Zachary Loeb — Burn It All (Review of Mullaney, Peters, Hicks and Philip, eds., Your Computer Is on Fire)

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Mullaney, et al, eds., Your Computer Is on Fire (MIT Press, 2021)
Mullaney, et al, eds., Your Computer Is on Fire (MIT Press, 2021)

a review of Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks and Kavita Philip, eds., Your Computer Is on Fire (MIT Press, 2021)

by Zachary Loeb

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It often feels as though contemporary discussions about computers have perfected the art of talking around, but not specifically about, computers. Almost every week there is a new story about Facebook’s malfeasance, but usually such stories say little about the actual technologies without which such conduct could not have happened. Stories proliferate about the unquenchable hunger for energy that cryptocurrency mining represents, but the computers eating up that power are usually deemed less interesting than the currency being mined. Debates continue about just how much AI can really accomplish and just how soon it will be able to accomplish even more, but the public conversation winds up conjuring images of gleaming terminators marching across a skull-strewn wasteland instead of rows of servers humming in an undisclosed location. From Zoom to dancing robots, from Amazon to the latest Apple Event, from misinformation campaigns to activist hashtags—we find ourselves constantly talking about computers, and yet seldom talking about computers.

All of the aforementioned specifics are important to talk about. If anything, we need to be talking more about Facebook’s malfeasance, the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies, the hype versus the realities of AI, Zoom, dancing robots, Amazon, misinformation campaigns, and so forth. But we also need to go deeper. Case in point, though it was a very unpopular position to take for many years, it is now a fairly safe position to say that “Facebook is a problem;” however, it still remains a much less acceptable position to suggest that “computers are a problem.” At a moment in which it has become glaringly obvious that tech companies have politics, there still remains a common sentiment that computers are neutral. And thus such a view can comfortably disparage Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg for the ways in which they have warped the potential of computing, while still holding out hope that computing can be a wonderful emancipatory tool if it can just be put in better hands.

But what if computers are themselves, at least part of, the problem? What if some of our present technological problems have their roots deep in the history of computing, and not just in the dorm room where Mark Zuckerberg first put together FaceSmash?

These are the sorts of troubling and provocative questions with which the essential new book Your Computer Is on Fire engages. It is a volume that recognizes that when we talk about computers, we need to actually talk about computers. A vital intervention into contemporary discussions about technology, this book wastes no energy on carefully worded declarations of fealty to computers and the Internet, there’s a reason why the book is not titled Your Computer Might Be on Fire but Your Computer Is on Fire.

The editors of the volume are quite upfront about the confrontational stance of the volume, Thomas Mullaney opens the book by declaring that “Humankind can no longer afford to be lulled into complacency by narratives of techno-utopianism or technoneutrality” (4). This is a point that Mullaney drives home as he notes that “the time for equivocation is over” before emphasizing that despite its at moments woebegone tonality, the volume is not “crafted as a call of despair but as a call to arms” (8). While the book sets out to offer a robust critique of computers, Mar Hicks highlights that the editors and contributors of the book shall do this in a historically grounded way, which includes a vital awareness that “there are almost always red flags and warning signs before a disaster, if one cares to look” (14). Though unfortunately many of those who attempted to sound the alarm about the potential hazards of computing were either ignored or derided as technophobes. Where Mullaney had described the book as “a call to arms,” Hicks describes what sorts of actions this call may entail: “we have to support workers, vote for regulation, and protest (or support those protesting) widespread harms like racist violence” (23). And though the focus is on collective action, Hicks does not diminish the significance of individual ethical acts, noting powerfully (in words that may be particularly pointed at those who work for the big tech companies): “Don’t spend your life as a conscientious cog in a terribly broken system” (24).

Your Computer Is on Fire begins like a political manifesto; as the volume proceeds the contributors maintain the sense of righteous fury. In addition to introductions and conclusions, the book is divided into three sections: “Nothing is Virtual” wherein contributors cut through the airy talking points to bring ideas about computing back to the ground; “This is an Emergency” sounds the alarm on many of the currently unfolding crises in and around computing; and “Where Will the Fire Spread” turns a prescient gaze towards trajectories to be mindful of in the swiftly approaching future. Hicks notes, “to shape the future, look to the past” (24), and this is a prompt that the contributors take up with gusto as they carefully demonstrate how the outlines of our high-tech society were drawn long before Google became a verb.

Drawing attention to the physicality of the Cloud, Nathan Ensmenger begins the “Nothing is Virtual” section by working to resituate “the history of computing within the history of industrialization” (35). Arguing that “The Cloud is a Factory,” Ensmenger digs beneath the seeming immateriality of the Cloud metaphor to extricate the human labor, human agendas, and environmental costs that get elided when “the Cloud” gets bandied about. The role of the human worker hiding behind the high-tech curtain is further investigated by Sarah Roberts, who explores how many of the high-tech solutions that purport to use AI to fix everything, are relying on the labor of human beings sitting in front of computers. As Roberts evocatively describes it, the “solutionist disposition toward AI everywhere is aspirational at its core” (66), and this desire for easy technological solutions covers up challenging social realities. While the Internet is often hailed as an American invention, Benjamin Peters discusses the US ARPANET alongside the ultimately unsuccessful network attempts of the Soviet OGAS and Chile’s Cybersyn, in order to show how “every network history begins with a history of the wider word” (81), and to demonstrate that networks have not developed by “circumventing power hierarchies” but by embedding themselves into those hierarchies (88). Breaking through the emancipatory hype surrounding the Internet, Kavita Philip explores the ways in which the Internet materially and ideologically reifies colonial logics, of dominance and control, demonstrating how “the infrastructural internet, and our cultural stories about it, are mutually constitutive.” (110). Mitali Thakor brings the volume’s first part to a close, with a consideration of how the digital age is “dominated by the feeling of paranoia” (120), by discussing the development and deployment of sophisticated surveillance technologies (in this case, for the detection of child pornography).

“Electronic computing technology has long been an abstraction of political power into machine form” (137), these lines from Mar Hicks eloquently capture the leitmotif that plays throughout the chapters that make up the second part of the volume. Hicks’ comment comes from an exploration of the sexism that has long been “a feature, not a bug” (135) of the computing sector, with particular consideration of the ways in which sexist hiring and firing practices undermined the development of England’s computing sector. Further exploring how the sexism of today’s tech sector has roots in the development of the tech sector, Corinna Schlombs looks to the history of IBM to consider how that company suppressed efforts by workers to organize by framing the company as a family—albeit one wherein father still knew best. The biases built into voice recognition technologies (such as Siri) are delved into by Halcyon Lawrence who draws attention to the way that these technologies are biased towards those with accents, a reflection of the lack of diversity amongst those who design these technologies. In discussing robots, Safiya Umoja Noble explains how “Robots are the dreams of their designers, catering to the imaginaries we hold about who should do what in our societies” (202), and thus these robots reinscribe particular viewpoints and biases even as their creators claim they are creating robots for good. Shifting away from the flashiest gadgets of high-tech society, Andrea Stanton considers the cultural logics and biases embedded in word processing software that treat the demands of languages that are not written left to write as somehow aberrant. Considering how much of computer usage involves playing games, Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues that the limited set of video game logics keeps games from being about very much—a shooter is a shooter regardless of whether you are gunning down demons in hell or fanatics in a flooded ruin dense with metaphors.

Oftentimes hiring more diverse candidates is hailed as the solution to the tech sector’s sexism and racism, but as Janet Abbate notes in the first chapter of the “Where Will the Fire Spread?” section, this approach generally attempts to force different groups to fit into Silicon Valley’s warped view of what attributes make for a good programmer. Abbate contends that equal representation will not be enough “until computer work is equally meaningful for groups who do not necessarily share the values and priorities that currently dominate Silicon Valley” (266). While computers do things to society, they also perform specific technical functions, and Ben Allen comments on source code to show the power that programmers have to insert nearly undetectable hacks into the systems they create. Returning to the question of code as empowerment, Sreela Sarkar discusses a skills training class held in Seelampur (near New Delhi), to show that “instead of equalizing disparities, IT-enabled globalization has created and further heightened divisions of class, caste, gender, religion, etc.” (308). Turning towards infrastructure, Paul Edwards considers how the speed with which platforms have developed to become infrastructure has been much swifter than the speed with which older infrastructural systems were developed, which he explores by highlighting three examples in various African contexts (FidoNet, M-Pesa, and Free Basiscs). And Thomas Mullaney closes out the third section with a consideration of the way that the QWERTY keyboard gave rise to pushback and creative solutions from those who sought to type in non-Latin scripts.

Just as two of the editors began the book with a call to arms, so too the other two editors close the book with a similar rallying cry. In assessing the chapters that had come before, Kavita Philip emphasizes that the volume has chosen “complex, contradictory, contingent explanations over just-so stories.” (364) The contributors, and editors, have worked with great care to make it clear that the current state of computers was not inevitable—that things currently are the way they are does not mean they had to be that way, or that they cannot be changed. Eschewing simplistic solutions, Philip notes that language, history, and politics truly matter to our conversations about computing, and that as we seek for the way ahead we must be cognizant of all of them. In the book’s final piece, Benjamin Peters sets the computer fire against the backdrop of anthropogenic climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the odd juxtaposition between the progress narratives that surround technology and the ways in which “the world of human suffering has never so clearly appeared on the brink of ruin” (378). Pushing back against a simple desire to turn things off, Peters notes that “we cannot return the unasked for gifts of new media and computing” (380). Though the book has clearly been about computers, truly wrestling with the matters must force us to reflect on what it is that we really talk about when we talk about computers, and it turns out that “the question of life becomes how do not I but we live now?” (380)

It is a challenging question, and it provides a fitting end to a book that challenges many of the dominant public narratives surrounding computers. And though the book has emphasized repeatedly how important it is to really talk about computers, this final question powers down the computer to force us to look at our own reflection in the mirrored surface of the computer screen.

Yes, the book is about computers, but more than that it is about what it has meant to live with these devices—and what it might mean to live differently with them in the future.

*

With the creation of Your Computer Is on Fire the editors (Hicks, Mullaney, Peters, and Philip) have achieved an impressive feat. The volume is timely, provocative, wonderfully researched, filled with devastating insights, and composed in such a way as to make the contents accessible to a broad audience. It might seem a bit hyperbolic to suggest that anyone who has used a computer in the last week should read this book, but anyone who has used a computer in the last week should read this book. Scholars will benefit from the richly researched analysis, students will enjoy the forthright tone of the chapters, and anyone who uses computers will come away from the book with a clearer sense of the way in which these discussions matter for them and the world in which they live.

For what this book accomplishes so spectacularly is to make it clear that when we think about computers and society it isn’t sufficient to just think about Facebook or facial recognition software or computer skills courses—we need to actually think about computers. We need to think about the history of computers, we need to think about the material aspects of computers, we need to think about the (oft-unseen) human labor that surrounds computers, we need to think about the language we use to discuss computers, and we need to think about the political values embedded in these machines and the political moments out of which these machines emerged. And yet, even as we shift our gaze to look at computers more critically, the contributors to Your Computer Is on Fire continually remind the reader that when we are thinking about computers we need to be thinking about deeper questions than just those about machines, we need to be considering what kind of technological world we want to live in. And moreover we need to be thinking about who is included and who is excluded when the word “we” is tossed about casually.

Your Computer Is on Fire is simultaneously a book that will make you think, and a good book to think with. In other words, it is precisely the type of volume that is so desperately needed right now.

The book derives much of its power from the willingness on the parts of the contributors to write in a declarative style. In this book criticisms are not carefully couched behind three layers of praise for Silicon Valley, and odes of affection for smartphones, rather the contributors stand firm in declaring that there are real problems (with historical roots) and that we are not going to be able to address them by pledging fealty to the companies that have so consistently shown a disregard for the broader world. This tone results in too many wonderful turns of phrase and incendiary remarks to be able to list all of them here, but the broad discussion around computers would be greatly enhanced with more comments like Janet Abbate’s “We have Black Girls Code, but we don’t have ‘White Boys Collaborate’ or ‘White Boys Learn Respect.’ Why not, if we want to nurture the full set of skills needed in computing?” (263) While critics of technology often find themselves having to argue from a defensive position, Your Computer Is on Fire is a book that almost gleefully goes on the offense.

It almost seems like a disservice to the breadth of contributions to the volume to try to sum up its core message in a few lines, or to attempt to neatly capture the key takeaways in a few sentences. Nevertheless, insofar as the book has a clear undergirding position, beyond the titular idea, it is the one eloquently captured by Mar Hicks thusly:

High technology is often a screen for propping up idealistic progress narratives while simultaneously torpedoing meaningful social reform with subtle and systemic sexism, classism, and racism…The computer revolution was not a revolution in any true sense: it left social and political hierarchies untouched, at times even strengthening them and heightening inequalities. (152)

And this is the matter with which each contributor wrestles, as they break apart the “idealistic progress narratives” to reveal the ways that computers have time and again strengthened the already existing power structures…even if many people get to enjoy new shiny gadgets along the way.

Your Computer Is on Fire is a jarring assessment of the current state of our computer dependent societies, and how they came to be the way they are; however, in considering this new book it is worth bearing in mind that it is not the first volume to try to capture the state of computers in a moment in time. That we find ourselves in the present position, is unfortunately a testament to decades of unheeded warnings.

One of the objectives that is taken up throughout Your Computer Is on Fire is to counter the techno-utopian ideology that never so much dies as much as it shifts into the hands of some new would-be techno-savior wearing a crown of 1s and 0s. However, even as the mantle of techno-savior shifts from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk, it seems that we may be in a moment when fewer people are willing to uncritically accept the idea that technological progress is synonymous with social progress. Though, if we are being frank, adoring faith in technology remains the dominant sentiment (at least in the US). Furthermore, this isn’t the first moment when a growing distrust and dissatisfaction with technological forces has risen, nor is this the first time that scholars have sought to speak out. Therefore, even as Your Computer is on Fire provides fantastic accounts of the history of computing, it is worthwhile to consider where this new vital volume fits within the history of critiques of computing. Or, to frame this slightly differently, in what ways is the 21st century critique of computing, different from the 20th century critique of computing?

In 1979 the MIT Press published the edited volume The Computer Age: A Twenty Year View. Edited by Michael Dertouzos and Joel Moses, that book brought together a variety of influential figures from the early history of computing including J.C.R. Licklider, Herbert Simon, Marvin Minsky, and many others. The book was an overwhelmingly optimistic affair, and though the contributors anticipated that the mass uptake of computers would lead to some disruptions, they imagined that all of these changes would ultimately be for the best. Granted, the book was not without a critical voice. The computer scientist turned critic, Joseph Weizenbaum was afforded a chapter in a quarantined “Critiques” section from which to cast doubts on the utopian hopes that had filled the rest of the volume. And though Weizenbaum’s criticisms were presented, the book’s introduction politely scoffed at his woebegone outlook, and Weizenbaum’s chapter was followed by not one but two barbed responses, which ensured that his critical voice was not given the last word. Any attempt to assess The Computer Age at this point will likely say as much about the person doing the assessing as about the volume itself, and yet it would take a real commitment to only seeing the positive sides of computers to deny that the volume’s disparaged critic was one of its most prescient contributors.

If The Computer Age can be seen as a reflection of the state of discourse surrounding computers in 1979, than Your Computer Is on Fire is a blazing demonstration of how greatly those discussions have changed by 2021. This is not to suggest that the techno-utopian mindset that so infused The Computer Age no longer exists. Alas, far from it.

As the contributors to Your Computer Is on Fire make clear repeatedly, much of the present discussion around computing is dominated by hype and hopes. And a consideration of those conversations in the second half of the twentieth century reveals that hype and hope were dominant forces then as well. Granted, for much of that period (arguably until the mid-1980s and not really taking off until the 1990s), computers remained technologies with which most people had relatively little direct interaction. The mammoth machines of the 1960s and 1970s were not all top-secret (though some certainly were), but when social critics warned about computers in the 50s, 60s, and 70s they were not describing machines that had become ubiquitous—even if they warned that those machines would eventually become so. Thus, when Lewis Mumford warned in 1956, that:

In creating the thinking machine, man has made the last step in submission to mechanization; and his final abdication before this product of his own ingenuity has given him a new object of worship: a cybernetic god. (Mumford, 173)

It is somewhat understandable that his warning would be met with rolled eyes and impatient scoffs. For “the thinking machine” at that point remained isolated enough from most people’s daily lives that the idea that this was “a new object of worship” seemed almost absurd. Though he continued issuing dire predictions about computers, by 1970 when Mumford wrote of the development of “computer dominated society” this warning could still be dismissed as absurd hyperbole. And when Mumford’s friend, the aforementioned Joseph Weizenbaum, laid out a blistering critique of computers and the “artificial intelligentsia” in 1976 those warnings were still somewhat muddled as the computer remained largely out of sight and out of mind for large parts of society. Of course, these critics recognized that this “cybernetic god” had not as of yet become the new dominant faith, but they issued such warnings out of a sense that this was the direction in which things were developing.

Already by the 1980s it was apparent to many scholars and critics that, despite the hype and revolutionary lingo, computers were primarily retrenching existing power relations while elevating the authority of a variety of new companies. And this gave rise to heated debates about how (and if) these technologies could be reclaimed and repurposed—Donna Haraway’s classic Cyborg Manifesto emerged out of those debates. By the time of 1990’s “Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” wherein Chellis Glendinning pointed to “computer technologies” as one of the types of technologies the Neo-Luddites were calling to be dismantled, the computer was becoming less and less an abstraction and more and more a feature of many people’s daily work lives. Though there is not space here to fully develop this argument, it may well be that the 1990s represent the decade in which many people found themselves suddenly in a “computer dominated society.”  Indeed, though Y2K is unfortunately often remembered as something of a hoax today, delving back into what was written about that crisis as it was unfolding makes it clear that in many sectors Y2K was the moment when people were forced to fully reckon with how quickly and how deeply they had become highly reliant on complex computerized systems. And, of course, much of what we know about the history of computing in those decades of the twentieth century we owe to the phenomenal research that has been done by many of the scholars who have contributed chapters to Your Computer Is on Fire.

While Your Computer Is on Fire provides essential analyses of events from the twentieth century, as a critique it is very much a reflection of the twenty-first century. It is a volume that represents a moment in which critics are no longer warning “hey, watch out, or these computers might be on fire in the future” but in which critics can now confidently state “your computer is on fire.” In 1956 it could seem hyperbolic to suggest that computers would become “a new object of worship,” by 2021 such faith is on full display. In 1970 it was possible to warn of the threat of “computer dominated society,” by 2021 that “computer dominated society” has truly arrived. In the 1980s it could be argued that computers were reinforcing dominant power relations, in 2021 this is no longer a particularly controversial position. And perhaps most importantly, in 1990 it could still be suggested that computer technologies should be dismantled, but by 2021 the idea of dismantling these technologies that have become so interwoven in our daily lives seems dangerous, absurd, and unwanted. Your Computer Is on Fire is in many ways an acknowledgement that we are now living in the type of society about which many of the twentieth century’s technological critics warned. In the book’s final conclusion, Benjamin Peters pushes back against “Luddite self-righteousness” to note that “I can opt out of social networks; many others cannot” (377), and it is the emergence of this moment wherein the ability to “opt out” has itself become a privilege is precisely the sort of danger about which so many of the last century’s critics were so concerned.

To look back at critiques of computers made throughout the twentieth century is in many ways a fairly depressing activity. For it reveals that many of those who were scorned as “doom mongers” had a fairly good sense of what computers would mean for the world. Certainly, some will continue to mock such figures for their humanism or borderline romanticism, but they were writing and living in a moment when the idea of living without a smartphone had not yet become unthinkable. As the contributors to this essential volume make clear, Your Computer Is on Fire, and yet too many of us still seem to believe that we are wearing asbestos gloves, and that if we suppress the flames of Facebook we will be able to safely warm our toes on our burning laptop.

What Your Computer Is on Fire achieves so masterfully is to remind its readers that the wired up society in which they live was not inevitable, and what comes next is not inevitable either. And to remind them that if we are going to talk about what computers have wrought, we need to actually talk about computers. And yet the book is also a discomforting testament to a state of affairs wherein most of us simply do not have the option of swearing off computers. They fill our homes, they fill our societies, they fill our language, and they fill our imaginations. Thus, in dealing with this fire a first important step is to admit that there is a fire, and to stop absentmindedly pouring gasoline on everything. As Mar Hicks notes:

Techno-optimist narratives surrounding high-technology and the public good—ones that assume technology is somehow inherently progressive—rely on historical fictions and blind spots that tend to overlook how large technological systems perpetuate structures of dominance and power already in place. (137)

And as Kavita Philip describes:

it is some combination of our addiction to the excitement of invention, with our enjoyment of individualized sophistications of a technological society, that has brought us to the brink of ruin even while illuminating our lives and enhancing the possibilities of collective agency. (365)

Historically rich, provocatively written, engaging and engaged, Your Computer Is on Fire is a powerful reminder that when it is properly controlled fire can be useful, but when fire is allowed to rage out of control it turns everything it touches to ash. This book is not only a must read, but a must wrestle with, a must think with, and a must remember. After all, the “your” in the book’s title refers to you.

Yes, you.

_____

Zachary Loeb earned his MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, an MA from the Media, Culture, and Communications department at NYU, and is currently a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Loeb works at the intersection of the history of technology and disaster studies, and his research focusses on the ways that complex technological systems amplify risk, as well as the history of technological doom-saying. He is working on a dissertation on Y2K. Loeb writes at the blog Librarianshipwreck, and is a frequent contributor to The b2o Review Digital Studies section.

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Works Cited

  • Lewis Mumford. The Transformations of Man. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956.

 

 

 

 

 

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