Category Archives: Futures

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.

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.