The ghosts of infrastructures past

Somewhere along Brindcliff Edge Road in Sheffield, you can still see this wonderful infrastructural relic:

That’s a sewer-gas destructor lamp, of which there are maybe a dozen or so remaining in the city, though only a very few of them are a) undamaged, and b) still lit. Destructor lamps took a tricky infrastructural problem (the way in which noxious gases would accumulate in sewer sections near the top of hills) and solved it in a way that had a useful function (mixing said sewer gas with town-gas and burning it to light a street). I have a particular soft spot for this one because of the way it has been incorporated into the wall.

Rhyme vs. Reason

The why of my wanting you differs each time.
(The wanting, returning, is always the same.)
So strangle my reason and drown it in rhyme:
to query the telos of love is a crime.
(And I know there’s only one crook in the frame.)

The why of my wanting you differs each time;
this quiddity mocks me. Intense and sublime,
the language of love is revealed as a game
that strangles my reason and drowns it in rhyme —
so reason must die, then be buried in lime
and rise like a phoenix on feathers of flame.

The why of my wanting you differs each time;
in doing so, wanting refuses regime,
revealing the heart as a phoenix to tame.
I’ll strangle my reason and drown it in rhyme,
have faith in love’s meter and tempo, and chime
the bell in my chest at the sound of your name.

The why of my wanting you differs each time.
You tangle my reason; I crown you with rhyme.

The Metamedium

From a review at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“Zielinski argues that what he calls “media” (a dense composite notion encompassing both discourse and its material supports) has vanished from the horizon because it is now ubiquitous.”

Obviously I need to read the whole book to make this claim more solidly, but nonetheless: this chimes with a chunk of my own infrastructural theory, where I claim that what we think of as “media” – which are themselves highly complex and increasingly emergent socio-technical systems – flow over and through a medium-of-media, a metamedium. That metamedium is the tangle of infrastructural socio-technical systems to which I refer as “the metasystem”, which has also been pulling a very effective disappearing trick over the last century or so.

Indeed, these two systems are effectively the public and private faces of a single coin. The metasystem is the screen upon which the Spectacle is projected; it is the conceptual veil which allows the enduring Western fiction of the social/natural dichotomy to persist, the discursive prestidigitation which distracts us from the (spatially) distant consequences of our technologically mediated consumption.

Imaginable alternatives

Tobias Revell takes the mic at AmateurCities to give a designer’s take on critical futures and the SmartCity!* shibboleth:

“Too often we are confronted with visions and stories of the future that say: ‘In the future everyone will live this way or that way. In the future everyone will have these things. In the future everyone will want that thing.’ This can often lead to acceptance of the idea that the future has been predetermined by powers greater than us. We need to imagine instead, what futures might bring. There are dozens of other small, niggling but significant alternatives that can challenge the theoretical basis for how the future might open up to a plethora of possible imaginable alternatives. Take for instance; domestic solar power, crypto currencies, end-to-end encryption or personal manufacturing. They are but a few that have the potential to either become incredibly empowering or to be sucked into our current continuous monument.”

In that essay linked above, Tobias is wrestling with a problem that I’ve been facing in two different settings, namely science fiction criticism and futures studies. I’m working on one paper for Futures and another for Foundation which are (at the nuts’n’bolts level) an attempt to explain and analyse the structural rhetorics of narrative as used to portray the future; what it’s really about is the telos of telling stories about the future — the purposes for which we create narratives of futurity, and the purposes for which those narratives end up being used. That distinction is important: the whole point of the argument is that even the most thoughtfully structured narrative will be read, by some audiences, in a manner orthogonal or outright opposed to that intended by its creator.

What interests me most about speculative design and critical futures are what happens when they are misparsed, or shorn of their original context. Dunne & Raby make the point that speculative designs usually require some sort of framing (e.g. by exhibition notes or labels) in order not to be “misread” as either a real product proposal or a purely artistic piece. I can remember plenty of times I cheerily blogged at Futurismic about some design-lab smartphone prototype as if it were a viable product, if not an actual production model, and I was far from alone in doing so; once those images were cut free from their original press releases or webpages, they became free-floating signifiers, which we would gamely situate into our (admittedly already hyperreal) cultural context. And therein lies the problem, in that it is human instinct to incorporate new narrative elements into  our own ontological metanarratives: to make new things fit into the world as we already understand it. In times of great change and upheaval such as these, this is a constant process of upgrade and change, like a *nix server automatically applying patches without ever needing to do a physical reboot.

That ontological integration effect is the thing that effective science fiction operates upon, I think — and, by extension, the thing that critical futures and speculative design operate upon; this is maybe what Suvin was on about with his “cognitive estrangement” riff – the jarring (thrilling? horrifying?) realisation that there is an ontological discontinuity between the world of the reader and the world of the reading. (Please note that Other Less Exclusive or Monolithic Theories of SF are Available; Suvin’s thing is just one piece of the puzzle.) Once the discontinuity is realised, it becomes a feature of the world of the reading, and thereby performs a sort of commentary or gloss on the reader’s world by proxy; this commentary is what we’re gesturing at when we try to describe what a science fiction novel or movie is “about”, at a level beyond a simple recounting of the main plot points.

This is also the mechanism by which the “flatpack futures” of glossy tech ads — and, in fact, almost all ads — work; in this case, the discontinuity created is the absence of the featured product or device in the viewer’s reality, a vacuum which is filled by a desire which assumes that possession of the diegetic prototype depicted in the foreground (e.g. a macbook as thin as a fag-paper) will necessarily reproduce the implicit background features of the world of the text (a spacious, airy and seemingly pristine open-plan Californian home in summer, populated by healthy happy white people with time to consume conspicuously) in the world of the viewer. Advertising is notoriously ineffective in terms of shifting specific products, but far less thought is expended on the cumulative psychosocial effects of swimming in an amnion of unattainable futures, as we all do; perhaps the contemporary struggle to even imagine utopia, as identified by Fredrick Jameson, is correlated with the sheer ubiquity of the utopian narratives of futurity with which we are bombarded perpetually, whether as ads, political manifestos, economic forecasts or whatever else.

So you see the problem, I hope: designers, critical designers, fiction writers, movie makers, copywriters and ad-makers, urbanists, architects and economists, futurists and critical futurists and manner of related professions all use exactly the same set of tools, but for very different ends. What I’m interested in is how the specific deployments of those tools, and the precise strokes or techniques with which they are applied, create desire and/or apprehension in the reader, regardless of intention. Answering this question will not only make it easier to choose the right tools to increase the likelihood of the desired reading, but also to identify exploitative narrative strategies; it’s the first analytical step toward an ethics of futurism, if you like.

[ * Readers in the academy will be aware that “Smart” (whether referring to cities, or seemingly anything else) is approaching the status of Infuriatingly Ubiquitous Funding-Call Buzzword, to the point that even the people promoting the funding streams in question end up making self-deprecating jokes about its inclusion. As frustrating as this is in the short term, it suggests that its lifespan may nearing an end; however, it further suggests that Smart has every potential of becoming the new Sustainable — a knee-jerk password, a hollowed sign with everything (and hence nothing) to signify. Selah. ]

An attenuating peninsula of possibility

Via @dronemodule, a Kim Stanley Robinson joint on utopia as transgenerational revolutionary project, in which he gets more than a little Harawayian:

“… the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.”

KSR’s position on most things existential tends to align with my own, at least when I’m in a bright and optimistic phase. If he’s the good angel a-whisper on my shoulder, telling me I’m not wasting my time, I guess @bruces is as good a figure as any for the other one who mutters “well, sure, those goals are pretty admirable and all, but look at where the rubber hits the road — ain’t no utopian scientific process leaving those skid-marks, son”. Between those two voices, I guess have a pretty solid explanation for my insomnia and existential malaise…

As mentioned in the linked piece, utopia and history are hard concepts, if not outright contradictory concepts, to consider simultaneously… but if one was to achieve such an act of high-wire cognitive dissonance in a communicable way, then literature — the novel, or something like it — would surely be the space in which one was most likely to do it. (Pretty sure cinema lacks the sophisticated handling of interiority required for the task; that medium may stimulate emotional response well, but cannot stage the nuanced dramatic conflict that powers any form of politics beyond Scarcity Wars 101.)

Question is, would anyone read it? And if they did, would it make a difference? Probably not… but maybe the same tools might be applied elsewhere, to greater effect.

Worth a try while I’m waiting to die, I reckon.

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