Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Phillips, eds.
Your Computer Is On Fire
MIT Press, 2021
Reviewed by Kimberlyn R. Harrison
Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip’s incisive edited collection is no ordinary critique; it is an urgent warning against the dangers of technophilia. Mullaney’s introduction wards readers away from academic equivocation and declares that social scientific and humanities research on the historical, social, and cultural implications of technology is not only valuable but vital. As a result, the essays in the collection are a series of theses. Titles such as “The Cloud is a Factory” and “Your AI is Human” are clear, declarative arguments about the nature of contemporary media. This collection provides example upon example of the inextricable relationship between technology and power, rhetorically amplifying its central argument. The structure of the book, in its decision to have dual introductions and conclusions rather than a co-authored introduction and conclusion, emphases both the scope of the problems they address and the tendency of these problems to move outside anticipated boundaries. Indeed, the editors use ‘fire’ as a roadmap for the collection, drawing on three different aspects of fire as organizational markers: fire as heat, fire as destructive, and fire as propagation. The first section thus explores the materiality of our technological systems, the second emphasizes the stakes of inequality, marginalization, and discrimination built into these systems, and the third section considers the effects of such conditions and considers possibilities for intervention. While the collection is potentially valuable to scholars across these fields, this collection proves particularly valuable for rhetoricians as it articulates the inextricable relationship between technology, discourse, and power.
The first section of the collection, “Nothing Is Virtual,” dispels the myth that the virtual world is distinct from the material world. The essays emphasize the various ways digital technologies rely on and contribute to physical labor and infrastructure. For example, Nathan Ensmenger demonstrates that despite Amazon’s ‘cloud’ metaphor for their data storage and management service, the company is “fundamentally in the business of managing the movement and storage of ‘stuff’.” As with all infrastructure, Ensmenger notes that for large-scale data storage, “somewhere someone has to build, operate, and maintain its component systems. This requires resources, energy, and labor.” In other words, not only does the cloud require immense amounts of power—enough that if the cloud were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest consumer of electricity—the computer screens, microchips, motherboards, and other hardware features are made from metals that require processes of purification and refinement. This dangerous labor is performed by real people. Just as digital infrastructure is formed by material labor, artificial intelligence is a culmination of human judgments, decisions, and biases. Sarah Roberts exposes how content moderation, a process of flagging user generated content for possible violations of the platform’s terms and conditions, is hardly automated; “In fact, it has been largely down to humans to undertake this critical role of brand protection and legal compliance on the part of social media firms, often as contractors or other kinds of third-party employees.” Even when such processes are implemented algorithmically, they rely on the parameters of human judgments to decide what kinds of content the algorithm should be trained to flag. These essays evince a reflexive relationship between humans, machines, and our collective environments.
Section Two, titled “This Is An Emergency,” furthers the first section’s main claim by emphasizing not only that nothing is virtual but that “there are dangerous consequences whenever one describes computational and new media forms using sanitized, deodorized, and neutralized vocabularies that exempt them from critical analysis.” Indeed, this section takes a largely historical bent to chart how the discursive structures that characterize technophilia, such as myths of meritocracy, innovation, and family, both sediment and obscure various forms of oppression as features of our technological systems. For example, Corinna Schlombs takes IMB as a case study to examine how the corporate ‘family’ model preserved gendered hierarchies within the company, discouraged unions and labor representation, and cultivated a culture of deference to leadership. Halcyon M. Lawrence further demonstrates how voice technologies like Siri and Alexa, though they are often framed as ‘revolutionary’ technologies, reinscribe language biases by prioritizing speech with a ‘standard American’ accent. Drawing on the history of language itself as an imperializing technology, Lawrence problematizes the assumption that speech technology will inevitably improve to become more representative and responsive over time. Similarly, Mar Hicks returns to the development of the computer in Great Britain to showcase how “computing purposefully heightens power differences, and those who commission and control these systems benefit from that.” Sexism is not a bug—an accidental error that can be easily removed—but a feature of digital technologies. The essays in this section effectively take part in what Carolyn Miller, in “Opportunity, Opportunism, and Progress: Kairos in the Rhetoric of Technology” (1994), calls a ‘rhetoric of technology,’ in which scholars analyze “discourse and patterns of thinking not in discipline-based research but rather in enterprises concerned with the development, production, and marketing of artifacts and practices.” As such, the section does the important work of contextualizing and historicizing technology and its accompanying stories.
The third and final section considers the ways that fire “propagates;” it traces the way the myths outlined in the previous section attempt to propagate visions of techno-utopianism, but often fail. For example, Janet Abbate considers how teaching young girls to code is pitched as a form of empowerment, but masks a lack of long-term efforts to support women in tech. In response to the question of whether early exposure to coding could overcome racial and gender gaps in the US tech industry, Abbate argues that “the focus on technical skill as a solution to social and economic disparities sidestep more awkward— but urgent—discussions about biases and misconceptions in tech.” Such biases and misconceptions are sedimented through myths of meritocracy. Simply “adding” marginalized groups to the mainstream does not address the problems that created the conditions for such marginalization. Similarly, Sreela Sarkar demonstrates that entry into the global information economy does not guarantee a better life. Despite educational programs aimed at integrating Seelampur women into global Information and Communications Technology in pursuit of a ‘flat’ world, most graduates “did not find employment in the formal economy,” and those that did “were usually employed at the lower rungs of the information economy.” Rather than freedom at the hands of technological literacy, these women “faced harassment by male customers, short-term contract work without breaks, and sudden termination of contracts as part of their positions.”
Although this collection is interdisciplinary in its nature, geared towards “colleagues and students in STEM” as well as “humanists and social sciences,” it promises to be a valuable resource for rhetoricians. Indeed, the collection is rooted in a concern for the “power of the stories we tell about technology.” These stories, as Hicks, Abbate, Sarkar, and others demonstrate, rhetorically perpetuate gender and racial stereotypes. In calling attention to the material instantiations and consequences of these powerful stories, this work heeds Dustin Edward’s call for “critical infrastructure literacies” in his article “Critical infrastructure literacies and/as ways of relating in big data ecologies” (2021), where “big data infrastructure is not perceived as ethereal, cloud-like entities, but as materialities with relations to place, land, water, history, climate, culture, nation, and much else.” Avoiding a potential pitfall, the collection’s global scope refuses to dictate digital utopianism as a Western concern. At the same time, by grounding itself in localized examples, it avoids becoming too unfocused or sweeping. Accessible and practical, this collection establishes a critical praxis for the digital world.