic manner.
But this is not the only problem. In a 2012 essay, anthropologist David Graeber asked in Baffler magazine: "Where are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, the teleportation facilities, the immortality cures, and the Martian colonies?" Graeber wondered in his characteristic style where the future imagined by Jules Verne or "Back to the Future" was, why we are not living the lives we imagined so many years ago.
The reason for the disappointment is that our expectations about the pace of technological change are simply unrealistic. This is not a mistake. The technology sector, as mentioned, insists on maintaining and spreading two competing themes: an attitude according to which technology can solve everything, alongside exaggerated promises. The reasons for this are many and convoluted, related to economic and political structures, capital allocations and transition to technological developments that are related to the imperative of a free and decentralized market, not the imperative of a centralized collective. The result is less than perfect. Thus, billions may be invested in ventures with great collective value, for example developing a cure for cancer, but even more is invested in the development of drugs like Prozac or Ritalin to ensure that the demands of the labor market do not drive us completely crazy. And even though billions of dollars have been invested in the development of automation, factory jobs are still around and the technologies ultimately deployed first and with great success in recent decades were those that proved to be particularly good for surveillance, work management and social control. We can perhaps be proud of the way computers have created a new space of freedom, but we must remember that they did not lead to a utopia of a world without work and with much leisure, but created exactly the opposite effect. More working hours, stricter work regimes and the destruction of traditional job security.
The future technology companies have planned for us, and which governments inevitably adopt, has two facets.
The first is not really a future, but an alternate dimension where flying skateboards, deep space travel, and self-aware robots exist in the unknown time. And the second is a utopian future that is already being worked on today, but unfortunately it is shallow and is the product of hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the development of a super "smart" cart, a platform for employing cheap labor from all over the world, a new crypto wallet, optimization of ads, tools for monitoring and tracking the movement of workers, raising female chickens or a new iPhone. It would be better if they invested in imagining a future where there are more doctors and more social workers, where workers have bargaining power and can move freely, and residents don't have to fear that they won't have a (non-leaking) roof over their heads.