A Pessimist's Guide to the Future of Technology – Berkman Klein Center

featuring Dr. Ian Bogost, Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology
Ian Bogost
Jeffrey Schnapp

Since the rise of the web in the 1990s, technological skeptics have always faced resistance. To question the virtue and righteousness of tech, and especially computing, was seen as truculence, ignorance, or luddism. But today, the real downsides of tech, from fake news to data breaches to AI-operated courtrooms to energy-sucking bitcoin mines, have become both undeniable and somewhat obvious in retrospect.
In light of this new technological realism, perhaps there is appetite for new ways to think about and plan for the future of technology, which anticipates what might go right and wrong once unproven tech mainstreams quickly. As a test case, this talk will consider a technology that has not yet mainstreamed—autonomous vehicles—as a test case.
Today the concerns of technological skeptics, a group which at various historical moments has faced resistance, are increasingly well-founded. Dr. Ian Bogost, Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, led a conversation about technological pessimism and the mainstreaming of new technologies.
To theorize about the adoption of new technologies, Bogost turned to Marshall McLuhan’s conception of the media tetrad. The tetrad of media effects asks what a particular medium enhances, makes obsolete, retrieves, and finally reverses. Bogost focused on the final part of the tetrad, reversal, which comes into play when a medium is pushed to its extreme.
As a case study, Bogost considered the autonomous vehicle. When the concept of self-driving cars began to emerge as a realistic possibility, responses tended to be optimistic; for example, as Bogost quipped, “finally we can rid ourselves of awful cars and go anywhere we want!” However following McLuhan, Bogost is interested in what happens when autonomous cars reach the reversal stage of the tetrad. Once this technology becomes universal, what happens? What does the extreme edge look like?
Bogost proceeded with a series of thought experiments about what might happen in the future. For instance, in a society without individually-owned, human-operated cars, does it make sense to have state-controlled and funded roads? Or will roads be leased to corporations who manufacture autonomous vehicles? Likewise, if people do not have their own cars, will we need parking structures? What will happen to those that currently exist? Perhaps they will be repurposed as housing to accommodate people moving back into cities. Will rural areas become inaccessible? What about those who cannot move? One potential long-term effect of autonomous vehicles could be the amplification of wealth inequality.
Concluding, Bogost emphasized that it does not matter whether his predictions are right or wrong. Rather, he is interested in shifting people’s thinking about new technologies from the immediate situation to long-term scenarios that assume adoption at a universal scale. In addition to the optimism that follows exciting innovations, it is also necessary to consider how new technologies will affect society as they expand to their edges.
notes by Donica O’Malley
Dr. Ian Bogost is an author and an award-winning game designer. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he also holds an appointment in the Scheller College of Business. Bogost is also Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, an independent game studio, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. He is the author or co-author of ten books including Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames.
Bogost is also the co-editor of the Platform Studies book series at MIT Press, and the Object Lessons book and essay series, published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury.
Bogost’s videogames about social and political issues cover topics as varied as airport security, consumer debt, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, pandemic flu, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited or held in collections internationally, at venues including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Telfair Museum of Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, the Laboral Centro de Arte, and The Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
His independent games include Cow Clicker, a Facebook game send-up of Facebook games that was the subject of Wired magazine feature, and A Slow Year, a collection of videogame poems for Atari VCS, Windows, and Mac, which won the Vanguard and Virtuoso awards at the 2010 IndieCade Festival.
Bogost holds a Bachelors degree in Philosophy and Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA. He lives in Atlanta.
Jeffrey is Professor of Romance Languages & Literature, Harvard Graduate School of Design; Director, metaLAB (at) Harvard; and Director, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. A cultural historian with research interests extending from Roman antiquity to the present, his most recent books are The Electric Information Age Book (a collaboration with the designer Adam Michaels (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and Italiamerica II (Il Saggiatore, 2012). His pioneering work in the domains of digital humanities and digitally augmented approaches to cultural programming includes curatorial collaborations with the Triennale di Milano, the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, the Wolfsonian-FIU, and the Canadian Center for Architecture. His Trento Tunnels project — a 6000 sq. meter pair of highway tunnels in Northern Italy repurposed as a history museum– was featured in the Italian pavilion of the 2010 Venice Biennale and at the MAXXI in Rome in RE-CYCLE – Strategie per la casa la città e il pianeta (fall-winter 2011). He is Professor of Romance Languages & Literature, on the teaching faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design,and is the faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard.

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The Berkman Klein Center Luncheon Series is a weekly forum for conversations about Internet issues and research. It is free and open to the public.
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