"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“The only thing that goes against my pessimism is the fact that we still carry on thinking today.” – Max Horkheimer
2020 was a really great year…for books.
For just about everything else, it was a terrible year. But for books? Great year. Furthermore, seeing as 2020 was a year in which it was wise to minimize going out, there was plenty of time to hunker down and read.
To be completely upfront about it, I spent a lot of 2020 reading survival guides. Really. For the sake of clarity, I should note that these were survival guides about preparing for (and surviving) the coming collapse of civilization that would be brought about by the year 2000 computing crisis (Y2K). In January of 2020, as I took notes on the pages of The Complete Y2K Home Preparation Guide I was periodically amused by the prophecies of impending doom contained in that book, but by April of 2020 (at which point [according to my notes] I was reading The Hippy Survival Guide to Y2K) being advised to stock up on toilet paper and extra canned goods felt significantly less amusing. I’ve been studying Y2K for several years now, and there are many lessons to be learned from what transpired then, but it has been a very odd experience to research a catastrophe that was averted while living through a calamity that keeps getting worse. Luckily, I had lots of other things to read in 2020.
What follows is a list of my favorite books that came out in 2020. I’ll be honest with you (meaning no disrespect to any of the authors on this list), many of these books aren’t particularly fun to read. Indeed, many of these books are challenging, many of these books are troubling, and many of these books left me with more questions than answers. Yes, some of these books made me laugh, but many of these books also made me furious. These were the books that really stuck with me after I read them, the books that I kept taking off the shelf to leaf through long after I had finished them, the books that challenged my thinking, the books that I recommended to friends/family/colleagues, the books that I am fortunate to have been able to read. These are the books that sometimes made me feel hopeful, and which also made me think deeply about what exactly hope means. This is a list that certainly speaks to the particular subject areas that I tend to focus on—I work at the intersection of the history of technology and disaster studies (with an emphasis on prophecies of doom, and the history of computing)—thus the books on this list are certainly skewed towards those subject areas. Nevertheless, I genuinely believe that the books on this list should be of interest to (and should be read by), the widest audience possible.
I do not know what 2021 will bring. It will likely bring many bad things. But whatever it brings, the books on this list have helped prepare me to face it. Hopefully they can do the same for you.
By André Brock Jr. (New York University Press)
“My claim is ecological: Black folk have made the internet a ‘Black space’ whose contours have become visible through sociality and distributed digital practice while also decentering whiteness as the default internet identity.”
The techno-utopian framing of Silicon Valley tends to portray the Internet as a space that is open to everyone regardless of who they are. Yet, as anyone who has gone online while not being a straight white cis-gendered male can attest, the Internet can also be rife with harassment, racism, misogyny, trolling, and all manner of other aspects that turn that techno-utopian framing into a distinctly bleaker reality. Nevertheless, it would be overly simplistic to reduce an understanding of the Internet to a binary between techno-utopian and techno-dystopian, for even though the techno-utopian falls severely short, the Internet can still be a vital site for expressions of identity, community, and resistance. In Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, André Brock Jr. discusses the ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with contemporary digital practices and the way that these play out across platforms including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others (with particular attention being devoted to Black Twitter). Challenging the belief that a technology is finished when its designers release it to the public, Brock emphasizes that technologies are shaped by their users who have the ability to seize on the affordances of these devices/platforms in ways other than what the original designers had foreseen. Whereas technoculture in the US tends to center whiteness, Brock’s book places “Black folk at the center of their own information technology use rather than at the periphery, fighting to be heard.” It is a book that provides a fascinating account of smartphones and social media, one that treats everyday usage as being of great significance. While one of the oldest rules of the Internet is “don’t read the comments,” Brock reverses this to magnificent effect—demonstrating that “the comments” can be an important space for seeing how identity is expressed and performed online. Similarly, though viral hashtags and memes are often shrugged off for their seeming unseriousness, Brock emphasizes the community practices and discursive acts that make these hashtags go viral long before Buzzfeed can group them in a “funniest of” listicle. Access to social media platforms provide a space for the creation of community as well as taking the actions that signify that one is part of that community. And by enabling access to these online spaces smartphones “can be understood as digital networked Black cultural third places.”
STS scholars have often pointed out the enthusiasm for technology (seeing it as a driving force for many types of progress) is a common feature of American ideology, and Brock notes that while “Black folk in America” often share this enthusiasm “where the West dreams of domination, Black folk dream of liberation”—it is an enthusiasm that is connected to a skepticism of the violence and repression that technology often bring. Thus, in contrast to the factors underpinning Western technoculture (“whiteness, masculinity, religion, progress, modernity, and the future”), Brock argues for a “Black technocultural matrix” which will be underpinned by different factors (“Blackness, intersectionality, America, invention/style, modernity, and the future”). Distributed Blackness is a phenomenal and important book that pushes readers to reconsider how race and ethnicity are enacted online.
Read it because there’s more to those viral hashtags than you may think.
Sasha Costanza-Chuck (The MIT Press)
“In fact, design justice as a framework is meant to do the opposite: to act not as a funnel that we use to limit ourselves to a minimal set of supposedly universal design choices, but rather as a prism through which to generate a far wider rainbow of possible choices, each better tailored to reflect he needs of a specific group of people.”
If you are reading these words right now you are almost certainly looking at a screen, and chances are pretty good that you spend a fair amount of time looking at that device (and ones that are similar to it). In all likelihood there are things that you quite like about this particular gadget (it connects you to friends, plays music, holds your pictures), and also many things that you rather dislike about the same gadget (it spies on you, it constantly distracts you, planned obsolescence is coming for it)—but how often do you stop to think about how it was (and who it was) that this device was designed? Such a question can pop up in a moment of annoyance about how confusing a particular app is, or it can be a response to a deep sense that whoever designed this thing didn’t do it with someone like you in mind. Whether we like to admit it or not, our daily lives are heavily impacted by the design of the things that surround us—from staircases and door knobs, to social media platforms and smartphones. And thus the assumptions and beliefs held by those doing the designing of these objects has a significant impact on all of those who wind up interacting with such things (including the designers themselves). In Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock considers the design regimes and ideologies of today, while considering how those regimes and ideologies can be challenged to ensure that technology is being designed to satisfy human need instead of corporate greed. Too often the driving philosophy behind much of the design work that goes into things like digital devices and programs is anchored in a belief in high-tech solutions that overlooks the complexity of systemic and societal problems. Such skewed thinking tends to be exacerbated by design teams who reinscribe their own biases into the things they are making. Much more than just a corrective to these prevailing ideas, Design Justice represents a challenge to radically rethink the way that the forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarcy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism have structured the built world and the steps that are needed to break thatpower.
At the core of the idea of design justice is the, too often overlooked, fact that the goods and bads of technology are not evenly distributed (and this is quite often by design). The interventions Costanza-Chock offers in Design Justice are situated around a variety of particular nodes in the design process: the values that get built into designed systems, the matter of who gets to participate in design work, the way stories of design and invention are told, the places where design work takes place, and the challenge of how design justice can be taught. While Design Justice clearly sets an agenda for future developments, it is also a book that is very much situated in the current moment and Costanza-Chock highlights a variety of projects in the here and now that are working to enact the ideas of design justice. Design Justice presents an unsparing portrait of the current world of tech, but persuasively argues for hope over despair.
Read it because this built world is not the only one that can be built.
By Christina Dunbar-Hester (Princeton University Press)
“Everyone becoming a technologist is not a way out; universalist longings cannot unseat sticky dilemmas of inclusion, belonging, and differential social and economic power. A more nuanced understanding, which can be read through present contestations around diversity in technology fields, is urgently needed.”
That year after year, fresh stories appear about the lack of diversity at major tech firms powerfully suggests that addressing this issue is not a top level concern for those companies. These companies’ executives may be good at issuing the right mea culpas to the media, but at this point it is fairly widely accepted that the only thing these companies really care about is accumulating power and making money. Yet it would be a serious mistake to act like these giant companies are the only places where people are engaging with building new technologies, and insofar as some of those spaces may be guided by a different ethos they may also be sites where diversity is foregrounded. Such alternative spaces are explored in detail in Christina Dunbar-Hester’s Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures. By looking at hackerspaces, and activists engaged in free and open-source software development, this phenomenal book draws attentions to many groups that are committed to making their own tech communities more diverse, while providing a careful assessment of many of the reasons why these efforts fall short. The world that Hacking Diversity explores is one rife with multiple levels of mythologizing: billion dollar companies born in dorm rooms, a history of computing that elevates the “geek,” and a belief that technology and technological solutions (including access to technology) can get around complex social/political issues. One of the major challenges, and splits, that appears in Hacking Diversity is the ways in which the various groups and individuals involved make sense of the political stakes of the projects they are participating in. For some activists (often associated with left-wing causes), these open technology projects are a way of creating liberatory tools, while for many less openly political activists democratic freedom is less important than a freedom to tinker. These divergences, which often can be found within a single hackerspace, trouble efforts towards diversity as many groups wind up reproducing the biases and values of the broader tech culture. Open technology presents itself as an interesting set of technological means, but what Hacking Diversity delves into is the more troubling matter of what the ultimate ends are. This matter of means and ends is similarly of great significance to the matter of diversity for these open technology groups and for the tech sector more broadly—is the goal of diversity to genuinely ensure that all people can develop high-tech skills, or is diversity just about providing the tech giants with a more positive veneer?
Throughout Hacking Diversity, Dunbar-Hester never lets attention stray from issues of politics and power. And this is wonderfully done in a matter that never allows the efforts being pursued by the open technology advocates to get away from the larger political issues. Hacking Diversity highlights the ways in which current discussions around technoculture privilege Silicon Valley companies and cool hackers over the huge number of people doing “blue” and “pink collar” tech work around the world. A major question that permeates this account is the question of whether or not many of these open technology cultures are ultimately reproducing privileged hierarchies around technology (even if they are making those hierarchies slightly more diverse) instead of breaking down those hiearchies. Hacking Diversity is a brilliant look not only at the politics of open technology cultures, but the politics of technology more broadly.
Read it because the politics of technology matter.
By Bradley Garrett (Scribner Books)
“Most of the preppers I met would consider themselves realists, not doomsayers. Their dread stems from the knowledge that we are a Janus-faced species, constantly working for and against our own interests, but few are fatalistic. Often, I came away from my encounters with survivalists, scholars, bunker builders, and the devoutly religious with a sense of latent hope—hope of rebirth from disasters. All prepping is about hope for a better future, even if that hope casts a dark shadow.”
There have always been people who have believed that the world was about to end. Yet, most of the time, the people who promote and entertain such premonitions of doom are met with bemused mockery—they are treated either as grifters or fools. However in the midst of a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic, the idea of having some extra non-perishable food and toilet paper no longer seems like such a fringe idea. Granted, there’s a big difference between buying some extra cans of beans at the grocery store and deciding that you are going to invest in a bunker. In the appropriately titled Bunker: Building for the End Times, Bradley Garrett provides a firsthand account of many of the bunkers, bunker merchants, bunker outfitters, and bunker mentalities that can currently be found scattered around the world. From South Dakota to Texas, from Thailand to New Zealand, from the Greenbrier Bunker to the Survival Condo, from preparing to stay put to bunkers on wheels—Garrett captures the immense variety of doomsday plans and the various types of individuals who are drawn to invest in surviving the collapse of civilization. While the history of prepping (particularly in the US), can fairly be couched in Cold War paranoia over impending nuclear war, in the twenty-first century the apocalypses du jour run the gamut from fears of ecological collapse to the rise of a one-world government to the chance of a deadly pandemic. The idea of a bunker—its thick concrete walls and store of supplies—promises something stable in an uncertain world. As the thinking of bunker advocates goes, you may not know what will happen tomorrow, but if you have a bunker you’ll know that you’re ready for whatever is coming. Granted, it is impossible to know for certain that your bunker will be enough until it is too late to change anything, and what do you do if the calamity strikes when you are far away from your bunker? A bunker may be a way of creating some semblance of stability in a perilous world, but hunkering down in a bunker is not an attempt to act to avert the catastrophe, it’s instead an attempt to somehow survive it.
The individuals who populate Bunker are a mixture of survivalists, paranoid millionaires, the religiously devout, and shady businessmen who are profiting off of their customers’ anxieties. And yet what makes Bunker such a worthwhile read is that Garrett never simply gawks at these weirdos or sighs at these obvious rubes. There is plenty of apocalyptic romanticism animating the fantasies of building a better world on the ashes of this one, and what makes Bunker such a worthwhile book is that Garrett understands how that apocalypticism and romanticism are connected—while never indulging in it himself. The sympathy that Garrett shows in this book (importantly) does not entail endorsing the views of any of those he encounters, but he still recognizes that we live in an era when apocalyptic anxieties cannot simply be ignored. At times amusing, and at other times quite disturbing, Bunker is not a manual for surviving the end of the world as we know, but a reminder that the world as we know it is more unstable than we might like to admit.
Read it because an uncertain future demands solutions better than isolationist bunkers.
By Andy Horowtiz (Harvard University Press)
“Viewed from a distance, Katrina’s causes can seem so tangled that it is hard to imagine unraveling the knot—so it is important to remember that the threads always could have been braided into a safety net rather than set as a snare, thrown as a lifeline instead of tied as a noose.”
How does one tell the history of a hurricane? Do you start in the moment when the storm is first officially declared a hurricane? Or is the key moment the one when the storm first makes landfall? If not that, is it when the storm first destroys human property? Or when the storm first takes a human life? Does it not truly become historic until the governor declares it so, or until the media begins covering it with frightening graphics? Or, does its history start decades before the actual hurricane ever develops? In Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, Andy Horowitz situates the story of Hurricane Katrina in a century long narrative that demonstrates the decisions and conditions that resulted in Katrina being the tragedy that it was. Not a random act of nature, or the penalty exacted by the wrath of an angry god, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was the result of decades of decisions made by particular people. While the central moment in Katrina is the day the levees broke, the history that Horowitz unveils grounds that moment in the sequence of events that led up to it (and in what came after as well). Thus the history of the storm finds its start in conflicts between levee construction, flood protection, and the pursuit of industrial growth (going back to the early twentieth century). The shortcomings of these systems of prevention were made clear nearly forty years before Hurricane Katrina when Hurricane Betsy devastated the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, with insufficient recovery efforts leaving much of New Orleans’ African American population to suffer. The lessons of Betsy were not heeded, and in the following decades the growth of the city, the development of more industrial infrastructure (generally related to the oil and gas), and the deepening of inequality, left New Orleans primed for future calamity. Far from a natural disaster, when the levees broke in 2005, the devastation that occurred was the result of a calamitous mixture of systemic racism, governmental policies, and a refusal to sufficiently prepare for foreseeable dangers. Yet the history of the disaster does not end in 2005 either, it continues in the policies and steps enacted in the storm’s aftermath that sought to rebuild New Orleans without its former residents. What this remarkable book demonstrates is Katrina was a moment in an ongoing disaster.
In the book’s introduction, Horowitz writes “Disasters demand more attention from historians.” And Katrina not only represents an extremely important instance of a disaster receiving proper attention from a historian, the book acts as a model for how such histories should be written. While Hurricane Katrina is central to the book, Horowitz carefully places the hurricane in a longer timeline that meticulously considers the factors that resulted in disaster. For it is by tracking these decisions that it becomes gallingly evident that the disaster did not have to occur. Disastrous occurrences often secure so much attention as a result of the ways in which they represent breaks from normality, yet Katrina shows the many ways in which it is precisely those overlooked moments of normality that set the stage for disasters. By placing Hurricane Katrina in the broader context of racist policies, extractive industries, the Anthropocene, infrastructural neglect, and neoliberal policy making—Katrina is a testament to history’s explanatory power.
Read it because it’s important to understand how a disaster becomes a disaster.
By Jessica Hurley (The University of Minnesota Press)
“The nuclear age in which the human species will now always live reveals us to be something other than we thought we were, unstable beings entangled with an unknowable planet. And if this revelation appears apocalyptic, then apocalypse is where we must reside, with futurelessness affording the chance to keep the present open to radical change just a little longer, suspended between the unbearable past and the impossible future, here , at the end of the world.”
Discussions of nuclear war have a tendency to emphasize how that greatly feared event never occurred. There is truth to this; after all, the full-scale nuclear conflict that would turn Earth into a lifeless deathscape did not occur (at least not yet). However, such a framing has a tendency to render invisible the number of nuclear weapons that were set off as tests, the highly polluted zones that still attest to the lingering impacts of the creation of nuclear weapons, and all of the pieces of nuclear infrastructure that were constructed. Drawing attention to the wounds left by this nuclear war that did not happen, Jessica Hurley’s Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex provides a fascinating and necessary exploration of the many ways in which that war did take place. In lieu of focusing on the standard set of Cold War scientists, military planners, and politicians, Hurley focuses primarily on literature and the way that the shadow of the mushroom cloud can be seen in many works that fall outside of the typical “nuclear cannon.” Hurley focuses on the way that nuclear themes appear in the work of Black, queer, Indigenous, and Asian American authors, including: James Baldwin, Ruth Ozeki, Samuel Delaney, Leslie Marmo Silko, Tony Kushner, and others. Core to this work is an understanding that the people and communities who have been most harmed by the nuclear complex are those who have benefited the least from it, those who have often been viewed as expendable by those planning for a nuclear war. As Hurley discusses, while analyzing Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, nuclear paranoia often served to retrench reactionary white supremacist views (as can be seen in works like Rand’s), even as such paranoia resulted in the creation of real-world infrastructure that reified such ideas (white flight to the suburbs). While the fear of an impending nuclear war often focused on the sudden flash of the bomb followed by nearly instantaneous destruction, Infrastructures of Apocalypses instead focuses on “the nuclear mundane” as the slow accretion of violence that does not look like the mushroom cloud but instead takes the form of nuclear waste or living in a city that has been identified as an acceptable loss when the missiles fly.
Apocalyptic imaginings often present the future either as something desirable (which must be protected from the apocalypse), or as a world of ash atop which a select group of survivors can rebuild—but Hurley pushes for a new way of engaging with the idea of the apocalypse. Rather than a view of the apocalypse that envisions some matter of grand end time conflict, Hurley shifts the focus from the future to a sense of “futurelessness” that puts the focus on engaging with the present moment. Far from a place of resigned despair, this attention shifts the apocalypse from that which awaits us to that which we are already experiencing. Vitally this book treats this “not as an obliteration of possibility but as a place to stand, a place where we might yet construct a world in which to live.”
Read it because the end of the world as we know it need not be the end of the world.
By Jenny Rice (Ohio State Press)
“It’s not that conspiracy theories do not traffic in evidence. If anything they are drowning in tidal waves of evidence all day long. Yet, those of us who disagree with their claims tend to focus on the rationality (or irrationality) of individual pieces of evidence.”
Unfortunately, 2020 was a good year for conspiracy theories: from Q anon to the idea that the COVID vaccine would be used to implant microchips in people to the belief that Biden stole the election. While there is nothing particularly new about conspiracy theories, in 2020 they seemed to be everywhere—ideas that once would have been associated with ragged men on street corners with a stack of mimeographed newsletters are now the purview of sleek social media accounts and Presidential tweets that reach millions. In this context articles proliferate online that seek to instruct people on how to talk to their loved ones who have fallen down the conspiratorial rabbit hole, with one question seeming to come up over and over: why do people believe these outlandish things? With Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric, and Acts of Evidence, Jenny Rice engages with conspiracy theories by considering how things come to be treated as evidence (and how that evidence gets mobilized) by adherents of conspiracy theories. Central to Rice’s analysis are the way in which evidence is utilized by conspiracy theorists in ways that challenges more commonsense understandings of what evidence signifies, in Rice’s analysis she treats “evidence as an act rather than a thing.” Granted, such attention to the functions of evidence also require a consideration of what it means for something to be able to become evidence, with the further challenge being the way in which conspiracy theorists can find proof for their beliefs in things that would strike many people as totally lacking of evidentiary value. Indeed, for those who have bought into conspiracy theories deeply enough, sometimes the lack of evidence can itself become a sort of evidence (namely of a conspiracy that has acted to destroy that evidence). Rice considers a variety of different conspiratorial beliefs: 9/11 truthers, birtherism, UFO sightings, pizzagate, and others—but Rice’s account is not intended as a detailed explanation of these movements, rather what makes Awful Archives so vital is the way that the book shifts away from the things these groups believe to consider the various pieces of evidence these groups cite in order to justify their beliefs. Though the groups Rice considers differ, her book considers some of the common features of conspiratorial evidence: overwhelming with quantity, treating absence as evidence, refusing the banal (often technical) explanation in favor of the outlandish, and rampant anti-Semitism.
For many people their initial reaction to conspiracy theories is to laugh at them (and their adherents), and yet as Rice notes for many conspiracy theorists being laughed at (especially by media figures) only serves to harden their resolve. There is little to be gained by pointing out that a belief is absurd when those who hold the belief have anchored their worldview around the premise that they have found an important truth that the world is bent on concealing. Eschewing a simple answer for responding to conspiracy theorists, Rice notes that it is extremely difficult (perhaps futile) to try to debate conspiracy theorists. After all, debate requires two parties who can accept a (more or less) common frame of reality and evidence, and this does not exist with conspiracy theorists.
Read it because, unfortunately, laughing at conspiracy theories isn’t a sufficient response.
By Alissa V. Richardson (Oxford University Press)
“Just as soon as smartphones put the power to look into the hands of working class people, powerful forces have worked hard to take back that power. I do not think the manufacturers of smartphones ever imagined that they would be leveraged in this way, to document the actions of the previously unaccountable. This time of reckoning is upon us now, however, as black witnesses have awakened a sleeping giant, so to speak.”
By the time the media begins reporting on a protest, those protesting have already been sharing information for hours, days, or even weeks. And oftentimes the legacy media institutions would have been only too happy to ignore the cause of the protests. Activist and protest movements have a long history of creating their own media institutions (and challenging the mainstream media) in order to ensure that their message is heard and in order to build a larger movement, but access to digital tools has opened new opportunities for activists to become the media. In Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Alissa V. Richardson explores the many ways that African American activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have effectively used smartphones and social media in the fight for social justice. Drawing upon interviews with a variety of activists involved on the front lines of the protests, this essential book explores how the widespread availability of communication tools have been key for documenting and building a social movement. The smartphone’s camera becomes an important site of focus and inquiry here, as the ability to capture what is occurring and to transmit it provides activists with the ability to circumvent the narratives pushed by police departments and taken up by complicit media conglomerates. In this scenario “black people are using smartphones to create video evidence for each other” while they are also “making these videos for external audiences too. They want to set the record straight in many cases.” If the media will not come and report on a story, activists can put the story out there themselves, often forcing the media to eventually come around and report on it. Richardson’s phenomenal book traces a rich genealogy of the creation of alternative news outlets that have drawn attention to the injustices that many media outlets ignore—publications such as New York Age, the Chicago Defender, Jet, and Listen Chicago. This history of African American media helps to place “the new protest journalism” within a long trajectory of using the media technologies of the moment (print, radio, television, digital) to cover the systemic violence of a white supremacist society. There is often a tendency in books dealing with protest movements and digital tools to shift into a sort of techno-utopian register, but Richardson’s book wonderfully pushes back against such framing, carefully considering how the tools that have empowered activists have also resulted in them being targeted by forces of surveillance and repression.
In its title Bearing Witness While Black centers the idea of bearing witness, and this is a stance that is much more powerful than simply reporting what has taken place. It transforms the act of looking, the experience of seeing, into a moment that creates a moral obligation. While these acts of witnessing have a long history, the tragedies being captured on smartphones and disseminated over social media are a reminder that racist violence is not an artifact of the past. As Richardson explores in this must-read book, “Black witnessing today draws on the labor of young people like my students, who do not let us look away.”
Read it because you should not look away.
By Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell (Currency Books)
“Americans aren’t putting their good ideas to work in a systematic way that benefits all of their fellow citizens. And that general problem fits the familiar trend we’ve seen in busines and education, where leaders choose to steer their organizations toward innovation, with the implicit assumption that doing so will lead inevitably to financial success.”
Regardless of the problem facing us today, there will be some voices claiming that the solution is “innovation.” Pollution? Innovation! Inequality? Innovation! The future of universities? Innovation! What to do about the problems created by innovation? Innovation! And though this type of thinking may be particularly prevalent in Silicon Valley, it can also be found in corporate boardrooms, in the offices of university presidents, across governments, and in the minds of many people who have come to believe that what complex social problems really need is a quick technological solution. With The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell push back on the idea the solution to every problem is innovation. While the “tech” with which innovation is so heavily associated tends to be a shorthand for computers, the Internet, and all things Silicon Valley, Vinsel and Russell emphasize that when we think of technology in the world around us it is necessary to have a much more expansive definition of “tech.” Roads, bridges, sewer lines, and the power grid (without which all of those high-tech gadgets would swiftly become shiny paperweights) are also “tech,” and though we have a tendency to not think of them very often our lives are significantly upended whenever there are issues with these essential pieces of infrastructure. And, unfortunately, much of that important infrastructure is in rather bad shape. Yet the constant exhortations around innovation tend to shift focus from the technologies that matter most in our daily lives to fantastical ideas about what this expensive new system might do. Thus, we get cities rushing to become “smart cities” while their subway systems deteriorate, and we get universities pumping money into “innovation campuses” while the buildings in which humanities classes are taught crumble. On a certain level, this singular focus on innovation poses a serious threat, as it can lead to neglecting all of the unsung structures that help make innovation possible in the first place. While on another level, the hyping of innovation has more to do with ideology than a historical understanding of how innovation really happens, as Vinsel and Russell note “actual innovation proceeds through small steps, not grand strategy.” What The Innovation Delusion emphasizes is that innovation isn’t the key to the future, maintenance is.
Ostensibly a book about technology and innovation, there is a whole philosophy of life at work in The Innovation Delusion, which comes across most clearly when Vinsel and Russell anchor “the maintenance mindset” in the provocative question “what is good and worth preserving?” This is a striking question, particularly as the idea of “preserving” is contrary to innovation’s unrelenting focus on the new. While this question leads Vinsel and Russell to highlight key aspects of maintenance (how it “sustains success…depends on culture and management…requires constant care”), the question is about much more than maintenance. Ultimately, it is a question about the kind of society world we want to build.
Read it because you’re going to hear a lot about innovation in 2021.
By Xiaowei Wang (FSG Originals x Logic)
“Rather than seeing the way technology has shifted or produced new livelihoods in rural China, I have been humbled to see the ways rural China fuels the technology we use every day, around the world.”
Stories about technology often revolve around hard binaries: high tech versus low tech, progress versus regression, urban versus rural, machinery versus nature. Such juxtapositions are a recurring feature of tales that treat technology as a force that instantly transforms everything it touches, where “technology” is generally shorthand for computers and the Internet. Such narratives are simplistic, but reproduce a technologically deterministic logic wherein machines drive history and where machines are also the solution to every problem. A phenomenal corrective to such crude framings, Blockchain Chicken Farm and Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang, breaks apart the hard lines of opposition between high tech versus low tech, and urban versus rural. to show the many ways in which they are entangled. Though there tends to be something of a bias (found in many countries and cultures) that treats the rural countryside as being backwards or resistant to change, the rural communities in Wang’s fascinating book are filled with people who are cannily making use of new technologies. Contrary to popular myths that treat innovation as something that only happens in the expensive campuses of major tech companies, Wang shows how the countryside provides fertile ground in which new applications of technologies can take root. Here the arrival of computers and Internet access is not treated as an instant revolutionary force, but rather is portrayed as the arrival of new tools that are gradually incorporated into a community. Eschewing a techno-utopian narrative, Wang nevertheless presents a techno-optimistic narrative wherein computers and the Internet are not immediately ushering in a perfect world, but wherein these tools are nevertheless empowering communities in noteworthy ways. Beyond factories and tech-company campuses, Wang’s book is filled with unexpected technological sites: there is the GoGoChicken “blockchain chicken farm” (of the book’s title) where chickens are raised in a way that provides consumers with everything they might want to know about the chicken’s life; there are the pork farms turning to AI to help monitor their pigs for any sign of trouble; there is the village manufacturing costumes that wind up on sites like Amazon; and there are the pearl farmers who are eager to use Silicon Valley buzzwords to set themselves apart. And thus this book shifts the sites of innovation away from the college dorm room or suburban garage, to the village and the mountainside.
Importantly, Blockchain Chicken Farm is not an ode to innovation. The term “shanzhai,” according to Wang, was “originally a derogatory Cantonese term for knockoffs or pirate goods” but the book argues that “shanzhai holds the power to decolonize technology.” And “shanzhai” can serve as an alternative and a corrective to dominant ideas around innovation. For “shanzhai” provides the space “not only to use a device or software but also to collaboratively alter, change, and reclaim it.” And here the emphasis is not on alterations that produce a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather opens up the ability to reclaim technologies in ways that are desired by particular communities. Blockchain Chicken Farm is a fascinating travelogue of the responses to technological change.
Read it because dorm rooms, suburban garages, and tech company campuses aren’t the only sites of innovation.
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