Category Archives: Futures

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.

The barbarians are within the walls

Naomi Klein on “climate barbarism” (and more) at LARB:

We live in societies, whether they admit it or not, that do rank human life based on race and religion. And climate change forces us to reckon with that, and ask, are we going to live up to the rhetoric of equality and the idea that we actually believe people are of equal value by right of being alive on this planet? If we believe that, we need to radically change our ideas of national borders, and we need to open our arms and talk about how we’re going to share what is left. Or are we going to double down and get monstrous? We are getting monstrous. It’s not a future idea, it is happening. It is the Salvinis, it is the Trumps, it is the Bolsonaros.

We see the response to the Green New Deal — oh, it’s too much, it’s too ambitious. But if anything it’s not enough. If anything, there’s not enough about immigration and borders, still, in the climate discussion. […] I feel like this is a moment when we need a much more expansive discussion of the interlocking crises of our time. If we don’t get out of this idea that these are separate crises, then the truth is that climate will always be pushed out of the way. Because it’s not more urgent than kids being ripped away from their families and dying in the desert — anyone who tries to win that argument is monstrous themselves. We either merge, join forces, or we lose.

This is the task. All the work is merely part of this.

The future is not a static thing

Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Sarah Jones at Dissent Magazine.

La sagesse de l’Oncle Bruno

Bruno Latour [BL] and Nickolaj Schultz [NS], in conversation with Jakob Stein in late 2018, from a transcript (sadly not open-access) at Theory, Culture & Society:

BL: … we are inheriting a history of 200 years of euphemizing and making invisible the material conditions of existence on which we rely. When we see the ecological crisis arriving, we do everything to delay or deny the situation, because we have learned that this was a question outside of our social order. But the fact that the earthly conditions come back and reinsist on being the most important aspect of the social order – which is actually very classical politics, since to have politics you need a land and you need a people – makes us very surprised. So I think it is momentary. It is a transition which is in a way going very fast, since everybody knows now that it is the essential problem. But it is still difficult to fit into the classical definition of politics, because it does not fit with the nation-state, etc. So there are all sorts of characteristics that explain the indifference. There are also theological reasons.

[…]

BL: The place or land where these neo-nationalist countries claim to live has no economic or ecological base. If you see the negotiations between Brussels and Italy, it is clear that the promises made have absolutely no connection with any soil. And the imaginary America of Trump and the imaginary Brazil of Bolsonaro have no land either. It simply has no existence economically or ecologically. And this is why we have to very quickly do the work of reconstituting the land under the feet of people. This is where things can be accelerated and politics can come back. If you ask people ‘What is the territory that allows you to subsist?’, at first, people immediately realize that they have no way of describing this territory and they are completely lost. Afterwards, they feel excited and regrounded. And if they have a ground, a land, a territory, they begin to have interests. And if they have interests, we begin to have politics. So it can and it will shift very quickly. If not, we will all be doomed. Brexit is a good example. What happens in England now is really interesting, because you see how people begin to realize that Brexit is a catastrophe in terms of conditions of existence. You see people who are deeply depoliticized, completely seized by the idea that you need no attachments, suddenly realizing that if you are cut out of Europe then you are nothing much. Because now people are talking concretely: with Brexit, these universities are going to disappear, these jobs are going to disappear, etc., and we have been completely lied to about what it is to be somewhere, in England, in the place of nowhere.

Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth, is literally the work of a lifetime: a distillation of everything he’s done in the past four decades plus into around a hundred short, crackling pages. For most of his career, he has played the distanced sociological role impeccably, but has slowly been shedding it over the last decade or so (or perhaps ever since “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”); Down to Earth sees him shrug it off completely and make these clean, clear connections to a political project. It’s a masterpiece, full of energy and urgency. You could read it in an afternoon, and I thoroughly recommend that you do so.

Also found this bit from Schultz of great interest:

NS: I am still not sure if I understand why we should not be able to theorize power exerted over future generations. Why should power relations not be able to travel through time? That power relations travel through time – is this not what sociology has always showed with concepts such as ‘social heritage’, ‘social reproduction’, etc? I do not think it takes a lot of metaphysical imagination to realize that our generation and previous generations are dominating and have dominated future generations’ possibilities of breathing and living on habitable soils. Unfortunately, it takes more of an imagination to imagine the opposite. As you say, time is colonized. In this perspective we maybe need to understand that we, the Western, modern civilization, was, is and will be a sort of ‘geo-historical elite’, while future generations, rich as well as poor, Western and non-Western, will be living in our ruins of capitalism, as Anna Tsing would say, as a geo-historical proletariat. It is not a nice thought, but …

Cf. this bit from a while back here at VCTB re: the colonising present, riffing on Deb Chachra. I suppose every generation is given to thinking that its challenges are of world-shattering importance and urgency, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.