Category Archives: Futures

semiotics of utopia

It’s yer man Stan Robinson, trying to (quite literally) square away the reductive dichotomy of [u/dys]topia:

It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

I’m not yet sure how anti-anti-utopia maps on to the critical utopia, which is my preferred formulation. (This may be one of those fundamental anarchist/Marxist lines of cleavage, I suppose.) But the theoretical details are secondary to KSR’s point, which is to do the work — and on that point we are in clear agreement.

the captured city

Seems like Jathan Sadowski (previously) is doing pre-promo for a new book on the “smart city” memeplex:

The “smart city” is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It’s better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future. The phrase itself is part of the ideological infrastructure it requires. As the cliché goes: Who wants to live in a dumb city? But if we focus on the version of smart urbanism on display in corporate brochures and concept designs, even if critically, we may miss the real impact of the underlying transformations in urban governance they foretell […]

These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing. Sensors, cameras, and other networked surveillance systems gather intelligence through quasi-militaristic methods to feed another set of systems capable of deploying resources in response. In reality, the urban command centers — or, the sophisticated analytics software that create relational networks of data, like that produced by the CIA-funded Palantir — are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public.

Contrary to the suggestions of “smartness” shills, these systems are not used by the general public but on it.

I was sold even before I hit the Haraway citation.

Schlock & Ore

An archival re-run from 2012 at The Baffler: Will Boisvert on the MIT Media Lab. Boisvert was clearly well ahead of the hype cycle on this topic; it’s a gloriously withering piece.

But while the Lab often seems like a marketing team posing as an academic institution, the corruption is subtler than the mere capture of the ivory tower by commerce. The Lab is a failure by the standards of storied corporate-sponsored R & D outfits like Menlo Park and Bell Labs. Instead, the Lab focuses on what corporations think is cool. […] No matter how ridiculous the Lab’s mockups, its grand schematic of omnipresent computing, sensors, video representation, and interactivity is a thrilling business prospect, promising enormous revenues from a tech network that redefines the meaning of ubiquity. And more than that, it’s an expression of an ideology of consumerism—the commodification of things that once were free and the shift toward a lifestyle of infantile narcissism—that the Lab takes to unprecedented extremes.

It can take a good long while to realise that the emperor is naked. Hell knows that I pranced along in his wake in similar caparison for quite some time.

Temporal delamination

This piece by Katherine Miller on (a)temporality in the age of the algorithm has been doing the rounds, and with some justification; it’s a strong piece of writing, and it’s grasping toward something important. I’d be lying if I didn’t find its implicit attempt to situate Trump as a sort of synecdoche for the state of the States somewhat wearying, but it’s eminently understandable, not least because life under 45 for anyone on the lefthand side of the fence is clearly very wearying also. (Furthermore, I imagine that anyone outside of the UK who reads UK-written essays of a similar thrust is pretty sick of everything magically boiling down to Brexit. Hell knows I am… and still I keep writing the fucking things.)

But ignore my carping, which is more in the nature of a stylistic note-to-self than a dig at Miller. It’s a good piece — though there’s a further irony in its being hosted at Buzzfeed, and accompanied by the sort of busy-but-pretending-not-to-be web design which sample-and-holds the very same temporal (gl)itchyness that the article describes.

The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.

[…]

The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.

I feel like the missing word in this piece is delamination: time hasn’t shattered so much as peeled apart, the shear layers shearing off of one another under the centrifugal force…

I guess we can chalk up another point for Chairman Bruce on the prolepsis leaderboard. When did he first start talking about atemporality? It seems like a lifetime ago, but at the same time just yesterday…

Small Smart Objects

… as opposed to the traditional sf plot-engine staple of the Big Dumb Object. Madeline Ashby and Charlie Jane Anders interviewed-in-conversation at Slate (and edited further by me for concision):

Charlie Jane: […] That’s something that always bugs me, the ways that tech is designed to be opaque.

Madeline: Right, I think that’s the nature of writing about a consumer product. It’s not the same as writing about a big dumb object, like a space elevator or something. You’re writing about something that has been made, in theory, user-friendly. So it has to look that way on paper, too. And it has to have all the bugs that “user-friendly” things have, too.

Charlie Jane: In my story, the big mechanism driving everything (no pun intended) is these driverless trucks that are supposed to bring supplies to New Lincoln, but they keep getting rerouted…

Joey [Eschrich]: And thus, who do the makers of the technology have in mind as their customer? Who gets left out of that? Or in the case of the trucks, what’s the system logic driving decisions about food delivery?

Charlie Jane: My story didn’t really “click” until I decided to start it with just a view of the trucks zooming across the landscape, and it’s pretty clear that there’s no human being involved in their routing. I think that these systems start out with good intentions and then just gradually get more and more unwieldy as more complexity is added.

Madeline: Right, and complexity is treated as a threat to the system. The system is actively hostile to nuance. […] Mostly because nuance requires humans, and humans cost more.

I think I’ll build on my flippant title, though, and argue that the Small Smart Object is not the sf-nal antithesis of the BDO, but rather the demand-side expression and extension of the ultimate BDO (for which we might retroactively claim that all the other BDOs in sf were metaphors uncognisant of their status as such), namely the distributional metasystem we tend to refer to as “infrastructure”. That metasystem has become a hyperobject, but a certain subjective perception of it can be garnered through an engagement with the interfacial excrescences through which it manifests in our daily lives. Or, more succinctly: all technology criticism (and hence the majority of non-space-opera science fiction) is infrastructure criticism. And that’s as it should be, IYAM.

Hang on, I can see a raised hand for a question at the back of the room. What’s that, sir? ‘Why can’t we get back to the good old days when sf was inspirational and technology was a force for good?’ I think I’ll let Madeline take that one, actually…

Madeline: [Regarding commissioned narrative prototypes] deep down, all of those stories are answering questions like: “How will humans actually interact with this? What might someone use this for?” At its best, it surfaces questions and concerns that weren’t already in the mix. My favorite question is: “What’s the worst that can happen? Can you write a story about that?” People don’t ask it very often, but that’s when they get the best results.

Although, naturally, the question arises: “Worst for whom?”

Or, alternatively, to paraphrase the Mighty Clute: in 20th century sf, the reward for saying “yes” was the future, while in 21st century sf, the reward for saying “yes” is death. And if you don’t understand why that is, it’s because you’re still stuck in the unevenly distributed polder-remnants of the 20th century. Lucky you.