The Internet as Apartheid-era South Africa?

I guess impulsive self-indulgence, disguised as “speaking out” is unsurprising. We rely on a medium compromised and saturated, since its earliest days, by American, Silicon-Valley capitalist assumptions and aspirations.  Internet entrepreneurs are the pioneers of the new frontier. Baked into their products is the heroic individualist creed they grew up with. 

These assumptions include the meritocratic idea that inequality is inevitable – a necessary driver of aspirations and achievement in a country of self-made men. Western settlers wished to make a garden out of a worthless wilderness. In the tech world, this has become the belief that all change is progress, and that destruction and remaking of systems is automatically a good thing, even if the existing systems work pretty well. This is “disruptive innovation.” 

But it’s not the rebellion its admirers claim. In truth, It’s the re-imposition of orthodox Victorian consumer-capitalism. 

I know it sounds obtuse – deliberately contrary: who resists progress?! It’s our most sacred value. But why should we reinvent the wheel? Is it because it generates obsolescence where there was formerly durability, and thus fosters the appetite and consumption and that allow fortunes to be made?   

The self-made millionaire, by developing his business and his brand and his monetary value, is an analogue of the self-realising renaissance man. Pacifying the wilderness means exploiting it and its inhabitants, including our fellow humans. 

In her excellent series Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket, on BBC Radio 4, Jill Lepore, supported by Princeton Professor Jacob Dlamini, suggests that Silicon Valley accepts, without question, extreme inequality. (“sometimes when I think of what Silicon Valley is imagining, some of it seems to revive these notions of very very strict hierarchies.”) The super-rich can separate themselves completely from the destitute masses they have built their success upon, and ignore their existence. This, she claims, is not just reminiscent of various science-fiction dystopias (The Time MachineMetropolis), it is similar to the mind-set of South Africa’s apartheid regime, in which Elon Musk, one of the most influential, pioneering innovators in the tech industries, grew up. 

“Ideologically, one of the successes of apartheid [was] making white south Africans believe that everything they achieved was through individual initiative, and everything they ever got in life was through their own hard work. Never mind that, in some ways, the system was designed to give them all the benefit and to give them all the resources to get on in life… That’s how apartheid justified itself: you know, we are creating a class of successful white people… there’s a strong case to be made for the connection between the apartheid dystopia and this idealised vision of a world where the elites don’t have to share their oxygen with lesser beings.” – Professor Jacob Dlamini.

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