Planetary mesh of attention

I have written close to 4500 words today for the second chapter of my thesis. While a lot of them are a bunch of muddled words so far, constructed out of rough notes without any proper citation at the moment, I am so happy to be able to finally sit down and give some shape to my book. Henceforth, the post today is going to be another Blog All Your Dog-Eared Pages™. I wanted to borrow a passage from one of travel writer and art expert Bruce Chatwin’s letters in his epistolary book Under The Sun, which, when read after finishing an Edward Said book, took me to see Chatwin in an entirely different perspective (I found him rather snobbish and entitled, and he also generously used a number of derogatory terms for coloured people in his letters). Anyway, he wrote:

I’m sorry I’m so hopeless at writing. When you pore over the typewriter all day it’s the last thing you want to do.

… which is, when I think about it now, not entirely true. I want to do this. I am writing this post now.

I have started reading yet another book on how technology is changing our lives and its cost to our society (there’s a definite pattern to my reading list, now that I’ve thought of it) called Radical Technologies. As we begin to depend on these technologies — smartphones, virtual assistants, autonomous delivery drones, self-driving cars etc. — it’s about time we also re-evaluate our relationship with this networked objects, our agencies, and what it means to be human.

On the myriad of technologies emboldening the skies, the earth and beyond ‘smart’ cities these days (Paris is taken as an example):

On this evening in the city of light, a hundred million connected devices sing through the wires and the aether. Of the waves that ripple through the urban fabric, at whatever scale, very few escapes being captured by them, and represented in a burst of binary data. Enciphered within are billions of discrete choices, millions of lives in motion, the cycling of the entire economy, and, at the very edge of perception, the signs and traces of empire’s slow unwinding.

In a chapter on The Internet of Things, a planetary mesh of perception and response:

What links these wildly different circumstances is a vision of connected devices now being sold to us as the “internet of things,” in which a weave of networked perception wraps every space, every place, everything and everybody on Earth. The technologist Mike Kuniavsky, a pioneer and early proponent of this vision, characterises it as a state of being in which “computation and data communication [are] embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment. I prefer to see it for what it is: the colonisation of everyday life by information processing.

At present, the internet of things is the most tangible material manifestation of a desire to measure and control the world around us. It has its own tune:

It seems strange to assert that anything as broad as a class of technologies might have a dominant emotional tenor, but the internet of things does. That tenor is sadness. When we pause to listen for it, the overriding emotion of the internet of things is a melancholy that rolls off of it in waves and sheets. The entire pretext on which it depends is a milieu of continuously shattered attention, of overloaded awareness, and of gaps between people just barely annealed with sensors, APIs and scripts.

Implicit in its propositions is a vision of inner states and home lives alike savaged by bullshit jobs, overcranked schedules and long commutes, of intimacy stifled by exhaustion and the incapacity or unwillingness to be emotionally present. The internet of things in all of its manifestations so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on all the places where capital has left us unable to care for one another.

On the concern that we should not let these technologies fall into the wrong hands of power:

But for all the reservations we may have along these lines, however sincerely held, they still don’t speak to the most sobering circumstance we are confronted with by this class of technologies. This concerns who it is that winds up in possession of the data we shed onto the internet of things, and what they choose to do with it.

I am only 23% in this book, but I like how Adam Greenfield’s writing so far. His criticism is honest — as he provides close readings on how our small experiences are mediated by these technologies and perpetuate the “colonisation of everyday life by information processing” (I cringed) — yet is reflective in a way that the truth is served to us with a hope that human intelligence is still within our control.

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