Adrian Ho reviews two texts that consider the relationship between technology and the human.

Tero Karppi, Urs Stäheli, Clara Wieghorst, and Lea P. Zierott, Undoing Networks (University of Minnesota Press 2021), 140pp.

Luke Munn, Automation is a Myth (Stanford University Press, 2022), 184pp.

Reading both of these books side by side, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a need to question the technology that has somehow come to surround us. In this tech-ridden twenty-first century, it is as if we face an onslaught of “progression.” But how might we respond to such a situation?

It is the title of Undoing Networks that offers the first route of a response – why not simply “disconnect” from the tech? Well, it might not be the easiest of tasks. In the book, the reader is told that the verb undoing “is a notion that highlights activity” (xi), analogous to a person actively disentangling wires and actively pulling a socket from the source of electricity. “Undoing Networks is an attempt to examine what it means to be in disconnection” (xix). In Chapter 1, Stäheli argues that understanding the genealogy of connectivity is fundamental to the act of disconnection. He argues that the phenomenon of disconnection is linked to the “imaginaries of network culture” (xx), which can ultimately be refashioned into truly productive technologies and techniques for life. In Chapter 2, Lea P. Zierott interviews Nicole Scheller, designer of anti-surveillance clothing – which is to say, clothing that discombobulates cameras and recognition systems. For Scheller, “clothes are the only way to shield an individual’s privacy against the already-omnipresent cameras that now connect to ubiquitous recognition systems” (xxi).

Chapter 3 is best summed up as a down-to-earth approach to dealing with the debate on undoing networks, as Karppi explores Facebook’s “Off-Facebook Activity” privacy tool. However, while this may sound like an undoing of networks, Karppi asserts that the tool draws technical borders between the Facebook platform, which charts the outside of the user, rather than empowering the users from the inside. “Disconnection, in this case, means working on building boundaries and determining what Facebook is and what the limits of connectivity are” (xxi). Undoing Networks challenges the traditional notion of connectivity, and asks us to rethink relationality in toto. 

Yet, for the technophile technology in the guise of automation means a labour-free environment; a view somewhat at odds to the technophobe’s vision of a dystopian age-to-come. Munn argues in his new book that the unified vision of automation nonetheless “camouflages its ethics” in its aim to be apolitical (3). According to Munn, three fictitious visions arise: 1) full autonomy (claiming that machines will take over production, and in so doing supplant humans); 2) universal automation (technologies desituated, remaking society); 3) automating everyone (the generic figure of “the human”). However, in one highly relatable swoop, Munn debunks these myths of automation. Why? Because the human is still at the heart of it all. As Munn observes, “in the real world, things break. Plastic cracks, metal warps, chips overheat. Technology needs maintenance, not magic” (25). 

Pointing to machine minders in China as well as warehouse workers in the US, Munn takes a compelling look at the status quo of automation, from the perspective of the human, in which the “ideal human” “carried out the given instructions to the letter, hour after hour, at pace” (22).

One personal reflection concerns the claim of self-checkouts, which promises to unblock queuing times and delete the checkout operator. The labour is simply being “redistributed” to the customer (33). As Munn argues, “when we search for the locus of automation, for that imagined point where autonomous machines extinguish the human, we come up empty-handed” (19). From self-checkouts to automated surveillance, racialised fallouts to gendered inequalities, Automation is a Myth asks us to think again about the close relationship between technical systems and human workers.

With both books written during the waves of COVID-19, there is a certain pervading unease to find our once-connected world “suddenly disconnected and physically more separated than ever before” (Karppi, ix). Both books do not debate the future or the ethics of technology. They do not argue in favour of or against “digital detoxing”, but provide new insight into technology’s workings, and where the human fits in its grand aspirations. 

Adrian Ho lives and works in Hong Kong. He is currently pursuing his PhD in English Literary Studies.