November 2017

Arts & Letters

Don’t believe the hype

By Scott Ludlam
Adam Greenfield’s ‘Radical Technologies’ is an essential guide to the tech revolution

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.

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.

Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam is a former Australian Greens senator for Western Australia and confirmed nerd.

November 2017

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