Nearly 50 years ago, long before smartphones and social media, the social critic Lewis Mumford put a name to the way that complex technological systems offer a share in their benefits in exchange for compliance. He called it a “bribe.” With this label, Mumford sought to acknowledge the genuine plentitude that technological systems make available to many people, while emphasizing that this is not an offer of a gift but of a deal. Surrender to the power of complex technological systems — allow them to oversee, track, quantify, guide, manipulate, grade, nudge, and surveil you — and the system will offer you back an appealing share in its spoils. What is good for the growth of the technological system is presented as also being good for the individual, and as proof of this, here is something new and shiny. Sure, that shiny new thing is keeping tabs on you (and feeding all of that information back to the larger technological system), but it also lets you do things you genuinely could not do before. For a bribe to be accepted it needs to promise something truly enticing, and Mumford, in his essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” acknowledged that “the bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe.” The danger, however, was that “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.”
This is a useful survey of Mumford’s work, and a reminder of how little what I call the Standard Critique of Technology has progressed in the intervening half-century. That’s why I am increasingly focused on seeking some way of evading the situation that Mumford so incisively and disturbingly identifies: “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.” There is of course a radical way to become unbribed: to go off the grid, to disconnect wholly. But is there a way less radical? Throwing the toothpaste away is simple enough, though perhaps not easy; but can you get it back into the tube? That’s what I, coward and weakling that I am, want to know.