Technology has been promising the dream of a cocooned future, and our pandemic isolation is giving us the rare opportunity to see where this road leads
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- The Privileged Have Entered Their Escape Pods
- Douglas Rushkoff
- Sep 1 2020
- Word count
- 1535 words
I don't understand this article. The main theme is that we should feel guilty for using what money we have to make ourselves comfortable. During a pandemic that also means isolated. This event does highlight income inequality. Only wealthy people can now experience some of the basic comforts of the pre-Covid world. But should anyone spending money to restore some normalcy to their life feel guilty for that? I'm also not sure where the Freudian analysis of technology comes from.
Basically, as a technophile that's able to maintain a decent level of comfort in 2020 I feel directly attacked by this article without doing anything I think is wrong.
That's the rub of privilege, and why I don't like shaming it in isolation. All of us have some degree of it and live within it, and that genuinely isn't wrong. To us, it's our normal, and it stings when someone tries to turn our normal into something noxious.
But there is something to be said for privilege having its own noxious qualities and degrees, and I think one of the main points of the article is that privilege tends to be self-insulating in a way that can amplify these. The greater your privilege, the more you can separate yourself from the negative aspects of the world, and I think there's a continuum between utilizing privilege in a way that simply lets you ignore the negative aspects in the world, and utilizing it in a way that has you directly contributing to them.
My mental shorthand for this kind of thing is a common one: the "mean to waitstaff" heuristic. If you go out to eat at a restaurant, you're in a position of privilege over the person serving you. They're working, you're enjoying leisure time. They are expected to cater to your needs, but you're under no obligation to consider theirs. The relationship between you is unidirectional and functional, not mutual.
Is anyone a bad person for going out to eat? Ignoring the additional ramifications of that question imposed by our current situation in the middle of a pandemic, most people would say no. Going out to eat is a nice leisure activity. It's enriching. It lets me focus on a good meal and not all the other awful things going on in the world. My privilege enables me to ignore those difficult things and instead put my time and money towards a delicious and satisfying hedonism.
Now, if instead I'm absolutely terrible to my waiter, does that make me a bad person? Let's say I snap at them, complicate things unnecessarily, and insist on a level of service that compromises their ability to do the rest of their job, then complain about them to their manager when they can't meet my unrealistic expectations and balk at my abusive speech. In this case I'm not just personally enjoying my privilege, but I'm using my privilege to actively make someone else's life worse. This is often made worse by an accompanying sense of entitlement. It's not enough that I'm awful to the person, it's also the idea that my privilege enables me to think that I have the right to do that, and they have the right to deserve it.
Most would obviously identify this as me being terrible, and this is where that self-insulating quality to privilege comes in. In being rude to waitstaff, there's the risk that my bubble could be burst. The waiter could tell me off; their manager could stand up for them, etc. There's still a lot of potential for my negative actions to create friction for me. So, what if we could remove the potential for that to happen in the first place?
This is where the article's talk of Amazon and Instacart and whatnot come in: these services are great at hiding their frictions. Instacart lets me be a pushy shopper, demanding goods show up at my home as quickly as possible, and I can get them without ever actually interacting with the person bringing them. I can slap them with a bad review or revoke their tip after they leave, and never once do I have to consider the genuine human cost of that. To me, it's just a few taps on a screen and a cost-cutting maneuver. Nothing too bad, right?
Privilege drives our ability to find comfort, and companies and technology play to this by hiding their discomforts from us and making us feel we deserve those comforts in the first place, no matter how outlandish or demanding they are. Even if you're nice to the Instacart driver, sending them a message of thanks, leaving a good review, and giving a decent tip, does that mean a whole lot if Instacart itself is exploitative? Do you deserve to have the item that quickly, at such a low cost? Does your privilege have some responsibility for creating demand for services that are predatory?
These are rhetorical questions with no easy answers, in particular because no one of us is responsible for Instacart more than Instacart itself, but anyone who has used it cannot say they're separate from it either. I think this is genuinely the hardest truth of privilege, because even the best and nicest of us cannot escape some latent condemnations. I consider myself a nice person. I try to be fair and kind to everyone. I am unfailingly polite and patient with all waitstaff, and I constantly tip more than I'm obligated to.
I should be able to rest easy, with a clear conscience, but I know for a fact in my life that I have bought items made with slave labor. I have used services that underpay their employees. I have eaten at restaurants that underpaid their workers and skimmed tips from them. Knowingly or unknowingly, I have done things that have contributed to harming others, and it's hard to be specific about it or even feel that it's real because so much of that has been hidden from me. Everything looks great from my end: cheap clothes, great tech, good food. I love my comforts.
But those comforts have a cost, and it's often worth considering that if we're not the person paying for them, then someone else probably is.
I think you're missing the point that author is making.
What they're saying (as I understand it) is that these escape cocoons are isolating us away from the world and the humans that make all these conveniences possible.
If one doesn't have to interact with real humans here in meatspace, then you are removing yourself from humanity - theirs and yours. Why would one care about working conditions in Amazon warehouses if you never see a warehouse employee? If you don't have to leave your house, do you see the literal thousands of homeless women, men and children on the streets of their own city? If algorithms only show you what you want, will you see the ravages of climate change on our world? Will you see the shitbag things governments do to their own people?
I think the ultimate point is that the promises of the tech future, as exists now, are great but come at a tremendous cost. We need to decide what this future ought to look like, and not just accept the Zuck/Musk/Cook/Page vision. It's not about feeling guilty for buying an occulus or an xbox or whatever, it's about making careful and thoughtful decisions about tech and understanding their implications.
The screens bring the world back in, though, if you choose to pay attention, and many do.
If this were not the case, an event in Minneapolis would be purely a local issue, not a worldwide event. We are much more connected now, even those who don't go outside much.
Also, many people would have entirely lost touch with former classmates if it weren't for Facebook.
How much does sitting in freeway traffic, visiting an office, or going to restaurants or hair salons really connect you to the community? Many people's daily routines are already cocooned and seeing a homeless person on the street isn't going to do much.
And they aren't ever going to see the inside of an Amazon warehouse in person. I'd also be willing to bet that most people who are concerned about Amazon have never talked to a warehouse worker.
I won't write a long reply since it's already been covered well, but I think the main reason I ended up deciding it was a good article that I wanted to share here is because it made me uncomfortable. I'm definitely one of the "targets" of it too, but it made me think about some things from a different perspective.
I agree it’s good to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. It’s a good way to learn.
I got a very strong cyberpunk vibe from this article, and I guess the future is here even if it's not entirely cyberpunk yet. It seems to me that we're still having a lot of growing pains from all the new technology we have, and hopefully soon we can stop using it to hurt other people (I recognize that it's not going to happen in the next few years).