Category Archives: Futures

an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism

Interesting (old?) idea from Venkatesh Rao:

Divergentism is both an idea you can believe or disbelieve, and a basis for an ideological doctrine (hence the –ism) that you can subscribe to or reject. You could capture both aspects with this simple statement: Humans diverge at all levels of thought-space, from the sub-individual to species, and this is a good thing. The doctrine part is the last clause.

If you are a divergentist, you hold that the social-cognitive universe is expanding towards an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism, and you are at peace with this thought. You explain contemporary social phenomena in light of this thought. For example, political polarization is just an anxious resistance to divergence forces. Subculturalization and atomization are a natural consequence of it.

I think I’m a cautious believer in divergentism, but not a doctrinal subscriber to it.

There’s a sense of something-in-the-airness I’m getting at the moment, too, in that the above idea seems of a piece with the retromania/cultural fracking thing I rambled about the other day, and that they’re both linked by the ideas of the Ccru as summed up by Robin Mackay on the Buddies Without Organs podcast earlier this week—which is to say, by the utility in cybernetics as a useful, nay necessary model for thinking about cultural production (and for doing thinking as cultural production), and the particular value in the cybernetic road less travelled, namely positive feedback (rather than the hegemonic negative feedback models of the RANDy cyberfuture people, which always did and still do rely on the useful but dangerously limited hypothetical positing of the closed system, in a universe where there is no such thing as a closed system).

Of course, that sense of something-in-the-airness may just be the result of my brain clearing after a hectic couple of months, and of my getting back to some sort of sporadic rhythm of thinking about stuff beyond what’s necessary for the day-job… but whatever. For what is synchronicity if it is not a positive feedback, deliberately sought out and encouraged? Maybe it’s time to stand a bit closer to the amplifier, so to speak.

more futures than people

TFW a webcomic, which you’ve been reading for what is probably fifteen years or so by this point, unexpectedly recapitulates one of the major planks of your own academic theoretical framework, and does so via the staggeringly economical medium of a few panels of dinosaur clip-art:

Of course, the observation that all futures—from the most banal to the most economically and/or politically influential—are stories is merely the starting point of said theoretical framework*; it’s the implications of that observation (namely that they can be analysed and constructed using the same toolkit that is routinely applied to more ‘literary’ manifestations of narrative) that are important, at least to me. But that the observation makes sense to others (to whom I have not yet expounded it at manic length) is somehow comforting.

BRB, just gotta check whether the APA has defined style rules for citing webcomics…

[ * This is exactly the sort of thing that I like to imagine better-known and more secure academics also tell themselves at 3am in the hope of battening down the imposter syndrome long enough to get some sleep. Which probably indicates that my own imposter syndrome is rather less ‘battened down’ than it is, metaphorically speaking, left sat alone in the living room all night with a fresh box of snus and a four-pack of Mariestad, talking loudly to itself with the lights off. ]

arrogant fidelity

Looks like the universe is serendipitously feeding my streak of focus on growthism. Clipped from Geoff Mann reviewing William Nordhaus’s new tome at the LRB:

Nordhaus attempts to make climate change compatible with ceaseless long-run growth by emphasising the global economy’s ‘carbon intensity’ instead of its carbon sensitivity. The Spirit of Green is most sanguine in its demonstration that a decreasing amount of CO2 is required to fuel a unit of global growth. I think his point is that since growth requires less carbon than it did in the past, we should be more hopeful. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that continued emissions are continued emissions. Long-term studies of emissions pathways show that the problem, in the end, is the absolute volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We simply have to stop emitting them as soon as possible. There is no hope to be placed in the gradually declining carbon intensity of growth that nonetheless continues to add to the atmospheric pool. In fact, if growth accelerates, decreasing carbon intensity is quite compatible with increasing emissions. The problem, in the models and in our current reality, is the arrogant fidelity to growth.

No further questions, your honour.

an immaterial objection

Via L M Sacasas, an interview by Evan Selinger with David Chalmers, who appears to be analytical philosophy’s current useful idiot from the POV of the tech scene.

Does that seem harsh, whether on analytical philosophy in general or Chalmers in particular? Well, given said discipline prides itself on a rigour that the filthy continentals supposedly abjure, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after this line from the final paragraph:

One big difference between VR and physical reality is that material goods in VR are abundant.

I don’t know where to even start with such a monumentally stupid and contradictory statement.

But while it’s tempting to laugh and roll our eyes at these people, they are not marginal cranks. This, as Sacasas points out, is what a lot of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world actually believe, as an article of faith; “transhumanism is the default eschatology of the modern technological project”, and that should worry anyone who doesn’t see Ready Player One as a utopian document.

(not) giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise

One of the joys of having unplugged from the birdsite again is being able to largely ignore the whole crypto/Web3/NFT circus, at least in its most immediate expression. Of course, various people are writing about it more slowly, and it’s probably a function of my pre-existing biases that have ensured the vast majority of what I’ve read tends to cash out as academic or practitioner-accented versions of NOPE NOPE NOPE. Without any shame for the hipsterness of the statement, I’ll note that I was skeptical of this stuff when it was still new (and I have the receipts to prove it).

But when people I respect contradict or challenge me, well, I do my best to listen. Here’s yer man Matt Colquhoun:

The world is changing, both on- and offline, but our imaginations are slow to catch up. Without an insistence upon it proceeding otherwise, Web3 will be (and is being) used to replicate the pre-existing cultural hegemony of Funko-Populist finance bros.

Let’s just stop to do a full on gatsby.gif at that lovely coining in the last line, there. Chapeau, sir.

Now, Matt seems to me to be saying that he’s worried that by NOPEing out of this space entirely, we’re giving up the chance to seize the potentially good bits of this assemblage. On that point, I agree. But my instinct—and I will gladly concede that it is very much an instinct, one nurtured by the intense disillusionment of the Nougties blogging goldrush (of which I was arguably one of the people who did moderately well, albeit in a very drawn-out and roundabout sort of way), but also from, ah, let’s just say an earlier stage of life during which I was exposed to an awful lot of hucksterism and hustle of an even more naked sort—my instinct, leavened with a bit of research (though not so much as an advocate would insist was a precondition of having an opinion), says to me that there’s nothing there fight for, or if there is, the triumph of the very worst potentials thereof—already very much in the ascendant—is effectively baked in due to its unfolding within the inducement structure of capitalism more broadly.

None other than Evgeny Morozov sees it as being worse still: by looking for the bright side of this mess, we end up giving it a veneer of progressive respectability:

How does one criticize a flawed, unrealistic, and extremely partial narrative that is, nonetheless, being rapidly turned into reality? This is not a problem that one can solve by adopting a more pragmatic, solutions-oriented attitude that many of the proponents of Web3 demand from their critics. The goal here cannot just be to find a more progressive use for DAOs or tokens or NFTs. I’m sure they exist – and many more of them can be found in due time. But what is the point of such search expeditions, when, in the end, such efforts are only likely to help in the left-washing of the Web3 brand, giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise?

As he puts it, “there is no ‘there’ there”; the self-referentiality of the whole edifice means anything you do to fight it just gets hoovered up by the rhetorical cyclone.

But back to Matt:

But there are a number of alternative visions out there — the latest issue of Spike Art magazine contains advocates for a bunch of them, who are both optimistic and pessimism about the current state of things. The worry I have, and that many others have, is that it may already be too late. What depresses me isn’t so much how NFTs are being used by the internet’s most naïve denizens, but that their idiocy atrophies the political imagination of the rest of us.

In that sense, the responsibility for our unabating digital dystopia lies as much with the mindless naysayers as it does mindless enthusiasts. The narcosis of an old digital radicalism is developing necrosis. Something has got to give, but we need to realize that this needn’t be the communities we hold dear in themselves. There is space for them to well and truly thrive, if we demand and carve out that space, just as we did when the internet first became available to us.

Now, I have a lot of time for Matt’s negation-of-the-negation argument, to the point that I have once phrasing of it blu-tacked to the wall above my desk. Maybe it’s just a function of me being An Old nowadays, but I think the reason for the necrosis of digital radicalism is the acceleration of the capture process with each new iteration of the digital frontier… plus, perhaps, a dawning realisation that perpetually turning to the next frontier is a foundational plank of the thing we’re trying to fight against.

To reiterate a point from a few days back, this ain’t me going all primitivist and suggesting “we can do without technology”; far from it. But I think I do perhaps feel that getting away from this attitude where the technological is often or always the site—a non-spatial site, which is perhaps another root of the problem—of the next potential victory. I try not to cite ol’ Grandpa Karl too often, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of him, but I’m pretty sure that his basic argument was that while technology might serve to enable a more socialist world, it could only do so once the political economy in which it operated had been reconfigured. Seize the means of production first, right? Then reorganise the uses it’s put to. So wading in to the Web3 shitstorm to me feels like trying to fine-tune (post-)Fordism for socialist ends: totally well-intended, but ultimately of use only to the factory owners.

Matt doesn’t want “the communities we hold dear” to be sacrificed to to the necessity of change, and yeah, I hear that. I guess I’m just not so convinced as I once was—and those who’ve known me long enough will know that I was super convinced, a bona fide Web2.0 evangelist—that a change of medium to the next new thing is going to keep those communities vital. To be honest, I think making better, slower use of the superseded media might be a better place to start. The Arab Spring didn’t fail because social media wasn’t sufficiently advanced or decentralised; it failed because the systems of power it was arraigned against were too deeply entrenched, and those media were in turn embedded into those structures from the get-go.

Eh, I dunno—like I say, I’m An Old now, and increasingly identifying with the (historical, rather than vernacular) label of Luddite. Sure, the Web3 powerloom might revolutionise many of the things I do for a living… but even if the nice guys work out a way to do that, is it going to compete with the monkey-jpeg people and Andreessen-Horowitz? Not bloody likely, mate. I only have so much fight left in me, and I’m not wasting it in a space where the signal-to-noise ratio (not to mention the VC bankroll) is that high.

Still, good luck to anyone who wants to brave it. Because I agree with Matt’s parting line, as well:

It is our complacency, not Web3, that will be the death of us.

And yeah, maybe I’m just NOPEing out of the definitional struggle of our times… but I can’t see what work there is to be done there, let alone how to start doing it. Perhaps I just don’t have enough of a stake in it? Perhaps the (veeeerrrry relative) security of early career academia has seduced me away from the vanguard? Quite possible.

But I very clearly remember believing that having my own website and socnet handles would lift me out of the neoliberal precariat, and I remember seeing that—even as it did so for a very lucky few of us—it made things even worse for those who missed the bus. My sense that Web3 &c. will be an even crueller and faster clusterfuck goldrush is, as I say above, predominantly instinctual—which is perhaps to say imaginative.

I can’t imagine a metaverse in which things are better for most people. But I can imagine a world in which we’ve decided that chasing our emancipation down the fibre-optic backbones and into the data-centers will look, in hindsight, like a very weird thing people once believed, like the indulgences that came off the early printing presses. Progress is the greatest lie ever told, and Web3 looks like the very shiniest empty box it has ever been put in.

Good luck in there, but count me out.