The present and future of techno-scepticism: two books on the dangers of technology.

AuthorKelsey, Tom

James Bridle, New Dark Age. Technology and the End of the Future, Verso, 2018

James Williams, Stand Out of Our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, Cambridge University Press, 2018

Today Postcapitalism seems like an optimistic relic from a far distant past. (1) Yet it was only in 2015 that Paul Mason predicted that 'the digital revolution' would soon destroy capitalism. Socialism would come via the 'information economy' because it reduced production costs to nothing. Wikipedia was the sign of things to come. Mason's analysis came, of course, before we realised that a small data science company, Cambridge Analytica, was, in fact, 'Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mindfuck tool'; before those voices of the free-market, particularly The Economist, started near-constantly complaining about the monopoly power of the 'tech giants'; before it became evident that the use of Facebook had helped to fuel the latest bout of racial violence in Myanmar. (2) It would seem, then, that 'the digital' has not set the workers free, as Mason predicted, but rather empowered crooks, entrenched multinational corporate power and spread hatred.

The left has often been the source of samey techno-utopianism, with its advocates naively insisting that this year's novelty will finally put an end to capitalism--fully automated luxury communism, anyone? Nonetheless, there appears to be a slowly growing chorus of techno-scepticism among those looking to build a collective future. New Dark Age and Stand Out of Our Light are both widely discussed examples of this more critical attitude, but the two books are also enlightening in their differences.

Unsurprisingly given its title, New Dark Age strikes an especially pessimistic note. Bridle, a writer and artist, who was educated as a computer scientist, spends his penultimate chapter unpacking the strange world of those adults who make YouTube videos for children. In this increasingly big business, the line between automation and human agency has become exceptionally blurred, as people produce videos through algorithmically generated keywords in search of views and thus advertising revenue. Crucially, this system works. 'Batman Finger Family Song--Superheroes and Villains! Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman' has had over ten million views. More concerning are the scores of inappropriate videos either posted as parodies and then watched by children or, in fact, deliberately produced to terrify them. Think of...

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