John C Adams Reviews 'Radical Technologies'

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield

(Verso Books, 2017)

To say that I'm not particularly up on tech trends represents a considerable understatement, yet I know in myself that these developments are hugely influential in our lives even if, in my case, they are very poorly understood. So I was delighted when I read an article in a newspaper that mentioned this book in passing. It seemed like a way in to obtaining a better appreciation of the advances in tech and what they mean for society as a whole.

Adam Greenfield has an eyewateringly wide array of experience in tech. He's worked out in industry, culminating in working for Razorfish as head of information architecture, before moving into teaching Urban Computing at NYU and more recently being awarded the inaugural senior urban fellowship at the LSE in London.

The book is structured around thematic chapters covering areas of tech with which we routinely interface, or are unavoidably likely to do so in the future, such as the smartphone and cryptocurrency, augmented reality and digital fabrication (including, but not limited to, 3D printers). It described the physical and software basis of the tech area before analysing the consequences for our lives that these developments in that area are already having and will have in the near future. It ends with an over-arching essay that ties together all the individual chapters to consider different possible global futures, such as 'Green Plenty' and 'Stacks Plus' (things the way they are now, just more so).

'Radical Technologies' hit the sweet spot for me in that it was both highly intelligently written and provided oceans of facts about tech, but it was in no way difficult for me to understand even though I am one of the least techno savvy people ever (and oddly proud of it). The intended readership clearly went way beyond the already tech-fascinated group of users and developers, for whom nothing factual in this book would have been new but some of its conclusions might have provided pause for thought or an alt viewpoint to their own. I'm sure such readers would have found plenty to think about in its pages, but the author was able to reach out way beyond that small group of readers to make the highly technical content easy to absorb and understand. That can't have been easy to achieve without sacrificing the detail, but he did it and I was full of admiration for that fact.

I highly recommend this book, whatever your level of interest and understanding of tech matters. It was thought provoking and at times frankly depressing in its vision of our future, but by the end I realised that the worse the likely outcome was, the more I needed to know in order to prepare myself to deal with it. And there were positive aspects, too. Greenfield suffers from face blindness, something that apparently afflicts about 2.5% of the population, making it impossible to identify someone based on their visage even if you actually know them quite well. This was a rare personal intersection of experience with hope that augmented reality could make the world a better place for those suffering from this condition. The chapter on automation also presented a balance assessment of both the threats to employment and the opportunities that exist for a higher standard of living in a world beyond work.

Many thanks for reading my review. The comments section is open. I'll be back on Friday.

Thanks to Michael Dziedzic for providing the image for this blog via Unsplash.

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