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A Review of Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life

As new technologies course towards cultural and economic supremacy, Silicon Valley CEOs and digital advocates have become increasingly circumspect about the question of risk. Many leaders in the industry like Apple CEO Tim Cook have effectively banished the word from their lexicon. As he noted in a recent keynote address at MIT, technology’s perils are not intrinsic but rather lie in human mishandling: “I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers.” Others connected to the industry have been only slightly more capitulating. In a 2015 interview with Harvard Business Review, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson noted: “Even as it races ahead, technological progress may leave some people — perhaps even a lot — behind. For other people, however, the outlook is bright.” In a paradigmatic distillation of current sentiments, Brynjolfsson suggests that the dangers of new technology are only to be found in the unavoidable and ultimately negligible cost of individuals being passed over by technological transition. Absent from his and most other accounts is any suggestion that technology might present social or agential threats.

Responding to such omissions, digital theorist Adam Greenfield offers a systematic analysis of the hazards posed by the most revolutionary of new technologies in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. Joining a remarkably small but vocal body of critics including Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Nick Srnicek, and Benjamin H. Bratton, Greenfield elaborates how the technologies that increasingly manage our lives habitually fall short of their emancipatory promises, attenuating social life and entangling users in various systems of authority and exploitation. Across ten effectively self-contained treatises, each on a single technology — from the smart phone to automation — Greenfield plays both guide and critic, painstakingly elucidating each piece’s functionality before exploring its largely unsung shortcomings. While, at times, these technical explanations feel excessive, particularly as Greenfield elaborates the arcane details of cryptocurrency and blockchain applications, his analyses are extremely proficient at uncovering the risks and contradictions that our enthusiasm for new technology has occluded. As Greenfield, a former UX designer and urban design theorist, suggests, achieving a critical understanding of new technology is necessary for securing the future we want. “If we are to have any hope of retaining our agency” he writes, “we will need to know a lot more about where these radical technologies came from, how they accomplish their work in the world, and why they appear to us in the way that they do.”

Greenfield’s most successful critique in this project concerns the role of new technologies in maintaining economic inequality. Across multiple analyses, Greenfield demonstrates how digital innovations are invariably supported by low-wage workers laboring in abysmal conditions. The smartphone, arguably the most transformative of radical technologies, relies upon sprawling Chinese factories where wages are appalling, injury and suicide rates are high, and where employees are regularly exposed to the toxic chemicals integral to the manufacturing process. Greenfield further details how the raw materials for such devices, the cobalt and tin, are mined under similarly abhorrent conditions in areas of the developing world in which child labor and environmental pollution are less restricted. Similarly, the conditions at the various production and fulfillment centers for the so-called “internet of things” are likewise reliant upon the exploitative and injurious labor conditions of the new economy. While consumers often know of these circumstances, Greenfield argues that the selling of the new technology as an inevitability has coerced consumers into accepting the exploitation inherent to its production.

An additional critique running through several of Greenfield’s analyses concerns the tendency of new technology to erode the social foundations of contemporary life. Greenfield illuminates the smartphone’s capacity to divest consumers of “a wide variety of recognizably, even distinctively urban sites, gestures and practices.” More acutely, he suggests that we lose the vital diversity of human sociality when the majority of our communicative practices are mediated “in all sorts of subtle but pervasive ways.” For Greenfield, this is particularly dangerous when we concede intellectual tasks to the increasingly sophisticated manifold of machine learning. On his account, such algorithms lack the capacity for ethical decision-making — unable to make concession for class, race, identity, and contextual circumstances — that has until now been the province of human society. He likewise suggests, paralleling recent research on the subject, that the “pernicious systemic bias” pervading public institutions risks entering into and being perpetuated by such algorithms. Stripped of human awareness, Greenfield sees such technological decision-making as dangerously lacking (and, indeed, antagonistic to) the discretion and compassion of human relations.

Despite the strength of these critiques and their ardent defense of the human in the context of technology, Greenfield’s humanism occasionally leads him onto logically insecure footing. His strongest claims concerning technology’s propensity to create division and inequality are particularly effective because they are concretely evidenced and resist essentialism. However, Greenfield makes several less compelling points concerning the loss of an abstract sense “the human” in contemporary society. In a chapter on AI, Greenfield describes how IBM’s chess playing super computer Deep Blue defeated Russian champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. On Deep Blue’s method, using “tree search” and significant computing power to identify all possible moves, Greenfield observes, “there’s something mechanical about this. It doesn’t feel anything like intelligence, because it isn’t anything like intelligence.” He makes similar arguments elsewhere, suggesting that unlike aging humans who struggle to absorb new information as they age, “any algorithm able to learn at all can keep doing so indefinitely.” The ontological implication of these arguments is that machines are categorically different, and therefore troubling, because what they do is inhuman. Yet, Greenfield fails to identify precisely why machines’ differences from humans are inherently concerning. In this tautology, he fails to account for ways that posthuman scholars like Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti have convincingly questioned our restrictive construction of the human and provided nuanced ways to understand the interpenetration of human and world. Glossing these arguments, Greenfield relies upon an undertheorized concept of the human and is accordingly unable to provide a convincing account of its intrinsic value or to suggest why its encroachment is to be feared.

Regardless of these missteps, Greenfield’s analysis is particularly relevant in a political context where net neutrality and Dodd-Frank are under threat. As consumer protections are weakened and the Internet faces progressive corporatization, consumers are increasingly vulnerable to the authority of new technologies. Because many of the most resonant voices speaking on the subject fall into the techno-utopian camp of Brynjolfsson, there is remarkably little opposition to the broad implications of this revolution. Greenfield’s work represents a vital counter-statement to such pervasive utopianism as it attempts to rouse a body of critics attuned the risks of new technology. As he writes, “A time of radical technologies demands a generation of radical technologists.” By and large, Greenfield has done a commendable job in bringing this generation about.

Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, London: Verso, 2017. 368 pp.

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