Tom MacWright

I read What Tech Calls Thinking by Adrian Daub on


I couldn’t get through this one: it was really frustrating. It’s dismissive and misses the mark on a lot of specifics.

What Tech Calls Thinking tries to pin down the philosophical references for tech thinking: drawing lines between people like Ayn Rand and McLuhan to the tech industry’s practices and ideology. It’s hard to say how this works: the book doesn’t engage with what people cite as their influences. It somehow claims that tech people don’t read these books, but also that they’re heavily influenced by them.

He wants people to connect with the academic world, but punishes them when they do. When Woody Allen references - and includes - Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, Daub claims that Allen is being elitist (because he can summon McLuhan to appear in his film) and assumes that Allen can’t possibly understand McLuhan’s theory. When David Kelley references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in a TED Talk, Daub complains that he doesn’t cite Maslow (does he want a page number?) and then assumes that Kelley has misused Maslow as a reference, using him as an ornament. In context, the reference makes sense.

I bristle at a lot of this writing; it hinges on the distinction between “citation” and “appropriation.” We cheer citation - referencing something in good faith. We look down on appropriation - using something with impure intent to take advantage of its aura. I’ve read so many books that gratuitously cite academic sources when they mention a single word (ugh, Trick Mirror). Are they appropriating those sources so that they seem more legitimate? Probably not always, but in a lot of cases, yeah! Even proper PhD-havers will cite a source without reading the author’s complete works, but they’re rarely subject to the elitist appropriation label that’s so casually applied elsewhere.

The extended discussion of McLuhan is puzzling. In Daub’s thinking, McLuhan’s writing perfectly parallels technology’s march: that he predicted the destruction of traditional media, that the medium vs. message applies neatly to social media, he furnished a narrative of historical inevitability - in the final category, it’s just hard to imagine anyone has ever had a shortage. How these ideas were transferred - given that Daub is supremely skeptical that anyone is actually reading McLuhan’s works - is a mystery.

Then we dive into Tumblr, Yelp, data policies, culminating in a complaint that social media platforms are protected by Section 230, without directly referencing that law or engaging with the actually-complicated factors at play there. Engaging with legal or technical realities is someone else’s job. Similarly, Daub claims that the Republican Party “abandoned Randianism for white nationalism in 2016”, somehow pushing aside several decades of well-reported political history. Are Pixar movies Randian. Is Ratatouille? If you believe that Rand created the idea of individual exceptionalism - which this book does - sure. Is the Whole Earth Catalog Randian? If you believe that Rand invented “self-renewal and self-reliance” - then it’s “fairly simpatico with what Rand was selling.”

In a counterargument to Rand, Daub asks “Have you ever looked at a rail line and thought, I wonder what the one genius who decided to build a bridge over this valley was thinking?” Evidently he has not read The Power Broker, which is about how one man unilaterally decided to build bridges, roads, and tunnels.

This book doesn’t really illuminate the roots of the tech industry’s thinking, because it doesn’t deeply engage with that thinking and cultural, political, and technological context. It finds a few related thinkers with limited direct influence, and uses them as a framework to hang familiar critiques.

It’s directionally right. It’s hard to be wrong about tech critiques because there’s so much about the tech industry that’s bad.

But it’s uncritical of an academic milieu that has failed students and retreated into a bubble as elitist and isolated as tech’s. And it oversells the connection between these thinkers and this industry, giving little evidence of cause or direct influence, and meandering into weird conclusions like Ratatouille’s Randian origins.