File Size: 1093 KB
Print Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Verso (June 13, 2017)
Publication Date: June 13, 2017
--Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work, p. 172
I actually open with this quotation from Berardi, the Italian language post-modern philosopher, because I used to be consistantly reminded of his work while reading Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies. Greenfield is not almost so polemical or ideological. Nevertheless both writers are honing in on the same topic: how technology is altering the human experience, all the way down to the amount of perception, desire, and opinion.
Nevertheless where Berardi tends towards the esoteric philosophical notion, Greenfield roots us to the concrete infrastructure of our subject. He tells all of us about our smartphones, every little part of them. It’s almost annoying. But it isn’t annoying, because Greenfield has done his research, and he can position each component of our technology in a framework of exploitation, surveillance, and political economy. He tells us about situations of the factory workers, about how precisely the “cobalt in its lithium-ion batteries was mined by hand in the Congo, often by children” (19). In other words, Greenfield’s nerdy wish to deconstruct the particulars of our technological devices and networks is illuminating rather than overwhelming or obfuscating.
Greenfield’s descriptions of technology betray his enchantment, dare I say admiration, for the stuff. He or she wants technology to be useful, fun, benevolent, or so it seems like. But the story just doesn’t add up that way, and after years of research he is evidently skeptical of the liberatory function of any technology. When he writes in the introduction, “these apparently disruptive technologies leave existing modes of domination mostly intact, asking if they can ever truly be turned to liberatory ends” (8). It’s this frequent skepticism that allows Greenfield to challenge some of the most prevalent and important assumptions about the utility of technology within our lives.
There are many subject areas available that are worthy of discussion, nevertheless for this review I will just focus in on the one that is of particular interest in my experience. In chapter 7, Greenfield takes on the idea of a ‘post-work’ economic climate.
As someone who hates work, both personally and politically, I have always been attracted to the idea that we could eliminate the need to labor altogether, and spend our time making art, talking about our feelings, and going for long moves. There has been a good amount of scholarship grant on the topic, from technocrats, feminists, and many in-between. Naturally , Greenfield down pours on our parade.
“What I wish to argue is the fact whether they are brought together consciously or otherwise, large-scale data research, algorithmic management, machine-learning techniques, auto-
mation and robotics constitute a coherent set of tips for the production of an experience I call the posthuman everyday. It is a milieu in which the tempos we contend with, the ordi-
nary spaces we occupy, and the material and energetic flows we support are all shaped not so much by our own needs but the ones from the systems that nominally assist us, and in which human perception, scale and desire are no lengthier the primary yardsticks of value” (185).
In other words: technology could eliminate work, but in whose favor, including what cost? Greenfield cites the example of Japan’s rapidly advancing economy, where healthcare and farming, industrial sectors primarily worked by migrant workers, are being computerized. The choices made here (and Greenfield gives out a sensation, “there are always choices”) reflect the racism and xenophobia of the larger modern society. Would these staff benefit from a Universal Basic Income that has been designed to exclude non-citizens or people of the non-dominant racial?
Greenfield problematizes the UBI. “Held up to continual inspection, the UBI can often seem to be like little more than a neoliberal giveaway. Its proponents on the market right evidently anticipate it as a pretext to do away with existing benefits, siphoning whatever transfers are engaged in it back into the economy as fees for a wide variety of educational, healthcare and family services that are now furnished via social provision” (204).
In an time where Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are seen as leaders in the movement for a socialistic, technology driven future of moralized capitalism (both being proponents of the General Basic Income), we need people like Greenfield.
Greenfield’s book is a warning, a reminder that “very often the claimed benefits never do come to pass” (303). But it also a call to action, a reminder that no technology is inevitable, no outcome is unavoidable. We all are players in this game. We can fantasy alternatives and resist new technologies.
I have lately read about a theory that is popular among the neoliberal technocracy. The idea is that since technology is exponentially growing, it will inevitably reach an area where we can simulate reality almost perfectly. Since this will inevitably happen, people will inevitably simulate many, many different realities. Hence, we have been most likely in a simulated reality. A person can read about it here.
After reading Greenfield’s book this theory appears to me not as a product of the imagination, but the failure from it.
I will conclusion this quote-heavy review with a final quote, another from Berardi:
" Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to sluggish down, finally letting go of on economistic fanaticism and along rethink the true that means of the word “wealth. ” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but identifies someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and individual collaboration place within every guests reach. If the great majority of men and women could understand this basic notion, if they could be separated from the competitive illusion that is impoverishing every guests life, the very fundamentals of capitalism, would begin to crumble. " (The Spirit at Work, p. 169), Radical Technologies is posted by a self-styled " radical" press, which made me a little leery about reading it. The introduction failed to help, as it seemed a little unusual and polemical. But I actually decided to look a lttle bit further into the book, and I am glad I actually did. It's better than I expected. Actually it's good.
What makes me personally say that? I really liked Adam Greenfield's explanation of the technologies he or she looked at. Particularly, he or she talks about machine learning, and he describes the technology in a balanced way that ignores neither its strengths nor its weaknesses. Just what exactly he states makes a lot of sense.
Like " Math Babe" Cathy O'Neil in her book Weaponry of Math Destruction: Exactly how Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy , who Adam Greenfield cites, he points out that machine learning hides what it is doing in a black box. No one knows why machine learning makes the choices that it does. Laws could be violated. Moral principles breached. Machines don't have a conscience or a sense of justice. These people just act.
Some high-quality people like Elon Spray and Stephen Hawking worry about artificial intelligence doing harm to humans at some point in the future. Adam Greenfield points out that the time to worry is already here. Amazon, which hosts this review, has adopted machine learning whole hog, and Rob Bezos sang its praises in a recent page to shareholders. He said nothing about its dangers, but those worry me personally.
Adam Greenfield covers a lot of ground in the book, and besides machine learning I thought his description of cryptocurrencies was quite good. There is a hint of a looming dystopian future brought on by these radical technologies, but mostly he raises warning flags rather than rail against them. For that reason, this is a helpful book somewhat than a partisan one.
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