Red Planet Blues

A fine piece of speculative journalism from the redoubtable Geoff Manaugh: crime and policing on the off-world colonies. Full of chewy gems and story-starters, alongside the existential stuff that proponents of such neocolonial projects either ignore or lack the imagination to consider:

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity—even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

This is, I’ve always felt, the point that Chairman Bruce was trying to make in Schismatrix: once human beings start living in habitats other than the one they evolved in, they effectively stop being “human” and become something else — a difference marked not only by the technological/biological adaptations to said environment, but also (and perhaps more so) by the social adaptations. As such, the notion of “crimes against humanity” might look like a useful precedent for Martian policing from an Earther’s perspective, but Martians would likely consider themselves to be beyond that jurisdiction, if only implicitly.

The device paradigm

The switch induced a new and modern space defined not by size, shape, struc­ture, material, use, ornament, or any other conventional measure of architectural merit. Rather, it conjured a space distinguished by its instantaneous appearance, willed into visibility, as if volition alone were enough to make it so. Indeed, the very idea of a volitional space presumes that individual will is as much a part of the transformation created by electric light as the switch mecha­nism’s metal contacts. Visibly projecting willpower into a third dimension, voli­tional space is the amalgam of technology and desire, an image of desire reliably fulfilled.

[…]

… the switch typifies the “device paradigm,” an idea introduced in 1984 by the philosopher of modern technology, Albert Borg­mann. The phrase describes a common trait of modern technology: the way in which a par­ticular configuration of components enables a productive mechanism to be eclipsed by the commodity it delivers. Borgmann saw social relations in modern society as structured by the pairing of productive apparatus and a delivered commodity in such a way that consumption appears to be unmediated. Pipes and ducts, for example, separate the combustion of fuel from the resultant heat: they convey warmth while concealing the means of making it. Though common to many tools, and facilitated by modern technologies, this cultural preference was neither inevitable nor neutral in its effects. Indeed, Borgmann argued that dissociation from productive mechanisms made us ignorant of their social and material costs. As long as benefits were assured and costs predictable, consumers remained strangers to their own environments. The invis­ibility of the technology was proof of its effectiveness.

At first glance, the switch seems to contradict the device paradigm since it refocused attention on the mechanisms of the delivery system. But in experiential terms, the switch exemplified the ease with which vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be snapped into service at a moment’s notice. The switch not only controlled the flow of electricity, it represented that control. Its trifling size and trivial operation encouraged confidence in the ability to bring to heel a force of nature. Additional details — an ivory or gold-plated key, common adornments for ceremonial switching, even an ordinary decorative switch plate — moved the switch further from techni­cal functionality and into the realm of cultural signification. If anything, the switch’s instantaneous operation and distant action dramatized the device paradigm, at least for those earlier generations that marveled at the spread of electricity. With its disproportion between physical effort and visual impact, the light switch is the device paradigm made emphatic.

[…]

The switch became a crucial interface between ordinary people and an all but invisible infrastructure, between potent natural forces harnessed by new technologies and the day-to-day doings of everyone. It was the banal object wherein the juggernaut of modernity became the stuff of everyday life.

Clips from an excellent essay, “At the Flip of the Switch” by Sandy Isenstadt, at Places Journal. Lots of parallels with my own theoretical work. I’m astonished that I never stumbled across the work of Borgmann before, but the curse of the contemporary academic corpus is precisely its size: this is not the first time I’ve found a literature effectively parallel to (or at least shadow-mirroring) the ones I was working with, but which is all but unacknowledged by them.

(The ubiquity of this phenomenon, particularly when it comes to technological and infrastructural topics, is almost certainly political: put simply, heresy goes uncited. The effect is compounded by the ubiquity of search engines in literature review processes: heavily cited works float to the top, and everything else sinks into the long tail. If nothing else, it explains why the last five years of my life have felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall.)

The last days of the Next Big Thing

Today, social media enables young people to engage with culture and politics in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with music; from the 1960s to the 1990s, music was pretty much all there was. It seems likely that, in the broad sweep of cultural history, the period circa 1955 to circa 2000 will be a treated as a discrete epoch, and the cultish fanaticism that drove its successive countercultural waves – from Beatlemania to grunge, via punk, post-punk, New Romantics et al – will be seen as an analog-era curio. The regime of production and dissemination was the defining characteristic of the four-and-a-bit decades of its hegemony; the demise of that regime has led, ultimately, to the obsolescence of that particular iteration of pop culture.

TFW someone produces a good and coherent version of a vague theory you’ve been kicking around for a few years and done nothing with.

(Please read the whole thing before criticising it; one can acknowledge nostalgia without necessarily taking that feeling as an indication that things were actually and objectively “better” during your own salad days.)

Stories are allergic to indifference

I’m not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart’s School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.

[…]

Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo’s perseverance or Mr Polly’s courage, from Odysseus’s wiliness or Hermione’s cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us that these things come to pass. It’s probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.

Adam Roberts muses upon the role of Story in human affairs, in the context of Christopher Priest’s new joint An American Story, which sounds like it needs adding to the ever-more-Jenga-like babel of my TBR pile.

BAU infrastructure futures

Residents of Lebanon have three basic options: buy a generator subscription, own your own generator, or splurge for what’s known as an uninterruptible power supply.

When you move into an apartment, you will most often connect with the local generator owner who will set up a subscription for 5 amps, 10 amps, 15 amps, or more, depending on your budget and consumption during the scheduled power outages. Residents will also do this with their water providers—one bill and service provider for filtered water, and another bill and service provider for gray water. (Water utilities are likewise a … gray area.) Internet is handled by another ad hoc collection of quasi-legal independent operators, as is trash, which the city is supposed to take care of but often fails to collect. These entities are more than private providers or secret crusaders. They are a necessary convenience to which one is connected through inconvenient terms.

Decent if slightly fetishised piece at Wired on life in Beirut under infrastructural uncertainty. This sort of set-up is likely far from being unique to Lebanon; similar conditions certainly pertain in unplanned favelas in the Global South, and will become more commonplace in the “developed” world in the not-too-distant future. This is the “unbundling” paradigm taken to its inevitable and obvious conclusion, the ugly end-game of the free-markets! flavour of decentralisation. This is the BAU future — yours, mine, and pretty much everyone else’s.

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