digital rhetoric

planning for future miseries

I’ve been reading Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies as I’m teaching it this week, but watching Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode this weekend about Pittsburgh also has me thinking along Greenfield’s concerns.  I selected a post title that sounds like it might be the name of a lost album recorded by The Smiths because I couldn’t help developing an affective orientation toward Greenfield that is similar to the way The Smiths make me feel. That is, when Morrissey sings “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside” or “Please, please, please, let me get what I want. Lord knows it would be the first time,” I’m pretty sure he’s actually unhappy, but there’s also–at least for me–some irony, some gallows humor maybe, in the hyperbole. In other words, the angst-ridden, nihilistic youth is a part one plays, and in the spirit of knowing we were all young once, I have some experience with this. The similarly black-wearing cultural critic, garbed in what Ian Bogost once termed “the turtleneck hairshirt,” is a related figure, maybe a few years older than Morrissey’s youth (and again one with which I have some personal past familiarity). And Greenfield reminds me of that, of how critique–however trenchant its observations can be–can only ever move in one direction.

There’s a moment of self-reflection where he writes “as someone profoundly skeptical of the claims that are so often and so breathlessly made about technology” (201) as if to say, “I am like you, gentle reader. I acknowledge the breathlessness of this book I am writing and understand your skepticism.” But then that moment is quickly gone as he asserts that what he has “seen in the course of research for this book has convinced [him] that automation is an existential mid-term threat” (202). Much like the girlfriend in a coma, “I know, I know, it’s really serious.”

But let me detour. Two stories. First, I have this memory of an episode of All in the Family where one of Edith’s friends gets a job working with Archie at the warehouse. She’s unloading pallets from a truck with a forklift and observes that if they just built a ramp, she could drive the pallets right into the warehouse. Archie responds that it is his job to life the boxes off their pallets and into the building. In short, he’s a ramp, a simple machine. It’s an old memory. I might have the details wrong. Point is, it’s an old story.

Second story, the aforementioned  Parts Unknown Pittsburgh episode. As you may know, Pittsburgh is often hailed as a model, comeback city–making the switch from the failed steel industry to a hotspot for emerging tech companies like Uber. Pittsburgh didn’t lose its steel jobs to automation. It lost them to globalization 40-50 years ago. So the current automation of the steel industry isn’t so much a worry in western PA. Bourdain focuses on the old southern and central European immigrant communities that have been their for a century, the African-American community, and the failing economies of nearby steel towns. The overarching theme of the episode is that the economic excitement of a revitalized Pittsburgh, centered around universities like Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, isn’t impacting the lives of these people. The obvious subtext is that many of these people are the Trump voters who swung PA and put him in office.

This has been an underlying subject of my research… we don’t know how to live in the digital world; we need to invent ways to do so. Automation, in all of its forms, is among the most compelling ethical and social challenges. It will impact professorial careers if/when a combination of video lectures, “gamified,” interactive learning modules, crowdsourced discussion forums, and algorithmic “robot” graders replace teachers. But there are many careers that will go first, such as long-haul truck drivers: a focus of Greenfield’s.

The obvious, simplest answer is one that proves upon further investigation to be infuriatingly complex. As Greenfield does, again and again in each chapter, it’s possible to trace the mechanisms by which technological development intersects with market capitalism to serve the objective of maximizing the efficient concentration of wealth and profit by drawing upon an ever expanding cultural sphere. The obvious answer is that we have to choose a different set of values upon which to organize ourselves. I.e., we have to say that we aren’t just going to make choices that maximize economic productivity or make the Dow Jones go higher. We have this odd notion that if we take away the ability to concentrate capital in these fashions that people will lose the drive to work hard, discover, create, and innovate. It’s such an odd argument, of course, because the people that are actually doing this work aren’t the ones getting the benefits of being in the 1%.

However I don’t think that’s the real challenge. The real challenge is that we are faced with actually choosing how we might organize ourselves and recognizing it as a choice while we are making it. That is, if we began by following the commandments of gods in a neolithic era and moved into following the dictates of human nature and the market in the modern-industrial age, what now? We can argue–in critical fashion–that we were always already inventing the logics and values governing our societies, that there wasn’t actually a god telling us what to do, but that’s not how those societies were themselves organized. Now we are faced with having consciously to make up our own rules. If we live in a world where work–or at least full time work–may not be necessary by the prior dictates of the free market, but we wish to work in ways we find meaningful anyway, how does that happen? If we can collect massive amounts of personal and civic data on human activity and use it to organize our social lives, do we want to do so? And to what extent? How do we voluntarily choose to look the other way? To be less efficient and/or possibly less just (for some qualitative values of justice)? And how do we adjudicate among the many different ways we might answer these questions? What knowledge do we require to make these decisions?

In my part of the mediascape, I more often encounter the critical correctives to the smug, overconfident claims and vaporware of technoculture than I do the claims themselves. Whether it’s Bourdain or Greenfield, I take those voices seriously. I don’t doubt the concerns that drive the critiques. But I also wonder where they lead. Yes, if we are in the process of building future cities and shiny new economies made of green, information technologies then let’s be honest about them and let’s not leave people behind. Greenfield concludes by calling on his fellow travelers: “people with left politics of any stripe absolutely cannot allow their eyes to glaze over when the topic of conversation turns to technology, or in any way cede this terrain to its existing inhabitants, for to do so is to surrender the commanding heights of the contemporary situation” (314). Personally I think it might be helpful if “people with left politics of any stripe” stopped scheduling circular firing squads to attend. The question I am still left with is what happens after the critique? Or is critique just a literati version of doomsday prepping? I.e. something that can only be followed/concluded by apocalypse.

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