Review – Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society”

Nicole Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age” (2020) (read by Linda Bevilacqua Farber) – Former Jacobin editor (and friend of mine!) Nicole Aschoff tries to get us past proclamations of doom, utopian nonsense, and “what’s the deeeeeal with phones?!”-level analysis in this work of popular sociology. Fun fact- the last event I had scheduled before covid was her (cancelled) book launch!

The smartphone is a big goddamned deal, arguably a bigger deal than the personal computer (except there wouldn’t be the former without the latter), and we dismiss that at our peril. It serves many functions, and moreover combines functions, in a tiny, portable, relatively affordable package, that genuinely does change the way we do a lot of things. Aschoff discusses some of these- dating, work, politics.

But she doesn’t leave off at either the possibilities that smartphones present at the moment (filming cops!), or their dangers (the Uber-fication of labor!). If there’s a target in this book, it is technological determinism, in either its utopian or dystopian guise. It is true that the shape of the smartphone’s functions, like that of any important technology, shapes society. But it’s also true that society — and social power, who wields it and to what ends — shapes how we use the smartphone.

Right now, that power is squarely in the hands of a coalition of Silicon Valley giants and major governments, and loaned out to other employers. The smartphone, in its current use pattern, empowers the powerful more than it does the powerless (though it does help the latter in a number of instances). The smartphone is a powerful tool in their hands to further their goal of instantiating a data-driven hypercapitalist hellscape.

There’s some interesting stuff here on “spirits of capitalism.” I know Aschoff is a big Luc Boltanski reader based on reading her earlier work, and his thesis that neoliberalism ushered in a “new spirit of capitalism” to replace Weber’s crusty Protestant ethic (NOT “Protestant work ethic,” a phrase which drives me up the wall). Aschoff argues we need a new spirit to envision a future where technology works for us. It would have been interesting to have gotten more on that — Marxist and Weberian insights mix in interesting and volatile ways, people on both sides (well, in my experience, more the Marxist side, but I know more Marxists) often treat the other as verboten — and what it might mean for leftist praxis. But I also understand Nicole wanted to write an approachable, short book.

For all the ways smartphones keep us hooked to the bosses and their values, disconnecting from our phones, while it may be useful (even necessary) for some, isn’t really a good option if we are going to redistribute power downwards. Instead, we need organization- and there’s an extent to which smartphones can help with that. Realistic perspectives on technology, not mythology, needs to guide our organizing understanding if we’re going to seize power and if we’re going to use it sensibly when we’ve got it. We can’t ignore it on the idea it’s not “real politics,” and we certainly can’t buy utopian promises of it eliminating politics. When the power is in our hands, we can use (and, if needs be, limit the excesses of) our technologies for the common good. ****’

Review – Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society”

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