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The "Invisibility of Technology" and its Perils


In her review of three new books on technology’s ambition to become invisible, Laura Forland quotes a well-known saying by Mark Weiser of the Xerox PARC lab: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” The books under review—The Stuff of Bits: An Essay on the Materialities of Information by Paul Dourish, Heteromation, and Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism by Hamid R. Ekbia and Bonnie A. Nardi, and What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing by Ed Finn—all explore the perils of this invisibility. In particular, Forland notes how technology’s ambition to be unseen is also an ambition to be regarded as morally and politically neutral, even though algorithms and software are anything but. Here’s an excerpt from Forland’s review:

Whether this disappearance is literal or metaphorical in the case of the iPhone X, the emphasis on dematerialization is significant because it plays such a large role in the animating logic of our time. Such characterizations make it easy to dismiss the material realities of technologies, including the ways in which they are entangled with human bodies, environmental resources, and political economies.

We have been enticed into a world in which computing has faded into the background of everyday life, effectively becoming invisible. At the same time, we have actively concealed the ways in which these networked systems of software, data, technologies, and infrastructures “have politics.” And, with promises that computers are impartial, we have removed them from the public eye, making them difficult to expose and critique.

Yet these systems can only be understood as the flawed extensions of human creation. They act on our biases by replicating them and distributing them into the background of everyday life, thereby reinforcing and even exacerbating existing structural inequalities.

Image of iPhone X via