Sunday, 6 December 2020

Tech to Amplify Rather than Atrophy

I just finished Matt Crawford's latest book, Why We Drive.  This challenging read unpacks how we've backed ourselves into an intellectual dead end under tech driven surveillance capitalism.  Crawford comes at it from the big-tech push to colonize one of the last moments in our lives where human skill is tested and judged by reality rather than marketing expectations, vehicular operations.  Advertising companies like Google aren't trotting out self-driving cars for safety or efficiency (though that's the marketing), they're trotting them out so they can take all that consumer attention wasted on driving and advertise to it.  Even with this problematic impetus and misleadingly media spin self-driving vehicles are imminent and this leads Crawford to (quite rightly) question the intent of the companies pushing them.  The assumption that self-driving cars will somehow be  better for us is undressed in many ways in the book.

Seeing where Matt's head is at in 2020 encouraged me to reread his first book, the bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft, which came out in 2009 in response to the market crash that everyone seems to have forgotten now as we're increasingly told we need austerity to pay back the predatory organizations who caused the debt in the first place. Running the economy is a good gig if you're one of the 'financial class' who maintain the fiction.  You can crash the market and make billions of people poorer and then profit from it indefinitely as you charge interest on the loans you handed out to 'solve' the crisis you caused.  It takes a special kind of stupid to buy into this.

Looking at Shop Class now years later it has historical context to it I didn't see in earlier readings where the response to the market collapse wasn't as obvious.  Back then it was just timely.  One of the themes that follows Matt's thinking through all three of his books is his dislike of automation.  In Shop Class he talks about situated knowledge and the importance of having an intimate relationship with reality.  Fundamentally, Crawford believes this vital to human beings fully developing their abilities.  When we're devalued by monied interests into simplistic consumers we are unable to fully develop our human potential.  Surveillance Capitalists intent on monetizing every moment of everyone's existence for their own financial advantage have coupled with safety and efficiency movements in government and society to create a brave new world of atrophied people.

I've come at this digital prejudice from an educational technology point of view on Dusty World, but it bears examining from a motorcycling perspective too.  Crawford is a physicist and mechanical and electrical technician, but he seems to have drawn a hard line between digital technology and everything else.  It's probably an age related thing.  Matt's about five years older than I am.  As I was getting into early home computers and figuring them out he was already through high school and working in his trade.  I ended up heading towards IT because when I was working as a millwright I was the only one willing to take computer controlled systems on in a department full of older people who couldn't be bothered.

The idea that digital technology is opaque and unknowable is a continual professional frustration for me as a computer technology teacher.  Other educators, students and parents all buy in to this opacity even while they embrace information and communication technology in more aspects of their lives.  I understand the reluctance to make ourselves literate in this emerging technology, but if we're all going to use it I'd suggest we're all responsible for having at least a basic understanding of how it works or else we're going to all end up illiterate in a digitally powered world.

A bunch of smooth talking sociopaths have taken over the face of digital technologies, but I can assure you that Google, Facebook and the rest are not the limit of what digital technology can do for us.  Thinking that is dangerously reductive.  There was a time when the internet was newly birthed from academia and the people on it were exploring a new frontier rather than leveraging it in an Orwellian attempt to monetize our attention.  I'm a digitally literate person and I have no love for them, but I get the sense that Matt truly despises computing to the point of lumping any digital tech in with the sociopaths.  It's a hard distinction to make, though John Naughton does a good job of coaxing it out of author Shoshan Zuboff:

"While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those."

Another motorcycling angle to come at this from might be Neil Spalding's MotoGP Technology. This technical manual charts the evolution of the top prototyping class of MotoGP motorcycle racing over the past twenty years. These have been years of digital integration and management in terms of rule making and deciding how much of an influence computer assistance will have in the sport. Unlike Formula One, which many have suggested has gone too far down the technology path, MotoGP has evolved to focus on enhancing rider abilities rather than replacing them. Spalding mentions the estimate that F1 is an 80% car engineering 20% driver skill equation, where as MotoGP is the opposite. Marc Marquez winning championships on the third best bike would certainly suggest the humans operating MotoGP bikes matter more than the tech, and yet these are digital machines.

There is a point in the book where Spalding has to re-orientate the reader on how electronics work in MotoGP. Unlike what a consumer is used to, racing electronics have nothing to do with safety.  Their only intent is more speed even if it means more effort and skill is expected from the rider.  While everyone watching a race has only ever experienced electronic interventions (anti-lock brakes, traction control etc) as a safety blanket thrown over their incompetence, a racer only experiences them through the lens of performance.  Electronic intervention on a race bike make it more extreme and harder to ride.  
That alone should make the true breadth of electronics and digital technology in riding a bit more clear.  They are only self-driving us because someone wants them to for their own reasons, not because the tech is inherently focused in that direction.

Crawford often speaks of the mechanical work he's doing on various machines, but mechanical work doesn't end where a computer is involved.  There are some parts of vehicular evolution where automation is a much needed advance.  Crawford does make a point of mentioning this, but grudgingly.  Reading Classic Bike Magazine a few weeks ago I came across a great article about Dr Desmo, Fabio Taglioni, the Ducati engineer who spent his career continually looking for advancements for the brand.  His quote about computer controlled fuel injection is much like a MotoGP team's fixation on performance rather than protecting a rider from their own incompetence and is yet another reminder that electronic and digital technology does not have to replace human agency but can in fact enhance it.

Sorting out the Triumph's fuel injection system
by finding a modified fuel map and installing
it on the bike's FI computer was one of this 
year's most satisfying repairs.
I like getting a bank of carbs sorted out as much as the next person, and sometimes I make a point of working on bikes without electronics to distance myself from what I do at work all week (mechanical repairs offer a more immediate kind of satisfaction), but I've also had great technical satisfaction from the hybrid mechanical and electronics repairs I've had to make on the Tiger.  I realize that electronics and computer based repairs are often out of the comfort zone of the home mechanic, but that's based on the kind of anti-digital prejudice Crawford carries through his philosophy.  If we could all get passed that prejudice perhaps we could reclaim the digital tools we've surrendered to the attention merchants.

It's critically important we don't romanticize old technology for the same reason we shouldn't romanticize previous time periods.  If you think the 1960s were some kind of magical time in human history odds are you're a heteronormative, neurotypical white male.  From the point of view of the vast majority of the people on the planet the nineteen sixties were fucked, and so was much of the technology we were using back then.  That time of excess and privilege has led us to the brink of disaster fifty years later.  Longing to go back to it or recreate it is a kind of insanity.

This is distinct from respecting culture and engineering from a certain time period when it showed us a better way forward.   I greatly enjoy working on older machines in order to keep that history alive, but if you're putting on rose coloured glasses that make you blind to the possibilities of today's technology then you're just as manipulative as the sociopaths who are destroying society for their own gain.

Crawford talks about technology that is locked and closed, like Mercedes without dipsticks to check your own oil, or electronics that are sealed to prevent 'tampering'.  Corporations are able to do this because people have been convinced that digital technologies are something they can't comprehend, but this is bullshit.  The companies offering to do everything for you aren't technology companies, they are advertising companies.  Ignore them and ignore authors who dismiss digital technology as inherently nannying.  Modern technology can just as easily be used to enhance human ability and force us to be smarter, stronger and faster as it can be used to make us stupid, docile and compliant.  The issue is the intent of the people peddling it, not the tech itself.

If I can't convince you maybe Kenneth Clark's angle in 1969's award winning documentary 'Civilisation' will highlight things:

Clark's concern is that automation plays to the hands of authoritarian regimes.  He couldn't see the emergence of multi-national corporations that we're now under the yoke of back in 1969, but he isn't wrong about automation playing to fascists.  Crawford shares the same concerns, and they're well founded, but one of the best ways to take back control for more people is to make them literate in the technology being used to enthrall them.

All that to say don't be afraid of the digital aspects of motorcycle maintenance.  This tech was made by people so you can figure it out, and in doing so you will also teach yourself to author the technology the attention tyrants are using to snow you under.  From that point of view of self sufficiency and understanding of technology Matt Crawford should be on board.