Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life Hardcover – June 13, 2017
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−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.”
“Fascinating and scary … [Adam Greenfield] is 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.”
—Barbara Fister, Inside Higher Education
About the Author
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".
For most of the book, though, I was a little confused. I couldn't work out who was the target audience. This is clarified in the final chapter which exorts those on "the left" to become more involved with new tech.
Maybe this explains some of the presentation, which is a little tribal. It's very much of the Trump era: people are either smart and good (and on the left, in this particular case) or dumb and evil (and on the right).
This lack of empathy for the (real and imagined) other is a pity because - apart from the lazy caricatures - the author misses some interesting points. For example, the way that a blockchain relies on market forces (greed) to provide distributed security is a neat twist that raises questions about how it can be used in other applications. This cannot be solved by thermodynamics because it relies on social (not statistical) inequality. This should be right up the author's street, but he gets distracted by the "stupidity" of everyone involved with the DAO hack.
The book is divided into chapters by technology. Each follows a similar pattern: a good, non-technical primer, arguments showing how the right will abuse things (or has already), a discussion of how the left can't quite use this to advantage, and the conclusion that we're all doomed. It's not unusual to see some aspect of a technology being derided when used by the right, then praised when used by the left. Yet the idea that the technology itself could be "chaotic neutral" is never really addressed.
And that's a pity, because when we get to the discussion on artificial intelligence this simplistic binary division between good and evil obscures the idea that we're creating images in our own likeness. Machines that do weird, sometimes amazing, often dumb things, just like their creators. And we've managed - despite the current political disaster in the USA - to get along with this (with each other) for millenia. The solution to many legal issues with AI (and, of course, the source of many more) could come from recognising that they are mirrors of our own, imperfect selves.
The structure and attitude of this book is what sets it apart. It conveys the core concepts of each technology, the vision of its proponents, social and political implications, as well as the ways it might either fail to catch on, or the ways it might go wrong. Without strictly being for or against any particular technology or advancement, it gives us the tools for making our own assessments, for measuring these trends against our own values, hopes, and fears.
I consider this to be a critical book for anyone who wants to better understand some of the key technological trends of our time, their impacts, and ways we might still be able to shape more positive outcomes. It's a great contrast to the hype-driven articles (both hopelessly optimistic and pessimistically dystopian) you often see about these topics.
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Whatever your political leanings, you will find insights here that you can't ignore. Read it, and tell your colleagues to read it.