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Informed Dissent

Adam Greenfield understands technology and wants to explain some things to us. We should pay attention.

March 15, 2018
 
 

I went to a brown-bag lunch with some folks today talking about how to use a new software platform developed to keep notes about advisees and keep track of both problems and promise. It will replace a lot of emails and phone calls and dropped balls, but it also feels a bit like a benevolent Panopticon. I know our students have grown up in a world of constant surveillance, but I wouldn’t have liked all those notes about me trailing me through college, however well meant. The parent company’s privacy policy talks about aggregating “anonymized” data for its own trade-secret uses, which makes me nervous. A handful of data points can reveal identity if you know what you’re doing. I’ve read enough of Audrey Watters remarkable work to know how these ed tech companies are galloping along, raising venture capital, buying and selling and merging and morphing. Who know who'll own that data next? I’ll get with the program – I mean, how can you say you are not willing to help with “student success”?  - and I see the practical value, but I don’t like its underlying implications.

Radical Technologies coverPerhaps it doesn’t help that I’ve been reading a fascinating and scary book by Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. He’s a senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and has done a lot of work on user interface design and smart cities. This is no typical techno-dystopian jeremiad. He’s very well informed about a whole host of technologies that we hear a lot about but (if you’re like me) have a hard time grasping. He's a graceful writer, so even when he’s angry he’s eloquent without relying on emotional cues or nostalgia. More importantly, he thinks new technologies have a lot of potential – but if we fail to pay attention, all of its benefits will reinforce current power structures. What they call “innovation” now that "progress" has gone out of style is the entrenchment of power and wealth.

The subjects tackled include the smartphone, the internet of things, digital fabrication (you know, those 3D printers every library had to buy to be cool), cryptocurrency, blockchain, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. All of these things are being created by humans to influence our everyday lives while also pushing us out of the way. He has an answer for the problems the technological "stacks" consolidating power among a few powerful companies pose. We can’t simply disconnect, we can’t use these systems in ways that won’t reproduce our current arrangements of power. What we need to do is promote a generation of radical technologists who will rewrite the code. For those of us who aren’t already engaged in this work, he recommends we push back against the rhetoric of transcendence and don’t let our eyes glaze over when people start going on and on about the blockchain or machine learning because it will change our everyday lives.

Greenfield is a good guide to all this. He can explain how it works and what its implications are. He also has frequent moments when poetry breaks through. Here’s a sample:

At present, the internet of things is the most tangible material manifestation of a desire to measure and control the world around us. But as an apparatus of capture, it is merely a means to an end. The end remains the quantification of the processes of life at every scale; their transformation into digital data; and the use of that data for analysis, the development of projective simulation and the training of machine-learning algorithms. It behooves us to spend time thinking about what comes along for the ride, every time we invoke this complex of ideas, to consider where it might have come from and what kind of world it suggests we live in.

For me, many years of thinking and working in this domain have left behind a clear and vivid picture of that world. 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. The entire pretext upon which it depends is a milieu of continuously shattered attention, of overloaded awareness, and of gaps between people just barely annealed with sensors, APIs and scripts.

Implicit in its propositions is a vision of inner states and home lives alike savaged by bullshit jobs, overcranked schedules and long commutes, of intimacy stifled by exhaustion and the incapacity or unwillingness to be emotionally present. The internet of things so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on places where capital has left us unable to care for one another (59-60).

Then, as if we weren’t already reduced to shambles, he points out the real problem is who gets the information this stuff collects and what happens to it, finding a parallel in 1936 Dutch record keeping that seemed like a good idea until the Germans took over the machines and the data and used it to industrialize murder.

It’s a very good book. It does a good job of explaining complicated things. It makes a strong argument for doing technology differently. It also suggests that if we don’t, we’re in deep trouble.

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