Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

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?)

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.