[Book] The Smartness Mandate

“While ‘The Smartness Mandate’ appears to be a book about the Anthropocene era, writes Nick Smith in his book interview, Orit Halpern is prepared to go further by suggesting that smartness could be replacing it.”

“Anthropocene is still positing this idea that there is a nature and then there is a technology; that human beings are outside of nature,” but the term smartness resolves this conflict, she says. Not only does the concept exist in both domains, but ubiquitous computation is one of the best tools we have to combat current ecological crises, while big data and AI are vitally changing how we understand nature. In any case, computer chips are ‘natural’ because “everything follows the laws of physics”.

“What exactly is “smartness,” and how and why has it come to be not only a desirable goal, but something that must be implemented everywhere,” asks co-author Professor Robert Mitchell in a book interview with Elizabeth Thompson.

The Smartness Mandate
By Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell
MIT Press
January 2023, 325 pages

Over the last half century, “smartness”—the drive for ubiquitous computing—has become a mandate: a new mode of managing and governing politics, economics, and the environment.

Smart phones. Smart cars. Smart homes. Smart cities. The imperative to make our world ever smarter in the face of increasingly complex challenges raises several questions: What is this “smartness mandate”? How has it emerged, and what does it say about our evolving way of understanding—and managing—reality? How have we come to see the planet and its denizens first and foremost as data-collecting instruments?

In The Smartness Mandate, Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell radically suggest that “smartness” is not primarily a technology, but rather an epistemology. Through this lens, they offer a critical exploration of the practices, technologies, and subjects that such an understanding relies upon—above all, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The authors approach these not simply as techniques for solving problems of calculations, but rather as modes of managing life (human and other) in terms of neo-Darwinian evolution, distributed intelligences, and “resilience,” all of which have serious implications for society, politics, and the environment.

The smartness mandate constitutes a new form of planetary governance, and Halpern and Mitchell aim to map the logic of this seemingly inexorable and now naturalized demand to compute, illuminate the genealogy of how we arrived here, and point to alternative imaginaries of the possibilities and potentials of smart technologies and infrastructures.

Orit Halpern is Lighthouse Professor and Chair of Digital Cultures and Societal Change at Technische Universität Dresden and the author of Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945.

Robert Mitchell is Chair and Professor of English, as well as Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory, at Duke University. His books include, most recently, Infectious Liberty: Biopolitics between Romanticism and Liberalism.