Category Archives: Criticism

epistemic humility vs. “the engineer’s disease”

This post is prompted in part by a post by Cennydd Bowles, in which he riff on Nathan Ballantyne’s notion of epistemic trespass. Reading it reminded me of a term I’ve seen frequently, most often on MetaFilter, where it has been part of the lexiconic furniture for some time. An ask-the-hive-mind entry on that site traces the notion of “the engineer’s disease” back to 2002, so it’s plausibly an internet-era coining—which, interestingly, means it’s a term critical of engineering which emerged during what might be seen as the peak of engineering’s cultural hegemony, and thus in hindsight a weak signal of sorts.

The engineer’s disease is related to (and perhaps subsumed by, if not subsuming of, the briefly better known solutionism); here’s a description from that MeFi page:

engineers and other technical folks assuming their technical knowledge of systems (usually computer, mechanical/electrical) gives them expertise in solving other complex issues

Very much a lay precursor to Ballantyne’s trespass, then, but the concept is much older than the term. As someone else in the MeFi thread points out, Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) is a satire of “Engineer’s Disease writ large”, as they illustrate with a pithy quote from the novel which immediately brought me back to the experience of reading it:

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.”

Bowles notes that epistemic trespass is ubiquitous in the public-intellectual sphere, and (rightly, I think) connects it to the capitalist imperatives that power the hot-take attention economy, albeit using kinder words than I have chosen. But he also notes its particular prevalence in the tech scene, broadly conceived, and his explanation for it seems plausible, particularly given his own identification with that scene:

Dabbling got many of us here in the first place, and a field in flux will always invent new topics and trends that need diverse perspectives. But by definition, trespass happens on someone else’s property; it’s common to see a sideways disciplinary leap that puts a well-known figure ahead of existing practitioners in the attention queue.

This is certainly inefficient: rather than spending years figuring out the field, you could learn it in months by reading the right material or being mentored by an expert. But many techies have a weird conflicted dissonance of claiming to hate inefficiency while insisting on solving any interesting problem from first principles. I think it’s an ingrained habit now, but if it’s restricted to purely technical domains I’m not overly worried.

Of course, it isn’t restricted to technical domains, so Bowles riffs on Ballantyne to recommend epistemic humility:

It’s easy to confuse knowledge and skills, or to assume one will naturally engender the other in time. Software engineers, for example, develop critical thinking skills which are certainly useful elsewhere, but simply applying critical thinking alone in new areas, without foundational domain knowledge, easily leads to flawed conclusions. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is almost always ethically suspect, but it’s doubly irresponsible outside your comfort zone and in dangerous lands.

No one wants gatekeeping, or to be pestered to stay in their lane, and there are always boundary questions that span multiple disciplines. But let’s approach these cases with humility, and stop seeing ourselves as the first brave explorers on any undiscovered shore.

We should recognise that while we may be able to offer something useful, we’re also flawed actors, hampered by our own lack of knowledge. Let’s build opinions like sandcastles, with curiosity but no great attachment, realising the central argument we missed may just act as the looming wave. This means putting the insight of others ahead of our own, and declining work – or better, referring it to others who can do it to a higher standard – while we seek out the partnerships or training we need to build our own knowledge and skills.

As Bowles notes, no one wants gatekeeping… but as one of the foundational notions in STS assures us, gatekeeping—or “boundary objects”—are exactly what allow us to even talk about “spheres” and “domains” of expertise in the first place. Which is perhaps to say that while no one thinks they want gatekeeping, we all do it, and it’s actually a vital part of how ideas move between domains; when it’s done right, those ideas retain a coherence and usefulness across their sites of use while allowing for more specific deployments at each site. When it’s done badly, well, you get what Bowles and Ballantyne and Vonnegut are talking about: the transposition of ideas as particularly parsed by engineers (or techies, or coders, or whoever else it might be) into spheres where those parsings are inappropriate, no matter how well-intended, and potentially destructive.

As with pretty much everything he writes, Bowles here aims to draw out the inherent good that he sees in the denizens of the tech domain, and I would note that it is this essential generosity of spirit on his part that makes him a writer I always read: to put it another way, while he thinks with domains, he does not think with them deterministically (in the way that the “engineer’s disease” label definitely does).

I believe (or at least I believe I believe) similarly that most people are basically decent and well-intentioned, but I suspect I take a more structural view than Bowles on the shaping of intention into action—which is to say, I suspect that the time for making reasonable pleas for the tech domain to wind its neck in a bit has long since passed. This is not due to any fundamental malice or recalcitrance on the part of engineers and techies, to be clear, but rather the extent to which that domain has achieved hegemonic levels of control and influence over economic and discursive systems.

Which, I suppose, could easily be parsed as a call for “more regulation”… and I suppose that, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also a call for a reconceptualisation of what regulation means, as well as how it’s executed; regulatory capture is probably one of the biggest factors in the securing of that hegemony. Which means that this is really a call for a revaluation of our values around technology, with the proviso that for me the category of “technology” extends to things like regulation and governance as well as, y’know, gadgets and apps and such.

Indeed, perhaps that particular conceptualisation of technology, which—as many of my readers will already be aware, but, for the avoidance of doubt—is definitely not original or unique to me, is the keystone to the change I’m calling for. But it would have to be in turn a part of a broader renunciation of the implicit supremacisms of humanism itself, which in turn would need to recognise that such ideas can never be conquered, only dealt with dialectically.

These thoughts were brought to you by my having re-read a bunch of Latour over the holidays, and by my having binged my way through Claire North’s brilliant Notes from the Burning Age in the last two days; I’ll hopefully find the time to write up my thoughts on the latter in soon.

never an especially attractive quality

A snip from an essay well worth reading in full, otherwise offered without comment:

… the issue isn’t negativity per se, which has its place in the fandom ecosystem. The issue is how to talk about things you love (or hate) impersonally. What is lost in fandom is ultimately detachment. Detachment can coexist with love, hatred, and indifference. But it’s never an especially attractive quality, and when people are encouraged to identify themselves with their interests and consumption habits, it’s also a very hard one to maintain.

bold as (nostalgic) love: Gwyneth Jones and hauntology

A Metafilter thread on the new St Ettienne album (haven’t heard it yet) gave up this comment:

It’s interesting to see the 90s End Of History era displace the Swinging 60s as a lost golden age just out of clear memory.

I’m sharing this here due to its synchronicity with a point I made in a just-filed review of the Gollancz Masterworks reissue of Gwyneth Jones’s Castles Made of Sand.

In the introduction to said book, Adam Roberts draws a connection between the utopian idealism of the 1960s and the original British Romanticism movement of the early C19th, and in my review I leap from there to observe that, while Jones doesn’t only put the Sixties influence front and centre in the Bold as Love cycle, but also leans on the Arthurian mythos of Olde Albion (which was largely constructed by the long wave of Romanticism), the actual texture of the near-future Britain of the first few volumes is very much a Nineties vibe.

This was a great opportunity to wax shamelessly lyrical from the core of my own nostalgia for my formative years, but there was—or so I tell myself—a point to doing so, which is to underscore the way in which the Nineties, however unknowingly to many of us in the countercultural trenches at the time, was an attempt to re-run the Sixties, albeit absent the political theoretics whose influence on the Sixties we have been carefully encouraged to forget, as the cultural artefacts of that period have been pruned and bowdlerised in order to reduce a time of genuine (if misguided and largely failed) revolutionary fervour to an aesthetic: kaftans, badly-rolled joints, twelve-string guitars etc etc.

This has further relevance in light of the recently published last lectures of Mark Fisher, in which he was clearly trying to go back to that period and unearth all the dangerous stuff in order to determine what went wrong, and how that atmosphere of revolutionary change might be rekindled against the backdrop of the neoliberal settlement that has so successfully encased it it in the amber of the Spectacle. There’s an extent to which Fisher and some of his contemporaries were, for all their repudiation of nostalgia, somewhat fixated on the early Nineties as the Last Great Moment of Modernism (with e.g. the music of the “hardcore continuum” representing the last time anything felt to them genuinely new and futuristic), even as the reactionary revivalism of baggy, Britpop and what would become landfill indie rose like a tide to drown it all.

Matt Colquhoun has written a great deal about what we might think of as (post-)Fisherean hauntology, in an attempt to rescue the term from the trackless desert of semantic drift into which it (and so much else) seems to be receding, and I could really do with making the time to dig back into it all properly. But one chunk I recall passing clear is this bit on Boards of Canada, whose work:

… speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

So often the discourse seems split between a kind of manic future-affirmatism (think of Teflon Mask’s hypercapitalist boner for Mars colonies on the right, or Bastani’s FALC solutionist-accelerationism on the left) or a hopelessly Romantic fixation on a largely imaginary and retconned past as the location of the utopian horizon (which has typically been a rightist and reactionary position, but in recent years manifests in a lot of soft-leftish thought as well). The denial of the past (and/or its strip-mining for the raw materials of a futurity intended to bury it), or the fetishisation of the past… neither are genuinely productive, if I understand Colquhoun correctly. But that temporal tightrope he describes above, now that’s interesting—not least because it doesn’t merely attempt to bring together the best of past and future. Rather, in drawing taut that rope between them, it affirms the continuity not of culture itself, but of the recombinative processes by which culture is produced.

Jones’s Bold as Love cycle, then, might be seen as culture that not only enacts that recombination, but actively foregrounds (even as it sort of cartoonises) the theatricality of cultural politics through which it is enacted: she is showing and telling, not just at the narratological level, but the historical as well.

Solargoth

I keep telling myself I shouldn’t pass public comment on solarpunk, firstly because I haven’t done the reading and legwork, and secondly because I know a few people who really have done the reading and legwork (hi, Jay!), and as a good, responsible academic (cough, cough) I know better than to traipse across someone else’s disciplinary patch.

Buuuut… there’s an extent to which solarpunk abuts my own undisciplined domain of sociotechnical imaginaries, and as such I can’t entirely ignore it. Which is why I was intrigued by this piece from Lidia Zuin, in which, by riffing off the recent Multispecies Cities anthology, she seems to be seeking a way past the common critique (of which I have partaken in passing) of solarpunk-as-technological-utopia:

… in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

This, Zuin seems to suggest, is an advance on the more purely aesthetic origins of solarpunk: a reintroduction of instructive failure to the deployment of technological solutions, which Zuin identifies as the legacy of solarpunk’s estranged parent genre, cyberpunk. The extent to which social and political change features in this tales is not apparent from this essay (and so, yes, I should really do the reading, given that tends to be my angle on the issue), but Zuin is heading in a different direction, or rather along a different axis, for her own critique:

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.”

Zuin also mentions the musical act Botanist, ‘a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars’ whose ‘visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers’; this, plus recent music and performance from Björk, points toward a darker direction for Zuin’s solarpunk. Most interestingly for me (as a sociotechnical imaginaries scholar, and a marginal scholar of Bruce Sterling’s work), she also connects the technological-utopian iteration of solarpunk to Sterling’s Viridian Green campaign during the Noughties—which only a few weeks back I myself connected to the market-oriented ecomodernist side of the ongoing dialectic of green hope, in a review of Garforth’s Green Utopias.

Which is not (only) to note that someone else has spotted a (fairly obvious) genealogy in this particular discourse, but rather to note that Zuin is interested in pushing the generic dialectic in the other direction somewhat: in literary terms, that’s the more Vandermeerean New-Weird direction, which in academic-theoretical terms is the (more posthuman) there-never-was-a-Nature antithesis to the (more transhuman) thrust of the Viridian/ecomodernist/tech-utopian thesis.

Zuin concludes:

Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

I don’t want to assume Zuin’s concern here is merely about broadening the market for solarpunk in a world where grimdark is an enduringly popular aesthetic—though there’d be nothing wrong with an author taking that position. (Writers, after all, want to be read, and perhaps also to pay the bills.) But it seems to me that there’s an aesthetic rebellion implicit in Zuin’s position, here, that reads fairly well as a figuration of a more theoretical/philosophical rebellion against solarpunk’s well-intended (but, IMHO, politically naive) techno-optimism. That Zuin mentions Le Guin and Delany as possible inspirations to be drawn upon underscores my point: that this reaching toward a more gothic iteration of solarpunk is—or at least could be—a reaching toward a more critical-utopian mode for the genre.

And that, as regular readers here will be very aware, is of much greater interest to me, in both the literary-aesthetic and critical-theoretical senses.

stop press: technologist spontaneously (re)invents postmodernism

Matt Webb thinks through the map’s mediation of the territory. I don’t mean to whale on Webb here, to be clear, as he’s by far one of the more enlightened and well-intentioned thinkers in that space. But nonetheless this is a salutory reminder that, sociologically and philosophically speaking, the tech world is lagging the leading edge by around half a century.