Hyperrhiz 22

Have you tried turning it off and on again?: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the machine of broken promises

Calvin Olsen
NC State University

Citation: Olsen, Calvin. “Have you tried turning it off and on again?: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the machine of broken promises.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.r03

Keywords: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, failure, promise, loss, erasure.

Appadurai, Arjun, and Neta Alexander. Failure. Polity Press, 2020.

In Failure, Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander take on Silicon Valley and Wall Street: the two bi-coastal entities that hold a monopoly on American technology and finance. Focusing on the overlap between these monstrosities, Appadurai and Alexander examine the discourse of failure. They assert that this discourse is now driven by what they call a “regime of failure”, which Silicon Valley and Wall Street have configured “into an interconnecting apparatus that produces and naturalizes failure and creates the pervasive sense that all successes are the result of technology and its virtues” (2). The hierarchy inherent in this apparatus affords Silicon Valley and Wall Street a number of degrees of separation from failure, allowing them to push blame for the failure of their practices to the individuals on whose money these institutions rely. The stakes in Failure, then, are high, because these processes affect millions and even billions of people across the world. In their continual striving for innovation and profit, it is the hope of the massive technological and financial entities that the individuals on which they rely will continue viewing failure as part of the process—or, better, part of the “progress”—and that the repetitive nature of failure in the context of progress will cause individuals to forget commonplace series of failures and remain perpetually willing to let the next one pass unnoticed. According to Appadurai and Alexander, failure has become a commodity, and that transformation has been “achieved by building a machine of broken promises aimed at denying or dismissing the existence of failure whenever it is experienced by the 99 percent” (11).

Appadurai and Alexander are quick to admit that “the idea of the promise is central to [their] analysis of failure” (37), and their analysis of the promises Silicon Valley and Wall Street make to the 99% unveils a number of similarities. Both systems—tech and finance—promise convenience that supposedly translates into eventual comfort or happiness, and our growing dependency on technology allows them to turn luxury items into necessities. Building on Joseph Schumpeter’s entrepreneurship-dependent argument that failure is integral to the ebb and flow of capitalism (see Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942), Appadurai and Alexander classify promises made by Silicon Valley and Wall Street into three categories: Austinian, agnostic, and delayed. Technological and financial markets overlap most extensively in their use of delayed promises, or promises that drag out their own lifespan because the promise-maker knows their conditions cannot be met. A delayed promise enables companies to pass the blame of techno-failure and financial market failure to the individual citizens they pretend to benefit. This type of practice is illustrated in the relationship between planned obsolescence and the delayed promise of future upgrades. When a device reaches the point at which it has been designed to begin slowing down, draining its battery more quickly, denying access to larger apps, and/or sporadically crashing, a technology company has no need to admit failure of the device; they can simply promise to address that particular instance of techno-failure in either the next software upgrade or the next device model. Planned obsolescence and the delayed promise of a “fix” intertwine and allow for each other’s existence, slowly but surely forcing the consumer to upgrade in order to purchase a convenience their device no longer provides (41). Someone who sees herself as the owner of a device becomes in reality a commodified user.

Failure does an excellent job demonstrating how new digital platforms—apps in particular—have gone beyond simply commodifying failure and have now begun changing the notions of sociality on which they were built. Turning again to Schumpeter’s, Appadurai and Alexander examine the concept of “creative destruction” and the ways that innovation replaces old forms of sociality with new ones. Investigating Uber as a mediated employer of call-them-anything-but-employees, the authors link “the proliferation of mobile apps and their promise of convenience” to “the failure to create stable, long-lasting social structures” (48). Mobile apps, the driving force behind the gig economy, are especially efficacious as objects of this techno-social examination because they are geared toward users as the end consumer. Users are essentially co-developers, providing their apps with data points and feedback, thus ensuring its almost-continual evolution of the app even should it be repurposed as part of another app. In addition to the feedback received from users that purchase goods and services, apps that facilitate commerce within the gig economy also employ users as providers of said services. Uber presents a phenomenon in which purchasing users select a service as opposed to a particular person to provide that service, resulting in the dehumanization of the service provider. Uber drivers, then, land somewhere between human and bot, only partially existent in the gig economy which “sustains a system of exploitation and information asymmetry” (63). Appadurai and Alexander admit that previous employment models were no less oppressive, but Uber is one of many companies that exemplify the failure to deliver on their promise to drivers of enhanced productivity, freedom, and control over one’s time (67). The promises are indefinitely delayed, and most if not all attempts to report instances of app failure are denied as such. The user is dehumanized to the point of non-existence, as the app acts as a sort of middle man between Uber and its users—any errant users can be removed from service, and a series of invisible algorithms ensures that blame for failure to “use it right” moves downward to the user instead of upward to software engineers and the massive technological entity making the most profit.

Uber is certainly not alone. In fact, Failure’s strongest offering may be the litany of case studies that demonstrate ways massive technological and financial entities monetize the logic of failure. Time and time again, individual instances of failure are spun as positive aspects of technological progress and financial prosperity to the point that failure goes unnoticed. Our failure to notice these failures and, consequently, our failure to demand they be accounted for, is a result of failure becoming habitual, removing individual instances of it from our collective consciousness through sheer volume and constant reappearance. As with the Uber app acting as middle man, machines take the blame for small failures. Looking specifically at buffering as a small-but-habitual failure (yet again based on the delayed promise of continuity), Appadurai and Alexander show how machines designed to provide entertainment and information ultimately cause users to blame themselves for lapses in functionality, saying things such as, “It’s been awhile since I reset the modem,” or “I forgot to charge my phone,” rather than recognizing the “loading” GIF representing a supposedly-momentary instance of buffering is actually proof that even the term “streaming” is a practice in deceptive nomenclature designed to make everyday users forgive failure. Well on their way down the path toward learned helplessness, these users focus on the hope of reconciliation and a return to their entertainment instead of recognizing the aptly-named “spinning wheel of death” as a failure doomed to repeat itself. As a successful example of habitual failure, buffering is given a pass even as, in order to maintain the myth of its own continuity, it goes about deleting information behind the scenes to start the stream up yet again.

The invisible processes of loss and erasure also factor into the Wall Street entities built on habitual failure, which share Silicon Valley’s that hope everyday citizens will either forget individual failures quickly or passively take the blame and pay to continue hoping for them. Using the 2008 housing market crash as their final case study, Appadurai and Alexander claim that, when it comes to Wall Street, failure is commoditized by way of debt production, and the normalization of failure is the practice by which debt production is made feasible (108, 110). The high majority of risk and debt is taken on by normal citizens, and done so with a (supposedly) full understanding of its many results: people’s entire lives will be affected when enterprises go south, bankruptcy is very much real, and failure and loss are simply road posts on the way to prosperity. Their discussion of the promise machine in relation to Wall Street is the one place Appadurai and Alexander fall short, which I say as a literal critique because it seems one more chapter on it would have cemented the ideas in the reader’s mind. Work previously done by the authors—Appadurai’s discussion of the 2008 collapse being a result of linguistic factors in particular—does speak to these things, so even with this soft critique in mind the fascinating conceptual groundwork on which Failure is constructed is potent to say the least when applied to financial markets, which are themselves technological in so many ways. Failure is an exercise in interdisciplinarity rendered particularly effective in its ability to touch on concepts currently on the radar of popular audiences, from questions of digital privacy to the ramifications of the financializing futures. Failure’s call to action is a reminder to remember certain failures and their effects, but its reach extends beyond readjusting day-to-day priorities—Failure is a guide for reexamining the local and global systems threatening to indefinitely divide those of us with so much in common.