Category Archives: Criticism

this addiction can be overcome

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the theory’n’philosophy crowd come out swinging for “disruption”:

In order to resist disruption it is not enough to demonstrate that its benefits are based on shaky evidence. […] While these analyses are useful to debunk the illusion that innovation is always an improvement, they do not modify the widespread enthusiasm for it. “Exaggerated claims for disruption,” as Mark C. Taylor points out, “usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of a preoccupation with the present in a culture addicted to speed.”

This addiction can be overcome by thinking through longer stretches of time. It requires practices that reexamine our existential narratives, such as politics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, though each of these contemplative fields faces disruptive forces of its own in, respectively, populist pronouncements delivered through Twitter, over-prescription of drugs, and scientistic analytic thought that displaces existential questions […]

It should not come as a surprise, as Stiegler points out, that disruption was “announced and foreshadowed not just by Adorno and Horkheimer as the ‘new kind of barbarism’, but by Martin Heidegger as the ‘end of philosophy’, by Maurice Blanchot as the advent of ‘impersonal forces’, by Jacques Derrida as ‘monstrosity’, and, before all of these, by Nietzsche as nihilism.” If disruption is the culmination of these events we must pursue these authors’ experimental responses, which called for different conceptual platforms where existence can continue to strive.

On the other hand, where were y’all five, ten, twenty years ago? Hell, forty years ago—he may have used a different conceptual language, and have come from a fairly liberal standpoint, but even Langdon Winner was making this point while I was still at primary school. And then there’s the OG media ecology mob, of a similar vintage, whose best work is only now being returned to, like long-forgotten letters from Cassandra stashed away for years under the bed in an old cigar-box… though there we can perhaps blame the utopian (mis)readings of McLuhan that accompanied the early internet, I dunno.

Ah well—better late than never. Not like my own apostasy isn’t a form of atonement, eh?

design, marketing, and manipulation as ideological imperative

I seem to be linking Cennydd Bowles a lot lately, but why would one not? So here’s a nice, short injunction from the man himself, off the back of his having thrown out the question “when does design become manipulation?”, and being real unsettled by the answers he got:

Design influences. It persuades. But if it manipulates, something’s wrong. The difference isn’t just semantic; it’s moral. A manipulative designer abuses their power and strips people of their agency, reducing them to mere pawns. I see almost no circumstances in which that’s ethically acceptable.

So if you think all design is manipulation, please stop designing.

I think I’m pretty much on the same page as Bowles, here, though I think—as last time, when he was asking tech sector folk to show epistemic humility—there’s a structural issue going un(der)examined. Pose it as a question: why might so many designers, and/or people who know (or presume to know) what design is about, think it’s mostly a matter of manipulation? Because manipulation is what most designers who get a job with the label ‘designer’ on it will be paid to do, which in turn means that most courses meant to turn out people with qualifications as designers will (if they want to hit their employability metrics for the course!) be teaching them, implicitly or explicitly, that design is mostly about manipulation.

Now, some of this may be down to the nuance between manipulation and Bowles’s preferred terms, influence and persuade. I mean, I think of myself as very much A Words Guy, but I’d struggle to delineate the difference in those terms without writing at considerable length; this is always the challenge when it comes to values. Bowles’s tell-your-spouse-what-you-did-today technique, elsewhere in that post, is admirably efficient at highlighting the distinction as it manifests in our perception of meaning, but doesn’t delineate that distinction. I suspect Bowles might say it shouldn’t need delineating. And I would agree, it shouldn’t—but perhaps, in this less than ideal world, it does.

But why is that? Well, because of those structural forces I mentioned, which result in people with earnestly-held good intentions thinking in ways that ensure the continuation of the thing they think they’re trying to combat. Here’s another example, via friend-of-the-show Andrew Curry; if asking designers where influence ends and manipulation begins results in contortions and confusions, then what happens when a marketing guy wants to use marketing to solve climate change issues?

Well, what happens is the marketing guy—with the instinctive judo move that presumably comes from spending a great deal of your time trying to convince C-suite suits to fork over another tranche of consulting fees—will reframe the problem as being located in the firm’s customers rather than the firm itself. This is, of course, the classic neoliberal move of individualising responsibility for systemic failings—but, to be clear, it is coming from what I am going to assume is a sincere and genuine wish to reduce emissions.

The next step, though, is the clincher, because it’s the same one that informs most attempts at climate policymaking:

… marketers should stop focussing on their clients’ businesses and focus on their customers’ instead. They should, in short, start creating narratives about changing behaviour rather than moments of consumption.

Why is this the clincher? Because it’s a behaviourist model of human agency; it’s our old fictional friend homo economicus, just waiting to be given the right information, narrative or ‘nudge’ (as specified by various mutations of the long-since-discredited by nonetheless seemingly unkillable Information Deficit Model) that will ‘change’ their ‘behaviour’, which is somehow simultaneously rational (because neoclassical economics, and all that stems from it, insists on the rationality of the economic actor), woefully uninformed, and easily changed.

It is also, as anyone who has read (for example) their Elizabeth Shove, utterly wrong. The reasons people do the things that they do in the hugely variable and particular ways they do them has very little to do with simple utility-maximising decision-making, and a great deal to do with context.

I could go on about the social practice model of human agency for hours, but I’m already drifting away from my point, which is this: the consumptive behaviours which Mr Marketer here wants to change were indeed shaped by marketing in times past, but assuming that merely pointing that behaviourist model at a different behaviour will be sufficient to reverse it is naive at best. Because the problem is not the behaviours of the consumers, or even (if you want to get all Uncle-Karl’s-Volume-1 about it) the scheming avarice of cartoon capitalists, but rather the complete and unquestioning immersion of both within an economic model that valourises, nay necessitates, the externalisation of costs.

This guy uses McDonalds as an example, and wonders why they don’t reduce their footprint by, say, somehow discouraging people going to the drive-thru in a gas-guzzler SUV. Why don’t they take more responsibility for their customers’ chunk of the emissions of the business?

First off it’s hard to calculate […] it is hard to track what customers and end users are really doing. These things are hard to measure.

To reiterate, again: this guy is sincere, I’m sure of it. I expect he’s even a nice guy. I wish him no ill. (Hell, he even notes that the Measurement Problem doesn’t seem to be at all insurmountable when it comes to targeting advertisements, or fine-tuning supply-chains for cost reductions.) But nonetheless, his conception of human agency—which is the foundation of his industry (Adam Curtis got you covered on that stuff), as well as the econo-political ideological keystone of the world in which we all live—means he can’t come up with a better list of things for marketers and their clients to do than this:

The next generation of marketers working on sustainability are moving beyond doomist thinking (yes, we’re in very, very deep trouble, now what are you going to do about it?) to an obsession with delivering genuine change.

  • Less shaping the narrative, more shaping behaviour.

  • Less ‘sustainability theatre’ workshops, more testing MSP (Minimal Sustainable Product).

  • Less internal focus and a lot more customer centricity.

  • Less risk management, more business model innovation.

  • Less reporting that reassures investors, more accurate measurement and responsibility for carbon being emitted.

In closing, we must do all we can to decouple growth from carbon emissions and unlearn the worst excesses of consumption behaviour. We need to 1) educate, 2) regulate and we need to 3) activate.

I’m starting by activating customers, unleashing the latent desire in all of us to reduce our carbon footprints through what we buy (or don’t buy), the choices we make and the habits we form.

I mean, that last line, there; as if “unleashing latent desire” (which, historically, has meant fabricating desires wholesale) isn’t exactly what got us in to this mess! Or the ‘graph above: decouple growth from carbon emissions? Sure, OK, that sounds like a nice idea, so we’ll set aside the historical fact that growth, as we understand that term in both the vernacular or the more specific economic sense, is entirely predicated on the emission of carbon, and we’ll look at your three steps to success and—oops, shit, stalled at number one, it’s the Information Deficit Hypothesis once again! Because if you think of people as programmable economic robots, that’s always where you start, that’s where marketing has always started, it literally cannot start from any other model, and that’s why trying to market your way to a carbon-free future is like trying to drink yourself sober.

Andrew Curry gets it, in his commentary on the above (my emphasis):

Of course, the problem with a lot of this is that meaningfully reducing emissions involves reducing consumption, especially by the most affluent. And even with business model innovation, it’s hard to maintain growth or increase profitability while reducing consumption. Marketers don’t get paid for doing that. The incentive systems are all wrong.

And that, in a very digressive blog-ranty way, is my attempt to explain why it is that so many designers think that design is basically manipulation: because most design is done in the ultimate service of capital accumulation, and as such it has failed if it does not maximise consumption. Doesn’t mean designers are bad people. Doesn’t even mean that marketers are bad people (though I can see the ghost of Bill Hicks raising an eyebrow at me). It means that the assumptions of neoclassical economics are so deeply embedded in every structure of our society that we can’t think outside of them… and it’s those assumptions, among which is the vital principle of increasing profit through the externalisation of costs, whether financial or otherwise, that have resulted in our treating the planet like a combination of cornucopian replicator and bottomless rubbish-pit.

I mean, sure, I would like it if we could get designers to think about what they’re doing, and whether they’re being manipulative rather than persuasive or influential, and to choose the latter over the former. That is a good goal! The problem is, if you did it really well, you’d end up with a bunch of designers finding themselves out of work (whether by choice, or through an inability to find morally acceptable gigs), and them being replaced by folk whose somewhat more straitened circumstances would—quite understandably!—make them less likely to undertake such reflections, and less likely still to act upon them.

Does that mean that it’s not worth having the discussions that Bowles and others are trying to have, here? Not at all. Any more fundamental change to the our ontological conception of the world and our relation to it is going to require a lot of that sort of reflection, and not just in the fields of design and marketing. But it’s that more fundamental change that we have to have as the utopian horizon of any and all such conversations, because otherwise we’re just twiddling with placebo dials (to use a design term).

Whatever label you choose to put on the tangle of systems-of-systems in which we are enmeshed, you have to start from the understanding that it is incredibly good at recuperating the many critiques directed at it. This ability is in no small part down to the magic of marketing, and of its more knowingly unethical siblings PR and ‘reputation management’; it really is stories all the way down. But another important element is, I suspect, the homo economicus model, and the individualisation of responsibility which it enables. While that model dominates, designer’s gonna design to manipulate (because the user could always choose not to follow the dark patterns, right?) and marketer’s gonna unleash those latent desires (because what could be wrong about making a profit from fulfilling the sense of lack you went to so much effort to engender in someone, right?) and ecomodernist’s gonna keep claiming that we can somehow, if we just innovate real hard while clicking the heels of the Ruby Slippers together, have growth without fossil fuels (because growth is an utterly unquestionable Good Thing, the rotten beam to which every other plank in this disintegrating raft is tied with twine and good intentions, and only some sort of primitivist lunatic who hated the less fortunate would not want growth, right?). They will do this because, on their planet—which is, to be clear, yours and my planet too, to a lesser or greater extent—these are completely rational and (crucially) moral things to do.

The problem is, that planet bears significant non-similarities to the one on which we happen to actually be living. The cognitive dissonance of that increasingly obvious disconnect is starting to get pretty serious; but as Latour has noted, no amount of recourse to capital-S Science and its supposed rationalities—which were originally sourced, long before the actual sciences got the names by which we know them, from none other nascent discipline than economics—can back us out of the alley into which they have already driven us.

So by all means, let’s highlight the distinction between manipulation and persuasion, between “behaviour modification” and treating people as sentient beings in webs of relationships, and all that other stuff—but let’s see that as the start of the process, not the end. Treating the symptoms will not cure the underlying malady.

And so the last word goes to Edward Abbey:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

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.