Mullaney, Thomas S., Peters, Benjamin, Hicks, Mar and Philip, Kavita. Your computer is on fire. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2021. vi, 409 p. ISBN 978-0-262-53973-9. £30.00.
There is something strange about how different aspects of someone's life become integrated and focused on some specific item. Of course, often it is quite a subjective feeling, and this book has become such a lens for me at this particular moment. So, I thought there was some sense in the fact that I have been postponing reading it for some time. Since getting this book before the beginning of 2022, I got involved in a big EU project focused on wildfire prevention issues, which seemed to relate to the title and main idea of this collection of chapters. In addition, I have also investigated the role of digital tools in a specific context of cultural heritage preservation using the activity theory, which treats the tools, both physical and virtual (such as, language or cultural norms), as essential means defining the outcomes of activities.
Both these factors seemed very relevant to the content of the book under review. First, let us look at the concept of 'fire'. The mentioned project deals with very physical, hot fires consuming forests and buildings, whatever the reasons of their origins, though quite often we see 'human factors' in starting them. The first warning each of us tend to fear is a scream 'Fire!' that tends to cause panic or other strong emotional reaction. The concept of 'fire' in the book is used with this particular intention: as a loud shout intended to attract attention to immediate and serious danger, though this fire is rather metaphorical, though not entirely. The main causes of fires analysed in the book are entirely 'human factors'. The consequences are often unintended and unforeseen, but some are also deliberate and predictable, just as the causes of real wildfires. Sixteen scholars from humanities and social science disciplines, the authors of this book, explore the development of digital technologies and destroy myths of of their neutrality and beneficence by outlining their negative effects on environment, social life, human relationships and development. They treat these effects as an emergency affecting all of us on the global and local scales and spreading the harm if uncontrolled.
The authors of different chapters deal with digital technologies as the outcomes of certain activities and also as tools employed in certain activities. In both cases they focus on the negative sides of these outcomes and tools that cause danger to humanity as a whole. Here lies the second association with my recent work: the concept of tools. Activity theory actually postulates that motivation stimulates any activity, that is taking action by employing some tools to get the desired outcome. This theory does not employ concepts of 'goals', 'aims', 'wishes' or anything that can be declared by actors. Any declarations are only as good as they reveal the motivation, which in itself does not affect the outcome, though has bearing on it. The outcome depends largely on the employed tools of activity. Thus, the choice of a wrong tool for all the best motivation will deliver an outcome that is not planned or desired, but also can deliver unexpected benefits if chosen successfully.
The book consists of three parts and 16 chapters. The first one investigates the material nature of digital technologies and the history of their development. The picture of environmental resources, such as energy and fresh water, consumed for all our virtual activities in the clouds and work with big and small data is quite distressing and menacing. On the other hand, we see how computer networks are shaped by entirely social powers and how far their configuration is from an actual network shape. I especially appreciated the comparision of the stories about Soviet OGAS, Chilean Cybersyn, and American Arpanet told from the perspective of societal structures and historical developments, which affected their fates.
The stories in the second part, but not only in it, show how the discrimination, prejudice and attitudes embedded in our societies are recreated in our digital technologies and disempower the same groups of people that have always suffered discrimination. But not only them - they stories of deskilling professionals, not by overtaking their jobs, but by inbuilt belief that machines know better are simply chilling. I think many of us feel frustration with our computers from time to time when they override our perfectly reasonable decisions, but the authors proove that the problem is much deeper than simple frustration.
The third part looks into the issues of inequality that is safely transported into and deepened by digital technologies. The chapters deconstruct the myths about the power of education and digital competence as the forces liflting people up from poverty and up the social ladder. Powers beyond technologies are at play and complex relative inequalities are not erased by any amount of skills that is proved over the whole historical development of digital technologies.
However, despite critical approach and quite unnerving image of the power and faults of digital tools, the book leaves an impression of energetic opposition with an interesting agenda of improvements. As in the case of actual fire, the warning is not a hysterical scream causing panic, but a calm and firm instruction directing to an emergency exit leading to a virtual and physical reality that is much safer, more humane and better adapted to serve all members of any society.
I have appreciated lively style, interesting examples, language almost free of jargon and palpable engagement of the authors in their subjects of research and narratives. This makes the book very accessible and interesting to the wide public. This is not just a feeling, but has been proved to me by the members of my family who have taken a peek into the pages of the book and now argue who should read it first while waiting eagerly until I finish this review.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2022). Review of: Mullaney, Thomas S., Peters, Benjamin, Hicks, Mar and Philip, Kavita. Your computer is on fire. Cambridge, Mas.: The MIT Press, 2021 Information Research, 27(1), review no. R737 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs737.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.