2021 year-end reading recap

I read 92 books this year, ten more than last year and one more than my goal of 90. 52 were fiction and 40 were nonfiction, a slightly more even distribution than last year’s 58 to 33. Much like last year, most of these books were great. Some were incredible. Some sucked. Also, much like last year, I’m starting this new one off with another takedown of Silicon Valley (An Ugly Truth by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang.)

A few trends stand out to me, looking back at this year’s list. I read more science fiction than usual (intentional, for collection development purposes and curiosity). I also delved into more series this year than I normally do (Murderbot and the Three Pines mysteries, which couldn’t have less in common but I find both to be delightful). There were also more than usual titles that had multiple authors or editors.

Looking back at last year’s recap, I’m going to pull a quote that feel very relevant at the current moment: “As shitty as this year was, I’m grateful I had the time and stability to read as much as I did, and for the fact that my brain still finds so much solace in the written word. Books got me through, folks. Whatever got you through was the right thing for you.” Same deal this time around, and also it’s nice to look back at this list and last year’s and remember that there was a time before the nonstop misery/anxiety spiral that was the fall of 2021. And I super miss listening to books while gardening.

Note: I’m not going to do a list of favorites from 2021 this time just because so much of what I read this year didn’t come out this year. I’m looking forward to reading the best books of 2021 when people stop placing so many holds on them, lol.

Top 5 fiction:
Dana Spiotta – Wayward
Rory Power – Wilder Girls
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet
Kim Michele Richardson – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Top 5 nonfiction:
Danielle Henderson – The Ugly Cry
P.E. Moskowitz – The Case Against Free Speech
Jathan Sadowski – Too Smart
Xiaowei Wang – Blockchain Chicken Farm
Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy

Top 5 that taught me the most:
Sara Ahmed – Complaint!
Cliff Kuang & Robert Fabricant – User Friendly
Margaret O’Malley – The Code
Mariame Kaba – We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine

Top 5 that will probably have the most significant and/or lasting impact on me:
Andrea Bonior – Detox Your Thoughts
bell hooks – Teaching to Transgress
Dean Spade – Mutual Aid
Chana Porter – The Seep
Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass
(bonus – Ash Sanders’s essay in All We Can Save, “Under the Weather,” was one of the best things I read all year.)

5 best audiobooks:
Margaret Atwood – Oryx & Crake
Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems (also relevant in all of the other categories, save for fiction)
Rory Power – Wilder Girls
Raynor Winn – The Salt Path
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky – Trauma Stewardship

The complete list of my 2021 reads:

  1. Wendy Liu – Abolish Silicon Valley
  2. Tommy Orange – There There
  3. N.K. Jemisin – The City We Became
  4. Aaron Benanav – Automation and the Future of Work
  5. Chana Porter – The Seep
  6. Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching
  7. Ursula K. LeGuin – The Dispossessed
  8. Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji
  9. Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine
  10. Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars
  11. R. Eric Thomas – Here For It
  12. Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy
  13. Colson Whitehead – Nickel Boys
  14. Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
  15. Emily M. Danforth – Plain Bad Heroines
  16. Margaret O’Mara – The Code
  17. Olga Grushin – The Charmed Wife
  18. Maika & Maritza Moulite – One of the Good Ones
  19. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha & Ejeris Dixon – Beyond Survival
  20. Mariame Kaba – We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
  21. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky – Trauma Stewardship
  22. Lori Majewski & Jonathan Bernstein – Mad World
  23. Kate Bornstein & Caitlin Sullivan – Nearly Roadkill
  24. Nnedi Okorafor – Binti
  25. Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky
  26. Nicholas Carr – The Shallows
  27. Jathan Sadowski – Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World
  28. Kim Michele Richardson – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
  29. Clare Pooley – The Authenticity Project
  30. Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass
  31. P.E. Moskowitz – The Case Against Free Speech
  32. Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell – The Innovation Delusion
  33. Mateo Askaripour – Black Buck
  34. Annalee Newitz – Autonomous
  35. Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen – Thanks for the Feedback
  36. M.L. Rio – If We Were Villains
  37. Matt Haig – The Midnight Library
  38. Tara Dawson McGuinness & Hana Schank – Power to the Public
  39. Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This
  40. Naomi Alderman – The Power
  41. Fredrik Backman – Anxious People
  42. Xiaowei Wang – Blockchain Chicken Farm
  43. Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
  44. Torrey Peters – Detransition, Baby
  45. Brene Brown – Braving the Wilderness
  46. Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate
  47. Tommy Wallach – We All Looked Up
  48. Megan Devine – It’s OK That You’re Not OK
  49. Dana Spiotta – Wayward
  50. Joanne McNeil – Lurking: How a Person Became a User
  51. Kevin Roose – Futureproof
  52. Terry Miles – Rabbits
  53. Cliff Kuang & Robert Fabricant – User Friendly
  54. Tsedal Neeley – Remote Work Revolution
  55. Martha Wells – All Systems Red
  56. Lulu Miller – Why Fish Don’t Exist
  57. Jenny Offill – Weather
  58. Brandon Taylor – Real Life
  59. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson – All We Can Save
  60. Charles Yu – Interior Chinatown
  61. Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  62. Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
  63. Dean Spade – Mutual Aid
  64. Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems
  65. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – The Mountains Sing
  66. Robert I. Sutton – The Asshole Survival Guide
  67. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  68. Alexandra Kleeman – Something New Under the Sun
  69. Rory Power – Wilder Girls
  70. Rory Power – Burn Our Bodies Down
  71. Louise Penny – Still Life
  72. Kiese Laymon – Long Division
  73. Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet
  74. Donna Tartt – The Secret History
  75. bell hooks – Teaching to Transgress
  76. Martha Wells – Rogue Protocol
  77. Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, Kimberly Loh – Compassionate Conversations
  78. Jay Caspian Kang – The Loneliest Americans
  79. Danielle Henderson – The Ugly Cry
  80. Raynor Winn – The Salt Path
  81. Andrea Bonior – Detox Your Thoughts
  82. Margaret Atwood – Oryx & Crake (re-read)
  83. Tressie McMillan Cottom – Lower Ed
  84. Lindy West – Shit, Actually
  85. Sara Ahmed – Complaint!
  86. Tim Hwang – Subprime Attention Crisis
  87. Erving Goffman – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
  88. Jessica Bruder – Nomadland
  89. Katherine McKittrick – Dear Science & Other Stories
  90. James C. Scott – Seeing Like a State
  91. Keller Easterling – Extrastatecraft
  92. Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace

year-end reading recap

I read 80 books this year. That makes it an above-average year for me. I’m not posting this to brag. I know people who have read many more books; I know people who have read far fewer books. I’m putting it here because it feels worth recording in some way.

Most of these books were great. Some of them were incredible. Some of them sucked. Most of them were written before 2020, some well before 2020; I am usually lagging behind a bit for my dependence on the trusty ol’ library ebooks.

Giving this a handful of brain cells before I go off to bed, it looks like fiction beat out nonfiction by 58 to 32. Most of the nonfiction was about technology, race, or both. It’s kind of tough to isolate top genres for fiction, though I’d say I picked up more sci-fi than usual for me. Women, nonbinary people, and people of color definitely beat out the cis white males, which was somewhat intentional but, let’s be honest, pretty easy to do when you’re looking for something good to read. (I briefly picked up Joshua Cohen’s 2015 Book of Numbers this year which had me recoiling in horror with its pretentious MFA bro-iness by page 30 or so.)

If I had to pick a number one book that was actually written in 2020, I’d go with Such a Fun Age, which I think actually came out on December 31, 2019 but let’s just let it slide, lol. Darkly witty, deeply awkward, and unflinchingly accurate, it was a perfect tale for our times, even moreso as I gobbled up its clever soapyness in a lonely quarantined world.

I’m not sure what my 81st book read in 2020 will be, but I’m feeling pretty drawn to Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley, awaiting me in print form (my library’s copy, no less). As shitty as this year was, I’m grateful I had the time and stability to read as much as I did, and for the fact that my brain still finds so much solace in the written word. Books got me through, folks. Whatever got you through was the right thing for you.

Top 8 2020 releases (that I’ve read so far):
Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
Lakewood, Megan Giddings
A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas
Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
Pretty Things, Janelle Brown

Top 6 fiction:
Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne
Caucasia, Danzy Senna
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
The Pisces, Melissa Broder

Top 5 nonfiction:
Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks
Dark Matters: On the Blackness of Surveillance, Simone Browne
Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin
Superior, Angela Saini

Top 5 that taught me the most:
The Charisma Machine, Morgan Ames
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
This Land is Their Land, David J. Silverman
A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale

Top 5 that will probably have the most significant and/or lasting impact on me:
Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber
How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell

5 best audiobooks:
Catch & Kill, Ronan Farrow
Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez
Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

The complete list:

  1. Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez
  2. Ghost Work, Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri
  3. Artifical Unintelligence, Meredith Broussard
  4. Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  5. Sorry I’m Late (I Didn’t Want to Come), Jessica Pan
  6. Permanent Record, Edward Snowden
  7. Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks
  8. The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton
  9. How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell
  10. How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  11. The Charisma Machine, Morgan Ames
  12. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  13. A Woman is No Man, Etaf Rum
  14. Hunger, Roxane Gay
  15. Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin
  16. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier
  17. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
  18. Pretty Things, Janelle Brown
  19. Dark Matters: On the Blackness of Surveillance, Simone Browne
  20. The Story of Arthur Truluv, Elizabeth Berg
  21. Confession Club, Elizabeth Berg
  22. Pull of the Moon, Elizabeth Berg
  23. Night of Miracles, Elizabeth Berg
  24. Caucasia, Danzy Senna
  25. The Giver, Lois Lowry (reread)
  26. Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis
  27. The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale
  28. The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides
  29. The Chain, Adrian McKinty
  30. Emergent Strategy, adrenne maree brown
  31. Superior, Angela Saini
  32. Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
  33. Hollow Kingdom, Kira Jane Buxton
  34. Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble
  35. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (reread)
  36. Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
  37. The Murmur of Bees, Sofia Segovia
  38. The Butterfly Lampshade, Aimee Bender
  39. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener
  40. The Yellow House, Sarah Broom
  41. My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
  42. A Place For Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza
  43. Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman
  44. The Pisces, Melissa Broder
  45. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (re-read)
  46. Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler (re-read)
  47. Redefining Realness, Janet Mock
  48. The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall
  49. Get a Life Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert
  50. Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
  51. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  52. Today We Go Home, Kelli Estes
  53. Lakewood, Megan Giddings
  54. The Whale & the Reactor, Langdon Winner
  55. Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
  56. A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
  57. So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
  58. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika Sanchez
  59. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
  60. The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez
  61. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
  62. The Color of Water, James McBride
  63. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  64. The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock, Dave Thompson
  65. Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
  66. Her Body & Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  67. Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas
  68. Catch & Kill, Ronan Farrow
  69. Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
  70. Pet, Akwaeke Emezi
  71. Luster, Raven Leilani
  72. Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey
  73. The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne
  74. Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
  75. Wow, No Thank You, Samantha Irby
  76. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (reread)
  77. This Land is Their Land, David J. Silverman
  78. Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber
  79. Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
  80. On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt
  81. Ring Shout, P. Djeli Clark


surreal estate

I just read two great books that I guess you could call…spiritual? Metaphysical? Introspective? They don’t fit neatly within genre, but I find that what I’m liking best these days rarely does. First came the novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, then I picked up Her Body and Other Parties, a short story collection by Carmen Maria Machado. At the end of Emezi’s book, they talk about a writer’s workshop where their fellow people of color said they couldn’t do what Nabokov does. This kind of stuck with me, not because of the relative Nabokov-iness of either one of these books but because of how silly it is to try to box these writers in comparisons with their forebears. I rarely assess things from that point of view anyway, but still, there was so much going on in these two books that to bog down a reaction to them by trying to find past commonalities seems pointless.

Earlier this year, I read Aimee Bender’s The Butterfly Lampshade and liked it for its similar vibes. All of these works are surreal, introspective, and haunting, but to link them by saying there’s a common theme of troubled protagonists is also too reductive. In The Butterfly Lampshade, Francie worries about peering into otherworldliness because of the genetic legacy she may or may not have inherited from her schizophrenic mother. In Freshwater, Ada is contending with her/their brain being divided up and fought over by gods as she/they attempt to enter adulthood. In Machado’s stories, the mostly unnamed first-person narrators are bound by mysterious magical ribbons and try to truck through global catastrophes; in the most powerful story of the collection, “The Resident,” the protagonist finds herself torn between past and present, wandering too closely to a darkness in herself that she winds up having to destroy, even though it’s part of her and the inspiration for her art.

As a person who has struggled with mental illness throughout my life, and has engaged in… lifestyle choices that may or may not have exascerbated it, these tales all felt close to the bone, “The Resident” perhaps most of all. In the story, the narrator goes on a writer’s retreat to an unnamed mountain range north of Philadelphia that starts with P. It turns out to be very close to a Girl Scouts camp she frequented in her childhood (aside: I went to a Girl Scouts camp in the Poconos) and the novel she’s working on involves a character inspired by the childhood traumas she winds up reliving as an adult. There’s a repeated idea in it that the point of the retreat is to allow your brain space and time to make random connections and dig up memories you didn’t know you still had. This is intended to be positive (and may be a comment on how complicated and insensitive this prompt would be for many people), but as the narrator leans into that, she’s only met with horror after horror, both physical and mental, and her traumas meld together in a way that transcends time.

I think this story resonated with me in particular because I don’t feel as besieged with emotions (and, let’s be honest, possessing of creativity) as I used to. And while part of that is due to better lifestyle choices and stability, part of it is due to having shuttered that section of myself off in many ways. And the reason for that shuttering is explored well in The Butterfly Lampshade – it’s a defense against following threads too far into a version of the world (and yourself) you might not be able to come back from. Freshwater differs in how its inevitability is clear from the start; Ada is mostly along for a ride she/they adapted to in order to survive. I have been fortunate to live with some semblance of control over my situation, but I also feel like a large part of me has been excised in return for it.

There was a time when a blank page or a blinking cursor in an empty document was never a match for the downpour of words flowing out of me, when I could sit composing music and tweaking lyrics for hours. But now I’m eating, sleeping, and making money, and I’m afraid of removing any of the load-bearing walls I’ve assembled to keep moving forward. Or maybe it’s not a matter of load-bearing, as Machado puts it at the end of “The Resident,” but a thing some of us find we must do:

Thus far in your jury deliberations, have you encountered any others who have truly met themselves? Some, I’m sure, but not many. I have known many people in my lifetime, and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before.

– Carmen Maria Machado, “The Resident”

books/readings tech anguish

book report: the charisma machine

What kind of blog will this be? Idk yet; right now it’s just a thing I occasionally remember exists and I dump text into it now and again. One of my goals with this when I started it was to collect what I’m reading in a more tangible way somehow, and I don’t want to review books and I don’t want to deal with Goodreads or whatever, so I’m gonna do this instead: a book report. I will definitely evince an opinion about whether or not I like something, but no star ratings or any of that.

So, anyway, onto the book at hand: The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child by Morgan Ames. This was an incredible work that I think should be required reading for just about anyone in engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, or any of the various allied disciplines and the overlapping stuff in between. It’s an in-depth exploration, articulated through hefty research, field work, and understanding of tech rhetoric and educational theory, of technological imperialism. It exposes the lies and gaps that the snake oil sages on stages never want to spend a minute of their TED talks on, revealing both the victims of their false promises and the hidden labor of the people who believe enough to try to make them come true.

One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, still exists in some difficult-to-understand form today, but for folks unfamiliar, it was an MIT Media Lab spinoff project run by a group of…wait for it, privileged white American men with the intention of deploying millions of cheap laptops to young children in developing nations around the world. It was co-directed by Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and guy who has seriously said things like the following: “We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.” Now, the Media Lab has been on an accelerated fall from grace in the back half of 2019, so it’s probably not especially surprising that Jeffrey Epstein pals like Marvin Minsky were in on some of the foundational thinking that led to this, but there’s still many lessons to be learned here.

The project was rife with problems from its start around 2005 with manufacturing costs being much higher than expected and the leaders’ fixation with what Ames calls “nostalgic design,” an obsession that resulted in machines with far less computing power and storage space than equivalent laptops of the time. Key features, like the hand crank that was initially dreamed up in hopes of powering computers in areas where there was no electricity available, proved impossible to build and never came to fruition. Even with a rugged exterior that Negroponte notoriously threw across the stage at some circle-jerk presentation or other, the machines still broke in large numbers, especially their screens and trackpads. It also was immediately clear to participating nations that the tablet-dropping helicopter wasn’t really a viable solution. In countries like Paraguay where Ames situated her fieldwork, massive infrastructural upgrades and assistance, including NGOs to do enormous amounts of work on integrating the laptops in school curricula, were necessary to do anything at all with these machines.

Ames describes what she is tactful enough to not call a total clusterfuck. In one class she visits, a teacher asks students to pull out their laptops and open a program so they can complete an assignment with the computer. A handful of students don’t have their laptops at all (they’ve broken irreparably or been lost), and at least half of the remaining group doesn’t have the program installed. Because the developers wanted children to “hack” their laptops and have the complete ownership over them they thought was part and parcel to their tech-utopian ideal, the kids often deleted boring programs like the one in question so they could make room for downloaded music and videos. The teachers, already overworked and underpaid with minimal resources, generally didn’t take to this new pedagogical model. As a result, the NGO supporting this rollout recruited trainers to support the use of the laptops in class and develop the pedagogy. But unless teachers had a natural proclivity for the machines or a special interest in them, this didn’t stick. Same went for the children, though for them the interest level definitely cleaved along class and gender divides, as well as the type of environments they had at home:

“[F]ully two-thirds of children hardly ever used their laptops. Some nonuse was due to breakage, which occurred along gendered and socioeconomic lines, complicating some of the benefits the project was supposed to provide… [Each] student [that used their laptops in the way OLPC intended] had a constellation of resources that encouraged them along this path: families that steered them toward creative and critical thinking, a focus on the importance of education, and in many cases another computer at home.”

I think what amazed me most about this story was the number of people who wanted it to be true and who put a ton of work into filling in the gaps and figuring out the Ames calls the “messy world” parts. It’s not surprising that Negroponte and his Media Lab bros would buy into their own rhetoric, but it bothers me deeply that their colleagues at MIT and the folks at the NGOs created to support OLPC seemed to eat it up, too. Maybe it was a product of its time; shortly before the dawn of social media/”Web 2.0,” there was an explosion of educational technology books, research, and prosthelytizing. Maybe the directors of the project were in such an echo chamber of other tech utopians and mystified journalists that they were never in a position of being called on the pretty boldfaced “imperialist notion that technology simply flows from the Global North to passive and graceful recipients in the Global South. Or maybe it was the power of charisma and the “social imaginaries” Ames teases apart in the book: the experiences, opinions, and ideas of OLPC’s developers became the only vision they could see, the glorious triumph of the “technically precocious boy” over his machine, leading to his discovery of identity, sense of belonging, and success in society. In other words, just because the Media Lab bros were empowered by their mastery of technology, little boys the world over could be, too.

“[C]harisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less charismatic.”

So, right now as we’re sitting here living through history, we need to stay on the lookout for the charismatic “solutions” that will surface in the hopes of quickly and painlessly getting us back to “normal.” They’re already coming in the form of health monitoring snake oil and educational disruption from everyone’s favorite surveillance capitalist, and there will be plenty more to come. The Charisma Machine shows what happens when folks that benefit from existing power relations try to impose their ideologies on people who don’t. There’s no innovation there, just a tool allegedly built for liberation that, once exposed to the messy world, instantly falls apart.

books/readings tech anguish

the age of coronavirus surveillance capitalism

Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff had an interesting conversation last year at The Intercept’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism event, and the differences they evinced that night recently made themselves very clear in the form of two pieces about big tech and the pandemic both published on May 8. Klein, activist and author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, wrote “Screen New Deal” in The Intercept as a part of a “series about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism in the age of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, Zuboff, scholar and author of last year’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was interviewed by Joshua Keating in Slate.

While they’re not saying wholly separate things, just as it was during their conversation last March, Zuboff shows an optimism that capitalism is not ultimately a zero-sum game and democracy is already acting as a bulwark against the potential overstepping of tech during the current crisis. Klein, meanwhile, steels us for a more dire road ahead, one where men like Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates will continue to try to “[demonstrate] the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix,” failing to acknowledge or address the issues neatly swept under the rug of “the digital divide.”

It’s hard for me to not agree more with Klein’s take on this, just as I did when she was holding capitalism responsible as the fundamental flaw of the surveillance machine (something that Zuboff is much more reluctant to do; she seems to come down on the side of other tech critics like Jaron Lanier who propose a different financial model with users being compensated for the data they provide). It’s weird having read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and having seen the measured and disturbing arguments of how human experience is now rendered into money for a select few in much the same way as human labor has for millennia before, that Zuboff still defends the democratic potential of this economic system. But having met Zuboff and talked with her in person, and now reading this interview with her, I understand where her optimism is coming from. That’s not to say I necessarily share it, but it’s important to try to; the alternative is the learned helplessness and adherence to the Borg complex that surveillance capitalists want us to feel.

In the interview with Slate, Zuboff says we live in different times than we did in the aftermath of 9/11, that people won’t be so easily sucked in by the promise of a shiny technical solution to an unutterably complex problem. She says, “In the last two years there has been a sea change in public attitudes that hasn’t yet overwhelmed the system, but it could.” And there is some truth to this, as Klein notes: “Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google’s own workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.”

I think what’s missing in Zuboff’s perspective is an indictment of the structural rot that makes tools of surveillance as dangerous and devastating as they are, and why that makes the prospects of a world overtaken by them so terrifying for all of us. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is aimed pretty squarely at (white) upper middle class academics and it deals most substantially with problems they’re likely to connect with and experience, rather than the systemic analyses of inequality presented in, for instance, Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Virginia Eubanks’s work. Zuboff imagines a future where those of us with the ability and time rabble-rouse for the right thing to be done; Klein warns us straightforwardly that “the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures” and “there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.”

When I spoke to Zuboff at a campus visit she made right before the U.S. started to noticeably react to the pandemic, I asked her how we might bridge “the division of learning” she comes back to again and again in her book. The division of learning is the gulf intentionally kept between the architects of the new technocratic order and the people exploited by it. She said that it would be possible to reinvest capital freed up from surveillance giants into education and public infrastructure. I don’t disagree that it’s possible, but reading about Eric Schmidt’s lobbying exploits as of late in Klein’s article has me feeling not so confident in this would-be reality.

That all being said, I’m not advocating for us to just throw the towel in and give up on making a better future possible; quite the opposite, in fact. The urgency is missing from Zuboff’s piece, and I found her suggestions similarly somewhat hollow when I asked her about the division of learning. We need to be realistic about the scale of the powers that need to be checked, and as Klein makes clear, the fact that the attempts to rebuke the surveillance giants in recent months has only made them angrier, greedier, and more determined to get what they want: “[T]he pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that [people in Silicon Valley] feel has been unjustly denied.”

Zuboff, meanwhile, compares this past turn of the century with the turn that came before it. She says we didn’t get trapped in a Gilded Age because “[the 1930s] ended up being a period of intensely fruitful institutional development, where all kinds of new institutions were finally invented along with the legislative and regulatory frameworks to support them, to make industrialization flip to democracy,” but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we do not have a Roosevelt democrat in office right now. Instead of the establishment of something like a modern-day WPA, we have an administration that is urging states to reopen, bolstered by protesters who think this whole thing is a hoax.

It is remarkable to me that we see the technological imperialism espoused by Schmidt and his kind sprout up again and again, no matter how many times it fails. The lessons don’t seem to be learned by our political leaders, but maybe they don’t want to learn them; many are looking for a silver bullet just as desperately as the tech giants are trying to sell one to them. Many politicians either ignore or don’t care that the end game of these companies is to get more users until they’re not needed anymore, until Amazon doesn’t have to worry about striking humans and Uber can deploy its driverless cars (with or without them needing to stop killing people first). And, remind me, what economic system requires never-ending growth at the sacrifice of individual rights and dignity?

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in response to the latest Gates Foundation partnership announced with the state. Andrew Cuomo and his big tech bedfellows are united in not wanting to deal with addressing those needs, those human edges that they can’t optimize out, those consequences of decades of austerity and chipping away at the social safety net. None of these people wants to admit fault or defeat–in fact, they want us to believe we owe them a debt. As Schmidt says, “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” What indeed. How dare we, for example, criticize them for firing Black employees who are trying to take collective action against dangerous and unfair practices in warehouses during the pandemic?

We’re already forked over our time and attention to these companies, and a not insignificant amount of our free will. We need to decide if we want to fork over what’s left of democracy to them, too. There’s a reason why they want their feet in the doors of education and public health, and it’s not because they want to make the world a better place. They still need healthy humans for much of what they’re calling “artificial intelligence” – we’re not obsolete yet – and why not start as early and pervasively as they can to train us to think more like the computers they want to swap us out for one day? The machine overlords aren’t machines; they’re people who want to turn us into them.

“The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what changes should look like and whom they should benefit,” Klein writes. We must force that public debate. The subtitle of Zuboff’s book is “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” We’re in that fight, but the free market and political nostalgia won’t help us win it.


book report: superior by angela saini

So some people have asked me lately if I have a Goodreads account or anything like that, and I don’t, and the reason why I don’t is the 2007 book John Dies at the End. I was very active on Goodreads until I put up a negative review about that book, which I hated, and got trolled into oblivion by a bunch of proto-MRA freaks with little else to do. I do want to start tracking what I’m reading in some way, though, so I’m going to devote a category of this blog to “book responses,” which aren’t exactly reviews but are… yeah, responses.

Anyway. The book I just finished reading was Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (so much for choosing a topic that won’t attract trolls! whatever, fuck off, Nazis). It was an excellent read, a fascinating exploration of the many incarnations and reincarnations of race science, told with a journalistic accessibility and building a nuanced narrative with direct quotes from its subjects. Saini does a great job explaining the tug-of-war between people on both sides of this issue, but her presentation is not milquetoast “fair and balanced” – she calls out the maleficent actors as well as the dundering do-gooders who have, wittingly or unwittingly, added to their causes. For instance, she writes about progressive population geneticists who attempted to study small “isolate” groups in hopes of understanding their uniqueness, adding fuel to the folks who want nothing more than proof conclusive that humans are different enough to be treated differently according to their “race.”

What’s so satisfying about this book is the way Saini digs into the issue from many angles. There’s a remarkable amount of confirmation bias afoot on this topic, both from the white nationalists who seek out and twist scientific affirmation and from the reportedly apolitical or liberal scientists doing the research, and it seems clear that there’s comparatively far less inquiry about the “nurture” issues vs. “nature” in determining the roots of differences between people. Saini shines a light on the small subset of academic publishing devoted to amplifying “scientific” support for racism, including the journal Mankind Quarterly and various pieces that have wound up in more mainstream academic fare, such as Intelligence and Science. She talks about how money has flowed to legitimize and amplify racist ideas, demonstrating how the old systemic holders of power have fought to keep it (i.e., a wealthy descendant of slave owners put large amounts of money into these publications).

Saini shows us how we have arrived at the current moment with the alt-right and the mainstreaming of nationalist movements around the world. She explains that after World War II, eugenics and race science were broadly dismissed as outmoded and inaccurate, certainly not championed by political leaders. Then, through the creation of journals like Mankind Quarterly and the rise of early-internet niche mailing lists that drew well-intentioned people in, they slithered back into public consciousness, waited for amplification, and received it in the form of an international infection of right-wing ideologues responding to the 2008 recession by taking cues straight from the WWII fascist playbook. We’ve looped our way back to xenophobia, and the architects of it are eager for a way to dismiss opposition with clear scientific facts.

Saini explains why they won’t get them, but also the danger of it not mattering to them in the end. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the social and academic aspects of race science and how race (and racism) is positioned as a technology in order to help “neutralize” its claims. It’s a great cautionary tale for the impacts of research, as anyone working in population genetics and related fields can have their work appropriated and recast in ways they never intended.


cyborg lessons, part 1

I’ve been reading a lot since we entered this new normal, and a group of friends is currently engaged in a deep read of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. We got through the first 15 pages of it last night. I’m trying to find a good way to succinctly describe it, but this was a 1985 essay using the idea of the cyborg as a rejection of rigid boundaries like human vs. animal and human vs. machine. Haraway uses the cyborg archetype to urge feminists to move beyond the limitations of traditional gender, feminism, and politics; she pushes for unity around affinity with recognition of identity. Considering it was written 35 years ago, it feels strikingly relevant in the present day–and yet, not.

The whole essay takes delight in its own contradictions, though, and it begins with a section called An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit. One of the members of our group said it reads like the text generated by natural language processing algorithms, and another said there was enough different dimensions to it for everyone to find something in there that resonated with them, whether it be in a good or bad way. Haraway critiques drawing epistemological fences (in other words, creating specific terminology or buzzwords to define knowledge) and its impact on creating divisiveness within movements, specifically feminism, and yet she’s constructed many of her own here in the form of this essay.

We got to talking about our cyborg-ness during the current moment in a pretty literal way, like how we’re continuing to work and stay social with tools like Zoom, social media, our phones, and so on. But straying back to Haraway’s more esoteric explorations of rigid boundaries, we also found ourselves musing about the word “normal” right now, the boundary that maybe many of us want to align ourselves along, that maybe many of us are feeling we desperately want to get back to. Is it true as people have said that “If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal?” We talked about Arundhati Roy’s piece “The pandemic is a portal” in the Financial Times, where she writes: “Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

It’s another fresh contradiction for us to mull over as we yearn for a return to what was and yet know that’s probably not only impossible but irresponsible, too. What I think A Cyborg Manifesto helps us see in this moment is the need to ready ourselves for whatever comes by teaming together, to let our nostalgia for the past be muted by the need for a more human future for everyone, to find affinity and build “a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state.”