Too Smart: A Guide to Digital Capitalism
I recently finished a book that critically analyses the design, use, and impacts of smart tech under digital capitalism. The final manuscript has been submitted to my publisher, The MIT Press. This page will be updated with more information about the book in the near future. Stay tuned! In the mean time, here’s a summary.
The world is getting smarter. Things of all shapes and sizes—from the smart comb to the smart city and everything between—are now being digitally upgraded with the latest sensors, software, and connectivity. Even your toothbrush can now collect data about when, how long, and how well you brush. And, since it is Bluetooth enabled, it sends that brushing data to cloud servers so that your dentist can monitor your performance and send you personalized tips for a brighter smile. The promise of smart tech is that—by channeling the power of data, networks, and algorithms—we will enjoy a vast array of new capabilities and conveniences.
Indeed, it is common for the most energetic boosters to describe smart upgrades in mystical terms. Using smartphones to control our home appliances, they simultaneously exclaim and lament, is the closest we can get to being wand-wielding wizards. While the wonders of smart tech might feel like magical enchantments that enable us to cast digital spells, this book intends to dispel any notions that we inhabit the charmed castle of Fantasia. If anything, it’s more like the witchy world of Sabrina, where every spell comes at a cost and unintended consequences abound.
Whether celebrating or criticizing smart tech, our attention tends to be captured by concerns about how we choose to use personal devices. The focus on things like how people should detox from the Internet and practice good cyber hygiene elides a far more important issue: how others use digital systems on us, whether we want them to or not. Across three different domains—the smart self, smart home, and smart city—this book explores essential questions about whose interests are materialized by new technology, what imperatives drive its creation, and how we are all impacted by its use.
The smart self promises to achieve the Socratic quest of knowing thyself without the hassle of regular reflection and critical inquiry. We can outsource those tasks to real-time analysis of personal data, which plots and ranks our progress on the path to human flourishing. The smart home promises to deliver each of us a palace of convenience, a cocoon of connectivity. Our most intimate spaces will be transformed into super attentive, active environments that respond to our commands, observe our behavioral patterns, and adjust to our preferences. The smart city promises to overhaul our outdated urban centers so that services are optimized and spaces are securitized. By applying a cybernetic model of civics, the complexity, even chaos, of cities can finally be brought to order.
Perhaps we could tolerate the stale rhetoric about Silicon Valley saving the world, if these promised benefits were delivered without any strings attached or surprise consequences. But, of course, things are not so simple. For every smart self-tracker, there are data brokers and bosses who see new tools to exploit people. For every smart home appliance, there are manufacturers and insurers who see new opportunities to extract value. For every smart city solution, there are police and platforms who see new methods to exercise authority.
Ultimately, there is a specter haunting the smart society—the specter of digital capitalism. Beyond being built with similar technical features—centered around data collection, network connection, and automated control—these various types of smart tech are also encoded with a politics based on extracting value from, and expanding power over, potentially everything and everybody. The motives of digital capitalism has great, insidious influence over how and why certain technologies are made and used. We must first name this ghost in the machine—by way of analyzing its features and operations—so that we can then exorcise it possession.
There are ample reasons to disavow smart as a paradigm. The imperatives of power and profit, collection and control, have already corrupted these technologies at their source. It’s certainly true that not all smart tech contributes to nefarious ends. But even when designed for socially beneficial or totally innocuous reasons, smart tech easily plugs into existing systems for monitoring, managing, manipulating, and monetizing people. The already existing cases and consequences are legion enough to warrant more than just critical concern—but also serious action.