“Deviant and non-average practices” — Fam, Lahiri-Dutt & Sofoulis (2015), Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices

Fam, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Sofoulis, Z. (2015). Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(3), 639-651. [link]

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(A timely rediscovery that echoes with Carson’s digs at Accelerationism… )

This is the introductory editorial piece from a special issue devoted to qualitative demand-side approaches to water consumption research; while the focus is on water, much of what’s being argued here is just as applicable to other infrastructurally-mediated consumptive practices—which is to say, pretty much all of them. The special issue “captures and emphasises the importance of local information and on-the-ground interactions, as well as discursive processes and embodied knowledge, in researching everyday water practices in the sites of households and similar locales.” (p642; strongly reminiscent of Haraway’s situated knowledges)

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The paper begins with a critique of the ‘scaling-up’ dogma as an indicative feature of technocratic approaches which:

“… [treat] social change as an engineering problem, where individuals within the society are provided expert opinions aimed at changing their attitudes to produce a more economically rationalist and efficient set of water consumption behaviours. […] The preoccupation with scaling up tends to go with a preference for psychodemographic approaches […] that aim to produce behavioural modifications in populations of consumers, such as through mass media campaigns pitched to an imagined ‘average’ consumer.” (p640)

(This is our old friend the knowledge deficit model, shown decades ago in medical research to have no empirical or theoretical basis, but which is still central to a huge swathe of interventions into consumption. See also the literature on “imagined publics”, which should not be confused with “imagined communities”; the latter imagines itself, while the former is imagined by communication professionals.)

“The foremost implication [of scaling down] is scalar, or geographical: the household is not a mere building block of some larger social unit, nor a convenient site for accessing individuals and their psychologies, but is an entity worth studying in its own right […] a household-scale approach reveals that households are internally differentiated and include specialist domains of practice, often linked to the gender, ages and cultural backgrounds of its members, rather than unique psychologies and behavioural choices.” (p642; also “lived sociotechnical realities”, the household as a particular configuration of infrastructural affordances in relation with the values and meanings held by household members)

The real value of going beyond the bell-curve: “the deviant and non-average practices revealed in smaller-scale qualitative studies indicate what scope there is for experimentation and innovation” (p642); this is why most “innovations” research is tautologous  hindsight, because it can’t recognise a successful change until long after it’s actually proven itself and become average.

That said, household-level studies don’t produce an infinity of social variation; because of contextual commonalities across a geographical area (e.g. divisions of labour, domestic and paid, within the household; infrastructural affordances), “a handful of main types may be distinguished” in a regionally-bounded study. (p643)

There follows a very brief archaeology of the role of cultural theory in addressing consumption cultures and practices: Bordieu (channeling Spinoza); Giddens’s “structuration” (discursive vs. practical conciousnesses); theories of practice, which “focus on the things that people do and view patterns of consumption as embedded in the social context in which they are done”. (p644)

“A focus on practice does not abolish concern with individual motivation, but reduces individual psychology to just one of many social, technological and habitual factors that shape a practice and that are enacted in it.” (p645, emphasis added)

A scaled-down approach … reveals that not all end-users are created equal.” (p648)

“Social research is particularly valuable at the early stages of adapting to new technologies, when learning is still taking place, practice has not yet been automated into a routine, and technologies have not yet retreated into the background of awareness.” (p648)

Closes with an observation that “unreactive” metadata collection strategies beloved by positivist research paradigms (e.g. smart metering for utilities) explicitly devalue the knowledges of their (often unknowing and unconsulted) subjects; by contrast, participatory methods allow people to articulate what is meaningful to themselves, for themselves; this reinstates both the possibility of, and agency for, bottom-up change.

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Nothing hugely new in this one, at least for me—I’ve known Zoe Sofoulis for a good few years, and this is very much a standard (if still mostly ignored) set of arguments in favour of the sort of practice-theory-rooted research she (and others) favour. But there’s some good frames and quotes in there, making it a useful citation for arguments against the status quo of consumption research and/or policy intervention.

There is no meaningfully superhuman way to install a ceiling fan

In the history of both technology and religion, you find a tension between two competing priorities that lead to two different patterns of problem selection: establishing the technology versus establishing a narrative about the technology. In proselytizing, you have to manage the tension between converting people and helping them with their daily problems. In establishing a religion in places of power, you have to manage a tension between helping the rulers govern, versus getting them to declare your religion as the state religion.

You could say Boundary AI problems are church-building problems. Signaling-and-prayer-offering institutions around which the political power of a narrative can accrete. Even after accounting for Moravec’s paradox (easy for humans is hard for machines/hard for humans is easy for machines), we still tend to pick Boundary AI problems that focus on the theatrical comparison, such as skill at car-driving.

In technology, the conflict between AC and DC witnessed many such PR battles. More recently VHS versus Betamax, Mac versus PC, and Android versus iOS are recognized as essentially religious in part because they are about competing narratives about technologies rather than about the technologies themselves. To claim the “soul” of a technological narrative is to win the market for it. Souls have great brand equity.

A proper brain-hoser of a longread from the latest episode of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter*; religion, sociotechnical change, artificial intelligence, societal alienation, ceiling fans. So much to chew on it took me an hour to pick a pull-quote; it is completely typical for Rao to just wander about like this between big-concept topics and find connections and comparisons, which is why I started reading him a long, long time ago.

* It appears you can’t see the latest episode in the archives, presumably until it is no longer the latest episode, because [newsletters]. Drop me a line if you want me to forward the email version on… or just trust me when I say that if you’re intrigued by the pull-quote, you should just subscribe anyway. Not like it’ll cost you anything, beyond a bit of cognitive bandwidth.

Fully-automated luxury scale-tipping

… like others I have encountered who share their unconscious technological assumptions, [Srnicek and Williams] throw the phrase [“scaling up”] around without making it at all clear what they mean by it. For example, in an argument with an apologist for industrial agriculture I pointed to the superior productivity of soil-intensive horticulture in terms of output per acre (e.g. Jeavons’s raised bed techniques that can feed one person on one-tenth of an acre); their response was “Yes, but how will you scale it up?” I kept pressing them to explain what that meant: “Why does it need to ‘scale up’ at all? If one person can feed themselves with a tenth of an acre, or a village can feed itself with fifty acres, why does any single operation need to be larger?” I get the impression some advocates of “scaling up” are unable to grasp the possibility of 300 million people brushing their teeth in an uncoordinated effort using their own toothbrushes, unless it is somehow “scaled up” to everybody brushing at one time with a single 10,000 ton toothbrush—coordinated by a central body that formulates tooth-brushing guidelines. If an individual action is already taking place at the optimal scale, the best way to “scale up” is probably to proliferate horizontally.

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Williams and Srnicek are drinking the neoliberal capitalist Kool-Aid in taking at face value the claims of efficiency for global supply and distribution chains. They really do not reflect superior efficiency at all, but rather the irrationalities resulting from perverse incentives under capitalism. […] In short, Srnicek and Williams are at least as guilty as any they criticize of failing to adapt their strategy to changed circumstances; in this case they fail to acknowledge the radical technological advances in cheapening, ephemeralization and reduced scale of production machinery, and to take advantage of their promise for creating a counter-economy outside the existing capitalist economy and leaving the latter to starve for lack of labor-power or demand, instead of taking it over.

From a lengthy and enjoyably punchy review by Kevin Carson of S & W’s  Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

The problem of being anyone at all

Those who disparage authors for practicing auto-fiction tend to believe character is a steady state that can be adequately represented on the page and thus see the autobiographical as an easy option, a copout. What they want instead is a determined effort of the unbridled imagination representing many different characters, all stable and well-defined, interacting with one another. Both the stability and the creativity are reassuring, even when the drama may be tragic. Those who recognize the problem of being anyone at all, the difficulty of keeping the performance on the road from one moment to the next, will have priorities of a different kind.

Tim Parks at the NYRoB.

“A model of how to be and how to behave”: Szeman (2015), Entrepreneurship as the New Common Sense

Szeman, I. (2015). Entrepreneurship as the new common sense. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(3), 471-490. [link]

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Via a Wired article on the start-up Boomtrain, Szeman introduces the increasingly ubiquitous entrepreneurial story, “narratives that make it seem as if financial and social success is, in the main, inevitable in the new world of the devices and gadgets that increasingly mediate our lives” (p472); despite the less than rosy story of Boomtrain in the article, this “cautionary tale does little to deflate the dream of entrepreneurial success currently circulating in the world [… it’s] an exception to a now general and widely-accepted rule: the entrepreneur has become a model of how to be and how to behave, and not only in the world of business. Entrepreneurship has come to permeate our social imaginaries in a way that has quickly transformed its claims and demands on us from fantasy into reality.” (ibid)

Szeman next discusses the original definition of the entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk” (see Cantillon, 2010) in an otherwise orderly and boring economic system dominated by states and large collectivist corporations; he cites Willard Whyte’s Organisation Man (a regular touchstone of Keller Easterling’s, IIRC) as a template for the contemporary form of corporate power, if not its content (hints of D&G’s nomadology here) in order to observe that, on one level, not much seems to have changed. What has changed is the status of the entrepreneur: once a minor character in the capitalist pantheon, this archetype is now exemplary:

“Entrepreneurship is a sticky idea around which contradictory and multiple constellations of other ideas coalesce; like many instances of common sense [to be clear, Szeman is implicitly deploying the Gramscian formulation of ‘common sense’ throughout this paper], this one sutures together certain (irresolvable) contradictions and challenges, making the existing situation seem natural, to-be-expected, and thus not only bearable but (in this case) anticipated and exciting […] the entrepreneur is the neoliberal subject par excellence — the perfect figure for a world in which the market has replaced society, and one whose idealization and legitimation in turn affirms the necessity and veracity of this epochal transition.” – p474

As a result, “political, economic, aesthetic and educational structures have been and are still being reshaped” around the entrepreneurial archetype (ibid); governments are very much complicit in this shift, with a particular focus on youth through the HE system — and from my own current standpoint within a Russell Group university in the UK, this is painfully hard to refute. Entrepreneurial course-products are “explicitly designed to create new forms and modes of subjectivity […] The language of risk and uncertainty that has always accompanied entrepreneurial activity has become generalised […] risk is a universal condition of existence.” (p475, my bold emphasis)

This risk has two dimensions:

  1. “the disappearance of sites and spaces for accumulation” (ibid): state and capital are both desperate to innovate their processes; “increasingly limited possibilities of growth” make entrepreneurs the ideal subjects, as they put the most effort into finding new possibilities for the lowest capital outlay;
  2. precarity (cf. Butler): assurances and insurances slowly and socially built up against corporeal vulnerability have been eroded and/or dismantled since the 1980s (if not before).

“… precarity has in fact become a universalised condition of contemporary existence due to the practices of the neoliberal state and global finance. Entrepreneurial subjects arise in response to this universal precarity: they are actors needed by states and capital alike to invent new forms and spaces of accumulation, but they also constitute a new form of subjectivity appropriate to the uncertainties that attend contemporary capitalism.” (p476)

“In a perverse way, the new programs of entrepreneurship appear to meet a demand that preexisted them, and not vice versa” (p477); the situation has “produced opportunities [for the entrepreneurial subject] hitherto unavailable.” (ibid) Success or failure is purely a matter of individual ability and/or desire; everyone is assumed to start from the same equal footing; structural inequalities effectively elided (or reframed as the whining of losers / the politics of envy?). There is a confusion of formal freedoms with actual freedoms, a contradictory assumption that the freedoms within capitalism might somehow transcend capitalism’s inherent limits. Examples include libertarian seasteading, Thiel’s drop-out-of-college fellowship fund, and ‘sharing economy’ evangelism (note that this piece was likely written in 2014, before the sharing economy backlash was briefly mainstreamed), all of which “imagine a better, more fulfilling world peopled by autopoetic microentrepreneurs [… These technoutopian desires] constitute attempts to rethink process without ever questioning the system in which those processes operate; and rather than imagining different futures, they remain trapped in a perpetual present, a cycle of unending creative destruction in which nothing fundamental can ever change.” (p478, author’s italics, my bold emphasis)

Linguistic and social shifts reframe poor people as potential entrepreneurs whose energies lie dormant in the absence of the appropriate programs to enable their flourishing (see Federici, “ideologies of microentrepreneurship”); these shifts in turn enable and/or legitimise:

  1. the rollback or elimination of social safety-nets;
  2. a change in self-perception among the poor, in which they internalise the ‘entrepreneur or nothing narrative’ wholesale; “poverty can now only be a personal failing” (p479, see Karim, “a political economy of shame”).

This subjectivity is perhaps even more ubiquitous in the Global South, as manifest in the “hawkers, importers, market merchants, restaurateurs, scavengers, mechanics [and others] whose work takes place off the books all over the world.” (p480)

“One last point needs to be made: not only are we all expected to be entrepreneurs today, we are all expected to like it; from the perspective of entrepreneurial common sense, there are no unhappy entrepreneurs.” — p480, author’s italics

This is fine.

“… as the utopian situation for the entrepreneur remains always the present, cruel optimism turns virtue into vice […] even as entrepreneurs insist on the significance of their contributions to shaping the future, they occupy an ahistorical landscape in which time stands still.” — p 481, author’s italics, my bold emphasis

Referring to Dardot & Laval, the imperative of maximum performance in all spheres of life, as exemplified by professional sports, has become mandatory for all (p482); the entrepreneurial subject requires little or no monitoring or management system (other than the underlying precarity of the context in which they are operating — cf this super-bleak bit from Charlie Stross); engenders a sort of pathological hyperproductivity and a dissolution of the  already-porous borders between ‘work’ and ‘life’; the self as a perpetual metaproject. The unironic appropriation of Beckett’s “fail better” riff from Worstward Ho as the de facto motto of entrepreneurial culture (I have done this myself); Freud’s repetition compulsion. “The repetition of failure becomes a badge of pride, a marker of living well, of engaging in properly ethical behaviour, and of having achieved the good life.” (p483)

“The status of entrepreneurship as a new common sense of subjectivity and economic practice […] would suggest that it constitutes an ideal subjectivity for neoliberal forms of governmentality, one that it has been searching for all along. […] It is a mechanism of selfhood and subject formation that begins from the premise that there is no one to count on, no one who can do anything for you other than you yourself.” HOWEVER: “Entrepreneurship may be simultaneously the height of neoliberal subject formation and its limit — a peak on the other side of which lie subjects with no fidelity to governments or states.” — p484, author’s italics

I’m not sure I buy Szeman’s final ray of hope, here (he goes on to suggest that this notion of Peak Neoliberal Subject Formation represents a “kernel of political possibility”), but that’s because I really want to buy it, and it seems far too easy a way out of something that seems otherwise almost entirely inescapable. As noted above, this was likely written at least four years ago; that sure as shit wasn’t a peak year for the dynamics of entrepreneurial subject formation, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. Overall, this is one of those valuable papers which serves to provide a solid suite of references and arguments for an intuition that I’ve harboured since the early Nineties: that the huckster story has become a hero’s story.

(Cf. Only Fools & Horses, which — not to deny its values as comedy and popular entertainment, lest I be lynched and/or have my passport rescinded — would seem to stand as an early document in the subject formation that Szeman is talking about here: Del-boy is a huckster and a serial failure, and that’s exactly why we’re encouraged to, and ultimately do, identify with him.)

Pretty sure there’s some sort of overlap with the wizards of innovation trope, too — though that story tends to have a different generic feel, perhaps because told from a different POV and for a more select (and, indeed, generic) audience.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …