"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“Hungry one, reach for the book—it is a weapon.”
Of all the problems with which a person may find themselves constantly wrestling, there are far worse things than having too many books to read. Frankly, this may seem like a problem that isn’t really a problem at all, or the type of thing that one can only begin to see as a problem if there is a lack of more serious issues facing a person. And yet, for those who acutely feel that there will never be “time enough at last” (as one famed bibliophile lamented) to get to all of the things that need to be read, the growing mountains of books deserving of attention can be a significant source of stress. With such a feeling being amplified at the end of the year when one looks back and takes stock of what was read, what wasn’t read but which was meant to be read, what was read that shouldn’t have been read, and what would have been read if only the reader had learned about it earlier. Granted, in 2019 it wasn’t merely that there were many books to be read, but that the news demanded constant attention – and it is doubtless that many a reader found themselves checking the news at every section break in the book they were reading.
2019 wasn’t a particularly good year for the world. Indeed, if you’re willing to be labeled a pessimist you can probably put together a fairly solid argument as to why 2019 was a bad year for the world. But, at least a lot of good books came out in 2019 – and many of those books can help us to understand the mess that we’re in, and how we might get out of it.
What follows is a list of my ten favorite books from 2019. The works on this list come from a variety of different disciplines but largely speak to themes from history, media studies, disaster studies, STS, and environmental studies. Though I read some phenomenal novels in 2019 (you should definitely read Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan), this list is composed entirely of works of non-fiction. All of the books on this list are important and deserving of your attention individually, but one of the common themes that runs through many of them is the question of who/what is really served by the technological systems we surround ourselves with today? What do we do if we realize that these systems are having a negative impact? And what do we do as we realize that the negative consequences of these systems are piling up even as we read about them? While such questions are stirred by many of the books on this list, there is much more going on with these highly recommended works. These books (which are listed in alphabetical order) provide insight into often overlooked histories, they provide essential theoretical tools for explaining the world, they call the reader to take real action, and they are also engaging reads.
Some of the books on this list will fill readers with hope, other books on this list will fill readers with despair, but if you’re looking for a way of summarizing 2019 you can do a lot worse than “shifting uncomfortably between hope and despair.”
There was too much to read in 2019. Unfortunately, having too much to read wasn’t the biggest challenge we faced in 2019…and it won’t be the biggest challenge we face in 2020 either.
The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of the One Laptop per Child by Morgan G. Ames (The MIT Press)
“Those who create, study, or work with technology ignore the origins of charisma at their own peril—at the risk of always being blinded by the next best thing, with little concept of the larger cultural context that technology operates within and little hope for long-term change.”
While the image of the tech company CEO unveiling their company’s latest product before an audience of adoring fans and eager reporters has become a common occurrence in recent years, a somewhat different version of this played out at the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005. There, Nicholas Negroponte and, UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, presented a colorful, sturdy-looking, hand-crank-powered laptop to the audience – it was a laptop that could only be purchased by country governments and for Negroponte the goal was “for every child in the Global South to have one by 2010.” What Negroponte and Annan demoed that day was a prototype of the XO Laptop, the device at the core of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, which envisioned the distribution of Internet connected computer technology as something of a panacea. Though the OLPC had many eager advocates early on, and though many XO laptops were built and distributed, The Charisma Machine makes it clear that the project was not ultimately successful. And part of what undermined the project was the very techno-utopian mindset that drove the project. An outgrowth of MIT hacker culture, and thinkers like Negroponte (as well as Seymour Papert), the OLPC was rooted in a distaste for conventional schooling and a preference for a computer-enabled child-driven tinkering education. It was a stance towards education that valued the idea of the “technically precocious boy,” romanticized toying with computers, and tried to turn nostalgia for a childhood spent playing with computers into something of a universal value. While the project had great hopes for what the XO laptops would be, the actual laptops wound up being easily breakable, had extremely limited memory, and were missing the hand crank that had been part of the model Negroponte and Annan had revealed. These were laptops that appealed to many as a lofty techno-utopian idea, but which mostly failed to live up to their promise in actuality. Though “every child in the Global South” was the ambition, an analysis of a OPLC project in Paraguay reveals the folly of attempting to deliver a one-size-fits-all technological solution. Hoping to demonstrate that all children need is a laptop in order to succeed, OPLC wound up clearly demonstrating why such thinking is ridiculous.
The concept that gives this phenomenal book its title is the idea of “charismatic technology” which Ames explains “derives its power experientially and symbolically through the possibility or promise of action: what is important is not what the object is but how it invokes the imagination through what it promises to do.” Furthermore, despite the way some of these technical visions link social progress to technical progress, this book highlights the ways in which many such projects ultimately reinforce conservative and neoliberal values. With the XO laptop (and OLPC) as an example, this book provides a remarkable account of the ways that beliefs get built into technological systems – and the ways a particular vision of how technology should be gets projected onto the whole world.
Read it because we are surrounded by all manner of “charismatic technologies.”
Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin (Polity Press)
“That new tools are coded in old biases is surprising only if we equate technological innovation with social progress. The popular trope that technology is always one step ahead of society is not only misleading but incorrect, when viewed through the lens of enduring invisibility.”
Stories of racist, misogynistic, and otherwise biased technologies are distressingly common. However, this does not mean that such stories have become (or ever were) surprising. While those who delight in techno-utopian dreaming may exult in talking about how their new AI will eliminate bias from the hiring process, or how their new algorithm has been designed not to consider race – the attempt to separate race and technology often serves to retrench white supremacy and inequality. Indeed, it is often under the guise of ostensibly admirable motives that those in the tech industry have constructed systems that claimed to reduce bias, while really just serving to reinforce the latent biases of those building the tools. And such decisions have had, are having, and will continue to have real world implications. In this essential book, Benjamin examines what she terms “the New Jim Code” which entails “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.” While the book lays out a complex, fascinating, and troubling analysis of “the New Jim Code” it focuses on four ways in which “the New Jim Code” often takes shape. With the concept of “engineered inequity,” Benjamin draws attention to the way that the framing of neutrality and objectivity, when applied to technical artifacts, functions to disguise the social biases that are “embedded in technical artifacts.” The way that a racist society recreates its biases in its technical systems can be seen in the idea of “default discrimination” wherein racist assumptions become the “default” in powerful new technologies. With the concept of “coded exposure,” Benjamin explores the questions of technical systems that are not developed to be able to “see” certain people as people, even as the dangers of being exposed by a technical system present different risks to different social groups. Oftentimes the attempt to ameliorate these problems and historic wrongs results in a sort “technological benevolence” whereby patronizing techno-fixes are presented as a way of carefully avoiding having to confront the deeper systemic problems. By identifying the elements of “the New Jim Code,” Race After Technology presents important tools for dismantling these oppressive systems – as Benjamin notes: “move slower and empower people.”
Information technologies are often treated by their devotees as though they are magical. All one needs to do is wave the right technology and any problem – no matter how deeply historically rooted – will be solved. It is a type of thinking that often seems to be particularly prevalent amongst those who have a rather simplistic view of history and an overly messianic view towards technological power. Race After Technology is an incisive reminder of the racist, colonial, and misogynistic violence upon which our world is constructed. And importantly the book emphasizes that when we consider “our world” we must also therefore consider “our technologies” – especially as many of these tools are actively retrenching reactionary biases. “The New Jim Code” is deeply entangled with our high-tech society, and this book provides a lens to assess those entanglements.
Read it because, as Benjamin brilliantly puts it, “the road to inequity is paved with technical fixes.”
Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm edited by Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón (Haymarket Books)
“Ultimately, Hurricane Maria forces us to reckon with not only the disastrous effects of climate change, particularly on already vulnerable people, but also the need for decolonization to serve as the centerpiece of a just recovery for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as a whole.”
On September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. The storm caused horrific damage to the island: destroying homes, knocking out power, and leading to many deaths. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the destruction wrought by Maria briefly received a smattering of media attention, particularly when President Trump visited the island where he tossed paper towels to a crowd and crowed that Maria had not been nearly as destructive as Katrina. Yet, the true story of Hurricane Maria, and the real scale of the damage was largely overlooked, particularly by an administration that showed open disdain for the people of Puerto Rico. And thus, even though Hurricane Maria dissipated the catastrophic impacts of the storm continue to be felt to this day. At his press conference on the island, President Trump touted that the number of deaths was only 16 – but this number was later challenged by a study undertaken by the island’s government and George Washington University that put the death toll at closer to 3,000, while a study by Harvard estimated that 4,965 people had died due to the storm. This remarkable and important book argues “that the effects of Hurricane Maria are best understood as the product of a long-standing colonial disaster.” Hurricanes are natural hazards, but what allowed Maria to have such a disastrous impact on the island is not only the force of the storm, but the history of colonialism that had devastated Puerto Rico long before the hurricane made landfall. As one of the contributors to the volume explains, due to its colonial status the island had amassed a massive debt through “illegal and extraconstitutional practices,” which the island could not renegotiate due to its status. As a result by the time rescue crews arrived on the island they discovered “crippled infrastructure that, long before the hurricane, had been broken as a result” of the debt—colonialism had exploited and underdeveloped Puerto Rico for decades. Brutal austerity programs that had heavily damaged Puerto Rico’s universities, and undemocratic management by American overseers, meant that by the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the island was already in the midst of disaster. Drawing together the voices of activists, academics, journalists, and artists—Aftershocks of Disaster provides a complex analysis of Hurricane Maria and its “aftershocks.” It is a book that tells the story of Hurricane Maria, but works to emphasize how Hurricane Maria was able to be such a disaster due to the long history of Puerto Rico’s exploitation. Yet, the book is also an account of mutual aid, of resistance, and of the fact that justice for the victims of Hurricane Maria is inextricably linked with decolonization.
Hurricane Maria was not a disaster because it was a powerful storm, it was a disaster because the powerful storm hit an area that (due to a history of colonialism) had been deprived of the resources to properly prepare. What made Maria even more disastrous was the catastrophic mismanagement of the aftermath by the Trump administration, which continues to this day. Hurricane Maria is a warning sign of things to come: as climate change exacerbated storms wreak havoc upon the communities least responsible for driving the climate crisis, while those responsible cross their arms or mockingly toss paper towels. This is a must-read book: not only as an account of an, all-too-human-made, disaster, but as a tribute to importance of mutual aid and resistance.
Read it because the disaster is still happening.
Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes (Verso Books)
“The protestors called themselves Water Protectors because they weren’t simply against a pipeline; they also stood for something greater: the continuation of life on a planet ravaged by capitalism.”
Whenever news breaks of a pipeline leaking oil, there is a concerted effort by the oil companies (abetted by much of the media) to suggest that “nobody could have seen this coming.” Yet, as Our History is the Future, makes abundantly clear, Indigenous communities “saw this coming,” and they were met with state violence for their efforts to block the construction of these pipelines. Centering on the activist encampments that attempted to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, this book situates the #NODAPL movement within the long history of Indigenous people’s resistance to settler colonialism. Some of this account involves a direct account of life in the #NODAPL camps and the tactics that the movement used—and here Estes draws a direct line between earlier protest movements that sought to reclaim space (such as Occupy!), but the book highlights that these encampments were part of a much longer trajectory. This is a history of violent displacement and resistance to it, one that emphasizes how narratives that center an idea of “progress” overlook those who are trampled in the process. Such a disregard for the people and places that are sacrificed on the altar of “progress” is not simply a regrettable feature of the distant past, but is very much still ongoing. From its earliest colonial roots, the US has been built on land that was violently taken from Indigenous people. As the US grew it seized more and more land and continually pushed Indigenous communities further away – and as the US expanded it frequently displaced the same communities multiple times, growing with a logic couched in dominance and subjugation. Indigenous resistance took on many forms, including armed confrontation, but the US’s expansive appetite for more could never be sated. After Indigenous populations were forced onto reservations, these places continued to be chipped away at by colonial governance that routinely stripped away the land that belonged to the reservation, or treated it as a territory that could be freely poisoned and exploited. Thus, in a clear case of the violent ideology of settler colonialism, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted in a way that spared majority white communities from exposure while doing so in a way that placed Indigenous communities in harm’s way – as Estes notes “the arc of the Western moral universe never bends towards Indigenous justice. At best, it ignores it. At worse, it annihilates it.” At the core of the theorizing of resistance in this essential work, is the claim to sovereignty and independence whereby Indigenous communities assert that they are independent nations that are currently occupied by a hostile invader. Attempts to enforce laws such as treaties thus become key tactics, as do claims that not only push back against the state, but question its very legitimacy. What sets movements like #NODAPL apart from other occupy-esque movements is its assertion not of rights as citizens but its assertion of a type of power that counters the very idea of the state. It is also a vision that counters capitalism’s claim that there is no alternative, as in the #NODAPL camps it was “abundantly evident that Indigenous social systems offered a radically different way of relating to other people and the world.”
Blending first-hand observations of the #NODAPL camps with a history of Indigenous resistance, this work provides a must-read account not only of the #NODAPL movement but of the types of thinking that are necessary to challenge and dismantle settler colonialism. This is a history of resistance, but it is a history that foregrounds the role that mutual aid, cultural preservation, and refusal to accept the limitations on thinking imposed by the system itself must play in such resistance. As Estes puts it, “Indigenous resistance is not a one-time event. It continually asks: What proliferates in the absence of empire?” It is a question we all must ask today.
Read it because, as the title eloquently puts it, this history is the future.
Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain (Oxford University Press)
“Congresswoman Waters needed to remind those who showed up to the conference to talk about the Internet that black software wasn’t just about machines and cables, chips and modems. It was about America’s fundamental, deep-seated and persisted first principles: white supremacy.”
Oftentimes the history of computing is presented in a way that is startlingly white: a tale of white programmers and computer scientists doing research at almost entirely white universities and going on to found almost entirely white start-ups that sold computers to a predominantly white public. This is a view of the history of computing that Charlton McIlwain corrects in his excellent, and important, book Black Software. Book ended with attention to the ways that activists have used Internet connected tools to raise awareness of police violence (such as #BlackLivesMatter), McIlwain focuses primarily not on delving into technology in the present but instead works to draw attention to the contributions of African-Americans in the history of computing, while also paying close attention to the ways that the history of computing is a tale of deliberate exclusion. As McIlwain notes “black folks…from the mid-1970s through the 1990s, used, built, and developed computing technology, digital networks, and online communities that furthered the interests of black people throughout the African diaspora” – and by presenting these histories this book represents an important corrective to the far too white histories of computing. Divided into two parts, the first part of the book focuses on the lives and work of a series of individuals (McIlwain refers to them as “the Vanguard”) who strove to turn their computer expertise in a direction that would benefit their communities. This work ranged from opening computer stores, to supporting the educational efforts of others, to creating digital resources, to developing early online platforms. While those associated with “the Vanguard” represent a variety of viewpoints and priorities, they all seemed to share in a recognition that “a twenty-first-century revolution had to start with a revolution of technology” (McIlwain makes this comment specifically about Anita Brown). The second part of the book devotes attention to the development of computers and the institutional and societal biases that were built into these machines. Computers, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, were seen as powerful tools for control; and the machines were framed by governmental forces that were eager to repress and exert control over the growing civil rights and Black power movements. These two narratives – of African-Americans making use of computing technology, and as computing technology being developed to control African Americans – provide a fascinating account of “how black people have taken technology not originally designed with our concerns in mind. It is about black people using technology to further our own personal, communal, and political interests.”
The history of computing is too often presented as a story about white counterculture geeks in California. That version of the history of computing serves to obfuscate two very important aspects of the history of computing: first, that it wasn’t nearly as white as that narrative makes it seem; and second, that many computing technologies were not designed with hippie freedom in mind, but for the express purpose of social control. Black Software is a much needed corrective to the popular, whitewashed, and overly rosy history of computing. It is a book that presents difficult questions about turning repressive technologies towards liberatory ends, about the biased history of tech companies, and about whose vision of the future is embodied in technological systems.
Read it because you cannot fully understand the history of computing without understanding the chapter of it that McIlwain reveals.
Waste by Kate O’Neill (Polity Press)
“Quantities of waste are overwhelming ecosystems (as in the case of plastics in the ocean) and we do not have fully functioning, socially equitable systems to extract all possible value from the wastes we produce while minimizing the harm to workers.”
Many people today enjoy the privilege of simply tossing a wide assortment of their garbage into a trash bag, or a recycling bin. When these bins start getting too full they get subsequently dragged to the curb where they are picked up by trucks that take this refuse out of sight. Some may believe that their garbage is safely biodegrading somewhere, or that their discarded plastic bottles are being turned into new plastic bottles in some magnificent recycling planet, but most people probably aren’t giving it much thought at all. Yet, millions of people around the world have no such luxury of ignoring the accumulating mountains of waste that are piling up around them. From plastics, to paper, to food waste, to discarded electronics, to clothing, to glass, staggering amounts of garbage are being generated by contemporary societies – with much of this waste being hazardous to humans. In many cases “the rise of free trade and economic globalization” has led to huge quantities of wastes (particularly hazardous wastes) being shipped by wealthier countries to poorer ones, where those who were not responsible for generating the waste must live with its toxic risks (and within wealthy nations, waste disposal areas are often located in impoverished areas). The amount of waste being produced seems to be growing continually due to “human production and consumption” with the result being that “we are running out of space to put it.” Indeed, the World Bank estimated that the production of municipal solid waste “has risen ten-fold in the past century. In 2010 the world produced 3.5 million tons per day; by 2025 that total could reach six million tons per day.” While these mountains of waste represent a variety of hazards to those who live near (or amongst) them, there is also growing recognition that there is a great deal of value “trapped in waste” (such as the large quantities of materials that can potentially be recovered from discarded electronics). International treaties and national laws seek to control the flow of these wastes, but quite often these materials slip through loop holes, or wind up bouncing from one port to another. Dealing with this explosion of garbage requires a recognition of the amount of waste being generated and an understanding of who the people are that are put at danger as a result – it is also a call to reimagine ideas of zero waste; to emphasize “reduce, reuse” and to highlight the need for “repair” and “recovery.”
This book provides a fascinating and important look at what happens to our waste. By devoting particular attention to electronic waste, food waste, plastic scrap, and the labor of waste workers, O’Neill reveals the transnational flows governing waste and draws attention to the often unseen toll of mass consumption. While the book often poses a grim vision of piles of hazardous refuse, the discussion of the uses of waste demonstrates the ways in which waste has also become a resource.
Read it because you should know what becomes of your garbage.
Discerning Experts: The Practices of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy by Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, Keynyn Brysse, Jessica O’Reilly, Matthew Shindell, and Milena Wazeck (the University of Chicago Press)
“Our studies suggest that this impulse to achieve consensus can lead to undue conservatism—where “conservative” is understood to be reassuring rather than alarming conclusions—and “least common denominator” results reflecting the urge to find common ground.”
In October of 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that seized public attention and stirred up consternation amongst climate activists. The element of the report that was largely seized on in headlines was the claim that the world had twelve years in which to act on climate change. It was a stark claim, and many climate communicators responded to it by emphasizing that it is dangerous to think that the situation is one in which the world simply goes over a cliff in twelve years time. Nevertheless, the report made quite an impact. Granted the gloomy prognosis of that IPCC report seems to have only been emphasized by the UN reports (and other scientific studies) that have come out since. Yet, when sifting through all of these reports, and the media coverage of them, one aspect that can often be unclear is how exactly these reports come to be constructed. What is the process that goes into generating a massive report that concludes that the world has twelve years in which it must radically reshape its economic structures or face catastrophic climate change? Explaining the way that work is done is at the core of the multi-authored book Discerning Experts, it is a book which is essential reading for anyone who has tried to make sense of the findings generated by the IPCC. The book reveals the challenges that scientific experts confront when they are tasked with performing work that will have serious policy implications—it is the clash between the expectation that scientists will be “value neutral” and the recognition that what scientists discover has direct value-laden consequences. The book looks at three case studies: acid rain in the US, ozone depletion, and sea level rise predictions related to the West Antarctic ice sheet (from 1981-2007). Each case study provides a useful exploration of the problem that precipitated the research, a consideration of the way that scientists approached the research, and the way that these scientific conclusions were presented to policy makers. This is a book that is not only about how science is conducted, but about how science is understood, and it delves into the difference between the way that scientists think of consensus and the way “expert disagreement, or even the appearance of it, can undermine public confidence in those experts and the science they are trying to communicate.”
When reading the news stories about the latest IPCC report one of the main questions that readers often find themselves wrestling with is whether or not the findings they are reading are an exaggeration. Might these findings be framed as extra dire to spur action? Hardly. One of the things that Discerning Experts documents in damning fashion is that, often times, the final reports involve “underestimation of the threat: the assessment made the problem seem less severe than scientists later concluded it was.” Insofar as these reports are biased, it tends to be a “conservative” bias wherein the report provides an analysis that skews towards a rosier assessment. In other words: those devastatingly grim IPCC reports might be too optimistic.
Read it because it’s only a matter of time before there’s another ghastly IPCC report, and this book will help you know how to make sense of it.
Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media by Sarah T. Roberts (Yale University Press)
“As individuals and, on a larger scale, as societies, we are ceding unprecedented amounts of control to private companies, which see no utility or benefit to providing transparent access to their technologies, architectures, practices, or finances.”
The amount of content that is uploaded to social media platforms on any given day is staggering. And while much of it may be innocuous pet pictures that raise few eyebrows, let alone red flags, mixed in with that huge quantity of content is quite a lot of disturbing content. While anyone who has spent much time on social media can attest that it is frequently a hate-filled and unpleasant place, that it is not much (much!) worse is due largely to the unseen and unappreciated work of “commercial content moderators.” These are the people who are paid to screen the content uploaded to social media sites in order to determine whether or not it complies with the site’s policies. While the social media platforms often tout how much of this type of work is done by AI, Behind the Screen reveals how much of that work is really done by human beings, and the toll that this work takes upon them. While the work of commercial content moderation is not particularly well compensated (especially in comparison to other tech industry wages), and can be “monotonous,” this is a job that “frequently exposes [commercial content moderators] to disturbing images whose hazards go unnoticed because they are not necessarily physically apparent, immediate, or understood.” In the course of their work, commercial content moderators routinely encounter content that is violent, sexually explicit, hateful, and/or disturbing. It is content that they are expected to process through, and deal with according to company policies, at an extremely quick rate. Meaning that these workers are exposed again and again to content that can have a long lasting psychological and emotional toll, even if these workers are in these positions for only a short period of time. While the gilded havens that are tech company campuses are often mythologized, the moderators work in a different corner of the tech industry (and often of the world). Though some of these moderators do work “in house” for social media firms, many work for third parties at large “call center” type facilities, while still others do this work through “microlabor” platforms – it is an internationally distributed workforce with a pay scale that often resembles a race to the bottom, and these workers seldom receive the types of support necessary as they try to cope with the deluge of disturbing content to which they have been exposed. Drawing on interviews with moderators, from around the world, this book presents a gripping view of the work of moderation.
Within this disturbing but essential book there are two very significant stories: the first is the account of the labor being performed by people, the second is the effort to explain how these moderators make these decisions. While the labor story is of grave significance, what this book also highlights is how “the vast majority of what most people consider ‘the internet’ is, in fact, the province of private corporations over which they can exercise virtually no control.” The information on why something gets taken down is often a closely guarded secret, to ensure that people won’t figure out how to game the systems. This book reveals the work that is necessary to make social media platforms work, and it clearly demonstrates why those social media companies prefer not to draw attention to that work.
Read it because it takes a lot of human workers to create the illusion that it’s all done by AI.
The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives by Jen Schradie (Harvard University Press)
“The reality is that throughout history, communications tools that seemed to offer new voices are eventually owned or controlled by those with more resources. They eventually are used to consolidate power, rather than to smash it into pieces and redistribute it”
The image of the protestor clutching their smartphone has become an integral part of the way that social movements are seen at the present – though this image of the smartphone clutching protestor has been circulating for much of the last decade. Generally the protestor so pictured is presented as young, technologically adroit, and the cause/movement of which they are seen as being a part tends to skew towards the political left. Yet the election of Donald Trump to the presidency – which occurred at least in part due to his campaign’s deft exploitation of social media – has revealed that it simply isn’t the case that digital tools are only a boon to left-wing activists. Indeed, it may well be that these digital tools are more beneficial to activists on the political right. The Revolution That Wasn’t challenges much of the conventional thinking (and quite a bit of the scholarship) on digital activism, and presents a careful analysis that reveals how conservative groups have successfully capitalized on high-tech tools. Though Schradie focuses on the state of North Carolina (and therefore the US), the lessons she draws are widely applicable throughout the US (and arguably much of the world). In assessing digital activism, Schradie examines “uneven digital terrain that largely abandoned left working-class groups while placing right-wing reformist groups at the forefront of digital activism.” Central to understanding this uneven terrain are three factors that tilted the ground: class, organization, and ideology. The shape of those three factors across left and right groups is shown to have had a significant impact on their usage of digital tools (put simply: many of the conservative groups were better able to use digital tools because the affordances of those tools more closely aligned with their class position, the way their groups were organized, and the basics of right-wing ideologies). In addition to those three factors, Schradie highlights the existence of “four constraints” that also have a pivotal influence: “Access, Skills, Empowerment, and Time” (ASETs for short). While digital skills are often taken for granted, Schradie’s focus on these ASETs is a vital reminder that not everyone has equal access to digital tools and not everyone is equally comfortable (or able) to use those digital tools. And when it comes to ASETs, at least in the case of North Carolina, Schradie again observes that they were more readily found amongst activists on the political right. Though the popular narrative around digital activism tends to focus on how it favors the left, Schradie’s analysis argues that a more rigorous look reveals that the opposite may well be the case.
Too often the way that digital activism is discussed involves a simplistic stance that links “technological progress” with social progress (and therefore with progressive causes). But such an analysis presents a warped view of the world, and of the way that digital tools actually function—it simply isn’t the case that digital tools are a boon to the left alone. Schradie’s book poignantly argues that “to fully explain digital activism in this era, we need to take off our digital-tinted glasses.” And when we remove those glasses, and look at these digital tools without their distorting lens, it becomes clear that “the internet is a tool that favors people with more money and power, often leaving those without resources in the dust.”
Read it because those who gain the strongest advantage from a new technological tool might not be the people you’d expect.
Here is a full review of The Revolution that Wasn’t.
Dismantlings: Words Against Technology in the American Long Seventies by Matt Tierney (Cornell University Press)
“By breaking apart certain machines, we can learn to use them better, or never use them again. By dissecting certain technocentric cultural logics, we can likewise challenge or reject them”
The “long seventies” (the years from 1965 to 1980) are remembered for a variety of social movements: from the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement. Yet one aspect of these movements that is often overlooked is the way that members of these movements – and critics in the broader society – wrestled with questions regarding technology in their eras. After all, the long seventies also saw the expansion of new media technologies, the rise of the computer, increased anxieties around the threat posed by automation, as well as a bevy of theorists who framed these technological shifts in utopian terms. Constructing a “counter-lexicon” of sorts, Dismantlings explores a variety of theoretical and practical tools and tactics that were used by critics and thinkers in the long seventies to confront (warily and/or hopefully) these technological shifts. It is an account that is largely grounded in Norbert Weiner’s observation that science and technology moved forward in “the world of Belsen and Hiroshima,” a view which undergirds an awareness that the negative potentials of technology need to be recognized. For some, the confrontation with technology in this period necessitated a new form of Luddism that would analyze tools and if necessary start the careful work of dismantling them. Contrary to this call for taking machines apart also appeared visions that dreamt of post-scarcity and the possibility of a society premised on the idea of “communion.” In still other cases the new technological tools of the era presented an opportunity for the emergence of a more equitable “cyberculture” if such tools could be advanced responsibly. Attempts were also made to view technology through “distortion,” to refuse to allow oneself to be used by the machines by engaging in “revolutionary suicide,” and to seek alternative technological forms that would allow “liberation technology” to provide an ecologically grounded subsistence. Tierney does a thorough job of connecting the concerns from the long seventies to those of the present by carefully demonstrating how both periods are “seized with a critical discourse about technology, and by a popular social upheaval in which new social movements emerge, grow, and proliferate.” Dismantlings present a gripping account of a variety of ways of thinking about technologies, about how to live with them, how to select them, and what to do with them if they are deemed hazardous.
Towards the end of this phenomenal book, Tierney shifts from his historical analysis to consider the many instances of “yes, but” which define contemporary discourse on technology–those moments when people recognize the downsides of certain technologies and respond with a “but” that deflects any meaningful action. What Tierney captures with righteous indignation is how this “yes, but” keeps us entangled in the technological mess in which we find ourselves today. With an analysis that pulls in voices ranging from Audre Lorde to Thomas Pynchon, and from Alice Mary Hilton to Urusla Le Guin – the “counter lexicon” this book represents provides a variety of tools for deconstructing the dominant myths surrounding technology.
Read it because there are many technological systems that we need to dismantle today.
Here is a full review of Dismantlings.
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