Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, now available for pre-order
The other night I selected-all in a file on Google Docs and turned the entire text bright red. This was my signal to my editor Leo that I’d made the final round of edits on the last outstanding chapter I owed him. And this, in turn, means that after eight years and eleven months, I’m finally done with the project I started in this blog post. I’ve finished my book.
It is, in too many ways to count, a different book from the one I set out to write. I owe most of this to Leo, actually. Do you know the scene in Inception where Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, as intruders in the virtual world of another man’s mind, are under assault by the ghostly brigades of their subject’s “militarized subconscious”? Gordon-Levitt’s character is standing at the door of a warehouse, plinking away ineffectually at the encroaching horde with an assault rifle, when Hardy shoulders him aside. With the words, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” he hoists a massive South African grenade launcher, lobs a round onto the opposite rooftop, and blows things up reeeeal good.
That was Leo. I came to him with a book about cities and technology — a book that had been dangling out in public for six years at that point, a book I’d already published a quarter of — and two chapters into our work on it, he pulled a Hardy on me, in the biggest possible way. “I don’t think you’re writing a book about cities anymore,” he told me, over stand-up espressos beneath the awning of the Algerian Coffee Stores, as drizzle dampened the greasy Soho asphalt. “I think you’re writing a book about Everyday Life.”
I could hear the capital letters, and knew immediately (as my bowels turned to ice) that he was invoking the whole tradition of thought that starts in Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. Which is to say that he wasn’t simply asking me to paint on a bigger canvas, though he was definitely doing that. He was demanding that I take myself and my work seriously, and understand that what I was writing might someday find its place on a shelf alongside people who had actually contributed to Western thought and culture. (In Lefebvre’s case, rather explosively, given his influence on the events of May ’68.)
It put the zap on my head so hard that I didn’t get any further work done on the book for a good six months.
I don’t know what it’s like for you. I won’t presume to say I understand anyone else’s interiority, or process, or approach to their work. I imagine that there are some creators who are safely armored by a transcendent belief in their own talent, who glide through pitches and contracts and reviews lubricated by a sense of inevitability and rightness. I’m not one of those people.
So in a way, what Leo did to me was cruel. But it also led directly to a change of title, a change of scope, and a much bigger and more ambitious book. What had started out as a rather constrained proposition turned into a sprawling survey of some of the major ways in which networked information technologies shape the choices arrayed before us. I should be clear that it probably misses as much as it gets right; I have a sustained history of focusing too much on the wrong aspects of a technology, or at least not the aspects that turn out to be most salient to our understanding of it, and I’m not sure it’s any different here.
I’m also a little gutted to have written a book that’s so obviously and prominently about information technology. As I’d originally envisioned it, this was supposed to be a decisive pivot away from all of that, and toward the thing I care more deeply about, which is the life of cities. But as Nurri always reminds me, there are any number of writers in the world who have deeper or more original insight into cities. It just isn’t what people seem to want from me. After awhile, if you’re smart, you listen to what the world tells you about what it wants from you, with intense gratitude that it appears to want anything at all.
So: Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, now available for pre-order.
In its ten chapters, I take up some of the recent and emerging technical developments that now condition the way we experience the everyday, just about everywhere on Earth. I start with the smartphone, ready-to-hand as it is, and continue on to augmented reality; the so-called internet of things; 3D printing, CNC milling and other digital fabrication technologies; cryptocurrency and the technology underlying it, the blockchain; and finally the constellation of practices and ideas that is dedicated to the eclipse of human discretion, and includes machine learning, the automation of work and artificial intelligence. I spend some time considering the ways in which these discrete techniques are brought together in particular ensembles and commercial value propositions — and by whom, and particularly toward what ends — and finish up by asking if there’s a space for tactics or even resistance available to us in any of this. All in all, I think it’s turned out rather well.
Most writers say something along these lines, but it’s really true and I really do mean it: though I take full responsibility for whatever infelicities and misapprehensions remain, just about all the good in this book arises from the conversations I’ve had with you. It’s not — and I’m not — Lefebvre, but that’s OK. It’s not half-bad. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful.
I’m rather fond of the title, by the way. It’s ambitious, a title to conjure with. It has a certain amount of what the Rastafarians used to call Dread. I don’t know if the book I’ve written really deserves a title like that, but I guess you’ll let me know, won’t you?
Thanks to those of you who came along for the ride — especially those who’ve stuck with me all the way from that first blog post, when I was promising you a self-published book called The City Is Here For You To Use, and it was 90% a reaction to the incompetence of my first publisher. Thanks doubly to the 859 of you (!) who ponied up to pre-order that book, most of you in the weeks immediately following the project’s announcement, and who had to wait until the last quarter of 2013 to get your hands on anything resembling the thing you’d ordered. Thanks, eternal thanks, to Leo Hollis, for kicking out the jams. And thanks always to Nurri for sticking with me through all the chicanes and blind alleys of this endless, endless project. Let’s see what happens now.