Ersatz moralities

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Catherine Nichols on the false moral dichotomy of modern narrative at Aeon.

I am not sick. The world is sick.

After I learned all this, and what it means for us all, I started to long for the power to go back in time and speak to my teenage self on the day he was told a story about his depression that was going to send him off in the wrong direction for so many years. I wanted to tell him: “This pain you are feeling is not a pathology. It’s not crazy. It is a signal that your natural psychological needs are not being met. It is a form of grief – for yourself, and for the culture you live in going so wrong. I know how much it hurts. I know how deeply it cuts you. But you need to listen to this signal. We all need to listen to the people around us sending out this signal. It is telling you what is going wrong. It is telling you that you need to be connected in so many deep and stirring ways that you aren’t yet – but you can be, one day.”

From an excerpt of Johann Hari’s new book; I badly needed to read this today, even though doing so made me cry, and given the time of year, I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I’mma print this bit out and stick copies of it anywhere I spend time sat down.


“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.

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.


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


  • 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 ( 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.


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.)

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