The best books about tech that *aren't* about tech
...don't read books about tech to learn how to best design and build tech.
You’re reading DisAssemble, a triweeklyish philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
Books and articles about how to design and build technology are always about just that. They’re always geared toward ever-more effective ways to get to get the best business outcomes; that is, make more money.
These texts never question why we build technologies, what technologies mean and do to people, or how we have come to build them the way we that we do. This parochialism is immensely troubling to me, and part of the reason why I started this newsletter.
As it is the year end, I thought I’d share some of the books that I’ve read this past year that have attempted to provide answers to these questions, albeit indirectly. Note that these books didn’t come out this year (though a couple of them are fairly recent) - they’re just ones that I read this year that struck me as particularly relevant to tech.
I encourage you to read them, and not just rely on my brief analysis. But hopefully it’ll be clear why these sociological, philosophical and linguistic books have an urgent relevancy to tech.
Metaphors We Live By
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
76692. That's how many citations this book has, according to Google scholar. When it was released in 1980 it shook the foundations of several fields - namely linguistics - but it was so fundamental in impact that it is difficult to find areas that it doesn’t touch.
The thesis of Metaphors We Live By is 'on the tin', but its arguments entail a complete rehash of what it means to understand anything. As the authors Lakoff and Johnson say:
Our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor
They argue that metaphors in large part form our language, and these metaphors are in turn is established by our direct experience (which are different from culture to culture). So deep are metaphors enmeshed in our language that we no longer even recognise them as such.
Most of what we think as as 'things' or 'concepts' or 'ideas' and so on are actually metaphors. In essence, we turn them - that is, make them - into 'things'. In actuality, these 'things' have have no physical properties or at least no permanent physical encapsulating boundaries, unlike an actual objects (well - this is debatable too, but at least according to our direct perceptions).
Take the phrase: ‘The pandemic is ending’.
Firstly, the pandemic is not an entity that anything can happen to. It has no physical presence as a bounded, defined, 'thing in the world'. Lakoff and Johnson would call this an ontological metaphor - i.e. creating an entity structure on something that does not otherwise have one. It's also a structural metaphor in that a pandemic has a sort of journey with a beginning, middle and end. So, we've created an object - it has parameters, but it’s also a journey - it has a structure.
This metaphorical object, and its associated structure, only exists as it fits within our understanding. And our understanding is grounded in how we experience the world - i.e. through direct experience. We understand, through direct experience, physical objects with boundaries. We understand, through direct experience, ourselves moving through the physical world to a destination, which we come to understand as journeys. We then project understandings such as these onto other less clearly delineated concepts to help us understand them. This explains how we make the pandemic an object and a journey.
A danger is that these metaphors hide certain aspects, and highlight other aspects, without us necessarily realising this.
Take ‘problems’. I've written about how we, in the technology sector, 'create' problems to 'solve'.
Problems, like pandemics, are not things. They do not have boundaries. They do not have a stable physical essence. They cannot 'contain' other things (though we constantly 'put' things in them - people, tools etc). A problem is a situation - a series of events, combined with human thoughts and intentions. Yet we are able to use metaphorical structures of different sorts to allow us to talk about problems in particular ways.
We treat problems as puzzles. Consider the following: the problem can be solved; the problem is difficult; the problem has many pieces. You might say 'this is the nature of a problem - you are simply defining “problem”’. But this is Lakoff and Johnson's point - the metaphor stops being a subjective interpretation and instead becomes an objective truth. But it’s not objective by any means - it’s a metaphor based on direct experience, used to help us understand our world. And how we experience the world varies from culture to culture.
For example, we could use a cooking metaphor for problems, with problems being a recipe and solutions being a meal. We could say a problem/recipe is ready, or still being made, rather than solved. This might make us reflect on whether we think the problem is at a stage to be addressed, or if we’ve synthesised it enough into something comprehensible (perhaps ‘ready to be cooked’?). We could consider the experience of making a problem/recipe. Does it require a lot of ingredients? Does it need to be watched closely? This isn't idle speculation - many different cultures apply their direct experience differently, and have different environments and cultural activities, and thus create different metaphors.
In developing technologies - or just about anything - it’s therefore vital that we reflect on how the metaphors we use structure our endeavours, and what they hide and reveal.
This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
At 464 pages, This Life is probably longer than it needs to be, but it does have a weighty point to make: though our free time is what we value most, civilisation itself does not, and thus we need to change the nature of civilisation.
The idea that what we actually value in life is how we spend our time is a basic and reasonable stance, but the arguments that this entails is quite complex. The author, Martin Hägglund, argues that this premise means the finitude of our lives is our defining quality, since, if we weren't required to 'commit' to certain tasks and if they had no possibility of failure, they would have no meaning to us.
In other words, if we were guaranteed to have success - if we were absolved of the pain of loss, we would not be required to commit to any project, to care about it, because it would exist without us. How we project our finite time is thus an expression of our care, and is the most vital aspect of our lives. For example, if you were not required to commit to spending time with your loved ones to have a meaningful relationship with them, caring about them, what constitutes a relationship would be entirely unintelligible.
However, capitalism, Hägglund argues, is set up to disguise this. We treat the value of our labour time as a product for growth rather than as a value in and of itself to embody that which has meaning for us, for it to be a time for us to flourish and project our finite care.
But surely technology can emancipate us from capitalism’s hold by giving us back our free time? Surely technology automating work means we are freer?
This isn’t necessarily the case, because society under capitalism only recognises your labour time as a source of value. This is a bit of complex argument, but bear with me.
Anything resulting from automation has no ‘value’ to us, because it would not cost anyone their time. A price for a product could not be charged - it 'costs' nothing if no one works on it. The only thing that we can possibly understand as a 'cost' is the labour someone puts into work something - when someone ‘uses’ their time for an ‘end’. What you are buying is labour power because this is what we value.
Say you build a machine that produces food from soil automatically — without any maintenance required once it’s built. Once the machine is bought and paid for, food would have no value on the market because the cost of producing it would be nil - no labour is involved. And nor would it just be ‘pure profit’ for you as any other company would use the same technology to undercut you. Moreover, we couldn’t actually continue with ever-increasing automation, unless we found all of the out-of-work workers jobs, since under capitalism we require people to work to so they can be paid for their labour and so they can purchase the products created. This is what must happen in capitalism - growth - and without growth their stagnation (one wonders if we need a metaphor aside from growth - as per Lakoff and Johnson).
Accordingly, the less labour that something requires, the less we value it. The more efficient technology gets, the less profit I can make because my goods becomes less valued, given the lower amounts of labour involved because, again, what we are buying is labour because this is what capitalism values. But automation will continue, as there is always an incentive to reduce the labour time to lower the cost relative to your competitor. There is a contradiction at the heart of capitalism here: as a capitalist I want to use less labour, but when I do, through automation, what I produce inherently has less value because no (or minimal) labour is involved. People working has value (and is required for growth), generating free time for people does not.
It’s a fairly complex argument, but what’s interesting to take away is the point that a fully automated society thus could never function so long as we value our labour time as our source of value. As Hägglund says:
The real measure of value is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time)
Hägglund argues that our institutions and cultures are set up to not only instil the former value but also require it. He argues decisively that we must reshape society to value free time in and of itself, and to help us explore how we can spend our free time. As he says:
It is matter of providing forms of education—and other institutional practices—that enable persons to be citizens who can understand the norms to which they are subjected as ones to which they have bound themselves
Decreasing the quantity of necessary labour time is thus required. We need to measure and value free time as a substantive metric of societal health. Regular labour still needs to be done, obviously, but Hägglund argues that we must be collectively committed to producing the necessary means of subsistence. We can do these things through what he terms democratic socialism.
In his version of democratic socialism, the problem of growth is avoided as we would not have private property in the abstract sense - i.e. in that it can be transformed into a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit. And in democratic socialism, Hägglund notes that labour (like being a doctor) would be performed by persons who are committed to the occupation as an end in itself - not as something-for-a-reward.
With all of this said, it’s evident (to me, at least) that there are important contributions that technology can provide.
It’s clear that there are many jobs that aren’t very enjoyable to do in and of themselves - cleaning the toilets etc. So activities like this should be shared among people and be un-alienating. What is un-alienating? I would argue that technology can help define this. How can we create ownership, community, ethical alignment of mundane tasks? How can they not be simply mechanistic, rote work, where each person is separated from the outcome of their work? Sharing of goals, means, purpose - all of this can be facilitated through tech.
Secondly, technology can also help us understand what we can do with our free time - I wrote a whole newsletter about this.
Finally, technology can help us shift to a world of democratic socialism. I won’t go into this here - it’s entirely it’s own universe (and one that I’m less well versed in) of political change.
Resonance and The Uncontrollability of the World
Rosa’s books were life changing for me. Fundamentally, they are about the idea that the more we control, the more we are alienated from that which we control. But that which we don’t have full control over, that with which we share a bond of mutually-affecting, predictably unpredictable process is that which contains the vital, life-affirming dynamic he calls ‘resonance’.
This also indirectly says a lot about technology….but I wrote an entire article about this for Blue Labyrinths. So instead of repeating it all here, please go check it out.
There’s more books, more thoughts, more to discuss, but let’s leave it here. For now.
I hope that your holidays are lovely and, for all our sakes, this pandemic will be ‘over’ sooner than later, as per the non-existent journey that it is.