All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

A putative reality that does not (yet) exist

The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they’re invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: ‘rigorous imagining’. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you’re trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

Stuart Candy on the goal of “experiential futures” work.

“Deviant and non-average practices” — Fam, Lahiri-Dutt & Sofoulis (2015), Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices

Fam, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Sofoulis, Z. (2015). Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(3), 639-651. [link]

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(A timely rediscovery that echoes with Carson’s digs at Accelerationism… )

This is the introductory editorial piece from a special issue devoted to qualitative demand-side approaches to water consumption research; while the focus is on water, much of what’s being argued here is just as applicable to other infrastructurally-mediated consumptive practices—which is to say, pretty much all of them. The special issue “captures and emphasises the importance of local information and on-the-ground interactions, as well as discursive processes and embodied knowledge, in researching everyday water practices in the sites of households and similar locales.” (p642; strongly reminiscent of Haraway’s situated knowledges)

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The paper begins with a critique of the ‘scaling-up’ dogma as an indicative feature of technocratic approaches which:

“… [treat] social change as an engineering problem, where individuals within the society are provided expert opinions aimed at changing their attitudes to produce a more economically rationalist and efficient set of water consumption behaviours. […] The preoccupation with scaling up tends to go with a preference for psychodemographic approaches […] that aim to produce behavioural modifications in populations of consumers, such as through mass media campaigns pitched to an imagined ‘average’ consumer.” (p640)

(This is our old friend the knowledge deficit model, shown decades ago in medical research to have no empirical or theoretical basis, but which is still central to a huge swathe of interventions into consumption. See also the literature on “imagined publics”, which should not be confused with “imagined communities”; the latter imagines itself, while the former is imagined by communication professionals.)

“The foremost implication [of scaling down] is scalar, or geographical: the household is not a mere building block of some larger social unit, nor a convenient site for accessing individuals and their psychologies, but is an entity worth studying in its own right […] a household-scale approach reveals that households are internally differentiated and include specialist domains of practice, often linked to the gender, ages and cultural backgrounds of its members, rather than unique psychologies and behavioural choices.” (p642; also “lived sociotechnical realities”, the household as a particular configuration of infrastructural affordances in relation with the values and meanings held by household members)

The real value of going beyond the bell-curve: “the deviant and non-average practices revealed in smaller-scale qualitative studies indicate what scope there is for experimentation and innovation” (p642); this is why most “innovations” research is tautologous  hindsight, because it can’t recognise a successful change until long after it’s actually proven itself and become average.

That said, household-level studies don’t produce an infinity of social variation; because of contextual commonalities across a geographical area (e.g. divisions of labour, domestic and paid, within the household; infrastructural affordances), “a handful of main types may be distinguished” in a regionally-bounded study. (p643)

There follows a very brief archaeology of the role of cultural theory in addressing consumption cultures and practices: Bordieu (channeling Spinoza); Giddens’s “structuration” (discursive vs. practical conciousnesses); theories of practice, which “focus on the things that people do and view patterns of consumption as embedded in the social context in which they are done”. (p644)

“A focus on practice does not abolish concern with individual motivation, but reduces individual psychology to just one of many social, technological and habitual factors that shape a practice and that are enacted in it.” (p645, emphasis added)

A scaled-down approach … reveals that not all end-users are created equal.” (p648)

“Social research is particularly valuable at the early stages of adapting to new technologies, when learning is still taking place, practice has not yet been automated into a routine, and technologies have not yet retreated into the background of awareness.” (p648)

Closes with an observation that “unreactive” metadata collection strategies beloved by positivist research paradigms (e.g. smart metering for utilities) explicitly devalue the knowledges of their (often unknowing and unconsulted) subjects; by contrast, participatory methods allow people to articulate what is meaningful to themselves, for themselves; this reinstates both the possibility of, and agency for, bottom-up change.

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Nothing hugely new in this one, at least for me—I’ve known Zoe Sofoulis for a good few years, and this is very much a standard (if still mostly ignored) set of arguments in favour of the sort of practice-theory-rooted research she (and others) favour. But there’s some good frames and quotes in there, making it a useful citation for arguments against the status quo of consumption research and/or policy intervention.

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.

Fully-automated luxury scale-tipping

… like others I have encountered who share their unconscious technological assumptions, [Srnicek and Williams] throw the phrase [“scaling up”] around without making it at all clear what they mean by it. For example, in an argument with an apologist for industrial agriculture I pointed to the superior productivity of soil-intensive horticulture in terms of output per acre (e.g. Jeavons’s raised bed techniques that can feed one person on one-tenth of an acre); their response was “Yes, but how will you scale it up?” I kept pressing them to explain what that meant: “Why does it need to ‘scale up’ at all? If one person can feed themselves with a tenth of an acre, or a village can feed itself with fifty acres, why does any single operation need to be larger?” I get the impression some advocates of “scaling up” are unable to grasp the possibility of 300 million people brushing their teeth in an uncoordinated effort using their own toothbrushes, unless it is somehow “scaled up” to everybody brushing at one time with a single 10,000 ton toothbrush—coordinated by a central body that formulates tooth-brushing guidelines. If an individual action is already taking place at the optimal scale, the best way to “scale up” is probably to proliferate horizontally.

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Williams and Srnicek are drinking the neoliberal capitalist Kool-Aid in taking at face value the claims of efficiency for global supply and distribution chains. They really do not reflect superior efficiency at all, but rather the irrationalities resulting from perverse incentives under capitalism. […] In short, Srnicek and Williams are at least as guilty as any they criticize of failing to adapt their strategy to changed circumstances; in this case they fail to acknowledge the radical technological advances in cheapening, ephemeralization and reduced scale of production machinery, and to take advantage of their promise for creating a counter-economy outside the existing capitalist economy and leaving the latter to starve for lack of labor-power or demand, instead of taking it over.

From a lengthy and enjoyably punchy review by Kevin Carson of S & W’s  Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.