All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

Gig alert: “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”, Sheffield Hallam, 1 March 2018

Attention, urbanists and infrastructure-heads who are geographically proximate to Sheffield, UK (or who just really like travelling a long way for seminars): Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett is chairing a panel discussion on 1st March 2018 at Sheffield Hallam University under the title “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to book via Eventbrite. Here’s the promo blurb:

Sewers, cables, roads and myriad other infrastructural networks are the enabling frameworks of modern life, and yet we so rarely notice them. This free, open-to-all, evening event will present a panel of four researchers who are each exploring urban infrastructure with the aim of making it better known. The presenters will each give an account of their practical and/or conceptual explorations and in doing so also offer up thoughts on how their work seeks to render infrastructure’s existence and operation better known. They will also reveal why this unmasking is of concern to them.

This event is jointly organised by the SHU Space & Place Group, a network of academics keen to sustain interdisciplinary conversations about the researching of places and spaces, and C3Ri, SHU’s Cultural, Communicaton and Computing Research Centre.

Chair

  • Dr Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place and Law, Department of the Natural and Built Environment, SHU.

Presenters

  • Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, author and Teaching Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London.

In his recently published book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (IB Taurus, 2017), Paul explores Manchester’s Irk Culvert as a way of excavating lesser known features of that city’s urban history. Paul will present an account of that unmasking and also discuss the way in which he uses urban exploration as a research methodology.

  • Dr Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, C3Ri, SHU

Becky will discuss her participation in the ‘Watershed Plus’ Dynamic Environment lab (http://www.watershedplus.com/) which saw five artists following the City of Calgary’s water supply from its glacial source through rivers, treatment plants, maintenance yards, pipes, meters and households. Her ongoing project, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’ uses ‘dirty’ pop music to travel through the necessarily inaccessible, hygienic industrial, economic and romantic water infrastructure. The project follows the movement, actions and technologies of Calgary’s leak locators, exploring the role of public art in relationship to the water infrastructure as a material negotiation of publicness.

  • Dr Chris Bailey, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, SHU

Chris will juxtapose examples from his doctoral study of children’s virtual-world-creation within a Minecraft club with experiences of physical investigation of urban spaces. Within the after-school club children made worlds, and in doing so made assumptions about the layout and provisioning of built forms and of their infrastructural interconnections. Here children, in their play, tested out and reinforced adult assumptions about what is foregrounded in the experience of the built environment and what falls conventionally to be unseen or unexplored.

  • Paul Graham Raven, PhD candidate at Sheffield Water Centre, University of Sheffield

Paul is a science fiction writer, critic and essayist who recently completed his doctoral studies in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also affiliated to the Institute for Atemporal Studies. Paul’s research is rooted in a novel relational model of sociotechnical change, and is aimed at developing and deploying narrative prototyping methodologies for the critical assessment of speculative future infrastructures. In his contribution to this event Paul will explore the illegibility of the hidden city by theorising the metasystemic self-effacement of infrastructure: asking, in other words, how the hidden city came to hide itself.

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It’s quite the honour to be invited, as my interaction with the good Doctor Bennett to date has largely consisted of me asking him a few rambling questions after he spoke at seminars; they must have been interesting questions, I guess? I’ve something of a quibble with the use of the word invisible — infrastructure isn’t invisible so much as it’s illegible, or so my own research would have it — but I suspect it’s exactly those sorts of theoretical semantics we’re going to get into on the day, so I’mma keep my powder dry for now. If you’ve got opinions about cities, infrastructure and urban exploration, and you’re in the area, you should come along.

(Postscript: the whole not-yet-being-an-actual-Doctor thing becomes much more painful when you see yourself on a roster like that. I guess I should be proud I get asked to speak with researchers far more experienced than myself — and I really am! — but it still kinda sucks to be the one person who has yet to officially pass the bar.)

That was the year that was

I still vaguely recall my mother’s 40th birthday back in 1987; that was the golden era of the catchphrase “life begins at 40!”, and I heard it repeated many times that year in many tonal variations, from sincere statement of aspiration to bitter statement of crushed hope.

I turned forty this year. And I guess a new life has indeed begun — though an old life had to end first, and that transition nearly destroyed me, quite literally. I’ve endured bouts of deep depression since I was a teenager, but the trough of despond I fell into last winter was deeper and darker than any of them. Some of the triggers were contextual — I frankly think that if this year hasn’t been at least moderately miserable, then you really haven’t been paying attention — but they were amplified by the stress of my final year of my PhD, and by my dwindling financial resources. I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but I had genuinely lost sight of the point of being alive, of taking care of myself. I didn’t want to die, but I felt like I wanted to sleep — not just to sleep late but sleep for years, to sleep like the princess in a fairytale, deep in a thicket of thorns, far away from everyone and everything.

It was bad enough that I actually went and got some professional help. I’m not going to belabour this point, but still: if you find yourself in an emotional pit that you can’t climb out of, try to let yourself seek out some help. It’s not easy, I know: one of the strongest delusions of depression is the one that tells you that you don’t deserve any help (because you’re just being weak and useless, and should just pull your own shit together and get your adult on), that the help probably won’t help anyway, that you’ll just be wasting someone’s precious time when they could be helping someone who really deserved and needed it. (Even the slightest awareness of the massive strain on underfunded mental health services can become an excuse for not accessing such; it certainly was for me.)

So, look — I’m not the boss of anyone, and my own track record on this stuff is not great, so I’m not gonna stand too long on this soapbox, here. But if you ever find yourself feeling like that, consider trying to get some help, and try to see it through to the end. With hindsight, the counselling I had back in the summer was incredibly valuable, but it was only over the last couple of sessions that the breakthrough was made. Prior to that, it felt to me like a waste of my time and my counsellor’s time. Seen from the vantage point of six months distance, however, it was anything but a waste. I don’t know that it saved my life, but I’m totally sure it saved what passes for my sanity.

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I defended my PhD thesis on 30th November 2017. The result was Major Corrections / No Reexamination (so, I have to submit an amended thesis, but I don’t have to defend it in another viva), but the majorness of the corrections is less about there being a lot of corrections to do, and more about how much time it’ll take me to get them done, given I’m also working full-time on a short contract with the Twenty65 project… and, of course, trying to apply for any suitable postdoc positions that I hear about, and trying to think about potential project pitches for fellowships, and and and.

So frankly I’m just as busy as I was six months ago, if not much more so… but it turns out that getting paid makes being busy a lot more bearable.

Major Corrections has a hint of stigma about it — and not just because it implies you didn’t do a very good job. What I’ve found enduringly difficult to deal with is the utter lack of any sense of closure: while you’re doing your PhD, the viva is very much framed as a transformative and transitional day in your life, the culmination of your epic journey… but for me it feels more like the doorway into a vestibule containing further hoops through which I am expected to jump.

I’m not being all tiny violin about it, to be clear; I know how much of a privilege it is to even get the chance to take a PhD, and I’m certainly not implying I’ve been unfairly punished by the process. But nonetheless, it’s frustrating to be told “OK, we think this is all very good, but we’d just like a bit more of it, please”. I want to get on with my life, get on with finding a job, reestablish my non-academic writing practice… but until I deliver the coup de grace, that’ll all have to take a back seat.

Selah — it is what it is, and the worst of it is over. Onwards.

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So another new year beckons, replete with tasks and possibilities… which is why I decided to have a sensible, quiet end-of-the-year lurking alone in my house, getting early nights and eating well, making lists and plans and strategies so as to able to thunder into 2018 with all cylinders firing and all guns blazing.

And so much for that — 2018’s first gift for me was some sort of viral lurgy, with the result that I spent most of yesterday shivering with a mild fever, and most of last night trying to sleep through mild but remarkably persistent hallucinations (many of which, presumably due to my reading his autobiography recently, featured Neil Young trying to explain how to pick the exact right chord for the bridge of a song; I say trying to explain, because today I find myself no wiser on such matters, despite his efforts). As such, I’m not exactly in the best headspace to be ploughing my way through an assortment of cover letters and application forms and abstracts…

… but hey, ain’t no one else gonna do ’em for me, right? So here’s to starting 2018 in as stubborn, hard-nosed and proactive a mood as is possible.

(Right after I’ve been to the corner shop to stock up on tissues and Beechams, anyway.)

The solutionism of the Hope Police

Of course, if you really need to blame someone, look no further than those naysayers over in the corner; they’re the ones who didn’t Dream Big enough, after all. They’re the ones who failed to Inspire the rest of us. Don’t blame us when the boulder squashes you flat; blame them, for “making us all fear technology”. Blame them, for failing to “show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling”.

In fact, why wait until the boulder actually hits?

Blame them now, and avoid the rush.

Peter Watts doing what he does best; worth reading in full.

Unpacking the suitcase words

Half a dozen different people sent me this article for slightly different reasons; one has come to dread the listicle format, but this example is excellent, with every point well worth passing on. My talk in Munich last week was an extensive riff on Clarke’s Third Law, so I’ll not reprise that now; instead, I’ll highlight this bit:

Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

[…]

Suitcase words mislead people about how well machines are doing at tasks that people can do. That is partly because AI researchers—and, worse, their institutional press offices—are eager to claim progress in an instance of a suitcase concept. The important phrase here is “an instance.” That detail soon gets lost. Headlines trumpet the suitcase word, and warp the general understanding of where AI is and how close it is to accomplishing more.

I hadn’t heard Minsky’s coining before, but I sure as hell know suitcase words when I see them; I tend to call them “hollow signifiers”, myself, but suitcase words is a far better formulation.

I’m less sanguine than Brooks regarding the intentionality of suitcase words, however; I have long been of the opinion, and am increasingly so, that the energetic trumpeting of under-paid, under-trained and under pressure journalists that results in this semiotic inflation is not seen as a bug by the “artificial intelligence” industry, but is in fact seen as (and quite possibly nurtured as) a feature to be relentlessly exploited. This would be why Elon Musk takes every opportunity to position “artificial intelligence” as a potential threat, even as his own companies are sinking billions into R&D programs; so long as people are talking about a suitcase word, whether positively or negatively, said suitcase word becomes a lever for attention, and thus for funding. Sell it as an angel, sell it as a devil… don’t matter how you sell it, so long as you’re selling, right?