Reviewed: Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology, Verso Books.
There is a viral video that made the rounds a few years back in which Pharrell Williams sits beside a visibly nervous young music student. The legendary producer and performer had paid a surprise visit to NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music to provide feedback on students’ producing assignments.
Almost as soon as the opening beats of this aspiring singer-songwriter’s folk-electronica filled the studio, a stunned Pharrell shakes his head in a kind of wonder. When the music stops, he delivers a verdict that is at once the best and worst kind of feedback for any creative: ‘I have zero, zero, zero notes for that. And I’ll tell you why: it’s because you’re doing your own thing. It’s like when the Wu Tang Clan came out, no one could really judge it; you either liked it or you didn’t but you couldn’t compare it to anything else.’
This exchange had blasted into my memory by the third page of Lizzie O’Shea’s Future Histories. Now, I’m no Pharrell Williams, but from O’Shea’s opening discussion of a young Don Carlos’s brush with death in 1562, only to be ‘saved’ by an automaton depicting a medieval friar, it was clear this would be a startlingly original book, one that belies comparison to most other books and would be daunting to critique. ‘Zero notes’ may make for a great viral video but it makes for a poor book review. So here goes.
Future Histories’ clever title goes a long way in explaining the book’s ethos: the importance of linking of past, present and future in order to address the problems wreaked by twenty-first-century digital technology. ‘We need to reclaim the present as a cause of a different future,’ O’Shea urges, ‘using history as our guide.’
The problem with digital technology, she writes, begins with the conceptualisation of history that many of us share. ‘The past that has survived in the minds of the current generation is one that reflects what has happened rather than what is possible.’ The solution, therefore, begins with looking at the past not as a relic, but as a possible blueprint for a better future. Our present is the result of historical choices of other people, meaning that the future will not be detached from our own present circumstances. The question is, are we willing to do what it takes now to make this future a liveable one? What will our legacy be?
She doesn’t mention Michel Foucault, but this technique of looking back to history not from a place of detachment or superiority but as a means to understand ourselves and our circumstances is reminiscent of his approach to history. Foucault described his genealogies, the method he devised to trace the development of power and scientific institutions in works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality as a ‘history of the present’. In history, argued Foucault, we can see
ways of thinking and behaving that are still with us. I try to show, based upon their historical establishment and formation, those systems which are still ours today and within which we are trapped. It is a question, basically, of presenting a critique of our own time, based upon retrospective analyses.
We see shades of this in O’Shea’s explanation that Future Histories should neither be read as a book about technology, nor as a history book or theory, but as ‘an attempt to read these things together in fresh and revealing ways’. She goes further than Foucault: rather than stopping at a history of the present, she outlines a possible vision for the future. Foucault was less prescriptive; although he did acknowledge his work’s potential for political activism and was captivated by the possibilities that radicalism held for social transformation, he was also leery of revolution. Deeply sceptical about its potential to overcome the effects of power, he argued that the possibilities opened up by popular uprisings are closed off again by a completed revolution. In other words, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
O’Shea is far more optimistic. Although it is not, I would argue, a fair expectation that writers who analyse or expose societal problems should also be the ones to prescribe the remedies to solve them, this hefty task is one that O’Shea takes on with aplomb and considerable skill. Our collective problem, she argues, is not technology itself but ‘technology capitalism’, which she defines as ‘the leading edge of the technology industry, a system led by a class of people who are focused on orienting digital technology toward market-based systems of profit’. The solution lies in reorienting digital technology so that it is made to serve and benefit all of us. The future is in our hands—and on our screens.
O’Shea has little patience for technological utopianism, or the assumption that, because technology has the potential to transform the future into a better place by improving every aspect of human life, this potential will inevitably be realised. She grounds her analysis in a critique of popular science fiction novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, questioning their manifestations of a perfect society, where work is minimal but everything else is abundant, as a pernicious example of pure faith in the linear nature of progress.
The problem with novels such as Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular and influential Looking Backward, in which the protagonist goes to sleep in 1887 and awakens in 2000 to find ‘a wonderland of a future, with its advanced industrial organisation and domestic automation ensuring a bountiful existence for all citizens, the product of technological development’, is that this miraculous vision for the future did not include any possible method for how the world could get there.
These authors, who ‘avoid a proper reckoning with the causes of the problems of the present, and as such, any clear theory about how they might be changed’, are the harbingers of present-day technological utopians such as Elon Musk, whose plan to ‘colonise’ Mars demonstrates ‘a total acceptance of the settler-colonial narrative. His plan is to buy and sell his way out of a dysfunctional society with his own self-designed utopia’. The implication is that, even were his plan logistically possible, his failure to reckon with the role of settler-colonialism in creating the very conditions that make him wish to flee Earth in the first place means he will only be transporting our earthly problems to Mars.
To lay out her case, O’Shea makes exhilarating leaps from past to present, across continents, and into myriad theoretical and cultural traditions. Ada Lovelace, who very nearly co-designed the world’s first computer almost a hundred years before its eventual invention, shows us what can be possible when women are allowed to flourish—and offers a sharp rebuke to the elite, male-led world of Silicone Valley. ‘Some of the people lauded as being the most visionary in our society,’ O’Shea notes, ‘end up having some of the most mundane ideas. Technology capitalists love to talk up the sparkling possibilities of technology—of unleashing potential in an interconnected society. But often what is revealed in these manifestos is little more than an unambitious extension of the status quo.’
The Paris Commune, where for a thrilling but brief period of time in 1871 discontented workers booted the government out of the French capital and instituted a form of autonomous participatory democracy, tells us to ‘think of other ways of organizing … alternative practices and principles for running society can spring forth, quite quickly, from the existing fabric of relationships and communities’. Among other things, the Commune
abolished conscription and the standing army; it decreed the separation of church and state, and converted all church property into national property; it declared education free … liberated political prisoners, suspended the payment of rent for six months, publicly burned the guillotine, closed pawn shops, and abolished night work for bakers.
Women formed collectives agitating for equal rights. Workers set their wages and working hours. No wonder, as O’Shea quotes, the painter Gustave Courbet exclaimed, ‘Paris is a true paradise.’
Although she draws on mostly Western thinkers and activists of the past, O’Shea devotes two later chapters to the anti-colonial and psychoanalytical theories of Frantz Fanon to explore the possibilities for digital self-determination, and to Indigenous knowledge systems to emphasise the importance of protecting the online environment as an ecosystem. This is laudable given that, unless specifically referencing race, many white writers still tend to ignore non-white thinkers altogether. However, I am not sure these frameworks quite … work. Although she is careful to emphasise she is not equating digital self-determination—the control over how our online information is collected, used and stored—with the Algerian struggle for self-determination, it nonetheless comes across as exactly that. The comparison seems inadequate, not least because the decolonisation struggle is far from complete and, if Black Lives Matter and the coming annexation of occupied Palestinian land by Israel are any indicators, it’s not going to be any time soon.
So too do her references to the peril the natural environment has been placed in by human actions seem like something of a reach. In order to demonstrate the importance of caring for our online environment, O’Shea quotes Mohawk professor Taiaiake Alfred, who rejects the ‘conquest mentality’ of the capitalist logic that defines the modern Western nation-state. However, she also places her trust in this same Western state by advocating for the socialisation of the internet by the state through the use of public funds. This is a contradiction that reveals a central problem of which the author may well be consciously unaware. O’Shea discuss issues such as blackness, colonisation, Algerian self-determination and Indigenous laws in a way that positions them as separate issues to the ones she is raising in the book, which means the text appears to be speaking primarily to other white, Western people; or at the very least to be firmly centring them.
Neither Fanon nor the Indigenous educators around whom she structures entire chapters rate a mention in the book’s long subtitle: What Ada Lovelace, Thomas Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology. It is as though they exist in entirely different spheres. Is technology capitalism a separate system of power to that of colonialism and its nation-state progeny? O’Shea seems to suggest so, but scholars such as Kehinde Andrews, who is adamant that market capitalism emerged from colonialism rather than the commonly accepted inverse, would disagree. Western capitalism, he argues, ‘is built on and sustained by a system of racism that exploits the people and nations of the darker parts of the globe.’ Consider, for example, the fact that wealthy countries export an estimated 24 per cent of their e-waste to the global south for recycling, where poor regulation and practices have created a health and environmental crisis.
These are relatively minor quibbles. O’Shea’s vision is so pure in its optimism and unrelenting in its faith that humanity can ultimately prevail, it feels almost churlish to mention them. Nonetheless, Future Histories envisions a world in which the public wrests control of digital technology from corporate actors and blunts the reach of the state, but it is one in which the power of the state remains, albeit in a more altruistic form.
O’Shea draws on anti-colonial theories and on Indigenous knowledge systems structured around integration with the natural world, rather than ownership, to suggest we have the potential to make this society built by whiteness and capitalism serve us all better. I do wonder, however, whether we could be looking to these thinkers to manifest instead a world where the Western nation-state hegemony is no longer so firmly entrenched. To be brave enough to leave it behind us.
That song that bowled Pharrell over, by the way, would go on to be the first single for that wide-eyed student, Maggie Rogers. In ‘Alaska’, the 2020 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist describes hiking in icy streams and glacial plains after the end of a stifling relationship. She submits to the sublime force of nature, allowing it first to take her breath away and then to breathe new life into her. ‘And I walked off you,’ she sings. ‘And I walked off an old me.’
Ruby Hamad is a writer and PhD candidate at UNSW. She is the author of White Tears/Brown Scars, published in 2019 by MUP.