Category Archives: General

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The Naked Lunch: Christmas and capitalism

Here’s a great opening ‘graph for a seasonal cyberpunk satire:

“I heard my first Christmas music of the year in District 1. It was the 1st of August, 27ºC outside and All I Want For Christmas was drifting out of a market stall dedicated to selling Santa hats.”

Only it’s not from a piece of fiction at all; it’s from the first installment of @iamdanw’s account of his travels across China with the Unknown Fields expedition. Having talked to others who were on the same adventure, the megamarket of Yiwu is likely the least weird part of the story.

Bill Burroughs used the phrase “naked lunch” to describe “[the] frozen moment where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork”. Dan’s essay above, then, is Naked Christmas — where everyone sees what’s on the end of every supply chain.

 

Dancing about architecture

So yesterday I was at the Birmingham School of Architecture, playing guest reviewer for Masters-student group and individual project-work for one of the four school “studios”. Reason I got the invite is that Mike Dring and Rob Annable are apparently both fans of my Infrastructure Fiction talk, which they’ve included in their studio syllabus; the current crop of projects includes the creation of infrastructure fictions as part of the process. This is really fascinating for me, given IF was (deliberately) a pretty formless manifesto; seeing people pick it up and do stuff with it is really cool, especially when they do things with it that I’d never have thought of.

(Lordy, but do they wring a lot of deliverables out of architecture students, though — I though my creative writing Masters came with a heavy list of outputs, but it looks like sheer dilettantism by comparison to what these kids are up to.)

On the subject of infrastructure and narrative, this Rebecca Solnit bit for the NYT [via @debcha] seems pertinent to both the above, and to the times in general. Some quotes:

“To grasp climate change, you have to think in terms of species and their future. To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be, and so you may not notice birds disappearing from the skies, or hotter weather or more extreme storms and forest fires. You need to look past the sparrow and see the whole system that allows — or allowed — the birds to flourish. The swallows, the chinook salmon, desert tortoises, manatees, moose and us. Addressing climate means fixing the way we produce energy. But maybe it also means addressing the problems with the way we produce stories.

[…]

And so we should seek out new kinds of stories — stories that make us more alarmed about our conventional energy sources than the alternatives, that provide context, that show us the future as well as the past, that make us see past the death of a sparrow or a swallow to the systems of survival for whole species and the nature of the planet we leave to the future.”

That’s a very infrastructure-fictional call-to-arms, there — I’ll bet the architecture students I saw yesterday would recognise it as one, at any rate.

Cyborg folklore and the infrastructural trialectic

Folklore and infrastructure intersecting, with a hint of Haraway, in this interview with the gloriously-named internet folklorist Trevor J Blank:

Because technologically-mediated communication is so ubiquitously and integrally rooted into everyday life (for most individuals), the cognitive boundaries between the corporeal and virtual have been blurred. When we send text messages to a friend or family member, we typically think “I’m sending this text” instead of “these glowing dots of phosphorous are being converted into tiny signals and beamed across several cell towers before being decoded and received on a peer’s phone.” The message is perceived as an authentic extension of our communicative selves without much thought over the medium in which it was sent.

And another snip from the second part of the interview:

Fundamentally, we rely on institutions for a number of aspects of everyday life: we look to our government to protect us and keep us moving forward as a society; we expect children to learn something valuable when they go to school; we look for law enforcement to ensure that citizens play by the rules, just to name a few. Folk culture–the informal, unofficial expressive dynamics that constitute everyday life within a group–resides outside of these institutions yet it is inherently aware of and shaped by them. The two unavoidably intermingle in the context of modern American life. For instance, connecting to the Internet requires navigating through an institutional barrier, like a cable company or Internet service provider, before one can even begin to engage in vernacular expression online.

To follow that thread, dynamic folk discourse can take place in the comment sections of institutional websites like YouTube. Or, an individual can publish beautiful, original prose (essentially folk expression) on their blog, which may have been built from a template provided by WordPress (which is institutional). The point is that folk expression and institutions are not inherently antagonistic; in fact, they frequently play off one another or become hybridized in the process of generating folklore.

Neatly kicks Digital Dualism in the nuts… and provides both a context for and excuse to copy and repost this image, which — for the sake of good archival practice in spite of the phenomenon of link-rot — came from here:

"One of the really bizarre side-effects of Twitter's 140 character limit... "

Now, what you’ve got there is not only a shift in interface devices influencing the practices and use-customs that ride upon an infrastructure, but the modality and demand-pattern of that usage influencing the expansion of capacity of the infrastructure itself. And while this isn’t an example I can use easily, that’s precisely what my PhD is all about…

(Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism; poking holes in utopia

#stacktivismTomorrow (Weds 15th October 2014) sees me boarding a train down to That London, in order to be a talking head at a salon titled (Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism at the Goethe Institute. If you’ve not been following along, #stacktivism is Jay Springett’s invention, and it’s less a manifesto than a call for seeing the world anew, a campaign for the disenchantment of infrastructure… or is it? That’s all the fun of a #hashtag, see — you don’t get to control it, it’s a floating node in the discourse. So come along and discuss what we might do with it. Tickets are a mere £6 (via Eventbrite), and going by the warm-up conversation over email, it’s going to be a stimulating session. There’s a recommended reading list and everything!

#

In other news: after reading Kevin Kelly’s collection of “desirable-future haikus”, I coughed up a rant about the innate determinism of the technological utopia over the weekend. The short version: tech-focussed futurists are finally hitting the same problematics of the utopian form that the New wave sf writers hit in the late 70s, and the reason it’s impossible to draft a plausible technological utopia is that we’ve all lived through enough false promises to not be taken in se easily any more.

(As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that the #miserableweb phenomenon on Ello is less a function of Ello itself, and more a function of a general cynicism about social media; there was some seriously utopian hopes around social media back in the Noughties (I held many of them myself), and it clearly did some good things, but then Snowden showed us around the dungeon of Omelas, the Great White Hetero Male got all revanchist, and the scales fell from our eyes. Turns out the lord of the flies doesn’t believe in digital dualism either.)

Dan Hon picked up my ball and ran with it a bit in his newsletter thing. I think he pretty much gets the gist of my point, but he kinda shifts the blame onto the marketing and advertising of tech rather than the discourse of tech, of which marketing is only one subsystem; advertising certainly reproduces uncritically diegetic technological utopias (and the internet now re-reproduces ((and sometimes remixes)) them losslessly and infinitely), but there are also the interactions of biz-school dogma, neoclassical economics (profit uber alles) and the positivist epistemologies of the STEM disciplines to consider. Technological determinism is not a simple belief; it’s just one visible manifestation of the dominant worldview.

Hon illustrates the point for me, in fact. He talks about the utopian tech ads of the “information superhighway” era, and how only now are we actually seeing a roll-out of the services that were promised to us on the back of the internet. Then he says:

“… it’s like we still *want* to buy concert tickets wherever we want, and we still *want* to say goodnight to our kids over Facetime or whatever.”

There’s a valid point here, which is that convenience has always been a marketing cornerstone, and that making things easier is a form of progress. But the thing about Facetime is the killer example: Facetime solves the problem of being able to say goodnight to your kids when travelling on business, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a business culture that expects you to spend shit-loads of time away from your young family — which is a systemic problem with many other side-effects besides keeping you away from home, and one that technology tends to exacerbate at the molar scale, even (if not especially) when it seems to ameliorate it at the molecular scale. Or, to put it crudely: in order for an iPhone to make your life easier, a number of Chinese workers must make their lives rather more difficult. The benefits of technology are not at all evenly distributed, and neither are the downsides.

So perhaps it’s just capitalism that’s the culprit? That’s part of it, I’m sure — but capitalism is a construct, and blaming constructs is lazy (not to mention, um, unconstructive?). But the intimate interconnection between neoclassical economics, technoscientific production and climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and we’ll never fix a problem that’s essentially technological in origin by just throwing more technology at it; that’s about as rational as trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline.

(Which, to be clear, is not a primitivist call for the abandonment of technology in toto; on the contrary, it’s a call for us to flatten our ontologies, to redefine the notion of “the problem” into something a little less selfish and a little more systemic.)