Category Archives: Sociology

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.

“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.

To interest, amuse, or instruct

Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

[…]

But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

Athena Andreadis, who knows whereof she speaks. The sociologically-minded will note the clear echoes from e.g. Haraway and Latour and other STS headz in this description of (techno)science as a narrative endeavour. However, the importance of the “sensawunda” aspect doesn’t always make it through, and I’m interested in working with the notion of the technoscientific imaginary to see if there’s a way to bring that forward.

Contest and re-engineer the universal

“For Laboria Cuboniks, the universal is synthetic – it’s a political category. It’s not something that is discovered, or progressively unearthed, but represents a ‘we’ that is collectively built, and which can be rebuilt in more emancipatory forms. Again, this can be understood as an effort to construct vectors of unanticipated and constructed solidarities. I see this as being in direct opposition to the bloated particularity that has conventionally been passed off as the universal and which has largely cornered the market on popular understandings of the generic since the Enlightenment. Xenofeminism doesn’t want to reject universality – though I totally understand the impetus – but instead wants to contest and re-engineer the universal.

Helen Hester interviewed at The Quietus. I kinda missed xenofeminism the first time round, mired as I was in specifically thesis-pertinent theory at the time; looks like it would be well worth my addressing that oversight.

(And can I just say how good it is to see a music-and-culture organ like The Quietus covering theorists as if they were an important part of the culture? Because it is very good.)

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)