Quarantine is the future big tech wanted us to want

In some ways, a pandemic is the ideal proof-of-concept for the particular utopia that the tech industry has tried to build. Social distancing plays to digital technology’s immediately tangible strengths: ubiquitous and sanitary access to other people, maximum convenience, broad consumer choice, and endless entertainment at low cost. As the coronavirus brought countless global systems to a halt, the internet kept working, heroically filling the gaps. Some longtime critics of the tech industry, having spent much of the past decade complaining about its toxicity, seemed ready to acknowledge a silver lining if not praise it outright.

But rather than prove that nearly anything is possible with an internet connection, the quarantine is calling attention to what digital technology can’t do. It was easier to think of the domestic cozy, online-first existence as not only possible but preferable when it was strictly a lifestyle choice. Being forced to live it, many of us are now discovering how much of the physical world we have taken for granted. Without distinct places for doing different activities like work and exercise, and bombarded by an accelerated news cycle, we’re losing our sense of time as well as space. Spatial variation helps structure the rhythms of everyday life and without the structure imposed by commuting, gathering with friends, and doing errands outside the house, days blur together and scheduling begins to feel arbitrary.

Read more: Home Screens, Drew Austin, Real Life Mag, April 27, 2020.

How much of life do we want to sacrifice at the altar of security?

How much of life do we want to sacrifice at the altar of security? If it keeps us safer, do we want to live in a world where human beings never congregate? Do we want to wear masks in public all the time? Do we want to be medically examined every time we travel, if that will save some number of lives a year? Are we willing to accept the medicalization of life in general, handing over final sovereignty over our bodies to medical authorities (as selected by political ones)? Do we want every event to be a virtual event? How much are we willing to live in fear?

Covid-19 will eventually subside, but the threat of infectious disease is permanent. Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world?

It is not hard to imagine, especially if social distancing is successful, that Covid-19 persists beyond the 18 months we are being told to expect for it to run its course. It is not hard to imagine that new viruses will emerge during that time. It is not hard to imagine that emergency measures will become normal (so as to forestall the possibility of another outbreak), just as the state of emergency declared after 9/11 is still in effect today. It is not hard to imagine that (as we are being told), reinfection is possible, so that the disease will never run its course. That means that the temporary changes in our way of life may become permanent.

Read more: The Coronation, Charles Eisenstein.

There is No Such Thing as Absolute Progress

“We need to be aware of the fact that there is no such thing as absolute progress, that every time we add something to our world, we take something away as well. It’s the Eastern notion of balance, of yin and yang, at play: Everything Better Is Purchased At The Price Of Something Worse. Life does not by definition only get better when someone invents a new phone or car or facial cream, even if that phone makes it easier to talk to someone thousands of miles away, or the car makes it easier to go see people, or get away from them, or the cream dissolves wrinkles like magic. It doesn’t work like that. We pay a price: for everything we add, we lose something. The question then becomes: what do we value most. But that’s a question we never ask: we see everything new as an addition to our lives, and ignore what gets taken away from us.”

Quoted from: The Price We Pay For Progress, The Automatic Earth.

Reveal the Infrastructure

Designer Gauthier Roussilhe:

“People seem to be living in a techno-fantasy dream. Mostly because they don’t understand the infrastructure on which it is relying. Eventually, the physical world with its energy limits and planetary boundaries will catch up with these dreams. I’ve been dedicating a lot of time in conferences and workshops explaining to people why autonomous cars will not be possible. Once you open the black box and reveal the infrastructure, people understand what is behind their dreams. You can break the spell, even in the French start-up scene.”

Read more: Can you design a website on a (very) limited energy budget? An interview with Gauthier Roussilhe, We Make Money Not Art.

I’m not optimistic, but that doesn’t make me a pessimist

Environmental scientist Giorgos Kallis in Knowable Magazine:

“We know there were civilizations that flourished in periods where they did not necessarily expand economically. Greece in the classical period would be an example. And many civilizations tried to put limits on how much money an individual could accumulate, or how much money you can lend, or interest rates. We have examples where we know society tried to limit and tame this self-perpetuating character of growth. And we know there are societies that flourished without having constant growth.”

“The easy but stupid critique to that is, “Oh, you want us to go back and be like hunter-gatherers or live like the Romans?” No, that’s not the point. We’re not saying look at how other civilizations are better, we’re saying let’s study other civilizations to get ideas about how things could potentially work differently in our society”.

Do you think we’ll get this figured out in time?

“I’m not optimistic. To think that tomorrow people will wake up and come to their senses and realize that climate change is a huge problem and economic growth is unnecessary, and take action on that? No, I don’t think this will happen. But this doesn’t make me a pessimist. History has always been dire. I don’t think I’d be better off living 100 years ago, having two world wars in front of me, or facing famines. History never stops, and constantly there’s a moment of fighting for things to be better.”

“The last 200 years, we lived in a capitalist society where growth is fundamental for the stability of the system. Maybe there is no alternative, and the only way is to have growth. If this is becoming catastrophic, what do we do? Do we bow our heads to catastrophe, to disaster, or can we think outside of that? We know that we humans are very inventive. Why can’t we think of alternatives? Why is this the only thing where we can’t think differently?”

Smart Technology is a Solution Looking for a Problem

iabR Hans tak

Picture by Hans Tak, International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016

Technologies like driverless cars and smart heating systems could end up making cities dysfunctional according to Maarten Hajer, chief curator of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016. Speaking at an opening event for the biennale, Hajer called for architects and designers to stop treating the advent of smart technologies as inevitable, and to question whether they will solve any problems at all.

“People with lots of media force pretend to know exactly what the future will look like, as if there is no choice,” he said. “I’m of course thinking about self-driving vehicles inevitably coming our way.” Discussions about the future of cities are at risk of being “mesmerised” by technology, he added. “We think about big data coming towards us, 3D printing demoting us, or the implication of robots in the sphere of health, as if they are inevitabilities. My call is for us to think about what we want from those technological advances.”

“I have nothing against good technology, it’s wonderful, but you always want social problems to be the priority. If it doesn’t help us get CO2 down, if it doesn’t help us make cities more socially inclusive, if it doesn’t help us make meaningful work, I’m not interested in smart technology. Sometimes I think: “if smart technology is the solution, then what was the problem again?”

Read the full interview at Dezeen. Thanks to Anne-Marie Pronk.