- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Verso (June 13, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 178478043X
- ISBN-13: 978-1784780432
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,476 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life Hardcover – June 13, 2017
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“Adam Greenfield goes digging into the layers that constitute what we experience as smooth tech surface. He unsettles and repositions much of that smoothness. Radical Technologies is brilliant and scary”
−Saskia Sassen, Columbia University, author of Expulsions
“We exist within an ever-thickening web of technologies whose workings are increasingly opaque to us. In this illuminating and sometimes deeply disturbing book, Adam Greenfield explores how these systems work, how they synergize with each other, and the resultant effects on our societies, our politics, and our psyches. This is an essential book.”
“A tremendously intelligent and stylish book on the ‘colonization of everyday life by information processing’ calls for resistance to rule by the tech elite … a landmark primer and spur to more informed and effective opposition.”
—Steve Poole, Guardian
“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.”
—Scot Ludham, The Monthly (Australia)
“Provides a grounded guide, a cautionary tale in which each chapter walks readers through another layer of a dazzling and treacherous landscape.”
—Jennifer Howard, Times Literary Supplement
“Of all the books I’ve read this year, one that really stood out was ‘Radical Technologies’ by Adam Greenfield, which describes some of the ways innovation is transforming our daily lives … Change is inevitable. The big question is, How do we retool ourselves? How do we function in this new, utterly transparent world? What are the social consequences of what we are experiencing?”
—Indra Nooyi, Wall Street Journal (Books of the Year 2017)
“Does an excellent job of introducing non-specialist readers to some of the game-changing technologies that are transforming our lives and that are set to affect the social, economic, political and cultural evolution of humanity … a very valuable contribution to the discussion about what that future should look like.”
“A systematic analysis of the hazards posed by the most revolutionary of new technologies … his analyses are extremely proficient at uncovering the risks and contradictions that our enthusiasm for new technology has occluded … a vital counter-statement to such pervasive utopianism.”
About the Author
Previously a rock critic, bike messenger and psychological operations specialist in the US Army, Adam Greenfield spent over a decade working in the design and development of networked digital information technologies, as lead information architect for the Tokyo office of internet services consultancy Razorfish, Independent User-Experience Designer and Head of Design Direction for Service and User-Interface Design at Nokia headquarters in Helsinki.
Selected in 2013 as Senior Urban Fellow at the LSE Cities centre of the London School of Economics, he has taught in the Urban Design program of the Bartlett, University College London, and in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. His books include Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Urban Computing and Its Discontents, and the bestselling Against the Smart City.
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The basic message of the book is that mediation by extremely complex technology stacks has (at least) four pernicious effects. It erases the "wetware" versions of quotidian activities such as hailing a cab or clustering around a TV, which, though mundane, build social capital. It further divides haves from have-nots. It litters the socio-technical landscape with technological ingredients (in the form of code libraries, e.g.) whose functions may be benign or even banal when they first appear, but can rapidly and almost invisibly be put to use to subvert our individual or societal goals, and indeed to move those goalposts.
And it eliminates the assumption of an underlying shared reality, in a dark, Gibsonian-dystopia sort of way. You and I see different features on Google Maps, receive different pricing and suggestions from Amazon, are shown different news headlines, and although we may be occupying the same space at the same time, we're each simultaneously in two different "somewhere elses". Yet we generally don't know whose values or reasons underlie the differences between the choices presented to you and those presented to me.
Socioeconomically, this means (for example) that Google Home defaults to using OpenTable for making restaurant reservations, which diverts money from the restaurant to the service but appears frictionless to the consumer; Google Maps presents Uber as a frictionless transportation option alongside driving or transit, to the exclusion of other choices; and so on, to show how attention, culture, and dollars are subtly steered in specific directions, for ends usually opaque to the very users they claim to serve.
Politically, one could not hand an authoritarian government a better tool to divide and control its subjects.
In short, we have invited companies, standards bodies, and potentially malicious hackers to intervene in the "innermost precincts of our lives", perilous precisely because those activities are so banal we're not prone to worrying about who is observing or intermediating them. Indeed the "smart cities" and "Internet of things" credo seems to be that there is "one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion." Yet data is hardly without biases, starting with the decision of what data to collect and how to taxonomize it, and even in the best-intentioned cases, can be misused after the fact, as occurred when occupying German forces "weaponized" Dutch identity-card data to hunt down those of "undesirable" ethnicities and races (and the Trump administration aims to do with DACA registrations).
Rapidly-adopted and soon-to-be-ubiquitous technologies seem to fall into two categories: those that are ostensibly well-intentioned but whose use in practice falls ludicrously short of their original aims, and those that are banal but potentially dangerous if "weaponized" by immoral actors (with which history is replete). And so digital fabrication, once conceived as a way to end scarcity, becomes a narrow channel for people to obtain things the market cannot provide, because they are either bespoke or illegal. Cryptocurrencies, or more specifically "smart contracts" and their derivatives Distributed Autonomous Organizations (essentially virtual corporations run entirely by algorithm), obscure rather than clarify their networks of ownership and power and exist in a vacuum oblivious to human foibles. Robotics are being developed apace in Japan not to assist humans, but to replace them in such human-centric roles as care assistants for the aged. Machine learning algorithms that could help predict where and by whom crimes might be committed are instead being deployed in China to encumber citizens with a "karma points" system that will determine access to virtually all social goods and services--eerily similar to the fictitious one in "Nosedive", Season 3 Episode 1 of "Black Mirror". In all, Greenfield asks, did the creators of these technologies really think through the risks associated with developing and deploying them? And if so, did they really conclude that a future embodying those risks was one worth pursuing?
The lament of the book is that it doesn't have to be this way. "Sensitive technical deployments" of technology are more than possible, such as an app that uses facial recognition and Internet search to gently remind those of us with bad memories of a colleague's name at a social function, smoothing out social friction rather than creating social isolation. Yet the patterns of smartphone use (to name just the most obvious technological manifestation of Greenfield's concerns) are just the opposite: receiving the notification of a message or a call tends to cause an immediate social disruption, and the concept of shared public life suffers as a result. (It is in these lines of argument that Greenfield's intellectual heritage as an urbanist comes through most clearly.) And too often when technologists attempt to deploy technology to serve rather than supplant social interaction, it has the effect of using technology to "paper over" social inequities and friction rather than attempting to eliminate them.
Greenfield wraps up with a warning and a call to action. The warning is that we should evaluate a technology not on the basis of what it was intended to do, however noble, but only on the basis of what it is observed to do in practice, and how rapidly it is rechanneled to entrench existing power structures to the detriment of you and me. (Or in the words of cyberneticist Stafford Beer, "[the] purpose of a system is what it does.") The call to action takes the form of presenting four visions of possible technology-mediated futures, the extremes of which are not too dissimilar from those sketched in the unrelated novella "Manna", as a call to action to the reader: "...people with left politics of any stripe absolutely cannot allow their eyes to glaze over when the topic of conversation turns to technology, or in any way cede this terrain to its existing inhabitants, for to do so is to surrender the commanding heights of the contemporary situation."
Although once in a while the author's voice crosses over into the overtly polemical, the book as a whole is an informed tour de force that should be required reading not only for anyone working at the technological frontier, but for anyone who wants to understand the opportunities we are potentially leaving on the table by allowing the social infiltration of those technologies to develop untrammeled.
And for an excellent right-brain companion to the book, watch the British TV series "Black Mirror".
The author engages with debates over what these technologies mean for employment, and also, importantly for me as a techo-optimist, in terms of what these technologies mean for humankind, liberty, and personal privacy and freedom. This was beneficial as I have always been somewhat complacent and non-critical of their implications. I appreciated this.
Greenfield engages in some foresight / futurism scenarios which are broad brush but I think generally sound. He notes how technology is often pursued for technology's sake alone, and that there are a lot of embedded assumptions underlying their development.
Innovation and technological development takes place within sociological and political eco-systems and I think he neglects somewhat the degree to which policy makers can shape or try to influence technological change. He could have given greater reference to how policy makers are seeking to shape STI and also leverage it towards addressing societal challenges, i.e robotics and IoT for health monitoring and provision, disaster monitoring and other topics. In many countries government's play an important role in funding and shaping STI research, as well as regulatory structures. Maybe this point could have been expanded on a bit more, as well government intervention vis a vis stacks and global corporations both via established policy tools such as anti-trust, STI policy, and R&D funding.
Personally speaking, his writing style is sometimes rather intellectual and a bit hard going, but I suppose it is good to be challenged and have to reach for a dictionary now and then.
Overall, an enjoyable book and I hope to read more by this author.