Note — Dec 05, 2021

Same Old

From Gibson’s to Jetsons, this time Sun-Ha Hong at Real Life wonders “what is the point of imagining new technologies without new ways of living?” Hong looks back at various retro technofutures and argues that beyond the gadgets, too many of them just re-ash the same “unchanging, uncritical view of society itself.” New ways of working without questioning the need and forms of work, new ways of automating the home without reflecting on age-old gender roles.

The one angle I’d disagree with, as I often do, is in this view that seems to stop just short of wondering about conspiracies. If the “reduction of certain kinds of housework was accompanied by rising expectations elsewhere.” And if “childcare norms, for instance, became far more demanding in the postwar years, requiring more and more of the housewife’s time,” who made those choices? Not the makers of washing machines. Focusing on how unimaginative corporate technofutures are might also obfuscate the fact that society moves very slowly, in part because ‘we’ don’t spend enough time thinking beyond what’s sold to us.

These recurring technofutures perpetuate a familiar equation in which convenience equals freedom — and to be free is to have things for free, not just in terms of the dollar cost, but the erasure of time, space, and human labor. In this vision, we are invited to be the “greedy” user that can have their cake and eat it too: maximally served by technology, and maximally insulated from its consequences. […]

In reality, the promise of automation provides crucial cover for outsourcing, underpaying, and otherwise externalizing the real costs of technology to the most vulnerable workers in the chain. […]

[T]his recycling of technofutures is fundamentally a conservative force, in which a highly limited selection of technical benchmarks, use-cases, and social relations are dressed up over and over again, with no thought to whether they’re worth preserving, or what could be built in their place. As Jameson hinted, to be transfixed by the future is to be paralyzed by it.