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Verso's Radical Technologies reviewed in the Guardian

on Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:50

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 sexily 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?

See full article here

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life
Adam Greenfield
ISBN 9781784780432
Hardback, £18.99

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