By Adam Greenfield, Verso, 368 pages, $20
It seems like only a few years ago that we began making wry jokes about the doofus minority of people who walked down the street while texting or otherwise manipulating their phone, bumping into lamp-posts and so forth. Now that has become the predominant mode of locomotion in the city, to the frustration of those of us who like to get anywhere fast and in a straight line. Pedestrian accidents are on the rise, and some urban authorities are even thinking of installing smart kerbside sensors that alert the phone-obsessed who are about to step into oncoming traffic.
New technologies, as Adam Greenfield’s tremendously intelligent and stylish book repeatedly emphasises, can change social habits in unforeseen and often counterproductive ways.
The technological fixes to such technology-induced problems rarely succeed as predicted either. It was, after all, to address the issue of people staring at handheld screens all day that Google marketed its augmented-reality spectacles, Google Glass. It rapidly turned out, however, that most people didn’t much like being surveilled and video-recorded by folk wearing hipster tech specs. Early adopters became known as “Glassholes”; the gizmo was banned in cool US bars, and it was eventually abandoned.
It is a story, as Greenfield shows, repeated in many different contexts: our visionary tech masters suppose that things can be “disrupted” by a single new device or service, only to learn belatedly that unexpected things happen when technical novelty rubs up against established social mores, embedded structures of power and money, and sometimes even the laws of physics. There is an excellent discussion here, for example, of how the verification of bitcoin transactions works through the enormous expenditure of energy on computing deliberately useless problems: it is probably doomed as a currency, Greenfield suggests, by simple thermodynamics.
Meanwhile, the emancipatory dream of 3D printers enabling everyone to make anything they want is currently economically unlikely, and besides the one thing that is very popular in 3D printing is untraceable parts for assault rifles. Greenfield calls all these things “radical” technologies because they could usher in vast changes that lead to very different potential futures: either what is known as “fully automated luxury communism”, or a dystopia of total surveillance and submission to the networks of autonomous computerised agents that might replace human governments altogether.
Greenfield, indeed, believes that some kind of machine sentience is coming down the pipeline sooner rather than later: in this, he implicitly agrees with the Singularity theorists who yearn for the coming of true artificial intelligence — something that historically, like nuclear fusion, has always been 30 years away. (Greenfield, though, is rightly perturbed by those thinkers’ haste to become “post-human” and shuck off the flesh.) At the end of the book he offers some detailed sci-fi sketches of such possible futures. The bad ones are dismayingly plausible, but there is also a delightful one he names “Green Plenty”, where material scarcity is a thing of the past, and sweet-natured machines do all the work. (I for one welcome our new robot underlords.) It’s very reminiscent, in fact, of the fully automated luxury communism portrayed in Iain M. Banks’s classic Culture novels. But how can we get there from here?
By paying intense and critical attention, Greenfield suggests. His book melds close readings of the small experiences of normal life as mediated by new technologies (how, for example, “time has been diced into the segments between notifications”) with techno-political-economic philosophical analyses of the global clash between Silicon Valley culture and the way the world currently works. It’s about what Greenfield calls “the colonisation of everyday life by information processing”, and this new colonialism, in the author’s view, is so far no better than past versions. He gives excellently sceptical accounts of wearable technologies, augmented reality like Pokemon Go (now an inbuilt feature of the iPhone’s operating system), the human biases that are always baked into the ostensibly neutral operation of algorithms; or the world of increasingly networked objects, about which he waxes humanistically poetic: “The overriding emotion of the internet of things is a melancholy that rolls off of it in waves and sheets. The entire pretext on which it depends is a milieu of continuously shattered attention.”
What seem to be potentially anarchic, liberating technologies are highly vulnerable to capture and recuperation by existing power structures — just as were dissident pop-culture movements such as punk. Greenfield makes this point with particular force when discussing automated “smart contracts” and the technology of the blockchain, a kind of distributed ledger that underlies the bitcoin currency but could be used for many more things besides. “Despite the insurgent glamour that clings to it still,” he points out, “blockchain technology enables the realisation of some very long-standing desires on the part of very powerful institutions.”
Much as he scorns the authoritarian uses of new technology, he also wants to warn progressives against technological utopianism. “Activists on the participatory left are just as easily captivated by technological hype as anyone else, especially when that hypeis couched in superficially appealing language.”
Critical resistance to all these different colonial battalions is based on Greenfield’s observation, nicely repurposing the enemy’s terminology, that “reality is the one platform we all share”. If we want to avoid the pitiless libertarianism towards which all these developments seem to lean — unsurprisingly, because it is the predominant political ideology among the pathetically undereducated tech elite — then we need to insist on public critique andstrategies of refusal. Radical Technologies itself is a landmark primerand spur to more informed andeffective opposition.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd