technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position: regardless power, regardless freedom and the desire for excession

More newsletter cribbing, this time from the redoubtable L M Sacasas. Like so much material being produced at the moment, this piece is mostly about the pandemic, and specifically the USian response (or lack thereof); but there’s stuff in here that has broader application, and some themes which VCTB veterans will recognise as favourites of mine. After an opening bit about some inadvertently ironic scare-quotes around the word “freedom” in a store-door chest-thumping sign, we get to this:

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Sacasas has mentioned Borgmann a fair bit since I first started reading him, to the extent that I sought out Borgmann’s best-known book (which, of course, I have yet to read). But Sacasas’s use of these terms is enough for now, particularly the notion of “regardless power”. I often talk about the self-effacement of infrastructure, by which I mean the way in which disguising or obscuring or displacing the consequences of its own extractive and distributive function is a fundamental part of what the infrastructural metasystem does. That last sentence of Sacasas’s in the blockquote above is a gloriously poetic way of making the same point.

That would have been enough to be worthy of note, but Sacasas next takes a detour through magic, with Mumford and C S Lewis as his guides. The former describes magic as “the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfilment” [my emphasis]; the latter noted that:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

The solution is a technique! Until, eventually, technique more broadly is the solution. Well, yes. Both of these riffs combined can clearly walk alongside my own arguments about infrastructure as a magic trick, in the Clarke’s-Third-Law sense of the term—magic as in illusion, prestidigitation, magic as apparent provision ex nihilo. Magic as in rabbits from hats.

Sacasas returns to the pandemic, and in so doing makes another point which I think is more generally applicable:

… there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that!

[…]

The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I part ways with Sacasas a bit in this last paragraph, because I tend to believe that there is a shared moral framework, just one that was always-already riven with a fundamental contradiction that the pandemic has made it impossible to unsee. (Though the extent to which we’re performatively poking our own eyes out to justify our blindness would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic; this is the point I was trying to make a while back in that piece about bioethics.) And also because he’s now framing it as a simple opposition between two poles, rather than the dialectic that he earlier suggested it might be: I’m more in sympathy with that dialectical framing, because it fits with my sense that the current vibe of of epistemic collapse is caused by the struggle of powerful networks to find a workable synthesis that retains a maximal amount of their own privilege, and to impose it on everyone else.

But lurking behind the pandemic-focussed point here is the underlying argument that “regardless freedom” is intimately related to “regardless power”, accompanied by a clear connection between that dyad and the seemingly magical affordances of infrastructural systems. “The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power.” That’s the the libidinal urge for excession in the fufilment of practices, there, being engendered by the very systems which make excession conceivable in the first place… for once you’ve been shown that you can (seemingly) get something to appear as if from nowhere, with (seemingly) minimal costs or consequences, then you will start to wonder what else might be made more magical in much the same way.

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
 
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)

the feared disseminators of complexity

A new discovery, made within Simon Reynolds’ response to the shuttering of Beyond the Beyond: Matti Swiedmann’s Red Velvet Corridor.

Top of the stack of posts at present is this thing, rambling around in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard… all the intervals in that haunting earworm of a scale that I’m still teaching myself to play. I got as far as this passage before knowing I was on board:

… all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

I guess one upside of the demise of the blog as a popular medium is that there’s space for people to write like this and leave the comments open without having to spend hours of every day wading through the moronic vitriol of replyguy chumps. Blogs may be dead media, but old infrastructures have a tendency of hanging around and being put to new uses once they become unprofitable… Reynolds’s beloved Hardcore Continuum relied upon the graveyards of British industry to be its seeding-bed, after all. It’s nice to know there’s still some of us out here, dancing in the ruins.

dead media beat

Thanks to Jay Springett and Uncle Warren for alerting me to the sunsetting of Bruce Sterling’s old Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired, which I only stopped following because Wired yanked the RSS on it some time ago—this despite its being perhaps the most influential thing they ever published, or ever will publish. Jay’s accompanying note said “end of an era”, and I appreciate the sentiment, though it’s not quite true: that era ended a long time ago (probably before the RSS feed for BtB was killed off, in truth).

But it’s certainly a marker in time for those of us of a certain generation. BtB had not been running for long before I first elbowed my way onto the waggon-trails of blogging, and was certainly one of my first regular follows; at that time I knew Sterling only as some guy who’d co-written a book with William Gibson that I’d never gotten round to reading, and I followed BtB more due to the lingering influence of Wired, which I’d been picking up in dead-tree format on and off since 1990, having been hipped to the existence of this utopian thing called “the internet” while still a callow public schoolboy by, of all the possible vectors of that infection, the band Jesus Jones.

(“Info-freako / there is no limit to what I want to know…” Y’know, I’ve only just realised how much that song now seems terrifyingly prophetic of socnet doomscrolling. But man, Jesus Jones. Heck of a thing to list as fundamentally formative of your life, but there it is.)

Anyway, as an unrepentant fan of Sterling, and as someone who is on the hook to write a chapter about the Chairman for an academic book later in the year, and also as someone who still keeps a blog in the full understanding that it’s an online journal in which I think out loud about stuff for my own satisfaction, please enjoy this recursively self-referential selection of snips from Sterling’s BtB swansong, interleavened with navel-gazing retro-reflections of my own. You’re welcome.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

That resonates a lot—though I should be honest enough to admit that my own blogging was at that point an exercise of almost pure self-aggrandizement, and attempt to push myself into the world of words that came with a byline and (so I hoped) a paycheque. As I’ve remarked before, with no small amount of rue (and a degree of guilt), it was that very landrush, by myself and many others, that not only toxified the landscape of blogging beyond any hope of remediation, but which also did so much to drive down the cost of hiring a writer, as we all squabbled over gigs for the bargain price of “exposure”. And I, to be clear, have ended up being one of the lucky ones: I exposed myself enough (and gained enough facility with writing and thinking in public) that I could trade it up and turn it into a ticket into academia.

(Though that was perhaps something of a frypan->fire move; not like things are particularly stable here in the groves, either. But you’d better believe I recognise the significant chunk of luck that I stirred in to alchemise that decade of hustle; while others came out of the blogging landrush far better than I, many came out far worse. And many more never even knew it was happening. It was easy to assume that the blogosphere was coterminous with the world—a foretaste, perhaps, of the walled-in-town-square weltanschauung of the socnets.)

Sterling makes a point further down about how the writing or talking that people will pay you for and the writing or talking that actually goes out into the world and makes a mark rarely overlap significantly, and also notes that both the now-defunct blog and Cheap Truth, both of whose readership was probably far smaller than his book sales, have been far more impactful on those smaller audiences than the books were on theirs. The moral I take away from that observation is that it’s wise to do what interests you, even if there’s no pay in it, even if it eats up the spare time you have around the stuff that actually pays the bills, because it’s the fascination you find in those things that really turns people on—fewer people, turned on more intensely, seems to be what really makes a lasting mark in the long run.

(Perhaps I’m just seeking a retrospective justification for my enduring instinct for taking on tasks that don’t really align as closely with the trajectory of my day-job as they should do… but that is also an instinct that I developed by blogging, and it has served me well so far. For example, one of the papers I wrote during my doctoral studies, and almost entirely unrelated to my thesis in any obvious or substantive way, has already been cited by far more people than will ever read my thesis, and was instrumental in getting me where I am today. It’s also, perhaps not at all coincidentally, a far less compromised piece of work, to which I point people regularly, and with pride; by contrast, when people ask about my thesis, I tend to do pretty much everything short of demanding that they don’t read it.)

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

Part of the glory of this swansong piece is that, as Sterling notes, it’s not at all like the material he used to blog. It’s more like a coda to the long succession of speaking gigs he’s done over the years, particularly the SXSW ones: full of sarcasm, sincere musings, shameless self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation sat side-by-side without any sense of contradiction or self-doubt. I’ve been saying for a long time now that I don’t have heroes any more, having learned that a hero is a bit like Chekov’s gun: to put someone on a pedestal is to assure that the time will come when they tumble off it. But I nonetheless remain hugely inspired by Sterling’s confidence in his own instincts, his restless gadfly nomadism; his life’s work seems to be one long Deleuzian line-of-flight in which security was long ago traded for the freedom to follow the thoughts and ideas and opportunities wherever they lead. And he knows it, too, even if he likely wouldn’t put it in those terms:

Even if I couldn’t package the things I knew in any way that any publisher would ever find viable, I simply knew things most people didn’t know. That feat was good in itself. “Real artists ship,” and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service.

[…]

I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that “blogs,” the “internet,” desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing phenomena. They were indeed period artifacts, some with the lifespan of hamsters. The content of my blog “rotted” quickly too, since most things I talked about, or linked to, are long gone.

I always understood that, but I hopped right into the ditch anyhow. I appreciated, and I even savored, the risks; I knew that, for a guy who theoretically was a professional novelist, I was spreading myself thin, acting the dilettante, and commonly sticking my nose into scenes and situations that were none of my business. Often, I had little to offer, too, other than some quip and a link. But that was my good fortune; I chose the bohemian downsides, the life of archaic niches and avant-garde clutter; I preferred the dead factory and the palace attic. They were kind to me, for that was my milieu.

There is something of Kafka’s hunger artist to Sterling, too, with all the light and shade that implies—that’s what makes his work interesting to me, but I think it’s also what draws me to his personal character, too. I’ve remarked before that Sterling’s fictional characters are avatars for ideas, a mixture of types and tropes, perhaps closer to the characters of theatre than of literature: they’re loud (even, perhaps particularly, the ones who seem to be quiet), and—crucially—aware of their own status as characters in a fiction, if not always in that knowingly-and-showingly way that we tend to think of as the archetypal signature of the postmodern. I now find myself thinking that the most memorable of Sterling’s characters is Sterling himself, and that all the others are just fragments or facets thereof.

(I really hope someone has scraped and archived BtB for posterity, or even just for the purposes of research… though I suspect it’s maybe not amenable to a tool like wget, as it’s a CMS rather than true filetree? If anyone knows how it might be done and would be willing to tell me how—or perhaps to do the work for a fee—drop me a line, yeah? I know Sterling’s OK with this blog decaying into bit-rot, but I’m enough of a creation of the academy that I hate the thought of it not becoming a part of his “papers”. As a document of a period of history in the not-exactly-a-place that is/was “the internet”, it’s probably peerless.)

  • Sterling, B. (2020, May 17). Farewell to Beyond the Beyond. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2020/05/farewell-beyond-beyond/