The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas, by Roberto Simanowski

Our personal environment faces profound changes as a consequence of technology, says John Gilbey

February 7, 2019
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‘Smartphone zombies’: the author wants readers to see that ‘the changes facing our personal environment are profound’

As “smart” devices seek to take over ever more aspects of our lives, books discussing the impact of new technologies on society have become almost commonplace. Many are worthwhile reads; some offer us technical clarity; others provide a commentary on our relationship with the digital world and its purveyors. This slender volume by Roberto Simanowski is all of these things, and succeeds in providing a novel perspective on the very real challenges facing us as we wander into an increasingly intimate relationship with massively connected technology.

Assembled as a series of complementary sections, which could largely stand alone yet build into a cohesive whole, the book offers a structured response to the pitfalls and unanticipated consequences of the digital world – often drawing parallels between the predictions of science fiction and the approaching impacts of technology on everyday life. With the chapter titles including “Bullshit and fast food”, “Smartphone zombies” and “Marshmallow culture”, it is clear that the author has strong views regarding the increasingly invasive changes to all our lives.

The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas has been developed and honed in a world where Donald Trump is president of the United States of America, where digital social engineering by nation states is openly suspected of influencing elections, and where humanity seems to be slouching towards a new world order based on a lack of fully informed consent.

In his analysis of our current – and potential future – position, Simanowski makes use of some cogent examples from genres such as science fiction, thrillers and political drama. He includes some motifs borrowed from “traditional” SF sources and adapted – or, perhaps, subverted – to shock his audience out of a warm sense of familiarity. The changes facing our personal environment are profound, and the author is happy to use any and every technique to bring this home to us. The “death algorithm” of the title is central to the message of the book. Consider the software of an autonomous vehicle: faced with an inevitable accident involving the loss of human life, what code of ethics should the system be required to use in deciding whose life has the greatest value? Should driver or passenger, old or young, innocent or guilty, skilled or unskilled, be allowed to live? In examining morality, it is worth pondering whether you’d buy a car that you knew was programmed to grant an unknown pedestrian a better chance of remaining alive than your own family.

The language in this excellent translation is aggressive and untamed, with few concessions to the finer feelings of those being targeted. Partly because of this, and the distinctly European flavour of the style, reading this book feels like a personal journey with the author – as though you were seated together on a sleepless overnight train where your chance companion had the scope to explain the basis of his thinking on the modern world.

As a science fiction writer, digital dystopias are familiar territory to me – and there was something about the use of language in this book, simple and unabashed, that struck a chord of recognition. It took a while to realise that the text felt like the work of Kurt Vonnegut – who, as dystopian authors go, was one of the finest and most disturbing. I can’t think of a higher accolade.

John Gilbey teaches in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University


The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas
By Roberto Simanowski; translated by Jefferson Chase
MIT Press, 208pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780262536370
Published 8 January 2019

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