Summertime, and the living is easy. Or so it should be, but it can also be a time away from the daily grind and repetition that allows for critical insights simply by shutting down and focusing the mind elsewhere. As a political theorist by training, one of my chief concerns is the development of technology free from democratic oversight and its impact on the political, social, business and cultural spheres. It is therefore my pleasure to make the following suggestions for both serious and more carefree summer reflection, on the understanding that the latter can also inform the former.
The following list provides just a few of the most compelling academic and other analyses casting a critical eye on technology and AI at this time, supplemented by easier-to-digest media and other more lighthearted suggestions.
Wishing you a pleasant summer,
Literature & Media
Decrypted (podcast) – Bloomberg’s Brad Stone looks at the tech industry’s squabbles and rivalries even as it presents itself as a utopia uncontaminated by human concerns.
Team Human, with Douglas Rushkoff (podcast) – The author of Team Human speaks with thinkers, experts, writers and everyone in between about his most fundamental concern: re-learning how to work with others in a life-world seemingly designed to divide and isolate.
S.N.U.F.F., by Victor Pelevin – A dystopian but deeply satirical novel from one of Russia’s most important contemporary writers set far (?) in the future in which wars are fought for the purpose of creating content for entertainment and news broadcasts.
The Big Disruption, by Jessica Powell – the first-ever novel to be published on Medium by Google’s former head of Public Relations takes a humorous but critical look inside life at a major Silicon Valley company.
Black Mirror: Smithereens, by Charlie Brooker (Netflix) – A man puts it all on the line on a day that spirals out of control in order to communicate with the CEO of a social media company.
Academic & Longer Texts
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff – In this magnum opus of political economy, Zuboff provides a penetrating investigation of techno-capitalism’s impact on society, politics and business in the information age, showing how technologies intended to “liberate” humanity are doing the opposite, alongside stoking division and deepening inequality. The ever-coagulating fusion of unconstrained capitalism with digitisation means that where profits have now come to largely depend on predicting behaviour, in the future they will depend increasingly on modifying it, raising a host of ethical and existential questions as to the unconstrained power of “surveillance capitalism” free from democratic oversight.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber – one of the better tomes often found at airports, this irreverent look at the follies of the over-bureaucratisation of modern life (from the author of the equally engaging Bullshit Jobs), whether by traditional institutions, emerging technologies, or the nightmarish combination of both, combines serious social theory with entertaining cultural insights to get to the bottom of just why we continue to embrace regimentation even as we profess to disavow it. Batman holds a key.
The Big Nine – How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, by Amy Webb – Political developments the past few years have given good reason to profoundly question the boundless optimism displayed – and sold – by corporations concerning Artificial Intelligence in broader social terms. As the big nine corporations – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM and Apple – insinuate themselves ever more into the private lives of individuals using AI to further develop it, Webb considers the existential threat that arises to Western civilization through scenarios that may arise over the next 50 years, and provides a compelling history of AI from the 17th century to the present.
Megatech: Technology in 2050, edited by Daniel Franklin (The Economist Books) – This neutral, though quasi-positivist compendium of assessments of the ever-accelerating development of technology surveys scientists, academics, sci-fi writers and industry leaders, from Melinda Gates to Alastair Reynolds, to explore both the good and the bad of the changes wrought, whether by sector or by social experience. The 20 contributors survey everything from biotechnology to renewables to military technology to the nature of work and opportunity (or lack thereof) in the data-driven world a generation hence.
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer – In this erudite retracing of the intellectual history of computer science, from Descartes to Silicon Valley, Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, investigates the dark underpinnings of the intellectual effects of technological efficiency and “convenience” for culture more broadly – namely homogenization of social, political and intellectual life. Foer is especially compelling when analysing the cavalier obliteration of the publishing industry by Google, Facebook and Amazon and suggesting how the essence of self-determining thought may come from the simple ability and desire to decouple where possible and re-acquaint ourselves with reading – thus letting our own minds do their own work.