Technology and everyday life: Review of ‘Radical Technologies’ by Adam Greenfield (Verso, 2017)

In his Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2017, 359pp., ISBN 978–1–78478–043–2), Adam Greenfield examines the technologies that are remaking our everyday lives in late capitalism. Greenfield’s account is engaging and deeply thought-provoking, highlighting the importance to social theory of an engagement with the concrete technologies that populate our lives. Greenfield provides a primer to some of the technologies that we frequently hear will change our lives and/or disrupt capitalism. Successive chapters here deal with the smartphone, the internet of things, augmented reality, digital fabrication, cryptocurrencies, blockchains, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

One thing worth noting is the undeniable usefulness of the book. It brings together accessible and readable accounts of a set of technologies that are worth thinking carefully about. For this reason alone, it is worth reading — and makes the reader think why a book of this sort from a critical perspective has not emerged sooner. ‘Technology’, in terms of our actually-existing tools, sometimes feels like a topic only taken up by technology boosterists, usually more or less enthusiastic about Silicon Valley’s political influence and economic power. But, as Greenfield succinctly puts it, ‘people with left politics of any stripe absolutely cannot allow their eyes to glaze over when the topic of conversation turns to technology’ (p. 314).

Greenfield’s central concern is the phenomenology of technology — how, that is, this ensemble of technologies produces a distinctive experience of late capitalism. Technology, in Greenfield’s words, ‘shapes our perceptions, conditions the choices available to us, and remakes our experience of space and time’ (p. 8). This argument is at its most plausible in the best chapter of the book, Greenfield’s account of the smartphone. Through the prism of the smartphone we can see some of the key concepts of social theory clearly applied to our technologically-conditioned experience of modernity.

For Greenfield, the smartphone (as well as the internet of things) plays a key role in our decision making, foregrounding consumer choices and working continually to close the circuit of desire and reduce the gap between our wants and their fulfilment. Greenfield points to the role played by the ‘ideology of ease’, a familiar and tendentious argument that justifies a range of compromises and sacrifices in the name of reducing friction around everyday life in the home, the city, and the marketplace. We give up data, or control, in exchange for a quick and painless consumer experience.

Relatedly, the smartphone plays a key role (along with things like wearable tech) in the development of the quantified self. Following the promotion of a dubious set of (quantitative) goals for human life such as health and happiness, technology allows the monitoring of an ever-greater range of physical signals (steps, heart rate, diaphragm tensity) that come increasingly to stand for those human qualities. The rationalization of society that Weber dissected so astutely moves from bureaucracy through society to our selves, changing our understanding of what our bodies are. Although the smartphone is, in Greenfield’s words, the ‘signature artifact of our age’, the discussion captures a far wider set of insights (p. 9). In successive chapters, Greenfield explores a great range of technological developments, always relating them back to our experience of everyday life (the chapter on machine learning is particularly thought-provoking).

Greenfield concludes, in relation to the sum of the radical technologies he discusses, that their power

‘to mediate experience is not yet total, but it’s not terribly far short of that, either. It resides in the smartphone that is the last thing many of us look at before we sleep, and the first thing we turn to upon waking; in the apps with which we manage time and attention, negotiate the city, and pursue the ends of mobility, sociality and productivity; in the algorithms that parse our utterances, model the flow of our bodily and psychic states, and prepare strategies in response to them; and in the cloud that binds these things together, as indispensable as it is ubiquitous and hard to see clearly’. (p. 313.)

It is difficult not to be fascinated by the accounts Greenfield gives of the radical technologies he selects — they represent, after all, some of the massive inventiveness of the human species and reflect some of the contradictions of the economic system we currently find ourselves within. This is not to say that his account is perfect, or complete. What could have added greatly to Greenfield’s account would have been a sense of the historical context in which these technologies have developed. By opting for a series of snapshots, Greenfield is not able to compare the role of technology in our lives with the role in played for previous generations. That means there is always a danger of ‘now more than ever’-ism — an uncritical assertion that technology is now changing everything, when the likelihood is that it has always done so. Thus, while the smartphone might be a totem for the accelerating rate of social change under late capitalism, historical perspective is important here. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, already in the mid-nineteenth century modern lives were defined by flux and an ever increasing rate of change. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, as the famous line runs, was a description of their experience of modernity as it is ours. So what is different now? Similarly, as Marx explains in the Grundrisse, one of the historical justifications of capitalism is in its production of new wants — something it has achieved on a completely unprecedented historical scale. What does this mean for the place of consumption within contemporary technologies, considered from a wider historical perspective?

In conclusion, Radical Technologies is a fascinating account of the phenomenology of the technologies discussed, and the book is at its strongest when it dissects the role of these inventions in how it feels for us to live our lives. Accordingly, Greenfield does not offer (as he acknowledges) an institutional account of how technology is produced or distributed in late capitalism. From a Marxist perspective, this is an important omission; Greenfield focuses more on the individual’s relationship to technology than our collective or social relationship. Radical Technologies is therefore most interesting when Greenfield discusses technology’s relationship to identity rather than key structural questions of whether the development of new technologies is being helped or hindered by our current Silicon Valley-centred model of research and development. The move from a discussion of the phenomenology of technology to a critical theory of its production could be a powerful one.