"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“We read books to find out who we are.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
I would like to say that I spent 2021 alternating between reading related to my own research and reading fascinating books.
Yes, I would like to say that. I really would.
But, if I’m being honest with you, the sort of reading that occupied most of 2021 for me is the type that falls under the heading of “doom scrolling.” Of course, I found time to work on my own research, and as this list attests I found time to read many phenomenal new books; however, I also spent a lot of time reading and re-reading bleak news.
2020 was a terrible year, and as it came to a close there were many people who were eager for 2021 to begin. Alas, despite the hopes with which many of us entered 2021, it has been another very terrible year. While 2021 literally began on January 1, 2021, at least in the US, in many ways the year truly stared with the January 6 attempted coup. A shocking event that has only become more disturbing as more details about it have come out. And as 2021 trudges to a close the pandemic is spiking again amidst worried pronouncements regarding the omicron variant. At the start of 2021 there was a sense that we just had to wait for the vaccines to become widely available, and in the early summer there were even signs that things were really improving, but as 2021 ends it is easy to feel as though the pandemic will never end. Of course to focus only on these bookends of the year is to ignore a deluge of other stories that have resulted in the fun new debate of “are we already living in a dystopia, or are we just living in the unwritten prologue to a dystopia?” 2020 was a year in which it was clear the train was careening towards the abyss, many hoped that 2021 would be the year in which we changed tracks, but as 2021 draws to a close it seems we are just racing faster and faster towards oblivion.
Which brings us back to reading.
It’s easy to romanticize books. To speak of books in an adoring way that affectionately speaks to the pleasure of turning the page or the scent of paper. It can be easy to curl up in your seat and lose yourself in a good book while sitting on the train careening towards certain doom. However, there are also books that can provide you with essential insight about how you (and your society) have wound up in the present situation. Books that can force you to pay attention. Books that can spur you to action. Books that can reveal the past to you. And at a moment when everything seems to be happening so fast, reading a book can still be one of the things that forces you to slow down and really think.
2021 was a terrible year, but it was a year of some truly wonderful books. What follows is a list of the ten books from 2021 that had the biggest impact on me—the books that made me really think, the books that really troubled me, the books that I kept picking back up to flip through again, the books I recommended to friends and family, the books that helped me make sense of 2021. As with the lists from past years, this list is reflective of the subject areas I tend to most closely follow (media studies, disaster studies, the history of technology, STS), and though I read some great novels in 2021 this list does not include any fiction. When it comes to books, there are all sorts of accolades that can be bestowed, but for me the ten books on this are the ones that allowed me to see the world more clearly. And frankly, I can think of no higher words of praise to bestow.
I will not pretend to know what will happen in 2022; however, the books on this list provide us the insights necessary to confront whatever it is that awaits us.
By: Audrey Watters (The MIT Press)
“Teaching machines may then be one of the most important trends in the twentieth century—both in education and in technology—precisely because they were not a flash-in-the-pan, as some scholars have suggested, but a harbinger. Their ongoing influences can be found in the push for both personalized technologies and behavioral engineering. But teaching machines’ most significant legacy might be, quite broadly, in the technocratic culture that they helped engender in education.”
Those who work in and around education have grown accustomed to being constantly deluged with platforms, apps, and gadgets which advocates claim will improve the educational outcomes for students (sometimes while also offering to make life easier for the educator). During the pandemic, educators (and parents of students) found themselves working to swiftly master a range of new educational technologies, even as they simultaneously confronted the numerous shortcomings of many of these systems. In many of these very recent cases, the Internet connected computer is centered as the educational technology, yet as Audrey Watters explores in her extraordinary book Teaching Machines there is a long and important history of creating (and marketing) educational technology. In Watters’s framing, “teaching machines are bound up in the twentieth-century faith in science and technology and a fascination with gadgetry,” beliefs that became more and more visible in postwar America. Describing the origins of actual teaching machines, Watters considers the respective creations of B.F. Skinner and Sidney Pressey, and their ideas of how to create machines that would allow students to move at their own pace while helping schools save on labor time. Early efforts to create teaching machines presented those seeking to reform education with something of a conundrum: “to individualize education, one must automate it. To resist mechanistic education, schools must mechanize,” but for these reformers what was clear was that the solution was to be found in machines. Granted, in drawing attention to many of the early teaching machines that were actually built Watters is able to emphasize how frequently these devices failed to work in the way their designers hoped, and yet the shortcomings of specific teaching machines did not seem to diminish the overall faith in teaching machines. While much of this history is centered around particular would-be educational reformers, this is also very much the story of the various companies that saw in manufacturing these teaching machines an opportunity to move into a valuable market. Oftentimes the relationship between the manufacturing companies and the educational reformers they were working with gave rise to tension and frustration, as it became evident that thinking up a teaching machine and mass-producing it were not really the same thing. A wide variety of teaching machines (of varying levels of complexity) were created and marketed, but perhaps more important than any of the individual machines being sold was the belief in technology as the solution to the challenges facing schools. Watters’s book features many significant connections between the past of teaching machines and present day hype surrounding education technology, and even as most of the machines she focuses on were part of “a powerful postwar fantasy” the way in which “it did not seem to matter that it was a fantasy that failed to match the reality of what the machines could do or how they were actually adopted” remains very true of educational technology today.
Watters bookends her vibrant history of teaching machines with attention to the current state of discourse around “ed tech.” And though, at the moment, ed tech discourse it is less about specific teaching machines and more about the way in which the Internet connected computer is framed as the teaching machine, Watters makes clear how many of today’s would-be educational reformers seem woefully unaware of the history of teaching machines that came before. Watters emphasizes how attempts to mechanize education have met with (and continue to meet with) resistance (from students, teachers, and parents), and how these moments of resistance often sparked far more interesting ideas about reforming education than just sitting students in front of machines. Arguing that education is stagnant and that only a new app can save it, is the perspective of those trying to sell apps, not that of those actually working in classrooms.
Read it if you have ever been (or have ever known) a student.
By: Lindsay Thomas (The University of Minnesota Press)
“This is the attitude preparedness demands. Not only should you treat fictional disasters as if they are real and as if they are not; you should also adopt a corresponding attitude towards disaster. You should also simultaneously be willing to prepare ‘until the end of time’ and put the impending disasters for which you are preparing in the back of your mind.”
One of the things that unites climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic is the degree to which they were foreseeable—and the extent to which many countries still failed (and continue to fail) to adequately prepare to handle these crises. Which raises an important question: how is it that we think about potential disasters, and how is it that we prepare for these risks? In Training for Catastrophe, Lindsay Thomas provides an absorbing look at the ways in which (particularly in the US) we are taught to prepare for worst case scenarios, and the important role that fictions play in shaping our expectations of what will happen and what we will need to do. Drawing on Cold War figures theorizing about nuclear war, FEMA training materials, preparedness resources in game form aimed at children, and even a CDC comic depicting the zombie apocalypse—Thomas shows how important imagining disasters has been, and continues to be. One of the reasons why fictions are so vital for preparedness, is because fictions are what allow us to think through that which might happen before it actually does. Fictions are the space where the unimaginable becomes imagined, and what’s more they can provide a space in which to experiment with potential responses when real lives are not actually hanging in the balance. Granted, as the example of the Hurricane Pam exercise (a FEMA drill which provided a fairly close forecast for what happened in Hurricane Katrina) can make clear, that a particular danger was imagined does not always mean that sufficient steps were taken to prepare for the real thing. While different preparedness materials target different audiences (from disaster professionals to school children), Thomas makes clear that one of the main purposes of these materials is to make responding to disaster a matter of habit—it is a matter of creating the awareness that disaster can strike at any moment (and without much warning). This is a point Thomas eloquently captures in discussing active shooter drills, as she notes “when trainees undergo active shooter training, they are not only preparing for an active shooter situation; they are also learning to expect it, to get used to it as just something that happens all the time (even if it doesn’t; even if it hasn’t happened to them.” And though many of these training materials ostensibly speak to a universal “everyone,” Thomas investigates the ways in which the subject of these training materials tends to be a white professional. Fictions of preparedness work to instantiate a particular type of citizen: one who is “resilient” (self-reliant and not expecting the government to come help them), and also always watchful (prepared to report anything that seems suspicious to the state). Preparedness materials provide a variety of tips and suggestions for their audiences, but in this book Thomas delves beyond the surface level advice in these materials to consider what sort of public these sorts of materials aim to produce.
Throughout the pandemic many people have gotten a crash course in parsing the preparedness materials produced by state agencies and the CDC. From information on a municipality’s website to colorful graphics depicting the proper way to wear a mask, there has been plenty of information conveying what you (yes, you) need to do to keep yourself and your community safe as the pandemic drags on. In the moment of crisis it can be tempting to focus in on the surface level steps these materials advise, but as Thomas’s book makes clear it is worth thinking more deeply about the worldview and logic embedded in these preparedness materials. After all, that we are still trying to “personal responsibility” our way out of the pandemic is very much in keeping with what Thomas identifies as the tendency for preparedness materials to shift the responsibility off the state and onto the citizen.
Read it because you need to be prepared for the dangers ahead, and you need to think about what it means to be prepared for the dangers ahead.
By: Catherine Knight Steele
“Instead, digital Black feminism insists we centralize Black women in our definition of and history of digital technology. Digital Black feminism is a mechanism to understand how Black feminist thought is altered by and alters technology. Digital Black feminism suggests we attune our gaze to Black women because they potentially provide the most robust site of inquiry as digital scholars interested in digital communication’s capacities and constraints.”
In 2021, many of the stories regarding technology continued to center white men (as was made clear by the individual selected as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year). Such a focus is in keeping with a narrative that privileges certain types of people and certain sorts of technology—yet it is also a narrative that overlooks a great deal of significant technological work taking place, and the people who are doing (and have been doing) that work. In Digital Black Feminism, Catherine Knight Steele has written a crucial account of digital technologies that centers the work and experience of Black women, exploring the many ways in which their technological skills have placed them at the forefront of challenging how digital platforms can (and should) be used. Emphasizing that Black women have consistently been transformers and early adopters of digital technologies, Steele’s book details the ways in which platforms have been used in keeping with a digital Black feminist ethos, even as those platforms become important places for the publication and dissemination of Black feminist thought. As Steele notes, “Black women operate online and in digital spaces in ways that far surpass the possibilities imagined for them,” and though digital spaces continue to be hotbeds of reactionary views, racism, and misogyny, Steele argues that “Black feminism is the means to unseat the oppressive forces in society that harm everyone, not only Black women.” Steele’s account begins long before the invention of social media and the Internet, instead she looks back to consider the relationship that Black women have had with labor and communications technologies in order to draw attention to how highly skilled Black women have always been in technological areas—though dominant narratives about expertise and technology have long overlooked Black women’s expertise. Discussing the emergence of what she terms “the virtual beauty shop,” Steele pushes her readers to “reconsider what counts as a technology” while discussing the ways Black women created their own spaces for developing agency, community, and business opportunities. Focusing on digital media, Steele delves into the way that Black feminist thought is expressed through and expressed on platforms like blogs and social media sites. Here Steele draws attention to five principles that are core to digital Black feminist thought and practice, which include: “the prioritization of agency, the reclamation of the right to self-identify, the centralization of gender nonbinary spaces of discourse, the creation of complicated allegiances, and the insertion of a dialectic of self and community interests.” Drawing on the archival record, Steele places twentieth century Black feminist thinkers (such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Zora Neale Hurston) in conversation with contemporary digital Black feminist thinkers (such as Luvvie Ajayi and Feminista Jones), to show how Black feminists have consistently made creative use of the affordances of the media technologies available to them. And Steele also considers the challenge of what happens once digital Black feminism (and some of its terminology) becomes a “product.” Digital Black Feminism is a powerful and important work, which makes clear “Black women were never divorced from technology.”
It matters who gets centered, and who gets pushed to the side, in discussions surrounding technology. For those sorts of framings wind up influencing what gets defined as the problems, and therefore what the necessary solutions should be. Yet, as Steele’s book makes abundantly clear “learning to code is neither a panacea nor the missing tool to usurping the racism that has precluded Black women’s technological skills from being recognized by the masses.” By challenging whitewashed histories of technology, and presenting a detailed exploration of digital Black feminist thought, Steele’s book is vital for really making sense of the digital present, and for reaching a better digital tomorrow.
Read it because it matters who gets centered when we talk about technology.
By: Craig Robertson (The University of Minnesota Press)
“In the early twentieth century an encounter with a filing cabinet was an encounter with an emerging set of economic ideas. Filing is not a neutral act; it is shaped by efficiency, a distinct worldview that privileges a particular relationship to labor and time (it makes them things to be ‘saved’).”
Many of us have become quite accustomed to double-clicking on icons meant to look like tabbed file folders. And within these folders we are accustomed to finding some combination of more folders, and various contents (which often have icons making them look like pieces of paper). We navigate through, and construct, these levels of folders as they seem like a sensible way of handling the vast number of digital files and documents we have—and yet how often do we pause to really think about the history of the humble folder? With The Filing Cabinet, Craig Robertson provides a fascinating history of what may seem like a rather mundane piece of office equipment: the filing cabinet (alongside folders, files, and tabs). Focusing on the final decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, Robertson makes the filing cabinet a central character in the social and economic history of that era—showing how just as modernity was symbolized by the vertical skyscraper, so too was it symbolized in techniques for storing information vertically. Rather than suggest that the file cabinet “invented a modern conception of information or that it invented efficiency,” Robertson considers how the filing cabinet helped to elevate the importance of information and the ways in which “it gives historical context to an important phase in the ascendancy of information.” Alongside a genuinely wonderful assortment of advertisements for filing cabinets, Robertson examines the filing cabinet as a machine that is deserving of the same level of detailed attention as the steam engine or the power plant. Robertson’s attention to the ways in which filing cabinets actually worked, and the particular problems that the designers of filing cabinets sought to address, does a striking job of exploring how much work and thought went into designing the filing cabinets that so many of us take for granted today. While offices had needed to manage their paper records before the invention of the filing cabinet, the filing cabinet played an essential role in the system that allows for the emergence of “paperwork,” which plays a significant role in the growth of corporate capitalism. Yet to tell the history of the filing cabinet is also to tell the story of those who were tasked with doing the filing, and as Robertson notes “as a machine, a filing cabinet could make a worker more machine-like.” The labor history around the filing cabinet captures a split between those who worked with their heads and those who worked with their hands, alongside heavily gendered concepts surrounding what sorts of people should be doing what sorts of work. We routinely hear stories about how awash people are in information these days, and Robertson’s book wonderfully describes early attempts to manage the flood of information (and how some of those techniques are still seen today).
There is often a bias in histories of technology towards big flashy machines, but The Filing Cabinet makes it abundantly clear that it is as essential to pay attention to the filing cabinet as it is to the skyscraper. After all, many of the offices in those skyscrapers were filled with filing cabinets, and workers buzzing about in the changed labor conditions those filing cabinets helped create. By drawing attention to the filing cabinet, Robertson also makes clear that “storage is not a neutral practice but is instead shaped by particular technologies, practices, and ideas.” At a point when filing cabinets (to the extent they are still seen), seem like banal outdated office furniture, Robertson’s book is an enthralling exploration of the moment when filing cabinets were seen as high-tech.
Read it because you still keep your information in file folders, even if it’s in icons of file folders.
By Miles Orvell (Oxford University Press)
“Photography, the perfect medium for depicting the romance of the ruins, has also been the perfect means of critiquing that romance by portraying the irony of that appropriation, thus pointing to the complexity and continuing contestation of the ruins and their cultural meaning.”
To speak of ruins is to simultaneously describe the ancient edifice immortalized in tourist postcards and the empty factory whose broken out windows you sometimes see out your car window. Exerting a magnetic force upon us, ruins both attract and repel: presenting a romantic allure of imagined past greatness, and discomforting us with the evidence of collapse visible all around us. With Empire of Ruins, Miles Orvell has produced a solid account of American culture’s long and enduring fascination with ruins. Looking back to the nineteenth century, Orvell argues that in that century ruins conveyed a romantic longing for a majestic past, one that looked with some jealousy towards the decaying castles of Europe, while attempting to assimilate the ruins in the Southwest into the mythology of the United States. Yet this nostalgic fawning over ruin underwent significant changes as the nineteenth became the twentieth century. The speed of industrial modernity had less time for gazing longingly at crumbling stones, as it was too busy constantly tearing down in order to build anew, and thus ruins became not only legacies of distant pasts but products of life in the here and now—products that could be swept away for the sake of “creative destruction.” Granted, as the twentieth century wore on, many of the structures that were erected in the euphoric expansion of industry, gradually came to become crumbling shells speaking of that expansion’s decline—a trend that is visible in post-industrial cities that are filled with abandoned factories and husks of homes. Far from arresting the slide into ruins, the twenty-first century (which arguably began with the ruin creating spectacle of 9/11) turns the built world into a ruin in waiting as calamitous climate change wreaks destruction and leaves ruin in its wake. Throughout Empire of Ruins, Orvell is particularly focused on the way in which ruins have been visually represented, and the key role that the camera has played in capturing ruins and ruination. While poets, painters, and philosophers have fixated on ruins for centuries, Orvell explores the way in which photography has simultaneously allowed for ruins to remain a subject of such artful rumination while also turning ruins into things to be documented—contemporary ruin photography hangs in art museums, and contemporary ruin photography adorns the front page of the newspaper. In describing modern ruin photography, Orvell argues that it represents “the destructive sublime, in which the spectacle of ruin and waste is foremost and is often the consequence of technology,” these images “overwhelm us by virtue of the scale of destruction pictured, yet they force us to look with a kind of aesthetic detachment at scenes of horror.”
We are surrounded by physical ruins, and we are inundated with pictures of ruins. What’s more when walking by that abandoned factory, or staring at photos of burnt out wreckage, it is easy to feel an odd mixture of emotions. Ruins are able to capture a sense of grandeur and speak to the capacities of human creativity, even as those same ruins speak of a greatness that has passed. Looking at ruins conjures up in us “the contradictory language of the Destructive Sublime—beauty, horror, wonder.” Though Orvell’s book considers the romanticization of ruins, it is not an argument in favor of falling in love with the decaying structures of the past and projecting onto them visions of a world that did not truly exist—rather it is a book that pushes us to really consider the spectacle of destruction to which we are observers.
Read it because if you have not taken a picture of ruins yourself, than you have certainly at least seen a picture of ruins.
Edited by: Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip (The MIT Press)
“Techno-optimist narratives surrounding high-technology and the public good—ones that assume technology is somehow inherently progressive—rely on historical fictions and blind spots that tend to overlook how large technological systems perpetuate structures of dominance and power already in place.”
For those who pay attention to the impact of computers on society, 2021 was a rather overwhelming year. This is not the time or place to provide a lengthy list of everything that took place—but from Facebook going Meta to all the hubbub around NFTs—there were many things that demanded attention. And yet, even amidst all of the events happening in and around computing, there tended to not be terribly much discussion about actual computers (or the history of computing). Luckily, 2021 also saw the publication of Your Computer is on Fire, a brilliant edited volume in which it is understood that when we talk about computers we need to actually talk about computers. The book stakes out a confrontational position in the current discourse around computers, pushing back on the unthinking technological optimism that turns much of the current conversation around computers into something almost indistinguishable from an advertisement. Rather than smile calmly, and patiently assert that the tech sector will be able to come up with some new high-tech gadget to fix all of the problems created by their last batch of high-tech gadgets, this book emphasizes that if we want to get out of this mess we have to make sense of how we got here. As Mar Hicks puts it “there are almost always red flags and warning signs before a disaster, if one cares to look,” though when it comes to computers too often we are discouraged to look. In addition to wonderfully impassioned introductions and conclusions by the volume’s editors, the book is divided into three sections: “Nothing is Virtual” wherein contributors cut through the airy talking points to bring ideas about computing back to material reality; “This is an Emergency” sounds the alarm on many of the currently unfolding crises in and around computing; and “Where Will the Fire Spread” turns a prescient gaze towards trajectories to be mindful of in the swiftly approaching future. This is a book that covers a lot of vital topics: from Sarah Roberts’s discussion of the human labor that is actually behind the touted AI to Benjamin Peters’s comments on attempts to create something like the Internet in Chile and the Soviet Union, and from Safiya Umoja Noble’s exploration of the biases embedded in robots to Janet Abbate’s critique of the idea that learning to code is synonymous with empowerment, and of course the book covers much more. In one of the books conclusions, Kavita Philip notes “we offer not just a frightening warning but some well-tested escape routes,” and Your Computer is on Fire is a brilliant mix of fire alarm and fire extinguisher.
On the one hand, it sometimes feels like so much of contemporary discourse is dominated by talking about computers, but on the other hand, it often feels like we aren’t really talking about computers when we talk about computers. One of the things that makes Your Computer is on Fire such a wonderful and important book is the many different ways in which its contributors engage with computing—from technical details, to considerations of materiality, to careful historical attention. The book is simultaneously an essential exploration of how computer technologies really work (and how they have come to work the way they do), and a gripping account of the way that these technologies work over the societies in which they are deployed.
Read it because you used a computer in 2021, and you will be using one in 2022.
By: Samantha Montano (Park Row Books)
“Every disaster you have yet to experience in your lifetime has already begun. The threads of risk are spun out over decades, even centuries, until they crescendo into disaster. In Hollywood, disasters happen fast but in real life they are slow.”
2021 was a year marked by disaster. It was a year that began with a horrific spike in cases (and deaths) due to the pandemic, and despite some hopeful signs in the spring and early summer, the year is closing out with another galling spike and fears about the omicron variant. And, alas, to speak only of the pandemic is to risk ignoring the many other disasters (from fires to flooding to tornadoes) that contributed to making 2021 a disastrous year in a quite literal sense. Though 2021 gave all of us who endured it an object lesson in the experience of disaster, Samantha Montano’s Disasterology provides a necessary account of the intersecting crises crashing down upon us from the perspective of a bonafide disaster researcher and emergency management professional. Mixing personal narrative with scholarly perspective, Montano’s book is not only a moving account of looking at disasters but also a vital guide for how to think about disasters. Montano’s evocative narrative captures her time as a college student working on cleanup efforts in the long aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (in New Orleans), bearing witness to the slow destruction of climate change being wrought in areas she has long known in Maine, and constructs these tales with an attention that is simultaneously personal and also deeply attuned to the voices of the local people bearing the brunt of these calamities. Assessing the current state of things, Montano emphasizes that “the decisions individuals and institutions make manufacture disaster and across the country our risk is growing.” And yet far from being a defeatist or fatalistic narrative, the recognition of how risk and disaster are manufactured underscores a powerful call to act, after all “if we are the cause, we can also be the solution.” Disasterology is a book that excels at the challenging task of discussing the overlapping temporalities of disasters, as Montano melds analysis of past disasters with commentary on currently unfolding disasters while considering what implications all of this will have for future disasters. This results in a book that is historically grounded and forward looking, but which nevertheless keeps its boots in place in the present moment, as Montano notes “we can’t be so busy thinking about the future that we miss what’s happening right in front of us.” And in taking on the “right in front of us,” Disasterology directs important attention to the people and agencies tasked with doing the work of responding to disasters. Thus, this book provides some wonderful arguments not only about the sorts of things that every reader can (and should) do, but also draws attention to the sorts of changes that need to be made at organizations like FEMA. Disasterology is not a book about doomscrolling, it’s a brilliant discussion of how to prevent that doom from happening.
There are lots of books about climate change. Many of them are quite good. But if you are going to read one book about climate change you should read Disasterology. What makes this book so magnificent is the way in which Montano is able to seamlessly bring together the strands from so many different perspectives and bind them together with a thorough understanding of what produces disasters and what is necessary to respond to disasters. This book provides a necessary consideration of the people and institutions tasked with responding to disasters, and the various factors that continually stymie their work. At one point, Montano notes “being a disasterologist can turn you into a bit of a pessimist,” but far from being a pessimistic account, Disasterology is an impassioned reminder that to be worthy of hope, we need to be willing to do the work.
Read it because [gestures at the state of the world].
By: Daniel Greene (The MIT Press)
“The hope that personal computing, the internet, and the skills to use them will power social mobility is the cultural glue holding a deeply unequal information economy together.”
As a catch all solution to stagnant wages and automation, the line “learn to code” has become something of a bad joke. By 2021, we are past the point at which we can buy into the idea that all one needs to do to get ahead is complete a certificate in programming, and yet the “learn to code” mantra is still one that gets chanted by politicians, foundations, tech companies, and a not inconsiderable number of educational institutions. Examining where this ideology comes from and what it actually looks like in practice is at the core of Daniel Greene’s phenomenal book The Promise of Access. In this book, Greene examines the origin story of this ethos and the way that it has played out across a variety of spaces: at a tech startup, at a city library, and at a charter school. What Greene’s book reveals is the ways in which the faith in techno-solutions provides a convincing narrative for why things are the way they are, and what skills people need to get ahead in high-tech society, even as “learning to code” consistently proves to not actually be a sufficient response. Explaining the origins of this worldview, Greene pays attention to the attitudes towards computers and the Internet that were pervasive (especially in policy circles) in the 1990s, and the way in which this gave rise to what Greene terms “the access doctrine.” As Greeene describes it, “the access doctrine decrees that the problem of poverty can be solved through the provision of new technologies and technical skills, giving those left out of the information economy the chance to catch up and compete.” Thus, against the backdrop of neoliberalism, poverty ceases to be seen as a result of historic and structural inequalities (requiring structural remedies), and instead becomes a matter of deficient technical skills (requiring job training)—it is a way of turning the problem of poverty into a problem of technology. Examining the culture of a startup, Greene describes a space wherein “the access doctrine appears to come true,” where against a backdrop of nonstop work a select group with high-tech skills appear to find enrichment (financial and personal). Yet beyond the startup, Greene shifts his attention to the shortcomings of the “access doctrine” when it encounters those who were supposedly “left out of the information economy.” Describing library patrons struggling with poverty, Greene captures a library system trying to remake itself in the mold of “the access doctrine” even as the realities in the library’s computer lab demonstrate that access to a computer is not the only thing keeping people from getting ahead. Similarly, Greene’s attention to this doctrine in a charter school, conveys a space of exhausted teachers and harried students facing larger problems than a lack of technological savviness.
Schools and libraries are not startups, and though there are certainly many who believe they should be run in such a way, Greene’s book demonstrates the perils of such thinking. It is not that homeless library patrons and charter school students lack technical skills, but that poverty is not simply a matter of a lack of technical skills. While presenting the allure of “the access doctrine,” and describing many well-meaning people who have bought into it, Greene describes the ways in which this doctrine exacerbates the underlying problems even as it frames itself as a solution. This is a fantastic, and necessary, investigation into techno-optimistic thinking—and a vital reminder that not every problem can be solved by computers.
Read it because it isn’t enough to “learn to code.”
By: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
“The problem is not that giant technology monopolies have disrupted habits, institutions, and norms in order to create new, unforeseen futures. The problem is that, in the name of ‘creative disruption; they are amplifying and automating—rather than acknowledging and repairing—the mistakes of a discriminatory past.”
Once upon a time people believed that the Internet and artificial intelligence would in short order create a high-tech utopia. In fairness, quite a few people still believe this. And yet, looking around the world today it is much easier to believe we are in the prologue to a high-tech hellscape (the sort cyberpunk authors tried to warn us about), than at the doorstep to utopia. Even some in the tech sphere seem aware of this—the shine has worn off of the Web 2.0 companies and so techno-utopianism desperately tries to rebrand itself as Web3. With Discriminating Data, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun provides an essential account of why it is that that the high-tech world looks the way it does. Far from trying to revive the popular myths about well-meaning hippies high on computing whose dreams were coopted by nefarious corporations, Chun counters the “hopeful ignorance” of the disseminators of that myth by arguing that “cyberspace was always about libertarian exceptionalism, transgression and exit” wherein “escape for the few and misery for the majority are goals, not unfortunate errors.” The euphoric utopian narratives around the Internet have now been troubled by plenty of research (and lived experience) in the way that algorithms replicate and reinforce biases, and thus we find ourselves in a moment wherein “the question is not why is this happening? But rather why is this still happening?” Chun investigates the links between twentieth-century eugenics and twenty-first century big data, to consider the ways in which both attempt to use correlation to shape behavior and control the future—doing so largely by relying on invasive surveillance (especially of vulnerable groups). Responding to the “echo chambers” of social media, Chun explores the ways in which such homophilic spaces are goals rather than errors, as the attention to individual preferences on which algorithms feed misses out on the elements that lead to the creation and strengthening of actual community. Discriminating Data also directs important attention to the ways in which interaction with these various tech platforms trains users to express themselves in a particular performance wherein “to be authentic” is to know what one must do to come across as authentic online—while those ensconced in their homophilic echo chambers gradually find the self-love of their bubble turning into hate of all those outside of it. Technology is not neutral, and Chun’s book considers many of the ways that technological systems encode and amplify particular sets of values even as some groups continue to believe that technological systems are less biased, and she accomplishes this by making legible to readers the logics and techniques that are at work inside the blackbox. To respond to the biases embedded in and reified by these technical systems it is essential for us to learn “to live in difference,” which entails actually wrestling with our social challenges (and our differences), instead of waiting for an algorithm to fix them.
By blending technical explanations, with historical lineages, and attention to how this all visibly plays out in contemporary technologies—Chun has written a necessary guide for making sense of this technological moment. Puncturing the foundational myths (and the lingering “hopeful ignorance”) surrounding algorithms and AI, Chun’s book confronts readers with discomforting evidence that the technologies currently wreaking havoc may actually be working exactly as they were intended to work. From Control and Freedom to Programmed Visions to Updating to Remain the Same, Chun’s books are required reading for anyone trying to make sense of our high-tech today and our possible tomorrows—and with Discriminating Data, Chun has written another indispensable book.
Read it because technology is not now, nor has it ever been, neutral.
By: David Cayley (The Pennsylvania State University Press)
“This was Illich: an ascetic who counseled enjoyment, a world traveler who inveighed against ‘the few who get the privilege of being almost omnipresent in the world.’ He himself often chose paradoxical or contradictory figures to describe himself—from the sobria inebrietas (drunken sobriety) that he once praised to me to the joyful austerity that he recommends in Tools for Conviviality.”
In moments of crisis, it can be tempting to find solace in the belief that no one could have seen these problems coming. After all, if these issues were truly unforeseen than it means that no one was responsible for ignoring the warnings. And yet an encounter with the work of a past social critic can often confront you with the jarring recognition—that from our ecological to our technological to our economic problems—the warnings were in fact there. Ivan Illich is one of the twentieth centuries great social critics, even if he is too often forgotten today. A catholic priest who left the Church in opposition to missionary programs, a teacher who inveighed against the stultifying conformity of schools, an inveterate critic of institutions—over the course of his life, Illich directed his critical gaze to so many different subjects that to pick up a single one of his books (on schooling, for example) is to risk missing out on his larger critique. In Ivan Illich: an Intellectual Journey, David Cayley provides a remarkable account of a fascinating figure. Illich’s early years as a priest inculcated in him a distrust of centralized bureaucracy as he spoke out against the ways in which American missionary programs in Latin America were reinforcing dominant clerical establishments as opposed to responding to the local needs of the people. While Illich’s opposition resulted in him being forced to withdraw from Church service, this distrust of institutions and systems carried over into much of his writing (many of these books appeared in the 1960s and earned him the attention of that period’s counterculture). In works like Celebration of Awareness, Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, and more, Illich discussed the importance of industrial societies coming to recognize the need for imposing human limits on increasingly dehumanizing structures. As Cayley notes “Illich’s tone, at this period, was dire, insofar as he was issuing a prophetic warning, but also hopeful…he maintained the view that radical change was not only possible but imminent.” And though this hopeful flame was never completely snuffed out in Illich’s thought, the final decades of Illich’s life saw him bearing witness to many changes in the world that he did not see as necessarily being for the better. A key aspect of Illich’s thought was his belief that corruption optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst), which captured his tragic assessment of the state of modernity wherein the forces that should have been blessings were becoming curses. Illich, Cayley notes, was “a proscriptive rather than a prescriptive thinker (i.e., one who mostly spoke about what a good society is not rather than what it is and left the rest to the ‘surprising inventiveness of people’)”—and though Cayley’s book shows that Illich did not have easy answers to every question, the book makes clear that Illich remains an important figure to think with.
Intellectual biographies can be challenging texts to write, as they often take the form of a summary of a given thinker’s work interspersed with some biographical details. Cayley’s book is a genuine triumph of intellectual biography, the book does not simply present Illich’s though, it wrestles with and engages with it. Cayley’s ability to write such a strong volume is undoubtedly bolstered by his having been friends with Illich (he has also published multiple books in which he is in conversation with Illich)—yet their friendship does not prevent Cayley from writing critically and insightfully. Cayley does not deny the contradictions in Illich’s life, but shows how the experience of living in contradiction inspired the development of Illich’s thought. At over five hundred pages this might not be the best introduction to Illich (start with Cayley’s Ivan Illich in Conversation), but for those interested in Illich this is a must read.
Read it because, to quote Illich, “Carry a candle in the dark, be a candle in the dark, know that you’re a flame in the dark.”
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