Books

Ashley Hay (ed.)
Griffith Review 64: The New Disruptors

A disruptive student is a teacher’s nightmare. A disruption in normal programming can signal very bad news. But the meaning of the word “disruption”, with its traditionally negative connotations, has itself been disrupted. According to the neoliberal prophets of Silicon Valley, disruption is a good thing; it is the future itself. Before his own leadership was so rudely disrupted, Malcolm Turnbull promised a good whack of it for Australia – to the bemusement of many.

For those of us still scratching our heads over the precise meaning of this most irritating and blurrily amoebic of tech buzzwords, the latest edition of Griffith Review has come ably to the rescue. Editor Ashley Hay has put together a collection of 32 informative, thought-provoking and well-crafted contributions, including essays, reportage, poems, short stories, memoirs and photography exploring this theme.

There’s an entertaining account by Mark Pesce of breaking up with Twitter, an elegiac meditation by Kieran Finnane on the landscape of Pine Gap and Australia’s role in America’s “forever war”, an impassioned discussion by Bronwyn Carlson of the many ways Indigenous Australians use social media, and more. Eleanor Limprecht’s short story “Dummy” is a compelling, marvellous little gem, even if I’m not quite sure what it has to do with disruption.

My main quibble is that it took 83 pages to reach Mark Davis’s “Networked Hatred: new technology and the rise of the right”. What he has to say is as illuminating and important as it is alarming. In the process, he gives a cogent definition of disruption and explains how this idea became a “sustaining myth” of our era. By wedding the notion of progress to the destruction of older systems, the new disruptors have “provided cover for downsizing, lay-offs, the theft of intellectual property, the casualisation of labour and normalisation of precarity” as well as “the normalisation of totalitarian levels of surveillance” and “the greatest misappropriation of personal information in human history”. He asks what happens “when the thing being ‘disrupted’ is the fabric of democratic culture itself”.

The radical right of Davis’s focus successfully disrupted the Australian life of engineer, writer, broadcaster and now exile Yassmin Abdel-Magied. In “To the Moon”, she describes how, at a loose end after arriving in London, she became “intoxicated by the promise of a bit of online magic that would – apparently overnight – make me rich”: cryptocurrency. With a wonderfully lucid explanation of both bitcoin and blockchain technology, “To the Moon” is one of several excellent “how things work” accounts in The New Disruptors. Another is Eileen Ormsby’s fascinating essay on how drug dealing moved off the street and onto the internet.

If some of the chapters explain how disruption works, others expose how disruption fails. In “Computer Says No”, Ellen Broad looks at the lack of diversity in the tech industry, focusing on the domain of artificial intelligence. She reveals how men tend to take over women-dominated fields once those “soft” fields are recognised as being important, such as ethical AI. Broad explains the difficulty of speaking up about this in a culture that doesn’t appreciate its own disruption. When white men design the systems, they design systems for white men: unconscious bias in tech design has real-world consequences.

Frances Flanagan’s “Clean Sweep” reports on what happens when neoliberal efficiencies disrupt public services – specifically, the outsourcing of cleaners in Australian public schools. The standard of cleanliness falls and red tape multiplies. Worse, a human connection is lost. Flanagan relates moving stories of how long-term school cleaners, adults who are familiar faces but not “authorities” to the students, have brought shy kids out of their shells and helped to calm the out-of-control ones – the original “disruptors”.

One of the biggest failures of our disrupted world is how big tech has burnt privacy to the ground. Julianne Schultz’s “Move Very Fast and Break Many Things”, which opens the anthology, observes the irony that people in the West profess to be “horrified” by reports of China’s social credit system while blithely turning over vast amounts of their own personal data to Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and other pillars of “surveillance capitalism”.

Among the industries that these companies have disrupted are journalism – now regarded as “discounted goods on the cultural remainder table”, in the words of contributor Christopher Warren – and publishing. In “When Big Tech Met Books”, Phillipa McGuinness gives an overview of the challenges faced by publishing houses and booksellers as Amazon continues to grow. She remains optimistic, expressing her dream “that books themselves will take on more disruptive power by disrupting power”. Tegan Bennett Daylight, whose essay on teaching literature in the digital age follows McGuinness’s contribution, takes a grimmer view. Many of the students to whom she teaches creative writing have barely read any books outside of a few young-adult standards. She used to despair. Now, she says, “I just notice it.”

Death is the ultimate disruptor. Margaret Gibson delves into the ethically sticky business of dealing with digital remains in “First Life, Second Death”. But even humanity isn’t immune from disruption, as Elise Bohan contends in “On Becoming Posthuman”, which begins with this arresting statement: “Your 185-millionth great grandparents were fish. Your descendants will not be human forever.” In one of the most radical, pro-disruption essays in the book, she argues that we urgently need to “co-evolve” with technology if we are to exceed the limitations of our “ape brains” and survive existential threats such as the climate emergency. But the story of disruption so far makes me, for one, quite happy to have skin between myself and the algorithm.

Linda Jaivin

Text, 264pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Ashley Hay (ed.), Griffith Review 64: The New Disruptors".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin