Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

empty, ersatz nature

Damn, but Kate Wagner is a good writer. Here she is on the aesthetics of ruination for The Baffler:

Unlike images of nature’s reclamation of Chernobyl, there is no righteous, morbid, fetishistic pleasure to be found in Superfund sites whether or not they’re remediated. In a secular world free of mysticism, they are perhaps the closest approximation to what it means for a place to be haunted—by invisible poisons that destabilize communities and the bodies that inhabit them. Remediated sites, with their empty, ersatz nature mottled with the uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification, offer no decaying buildings or strewn-about gas masks to aestheticize. Often, the only titillating feature is a humble sign attached to the fence dutifully informing the observer that what they are looking at is indeed a Superfund project. The rather mundane reality can be underwhelming—we want to see visual symbols of death and decay caused by our misdeeds against the land. It is unfair that poisoned earth so often looks like the perimeter of an airport.

I know that “uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification” that Wagner mentions; Shirebrook Valley Nature Reserve is peppered with it, if you’re willing to look, as are many such green spaces around Sheffield and Rotherham.

We don’t really have an equivalent to the Superfund site in the UK, as far as I know — but we probably should have. Indeed, I’ve been living not far from one for the last seven years, and what was once the famous Orgreave colliery and coke-works is now half “nature” reserve (which proves every point ever made about the social/natural dichotomy) and half housing estate. I’m told that the Rother, which wends its way across the washlands just down the hill from my front door, was once reckoned to be the most polluted river in Europe (though I find that hard to believe, given the continued state of the Don, which still reeks of wrongness after heavy rainfall); you’d not know it now from a casual glance.

But who knows what lies beneath the silt and mud, lurking in the water-table, sucked up into the buddleja and brambles? A lot of industrial “remediation” projects in this country seem to involve either leaving a place overgrown and neglected for a few decades, or bringing in a layer of heavy topsoil in a manner analogous to capping a moribund landfill site… we can only hope that it’s enough, I guess. Every time I walk around Waverley, I wonder how many of its residents know what once occupied the land their homes are sat upon. Hell knows there’s little or nothing there to tell them about it.

(As a side note, much is made of Sheffield’s status as “England’s greenest city”, not least by the council itself. Less often mentioned is that many of the green spaces within the city boundaries are the sites of former coal pits; these spaces remain undeveloped largely because the excavations beneath make them unsafe and/or toxic, rather than due to the desire of the council or the development industry to make the city “greener”. But hey, if you’ve got a sow’s ear, you might as well make a silk purse of it, right?)

nontransparent, unspiderable

Nicholas Carr on Page and Brin’s vanishing trick:

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

Cf: my riff on the wizards of innovation, and the relation between infrastructure and stage magic. The hero’s journey of tech is a ubiquitous generic form — presumably because it has a great deal in common with investor storytime, and fits well with the generally individualistic worldbuilding of capitalist realism. The G**gle guys are merely the most successful iteration of the sorcerer role to date — the wizard’s wizards, if you will.

I owe Carr an apology, really; back in the Noughties, when I was still a fully signed-up Sil-Val Kool-Aid consumer, I gave his book The Big Switch a kicking for what seemed to me to be a very pessimistic and negative take on the brave new world of web two-point-nought etc. I wish I had paid closer attention earlier on.

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.

Murketing / Agency

Ryan Alexander Diduck at tQ on the demise of R*d B*ll Music Academy:

We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.

This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.

It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.

In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:

[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”

The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.

I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.

Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.

A more humane and generous account

Eugene McCarraher at Aeon:

If it’s long past time to deny that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the time has come to renounce the parochial secular dogma of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. The pre-modern belief in the enchantment of the world – modernised in Romanticism, blending scientific rationality with Hopkins’s conviction of God’s worldly grandeur – offers a more humane and generous account of our place in creation, and it provides the most compelling foundation for opposition to capitalism.

Cf. my talk from a few years back: “How does the rabbit end up in the hat? (Or: what transhumanism doesn’t want you to know about infrastructure.)”

The technology/magic overlap is in desperate need of more thorough exploration. Assorted friends’n’colleagues have been doing great work with Haunted Machines, but that’s not quite the same thing that interests me; for me, technology isn’t merely analogous to stage magic, it IS stage magic. Which is fine, so long as everyone understands that the trick is a trick, and that the magic that powers the trick is a function of the plenitude of the world. But the disenchantment of capitalism is reified through infrastructure’s seeming provision ex nihilo: we mistake the plenitude of the world for the beneficence of the metasystem, while the latter is actually engaged in the effacement of the consequences of our consumption.

(Yes, this is just my own particular beachhead in the massed last-ditch assault upon the social/natural dichotomy. Because if you’re going to choose a hill to die on, why choose a crowded one?)