19JAN22 / accessions

Not new personal purchases, these ones—who can afford to buy their own copies of Routledge handbooks, after all?—but instead delayed contributor copies, the Social Futures one being about two months late to arrive, the Placemaking one closer to a year, the original dispatches of both having presumably been lost to the fathomless Lovecraftean void which has opened up within the space of regular parcel logistics between Plague Island and the continent.

Ah well; nice to have ’em here at last. Some sturdy soldiers for the vanity shelf.

dispensable and scarce

Just a quick subtweetish sort of blog post, here, to note that the more times people start an essay or article or academic paper or blog post with a phrase along the lines of “[d]igital platforms and the online services that they provide have become an indispensable and ubiquitous part of modern lifestyles, mediating our jobs, hobbies, patterns of consumption and forms of communication“, the more reified becomes the supposed indispensability and ubiquity that is supposedly being critiqued.

Just fucking stop it, OK? Farcebork is not indispensable; Scamazon is not (yet) ubiquitous. But conceding in your opening line that “well, they probably will be, so maybe some gestures toward regulation (in a system where regulatory capture is a significant part of the problem) would be good, please, sir?” is to have thrown in the towel before you even step into the ring.

Every time I hear someone talk about the indispensability of Farcebook in particular, I think of junkies queuing for their methadone: “I wanna quit, I really do, but it’s too hard, all my friends are still using it”. Well, if that’s really the case, stop sitting around and fantasising about regulating your dealer; this idle chatter of ressentiment while you wait for Your Man is a big part of his hold over you.

(For the avoidance of doubt, this is not to to make the equally fallacious argument that “we can do without technology!”—though if anyone in this audience is still making that sort of argument, I’m not gonna waste my time explaining why its both stupid and hypocritical.)

(For the further avoidance of doubt, I’m generally sympathetic to the work of that paper’s lead author, and indeed to most of what the paper actually argues. But that doesn’t change my fury at the implicit capitulation of that opening line. Language shapes social reality; the more you describe the worst parts of our social reality as inescapable, the harder it becomes to escape them.)

the subject has been usurped

Lots of chewy stuff in this M L Sauter joint, jumping off from the seeming climb-down of G**gle’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto—which, as Sauter notes, was less of a stoppage than a sort of metastasis, with the ideological cancer scattering away from the site of the obvious tumour—in order to talk about surveillance and image recognition through Sontag’s theories of photography.

It’s all good stuff, though mostly too far outside of my own wheelhouse for me to comment on beyond commending it as good. But I wanted to clip this paragraph because, as someone who developed a hard-to-articulate but very real loathing of photography at a young age, and in particular of being photographed, it really expresses something that I’ve never managed to explain adequately to myself or others:

A photograph constitutes a violation, and capture, of its subject, “by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” The accuracy of the knowledge photography provides in this case is irrelevant. In Sontag’s analysis, the subject of the photograph has been usurped from their creative place at the center of their own story. Their own subjectivity, their ownership of themselves, has been dented by the satisfied knowledge-seeking of the photographer and the photograph. The photograph is not simply a document. It contains the psychological impact of surveillance itself. Data collection and production, through cameras and other sensors, similarly is not simply an information bit. It is an artifact of surveillance, of usurpation. It is the testimony on the subject that supersedes the testimony of its subject. As reality is judged against photographs, so is reality judged against, and expected to accord with, data.

The first half, in particular, really captures the sense I had as a child of somehow being trapped in amber by photographs taken of me… though given this seems not to be much of an issue for a lot of folk around the same age, I’m going to assume it’s also tangled up with the psychosocial dynamics of my family and upbringing (which, without wanting to go all Tiny Violin about it, was very much an experience of lacking agency over my own story).

Then again, I’m not much of one for photographs of other people, either. I often get asked if I have pictures of my family, and while I’m pretty sure there’s one or two images of my sister and my mother somewhere in my digital archives, they’re not at all ready to hand… and I have no images of my father at all. This seems genuinely strange to most people—and perhaps it is, I don’t know. “How do you remember them?” With my mind’s eye, I suppose… which I fully understand to be extremely malleable and unreliable in its depiction of characters and narratives. Does a picture, or an album of pictures, provide anything more than a persistent icon behind which those memories might be filed? No idea. Maybe I should read that Sontag stuff.

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology