Radical Technologies — Book Review and Summary

I would rate the book at 7/10 ★ . Awesome reading material which makes you think a lot about the future of technology.

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The Smartphone in Our Daily Life

Smartphones are the most swiftly and universally accepted technology in history. They rapidly became an essential high-tech accessory for daily life. Nowadays, you can use your phone to call and text people, read and send emails, take photographs, find a restaurant or a shop, order rides, or book a place to stay. You can even open your garage door or switch on the lights with your smartphone.  

The smartphone supplanted a wide variety of physical objects: telephone booths, address books, maps, guidebooks, cameras and even money which is part of a worldwide movement toward “dematerialization”.

The smartphone itself depends on a complicated infrastructure of base stations, cables and microwave relays designed, manufactured and built for profit, but the public doesn’t know the interests and incentives involved. Every time you use a smartphone, you generate data. The people who store that data leverage it for their own purposes.

The Internet of Everything

In the wireless world in which nearly everyone has a smartphone, the Internet absorbs virtually everything. The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t a single technology but a variety of linked devices that record and process events as they occur. These events instantly become data that network companies gather and leverage.

The IoT includes devices designed to monitor your bodily functioning, creating a “quantified self.” It also monitors the spaces in which people live and the cities they inhabit, creating the “smart home” and the “smart city.” Wearable biometric sensors, like Fitbit and the Apple Watch, document biological data you can use to regulate your exercise. Such devices promote the quantified self, touting self-awareness based on statistics to bring the data revolution to fitness and health.

You can observe the condition of your body and the progress you’re making in hard numbers. The idea of the quantified self may be a harmless fixation for Silicon Valley tech geeks, but applying it to society as a whole is more problematic. Major health insurance companies have lowered premiums for users of biometric device who document enhanced, consistent levels of exercise.

Like biometric sensors, virtual assistant devices provide forms of convenience that supplant the need for time-consuming careful thinking and considered decision making. With Amazon’s Dash Button app, users can reorder ordinary household items, like soap or diapers, on the fly. You press a single command, and the company promptly ships them to your home. The busy consumer gains convenience, but the provider picks up a rich stream of copious data on the user’s needs and habits, which it can analyze and reproduce as product recommendations.

Companies use this data to develop models of consumer behaviour they then deploy in marketing. While biometric sensors and virtual assistants give consumers modest benefits, they encourage people to avoid reflecting on how they spend their money and fulfil their needs.

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Digital Fabrication

Virtual reality (VR) technologies, which require head-mounted equipment, generate computer graphics that create all-encompassing experiences. By contrast, augmented reality (AR) technologies, like the popular game Pokémon GO – which you can play on a mobile device like a smartphone and provide “location-specific” information about objects in the visual field. Rather than creating an experience in a wholly alternative world, Pokémon GO transforms existing reality without the need for any special equipment.

Other forms of AR are less whimsical and more useful: They can provide directions or replace guidebooks by supplying information about the history of a particular landmark, like a building or a battlefield. This brings the vast store of information available on the global network to bear on the objects and places of day-to-day life, whether the user is on vacation, taking a walk or going to work. AR fundamentally augments people’s senses and minds.

Augmented reality delivered via smartphone is inevitably limited and doesn’t wholly mediate reality. To remedy this situation, companies developed “wearable mediators,” mostly headsets such as the poorly received Google Glass. A wearable AR device displays the “informational overlay” that users are familiar with from the smartphone directly in front of their eyes.

Apart from the usual tech challenges, wearable mediators raise other issues. If they become as central to daily life as smartphones, how long will someone be able to wear such an apparatus? People haven’t yet adopted wearable mediators at the level of the smartphone, but early reports suggest users become disoriented when they remove their headset. Over time, they develop a form of “dependence”: They find it difficult to function without the device.

The mass use of wearable devices might amplify narcissism, reduce the attention people pay to each other and degrade any sense of a “shared public realm.”

The Technological Future

Companies that introduce new technologies like the smartphone, AR technologies, 3D printers and bitcoins often assert that these advances will “spontaneously produce the conditions of equity, justice or freedom.” Proponents say similar things about automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

None of these technologies alone can end “scarcity, capitalism” or “oppression.” Bringing about a revolution simply with the advent of new technology is difficult, no matter how profoundly technology changes how people live. People widely, if not yet universally, use the smartphone, and it’s changed how people negotiate their lives. But the smartphone and its elaborate infrastructure, like other new technologies, fit neatly into existing “ways of doing, making and selling” and into traditional structures of power. While technologies like the smartphone may be helpful, society must pursue social change directly.

“The price of connection is a vulnerability, always and in every context.”

Networked technologies now mediate human life. “Networked processes of measurement, analysis and control” shape daily life and affect the way people get directions, find restaurants or buy groceries as well as how they learn history. This turns their environments into data that interested parties can use. Human life in all its aspects disperses across the vast and complicated infrastructure of the global network.

People who grow accustomed to this don’t ask questions about either the “institutional processes” or the interests that underlie how designers create technology or what impact these technologies will have on how humans live together.

New technologies no matter how forward-thinking their designers and promoters simply fall back on traditional politics and economics. Networked technologies can lead to different politics and economics and ultimately to social change only if society’s leaders first are willing and able to analyze these mechanistic factors closely.

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Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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