In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading this book of talks by the ed-tech writer Audrey Watters. There are many things to recommend about it but the one that interests me most is its focus on the narrative of innovation. Perhaps reflecting her academic background in folklore, her interpretations of the mythical character of the stories that circulate within technology are really acute. These are forms of story-telling which urgently need to be identified and critiqued. As she writes on loc 1969:
Ed-tech now, particularly that which is intertwined with venture capital, is boosted by a powerful forms of storytelling: a disruptive innovation mythology, entrepreneurs’ hagiography, design fiction, fantasy. A fantasy that wants to extend its reach into the material world. Society has been handed a map, if you will, by the technology industry in which we are shown how these brave ed-tech explorers have and will conquer and carve up virtual and physical space. Fantasy. We are warned of the dragons in dangerous places, the unexplored places, the over explored places, the stagnant, the lands of outmoded ideas –all the places where we should no longer venture. Hic Sunt Dracones. There be dragons.
We can see expressions of this when reading and listening to corporate speeches within the sector. Leaders of technology firms tell stories about the battles they fought, how they rallied their troops and sought to smite their enemies. But these are the more individualised narratives. On loc 951, Watters discusses the narratives of social transformation in which technology and its putative capacity for ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ has become embedded:
What interests me are the stories that the businesses tell about “disruptive innovation” because this has become a near sacred story to the tech sector. It’s a story of the coming apocalypse –destruction and transformation and redemption, brought to you by technology. Again, these cultural remnants of an older meaning of “innovation,” a process of transformation or renewal that has religious implications. Perhaps the salvation. Perhaps deception by false prophets. The Battles of the End Times, and you must decide which side you’re on.
Should the sociology of religion treat this seriously as a religious form that’s arisen amongst a particular powerful group within extremely specific conditions? As Emilie Whitaker pointed out in a recent essay for The Sociological Review, “there is significant scope to explore the being/becoming of the transhumanist” through ethnographic and anthropological means. Perhaps these represent the leading edge of a broader-based religious form arising under nascent digital capitalism. What Audrey Watters writes on loc 975 could easily be the starting-point for an empirical study:
The structure to many of these narratives about disruptive innovation is well-known and oft-told, echoed in tales of both a religious and secular sort: Doom. Suffering. Change. Then paradise. People do love the “end of the world as we know it” stories, for reasons that have to do with both the horrors of the now and the promise of a better future. Many cultures –and Silicon Valley is, despite its embrace of science and technology, no different here –tell a story that predicts some sort of cataclysmic event that will bring about a radical cultural (economic, political) transformation and, perhaps eventually for some folks at least, some sort of salvation. The Book of Revelations. The Mayan Calendar. The Shakers. The Ghost Dance. Nuclear holocaust. Skynet. The Singularity.