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books/readings tech anguish

Book Report: The Charisma Machine

What kind of blog will this be? Idk yet; right now it’s just a thing I occasionally remember exists and I dump text into it now and again. One of my goals with this when I started it was to collect what I’m reading in a more tangible way somehow, and I don’t want to review books and I don’t want to deal with Goodreads or whatever, so I’m gonna do this instead: a book report. I will definitely evince an opinion about whether or not I like something, but no star ratings or any of that.

So, anyway, onto the book at hand: The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child by Morgan Ames. This was an incredible work that I think should be required reading for just about anyone in engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, or any of the various allied disciplines and the overlapping stuff in between. It’s an in-depth exploration, articulated through hefty research, field work, and understanding of tech rhetoric and educational theory, of technological imperialism. It exposes the lies and gaps that the snake oil sages on stages never want to spend a minute of their TED talks on, revealing both the victims of their false promises and the hidden labor of the people who believe enough to try to make them come true.

One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, still exists in some difficult-to-understand form today, but for folks unfamiliar, it was an MIT Media Lab spinoff project run by a group of…wait for it, privileged white American men with the intention of deploying millions of cheap laptops to young children in developing nations around the world. It was co-directed by Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and guy who has seriously said things like the following: “We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.” Now, the Media Lab has been on an accelerated fall from grace in the back half of 2019, so it’s probably not especially surprising that Jeffrey Epstein pals like Marvin Minsky were in on some of the foundational thinking that led to this, but there’s still many lessons to be learned here.

The project was rife with problems from its start around 2005 with manufacturing costs being much higher than expected and the leaders’ fixation with what Ames calls “nostalgic design,” an obsession that resulted in machines with far less computing power and storage space than equivalent laptops of the time. Key features, like the hand crank that was initially dreamed up in hopes of powering computers in areas where there was no electricity available, proved impossible to build and never came to fruition. Even with a rugged exterior that Negroponte notoriously threw across the stage at some circle-jerk presentation or other, the machines still broke in large numbers, especially their screens and trackpads. It also was immediately clear to participating nations that the tablet-dropping helicopter wasn’t really a viable solution. In countries like Paraguay where Ames situated her fieldwork, massive infrastructural upgrades and assistance, including NGOs to do enormous amounts of work on integrating the laptops in school curricula, were necessary to do anything at all with these machines.

Ames describes what she is tactful enough to not call a total clusterfuck. In one class she visits, a teacher asks students to pull out their laptops and open a program so they can complete an assignment with the computer. A handful of students don’t have their laptops at all (they’ve broken irreparably or been lost), and at least half of the remaining group doesn’t have the program installed. Because the developers wanted children to “hack” their laptops and have the complete ownership over them they thought was part and parcel to their tech-utopian ideal, the kids often deleted boring programs like the one in question so they could make room for downloaded music and videos. The teachers, already overworked and underpaid with minimal resources, generally didn’t take to this new pedagogical model. As a result, the NGO supporting this rollout recruited trainers to support the use of the laptops in class and develop the pedagogy. But unless teachers had a natural proclivity for the machines or a special interest in them, this didn’t stick. Same went for the children, though for them the interest level definitely cleaved along class and gender divides, as well as the type of environments they had at home:

“[F]ully two-thirds of children hardly ever used their laptops. Some nonuse was due to breakage, which occurred along gendered and socioeconomic lines, complicating some of the benefits the project was supposed to provide… [Each] student [that used their laptops in the way OLPC intended] had a constellation of resources that encouraged them along this path: families that steered them toward creative and critical thinking, a focus on the importance of education, and in many cases another computer at home.”

I think what amazed me most about this story was the number of people who wanted it to be true and who put a ton of work into filling in the gaps and figuring out the Ames calls the “messy world” parts. It’s not surprising that Negroponte and his Media Lab bros would buy into their own rhetoric, but it bothers me deeply that their colleagues at MIT and the folks at the NGOs created to support OLPC seemed to eat it up, too. Maybe it was a product of its time; shortly before the dawn of social media/”Web 2.0,” there was an explosion of educational technology books, research, and prosthelytizing. Maybe the directors of the project were in such an echo chamber of other tech utopians and mystified journalists that they were never in a position of being called on the pretty boldfaced “imperialist notion that technology simply flows from the Global North to passive and graceful recipients in the Global South. Or maybe it was the power of charisma and the “social imaginaries” Ames teases apart in the book: the experiences, opinions, and ideas of OLPC’s developers became the only vision they could see, the glorious triumph of the “technically precocious boy” over his machine, leading to his discovery of identity, sense of belonging, and success in society. In other words, just because the Media Lab bros were empowered by their mastery of technology, little boys the world over could be, too.

“[C]harisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less charismatic.”

So, right now as we’re sitting here living through history, we need to stay on the lookout for the charismatic “solutions” that will surface in the hopes of quickly and painlessly getting us back to “normal.” They’re already coming in the form of health monitoring snake oil and educational disruption from everyone’s favorite surveillance capitalist, and there will be plenty more to come. The Charisma Machine shows what happens when folks that benefit from existing power relations try to impose their ideologies on people who don’t. There’s no innovation there, just a tool allegedly built for liberation that, once exposed to the messy world, instantly falls apart.

Categories
books/readings tech anguish

The Age of Coronavirus Surveillance Capitalism

Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff had an interesting conversation last year at The Intercept’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism event, and the differences they evinced that night recently made themselves very clear in the form of two pieces about big tech and the pandemic both published on May 8. Klein, activist and author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, wrote “Screen New Deal” in The Intercept as a part of a “series about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism in the age of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, Zuboff, scholar and author of last year’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was interviewed by Joshua Keating in Slate.

While they’re not saying wholly separate things, just as it was during their conversation last March, Zuboff shows an optimism that capitalism is not ultimately a zero-sum game and democracy is already acting as a bulwark against the potential overstepping of tech during the current crisis. Klein, meanwhile, steels us for a more dire road ahead, one where men like Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates will continue to try to “[demonstrate] the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix,” failing to acknowledge or address the issues neatly swept under the rug of “the digital divide.”

It’s hard for me to not agree more with Klein’s take on this, just as I did when she was holding capitalism responsible as the fundamental flaw of the surveillance machine (something that Zuboff is much more reluctant to do; she seems to come down on the side of other tech critics like Jaron Lanier who propose a different financial model with users being compensated for the data they provide). It’s weird having read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and having seen the measured and disturbing arguments of how human experience is now rendered into money for a select few in much the same way as human labor has for millennia before, that Zuboff still defends the democratic potential of this economic system. But having met Zuboff and talked with her in person, and now reading this interview with her, I understand where her optimism is coming from. That’s not to say I necessarily share it, but it’s important to try to; the alternative is the learned helplessness and adherence to the Borg complex that surveillance capitalists want us to feel.

In the interview with Slate, Zuboff says we live in different times than we did in the aftermath of 9/11, that people won’t be so easily sucked in by the promise of a shiny technical solution to an unutterably complex problem. She says, “In the last two years there has been a sea change in public attitudes that hasn’t yet overwhelmed the system, but it could.” And there is some truth to this, as Klein notes: “Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google’s own workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.”

I think what’s missing in Zuboff’s perspective is an indictment of the structural rot that makes tools of surveillance as dangerous and devastating as they are, and why that makes the prospects of a world overtaken by them so terrifying for all of us. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is aimed pretty squarely at (white) upper middle class academics and it deals most substantially with problems they’re likely to connect with and experience, rather than the systemic analyses of inequality presented in, for instance, Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Virginia Eubanks’s work. Zuboff imagines a future where those of us with the ability and time rabble-rouse for the right thing to be done; Klein warns us straightforwardly that “the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures” and “there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.”

When I spoke to Zuboff at a campus visit she made right before the U.S. started to noticeably react to the pandemic, I asked her how we might bridge “the division of learning” she comes back to again and again in her book. The division of learning is the gulf intentionally kept between the architects of the new technocratic order and the people exploited by it. She said that it would be possible to reinvest capital freed up from surveillance giants into education and public infrastructure. I don’t disagree that it’s possible, but reading about Eric Schmidt’s lobbying exploits as of late in Klein’s article has me feeling not so confident in this would-be reality.

That all being said, I’m not advocating for us to just throw the towel in and give up on making a better future possible; quite the opposite, in fact. The urgency is missing from Zuboff’s piece, and I found her suggestions similarly somewhat hollow when I asked her about the division of learning. We need to be realistic about the scale of the powers that need to be checked, and as Klein makes clear, the fact that the attempts to rebuke the surveillance giants in recent months has only made them angrier, greedier, and more determined to get what they want: “[T]he pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that [people in Silicon Valley] feel has been unjustly denied.”

Zuboff, meanwhile, compares this past turn of the century with the turn that came before it. She says we didn’t get trapped in a Gilded Age because “[the 1930s] ended up being a period of intensely fruitful institutional development, where all kinds of new institutions were finally invented along with the legislative and regulatory frameworks to support them, to make industrialization flip to democracy,” but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we do not have a Roosevelt democrat in office right now. Instead of the establishment of something like a modern-day WPA, we have an administration that is urging states to reopen, bolstered by protesters who think this whole thing is a hoax.

It is remarkable to me that we see the technological imperialism espoused by Schmidt and his kind sprout up again and again, no matter how many times it fails. The lessons don’t seem to be learned by our political leaders, but maybe they don’t want to learn them; many are looking for a silver bullet just as desperately as the tech giants are trying to sell one to them. Many politicians either ignore or don’t care that the end game of these companies is to get more users until they’re not needed anymore, until Amazon doesn’t have to worry about striking humans and Uber can deploy its driverless cars (with or without them needing to stop killing people first). And, remind me, what economic system requires never-ending growth at the sacrifice of individual rights and dignity?

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in response to the latest Gates Foundation partnership announced with the state. Andrew Cuomo and his big tech bedfellows are united in not wanting to deal with addressing those needs, those human edges that they can’t optimize out, those consequences of decades of austerity and chipping away at the social safety net. None of these people wants to admit fault or defeat–in fact, they want us to believe we owe them a debt. As Schmidt says, “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” What indeed. How dare we, for example, criticize them for firing Black employees who are trying to take collective action against dangerous and unfair practices in warehouses during the pandemic?

We’re already forked over our time and attention to these companies, and a not insignificant amount of our free will. We need to decide if we want to fork over what’s left of democracy to them, too. There’s a reason why they want their feet in the doors of education and public health, and it’s not because they want to make the world a better place. They still need healthy humans for much of what they’re calling “artificial intelligence” – we’re not obsolete yet – and why not start as early and pervasively as they can to train us to think more like the computers they want to swap us out for one day? The machine overlords aren’t machines; they’re people who want to turn us into them.

“The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what changes should look like and whom they should benefit,” Klein writes. We must force that public debate. The subtitle of Zuboff’s book is “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” We’re in that fight, but the free market and political nostalgia won’t help us win it.

Categories
tech anguish

Zoom Doom

On April 22, BBC News ran a widely-shared piece digging into the psychological and ergonomic factors that make Zoom meetings so fatiguing. The experts offered many reasons, ranging from the dissonance of “togetherness in mind but not in body” to the irregular silences and delays in communication. They also noted the context collapse of working and living in the same place, and, y’know, that whole “living through an unprecedented global pandemic” thing. And they said one thing in particular that made me personally feel a little less alone: “It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen.”

OK, I don’t know if anyone else is running into this problem, but it’s really hard for me to not look at my face on the Zoom screen, even in meetings where I’m looking at a 4×4 grid or more of other faces. This isn’t a weird flex. Seeing my face this often is not something I’m used to or comfortable with, and I’m starting to fixate on all the things I don’t like about it. Now, I rationally know that because I’m an adult human who spends her time with other adult humans, and not, say, on an elementary school playground, people either don’t notice or don’t much care about the things I find problematic about my face, or the appearance of anything about me or anyone else. Yet I fixate nonetheless.

Is this exhibiting a false consciousness? (Would this be a less ridiculous and more intellectual piece of writing if I examined it from that perspective? Probably.) As someone who considers herself to be a feminist with lots of axes to grind with the obsession of appearance in our culture, I’d like to think I’m beyond this shallow self-deprecation. Maybe I am, but maybe Zoom has pushed me back into it, or maybe I really haven’t overcome the pressuring societal definitions of attractiveness. However you slice it, imagine how it would be if every in-person meeting you had from now on was simultaneously being played back on a screen right in front of you, and you had the choice of turning it off but only if you made it so the person you were meeting with could no longer see your face. How on earth do people fire or break up with each other on Zoom? I’ve heard that both are happening.

Anyway, right now, I desperately want to do something that has nothing to do with my face. My answer to “What do you want to do when it’s ‘over’?” is: Eat some fries at Porter Cafe (okay, I guess that does have to do with my face) and then go get another tattoo. A big one, another half-sleeve, probably, on my right arm. I want to experience the deeply unpleasant but stupidly gratifying test of endurance that is receiving a large tattoo. I’ve wanted to do this for a while but haven’t mostly because it’ll hurt like hell as my other half-sleeve did (and, y’know, because I’m fiscally responsible and all of that 😉), but now I just want the sensation of something else. I want to do something that’s the anti-Zoom or the un-Zoom, something that could never be done via Zoom, something that would be absurd if streamed on Zoom because it would be so outside of what Zoom can possibly convey, either to the person watching the tattooing (boring!) or from the person being tattooed (ouch!).

I’m annoyed by how privileged and childish I sound, but who among us is over a month into quarantine and free of this temper-tantrum-inducing, stomach-churning anxiety? I think we all have earned a little childishness in the form of tattoos, fries, or whatever floats your boats. And who isn’t annoyed by themselves at this point? Tell us your secrets, please (but not on Zoom, please). I’ve been astounded at the similarities between now and my life in 2009, when I was much more annoying than I am now and I moved to Boston with a bunch of other recent college grads, all of us with no job prospects. We went for big Costco runs and did little else because we had no money, and the boys played Halo all day, which I bring up because the boys still appear to be playing Halo all day. I don’t care what my partner does with his time, and video games are a great way to help us not kill each other; it’s just wild to me that it’s 11 years later and men are still playing the same frigging game on the TV in my living room. The only difference is one of them is on the couch here, and the others are all on… you guessed it, Zoom.

2009 was a rough time to be a person, especially a newly independent one. But things got better. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time, but they did improve. One has to assume they will this time, too. At the very least, we’ll probably stop using Zoom this much at some point, right?