BOOKS Don’t Be­lieve the Hype

Scott Lud­lam on Adam Green­field’s Rad­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS -

Green­field of­fers a sharp po­lit­i­cal cri­tique of the net­worked prod­ucts that are re­shap­ing so­ci­ety.

On his blog, Speed­bird, Adam Green­field de­scribes how he set out to write a book on cities and tech­nol­ogy that went by the work­ing ti­tle “The City Is Here for You To Use”. The Lon­don-based Amer­i­can writer re­calls how an in­ter­ven­tion by his edi­tor pro­voked him to widen his scope, so that “what had started out as a rather con­strained propo­si­tion turned into a sprawl­ing sur­vey of some of the ma­jor ways in which net­worked in­for­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies shape the choices ar­rayed be­fore us”. Rad­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies: The De­sign of Ev­ery­day Life (Verso Books; $26.99) is the sprawl­ing sur­vey that re­sulted. It’s a work of re­mark­able breadth and leg­i­bil­ity that acts as both a tech­ni­cal de­sign guide and a sharp po­lit­i­cal cri­tique of the net­worked prod­ucts that are re­shap­ing so­ci­ety. Early on, Green­field sets out his am­bi­tion: “If we want to un­der­stand the rad­i­cal tech­nolo­gies all around us, and see just how they in­ter­act to pro­duce the con­di­tion we rec­og­nize as ev­ery­day life, we’ll need a man­ual.” Green­field’s man­ual reaches from the near-ubiq­ui­tous smart­phone all the way to the ghostly out­lines of emerg­ing ma­chine in­tel­li­gence. It jour­neys via the “in­ter­net of things”, aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nolo­gies, 3D print­ing and milling, cryp­tocur­ren­cies and the blockchain, ar­riv­ing at au­to­ma­tion and ma­chine learn­ing “be­fore setting us back down on a far shore whose de­tails re­main hard to dis­cern”. The reader doesn’t need any tech­ni­cal back­ground to get the most out of Rad­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies – first and fore­most, this is an at­tempt to de­mys­tify the in­vis­i­ble in­fra­struc­tures, acronyms and pro­to­cols that are busily warp­ing cen­turies-old so­cial re­la­tion­ships and eco­nomic ar­chi­tec­tures. If you’ve ever sat through a de­scrip­tion of what the blockchain is, only to emerge with less of an idea than when you started, Chap­ter Five alone makes this book worth­while. The blockchain – a dig­i­tal ledger, owned by no one and re­quir­ing no cen­tral server or au­thor­ity, which al­lows trans­ac­tions to be recorded, ver­i­fied and trusted – is the in­ven­tion that un­der­lies cryp­tocur­ren­cies such as bit­coin. It sounds sim­ple enough in con­cep­tion, but the ac­tual func­tion­ing takes you down dig­i­tal rab­bit holes where thou­sands of com­put­ers com­pete to weed out fraud or in­ac­cu­racy, and ware­houses full of servers churn through bil­lions of point­less cal­cu­la­tions “min­ing” bit­coins, con­sum­ing roughly the elec­tric­ity de­mand of Ire­land in the process.

From the out­set, Green­field’s el­e­gant writ­ing style lifts Rad­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies away from the mun­dane. At times it is sparse and de­scrip­tive; at times it is lyri­cal and al­most med­i­ta­tive.

It seems strange to as­sert that any­thing as broad as a class of tech­nolo­gies might have a dom­i­nant emo­tional tenor, but the in­ter­net of things does. That tenor is sad­ness. When we pause to lis­ten for it, the over­rid­ing emo­tion of the in­ter­net of things is a melan­choly that rolls off of it in waves and sheets.

Each chap­ter forms a self-con­tained and ac­ces­si­ble guide to the given tech­nol­ogy: what it is, where it came from, how we’re us­ing it and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, who ben­e­fits from its de­ploy­ment. The book’s most valu­able con­tri­bu­tion may be the ex­po­sure of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­la­tion­ships me­di­ated by our tech­nolo­gies. As Green­field ob­serves, “it al­ways pays to re­mem­ber that dis­tinct am­bi­tions are be­ing served wher­ever and how­ever the in­ter­net of things ap­pears”. An over­rid­ing theme of the book is the trac­ing back to these dis­tinct am­bi­tions, whether of state sur­veil­lance and con­trol or, more com­monly, the foren­sic ex­trac­tion of com­mer­cial value from hu­man pop­u­la­tions. The con­ceit that tech­nolo­gies are po­lit­i­cally neu­tral in ap­pli­ca­tion, serv­ing only the user, comes in for a long-over­due skew­er­ing. So, too, does the utopian glow of the Sil­i­con Val­ley start-up and ven­ture cap­i­tal sub­cul­tures that spawn so much of the bleed­ing-edge arte­facts this book con­tends with. The in­no­va­tions that Green­field de­scribes are over­whelm­ingly North Amer­i­can in ori­gin, car­ry­ing cul­tural DNA that has trans­planted it­self some­what awk­wardly into the Aus­tralian con­text. Al­though the im­me­di­acy has long-since faded, Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull’s ea­ger adop­tion of the lan­guage of agility and dis­rup­tion stems from this same cul­tural epi­cen­tre, and suf­fers from the same wil­ful blind spots. As many have dis­cov­ered, “dis­rup­tion” is fre­quently code for fur­ther ca­su­al­i­sa­tion of the work­place via pre­car­i­ous “gig” econ­omy un­der­em­ploy­ment. In many in­stances, as Green­field puts it, “these al­legedly dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies leave ex­ist­ing modes of dom­i­na­tion mostly in­tact”. This para­dox is cap­tured beau­ti­fully in the chap­ters that ad­dress blockchain tech­nol­ogy. Green­field sketches the tragi­comic his­tory of good-faith at­tempts to use this re­mark­able in­no­va­tion to en­able dis­trib­uted gov­er­nance and democ­racy; they achieved lit­tle more than ex­pos­ing how poorly the brit­tle and trans­ac­tional world view of the cre­ators stood up to messy re­al­ity. There may in­deed be a pow­er­ful, de­lib­er­a­tive tool wait­ing to emerge here, Green­field warns, but we haven’t seen it at scale yet. In the fi­nal quar­ter of the book, these themes be­gin to con­verge: as Green­field dis­cusses ro­bot­ics, ma­chine learn­ing and the slow, step­wise emer­gence of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, deep his­tor­i­cal ques­tions about the pur­pose of the econ­omy, the mean­ing­ful­ness of work and the value of hu­man life come into fo­cus. Green­field bor­rows blog­ger Anne Am­ne­sia’s phrase “the Un­nec­es­sariat” to re­fer to the emerg­ing global un­der­class of peo­ple who are of no use to the in­creas­ingly au­to­mated “in­vent or die” econ­omy. Eroded so­cial safety nets, preda­tor cap­i­tal­ism and in­creas­ingly adap­tive ma­chines have caught en­tire pop­u­la­tions in a vi­cious pin­cer move­ment. And, to date, the most vis­i­ble po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fi­cia­ries have been from the far right. Fierce de­bates over tech­nol­ogy’s role in sup­plant­ing hu­man labour are at least as old as the emer­gence of the 19th-cen­tury ma­chine-break­ers who went as far as sab­o­tag­ing the weav­ing ma­chin­ery that was throw­ing thou­sands out of work. Green­field charts a care­ful course be­tween the giddy con­fi­dence of those who as­sume tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to cre­ate jobs faster than it de­stroys them, and those who see the un­rav­el­ling of the work­place as in­evitable and im­me­di­ate. If there’s a cri­tique to be made of this re­mark­able book, it’s that Green­field ap­proaches only the pe­riph­ery of the event hori­zon be­hind which lies fully re­alised ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. It is in keep­ing with his de­ter­mi­na­tion to sub­ject our in­creas­ingly weird and in­con­ceiv­able present to anal­y­sis rather than de­part­ing into sci­ence fic­tion, but here I’ll put in my re­quest to the author: if you de­cide to take on the sub­ject of AI in a stand­alone book, I’ll pre-or­der it im­me­di­ately.

These are not pre­dic­tions, Green­field em­pha­sises, but pos­si­bil­i­ties.

While par­ing away at the mar­ket­ing hype, Green­field is care­ful to ac­knowl­edge those in the field whose in­ten­tions are for tech­nol­ogy to serve more hu­man­is­tic ends than mass un­em­ploy­ment and even­tual species ex­tinc­tion. There are path­ways here, he as­serts, for tech­nol­ogy and the econ­omy to re­sume their roles in ser­vice to hu­mankind, rather than the dan­ger­ous in­ver­sions he de­scribes in this book. His con­clu­sion sketches four sim­ple sce­nar­ios. The first, the agree­ably named “Green Plenty” sce­nario, de­scribes a state in which au­to­ma­tion has freed up hu­mankind to pur­sue a world that is “more or less a form of man­i­fest Fully Au­to­mated Lux­ury Com­mu­nism”. The re­main­ing three sce­nar­ios sketch plau­si­ble and dystopian am­pli­fi­ca­tions of present-day trends. These are not pre­dic­tions, Green­field em­pha­sises, but pos­si­bil­i­ties. That most of them are so chill­ing is a sharp re­minder of why a book like this needed to be writ­ten. Rad­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies was rec­om­mended to me by a friend: “This is the best book on tech­nol­ogy I’ve read – have you got it yet?” Since then I’ve found my­self pur­chas­ing ex­tra copies so I could press them on peo­ple. That’s prob­a­bly the best com­men­da­tion I could give it – in my quiet cor­ner of a rapidly chang­ing world, this book has gone vi­ral in a small, ana­logue way. Please get two copies and pass one on.

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