All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

both men believed they knew how the world worked

I’m always here for anyone giving neoclassical economics the kicking it so rightly deserves; in that sense, this piece at Aeon is a bit measured for my tastes, but Bergin—like all the best journalists—leaves plenty of room for one to read between the lines.

If even the simple supply-and-demand curve, a staple of the orthodox neoclassical framework, fails on something so fundamental as wages and employment, why do economists cling to it? And why do policymakers keep listening to them?

Perhaps the answer to the first question lies in the second. In 2009, the then US president Barack Obama appointed Cass Sunstein as his regulation tsar, with a remit to help cut automotive emissions. Sunstein argued a carbon tax on fuel was the most efficient way to influence people’s behaviour because that’s what the neoclassical dogma says. The fact that the tripling of fuel prices in the previous decade had not fundamentally changed Americans’ car purchasing patterns apparently did not merit consideration. Neither did the fact that other regulatory measures imposed in Europe had led to a far larger increase in fuel economy with only a modest price signal via higher fuel prices.

In 2020, the UK government appointed Mark Carney – a former governor at the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England – as climate change adviser. Carney was quick to declare the problem to be essentially a mispricing of the cost of emitting carbon. Neither Sunstein nor Carney are experts in climate economics, let alone climate change. But being economists, both men believed they knew how the world worked and therefore had the toolkit to provide solutions to world’s gravest and most complex problems. Political leaders believed them. In effect, their self-confidence made them more employable.

My bold, there, deployed principally in order to give me a reason to repeat a favourite riff from over the years:

… always remember that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”.

That’s not to say that every confident person is on the con, of course. (Nor that con-mannery is exclusive to men, for that matter.) But frankly—the times being what they are!—if you wanted a rule of thumb for working out who to trust, that’s as good a one as you could ask for.

it’s about being right, whatever the heck that means

Couple ‘graphs from Julian Bleecker, here, which manage to put fairly succinctly an argument about futuring which I first found myself trying and failing to make ten, maybe fifteen years ago:

Predicting things feels like a setup for bad behavior. It feels weird trying to anticipate what’s going to happen “next” or down the road. It’s hard to explain. It feels a bit like the phenomenon where you tell yourself something enough times with enough conviction that you are challenged to imagine anything else. Also predictions feel transactional. Someone wants that prediction in order to make a proposition bet on something happening and all of a sudden, it’s not about imagining possibilities richly, it’s about being right, whatever the heck that means. I guess it means placing the right financial bet on a possible outcome and reaping the rewards thus.

That stands on its own, but the second one manages to underscore it without pointing the finger too hard:

Statistics might be useful when bets are being placed on possible near future worlds. When one doesn’t care about the lived experiences of that world except insofar as one is attempting to place (typically financial) bets on outcomes.

The angle that always interested me was what I took to be the absurdity of rating people (not exclusively futurists) on the percentage of things they “predicted” correctly—a bugbear I probably picked up in the sf world first, thanks to the ubiquity (mostly faded now, thankfully) of such claims about Asimov, Heinlein, whoever. And it still bugs me now, I find, having started to think about it… because here’s the thing: your supposed skill or luck at predicting is only (supposedly) verifiable after the point at which the certainty of your prediction would have been useful*, and that’s true of each particular prediction as well as your predictions considered as a set (whether carefully curated for positives or not).

It baffled me for ages why anyone would want to trust in those odds, however calculated… which, with hindsight, is because I was still at that point a lot more innocent about the ideology of commerce than I thought I was. Bleecker—with whom I do not by any means agree with on everything—has done a lot more time at that particular coalface; that’s presumably why he can name (or at least describe) this phenomenon so much more successfully than I can, and possibly why he’s more willing than I am to accept it as part of life’s rich tapestry.

Selah—maybe we choose our paths, maybe our paths choose us. Maybe there’s no substantive difference in those two options. But back to the main point here: you can disagree with me about the utility (or otherwise) of predictions, and you will be neither the first or the last to do so, and I’ll shrug it off (because experience dictates that this, another dogmatic catechism of the cult of Number Go Up, is effectively impossible to argue with anyway, and because I believe—or should I say predict?—that my position will be borne out by events in the long run).

But when it comes to arguing for the nimbleness to outcomes, expected or otherwise, that comes from the exercise of the imagination that Bleecker is extolling here, well, that’s a hill I’ll gladly die on—indeed, it’s the one where my flag’s been planted for a decade already.

[ * Of course, there’s a gotcha lurking in here that applies to Cassandra “shouldn’t” types such as myself, which would be fun and useful to sit down and work through at some point. Another one for list. ]

efficiency (slight return)

Decent piece here at the Atlantic on not just plastic, but the necessity of plastics—by which I mean less their necessity to us, “the consumer” (though they have indeed become profoundly necessary, due to their embeddedness in so many of our day-to-day practices), than to their manufacturers, as a way of getting rid of by-products from other processes, and of obeying a more fundamental imperative. Take it away, Rebecca Altman:

When [Union Carbide] started making plastics in the late 1920s, no market was itching to buy them. But the company, in a sense, had to make plastics.

Its new commercial antifreeze, Prestone, was synthesized from natural gas and created a by-product, ethylene dichloride, a chemical that had no practical purpose and so was stockpiled on-site. Quickly, it amassed in unmanageable, “embarrassing” quantities, as one Carbide newsletter later put it. Its best use, the company decided, was in making vinyl chloride monomer, recognized as a carcinogen since the ’70s, but back then a building block for a rascally class of plastics no one had commercialized yet—vinyls.

This isn’t an isolated example, but rather an illustration of how product development often unfolds for chemicals and plastics. For Carbide and other 20th-century petrochemical firms, each product required a series of multistep reactions, and each step yielded offshoots. Develop these, and the product lines further branch, eventually creating a practically fractal cascade of interrelated products. Everything that enters the system, explains Ken Geiser, an industrial-chemicals-policy scholar, in his book Materials Matter, must eventually go somewhere; matter being matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. And so it must be converted: made into fuel, discarded as pollution, or monetized. After many iterations, Carbide arrived at Vinylite, finally made workable by blending two types of vinyls: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinyl acetate.

According to an internal marketing report, Carbide spent years trying to “synthesize” new customers and invent new uses for Vinylite, while a credit department eased the financial burden of adopting it. The company even sent technical teams around the country to teach manufacturers how to use the resin, all with limited success. Celluloid, before Bakelite, and polystyrene afterward, had similar troubles gaining purchase.

Then came ww2, with all the usual Schumpeterean creative-destructive opportunities for new materials and products, which let them get a toe-hold. Then came the post-war boom, and that production capacity had to do something with itself… which is why the literal evangelism of plastics (whether in particular forms or as a general category of materials) was so well established that it could be deployed as the famed career advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character by the time they filmed The Graduate.

But there’s a kind of spiral logic involved in all these sorts of lock-ins, and it has to do as much with the economic conceptualisation of efficiency, which regular readers may recall has been bugging me for a while, and which is a major plank in a chapter I’m working on at the moment. Put very simply, economic efficiency is nothing to do with being frugal or sparing with resources, but rather maximising their throughput: a resource left unexploited is money left on the table (or, in the case of fossil fuels, left under the ground). Altman explains how this plays out in the must recent season of the plastics saga:

But the nature of petrochemicals issued its own economic imperative. Plastics had to be a high-volume product to recoup the substantial capital investments necessary to build and then operate such complex facilities, among the largest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive in the process and manufacturing sectors. Yet again, the same problem: more plastics that need more uses and more markets.

The U.S. “fracking boom,” or what’s been called the “shale revolution,” has fueled plastics’ most recent expansion. Fracking has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, resulting in “a glut,” Kathy Hipple, a senior research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told me. This oversupply of feedstock drove another round of investments in plastics plants, which in turn, Hipple explained, has forced an excess of plastic packaging onto the market—more than demand can absorb. These plastics, now primarily polyethylenes and polypropylenes made from natural-gas liquids, have reduced polystyrene to a minor player in the packaging and disposables market—about 2 percent. Tongue in cheek, I’ve taken to calling plastics’ latest output “frackaging.”

But the economics of plastics is once again changing. As energy and transportation shift away from fossil fuels, plastics seem to many oil and gas producers like one of the few opportunities to keep growing, to keep going. Some new “mega-plants,” such as China’s Zhoushan Green Petrochemical Base, convert crude oil, rather than refinery by-products, directly into chemicals and plastics.

And this is (partly) how plastics would come to produce a greater share of the world’s carbon emissions. Should U.S. plastics production continue to grow as the industry projects, by 2030, it will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants, concludes Jim Vallette, the lead author of a new Beyond Plastics report. Or, by another measure, the current growth trajectory means that by 2050, the industry’s emissions could eat up 15 percent, and potentially more, of the global carbon budget. How much varies by feedstock and type of plastic, but on average, 1.89 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents (a composite measure of greenhouse gases) is produced for every metric ton of plastic made.

Now, the point often gets made—and fairly, too—that there’s a whole bunch of stuff for which we need to use plastic, as no other extant material can be used for the same applications. This is why exhortations to completely abolish all fossil fuel use, while well-intended, are misguided; perhaps we can develop alternatives to them further down the line, but for certain applications (particularly medical stuff, but not exclusively) we’re stuck with them for now.

(But hey, if you’re looking for the patent that will secure your finances for the rest of your life, design a solar panel whose deployment—electronics included–requires no plastics! Good luck!)

However, that’s a pretty small category of things; by winding back to essential plastics only and nixing fossil fuels as fuels, we could get by with using orders of magnitude less of the stuff. What Altman’s essay shows (as do various academic papers, for those who like the references and the details; this one’s a doozy, all the more so for being written from within the machine, so to speak) is that not only is there no imperative to stop extracting oil and gas and making plastics, but also there’s no incentive to not keep accelerating the process.

So, disincentives, then? Well, yeah, some sort of genuine cost-to-polluter non-tradable carbon tax will almost certainly be necessary. But there ain’t no financial instrument which cannot successfully be gamed eventually by the sort of folk who get a boner at the thought of Number Go Up. The disincentives that will make a difference will need to be way broader than taxes or laws, more on the level of acute moral hazards.

And that brings us into a troubling space, for any number of reasons—not least of which is the implication that, if you want to get rid of a fundamental plank of the ideological operating system on which the whole planet is currently operating because it is deeply dysfunctional and pervasive, you’re going to have to not just come up with its replacement, but also a plan to make the switch… unless you want to rely on the goad of undeniable ecological disaster, which is probably more feasible in terms of its actually having an effect, but also really not the sort of choice you want to make deliberately rather than have thrust upon you. Plus I’m going to hazard a guess that the chaos of a such a circumstance is going to be just as amenable to ideological frameworks even more stupid and nasty than the one we’re currently caught in.

So, yeah—if you were hoping for a ray of sunshine or a “solution” here, well, you’re reading the wrong blog, sorry. But it bears noting that however annoying you may find those people who pipe up and say “capitalism is the culprit” in any such discussion as this—and however much you may agree with Latour, as I do, that words like ‘capitalism’ are black boxes which must always be opened and unpacked and examined in detail, lest they become just another secular deity in the pantheon of we who have never been modern—those people are not wrong.

Where they go wrong is in assuming that ending it is something like turning off a switch somewhere… but that’s a rant for another day, assuming you’ve not heard some version of it already. There’s still ways out of this metaphorical boat, mind you, that don’t involve taking an axe to the keel. But solutions of any flavour—be they carbon taxes or carbon capture, blockchains or bloodless revolutions that manage to convince almost everyone of their rightness overnight—are not gonna cut it.

organ donation

Trying to get back into a proper working groove this morning, as there is (long-past-deadline) writing to be done; thus trying to purge myself of a deeply cursed earworm. (Bowling for Soup, thanks for asking. No idea how that fucker got in there.)

Stoner-space-doom it is, then—more particularly, Lowrider’s “Ode to Ganymede”, from 2020’s excellent Refractions:

The bit at 3:50 where the Hammond clone comes in to take a solo? They played an extended version of this joint when L____ and I saw them in Stockholm back in November last year, and I don’t mind saying that I just about went and lost my shit completely at that point in the tune.

(There are also some rather idiosyncratic deep-filtered synth blorbles elsewhere on this album, whose restraint is both uncharacteristic for the genre and perfect for the material. That the keys guy was a little Michel Foucault look-alike tucked away at the edge of the stage, working with a band who very much looked like the denim’n’patches stereotypes you’d expect from this sort of stuff, only added to the magic IMHO.)

I can’t remember a time when the Hammond has actually been a fashionable instrument within my lifetime—though I recall it having a niche-retro appeal around the time Big Beat peaked in the late 90s; anyone remember the Propellerheads? But there’s something about it that has always called to me, and hearing it in the context of heavy, sludgy music like this seems to explain that appeal. The long heritage of Deep Purple, I guess? Whatever. Turn it on, crank it up.

a world where flesh and machine are in tension: re-reconsidering cyberpunk

Found myself nodding appreciatively at this re-reassessment of cyberpunk by Lincoln Michel:

Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.

“The street finds its own use for things,” yeah—the centrality (and deep truth) of that element often seems to be lost in a lot of the trashings of the genre that have been thrown around recently. Though by no means all of them: Doctorow’s take on k-punk as Luddite lit is typically idiosyncratic, and Madeline Ashby, with the eye of a novelist who is also a practising critical futurist, identifies the fundamental limitations of of the paleofutures—now four decades old—that underpin the genre as most commonly practised.

This is kind of Michel’s point, too, and he gets there by returning to the source and tracing the journey from the meat to the virtual:

Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.

Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal.

Michel’s own approach is to look not at information technology, which he has consciously made banal in his own work, and to focus instead on biotechnology, with the human body once again the focus of the struggle between street and boardroom. But as he notes, cyberpunk, in its slow recuperation as a nostalgic aesthetic, went on to fetishize that which it once critiqued, and to abandon embodiment as the site of struggle.

Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.

Top marks for summing up succinctly why even just plot summaries of Cline’s work have seemed nauseatingly unappealing to me.

I would note, though, that—for all the other flaws they might be argued to have—Gibson’s most recent novels are still very much focussed on embodiment as the site of struggle; The Peripheral is totally about that conflict, and the way it is shaped by political, financial and even temporal power.. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, Gibson recognised the merging of cyber- and meat-space quite early; it’s arguably the central idea of the Bigend trilogy, in which one character notes in passing that (and I paraphrase) “cyberspace has everted”.

Of course, as Michel says at the start, everyone has their own definition of any given genre, and it may be that the discourse around cyberpunk will get stuck on the co-opted late-phase fantasy-virtuality definition for years to come. Mostly it’s reassuring to see someone else respond to that definitional shift in much the same way I have in the last decade or so.

But as someone from the heavy rock side of the musical divide—and there’s a generic cluster that is very much in the cultural doldrums right now, reflexively associated with rockism, Boomers, and the worst-case Durstian cliches of the nu-metal era, even as the former underdog of hip-hop shambles ever further into its own bloated and drug-addled stadium-show hegemony—I’m aware that genres never die, they just shrink to a point where those who’ve always seen something to love in them can go off and make something new out of that discarded form or style.

Michel mentions Maughan and Newitz as both having found ways to return to the political (rather than simply aesthetic) heart of cyberpunk, and his own novel sounds interesting enough that I’ll be ordering myself a copy. The flame is still alight.