Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

Justifications for critical utopianism

A strident argument for critical utopian discourse  (and against  technotopian solutionism) from David F Ruccio at Real-World Economics Review [via SyntheticZero]:

[This] doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

And that is why, after five years of feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall, I’m nonetheless bandaging my metaphorical head and carrying on. For the most part, infrastructural research in the UK academy has been thoroughly colonised by solutionist paradigms, to the extent that it feels like being caught in an warped loop of the Marge vs. the Monorail! episode of The Simpsons that never reaches the denouement. It’s frustrating — and has frequently felt futile — to do battle with the unholy alliance of perverse economic incentives and semantically ambiguous suitcase words… but as the old cliche goes: to try is to invite failure, but to give up is to ensure it.

The device paradigm

The switch induced a new and modern space defined not by size, shape, struc­ture, material, use, ornament, or any other conventional measure of architectural merit. Rather, it conjured a space distinguished by its instantaneous appearance, willed into visibility, as if volition alone were enough to make it so. Indeed, the very idea of a volitional space presumes that individual will is as much a part of the transformation created by electric light as the switch mecha­nism’s metal contacts. Visibly projecting willpower into a third dimension, voli­tional space is the amalgam of technology and desire, an image of desire reliably fulfilled.

[…]

… the switch typifies the “device paradigm,” an idea introduced in 1984 by the philosopher of modern technology, Albert Borg­mann. The phrase describes a common trait of modern technology: the way in which a par­ticular configuration of components enables a productive mechanism to be eclipsed by the commodity it delivers. Borgmann saw social relations in modern society as structured by the pairing of productive apparatus and a delivered commodity in such a way that consumption appears to be unmediated. Pipes and ducts, for example, separate the combustion of fuel from the resultant heat: they convey warmth while concealing the means of making it. Though common to many tools, and facilitated by modern technologies, this cultural preference was neither inevitable nor neutral in its effects. Indeed, Borgmann argued that dissociation from productive mechanisms made us ignorant of their social and material costs. As long as benefits were assured and costs predictable, consumers remained strangers to their own environments. The invis­ibility of the technology was proof of its effectiveness.

At first glance, the switch seems to contradict the device paradigm since it refocused attention on the mechanisms of the delivery system. But in experiential terms, the switch exemplified the ease with which vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be snapped into service at a moment’s notice. The switch not only controlled the flow of electricity, it represented that control. Its trifling size and trivial operation encouraged confidence in the ability to bring to heel a force of nature. Additional details — an ivory or gold-plated key, common adornments for ceremonial switching, even an ordinary decorative switch plate — moved the switch further from techni­cal functionality and into the realm of cultural signification. If anything, the switch’s instantaneous operation and distant action dramatized the device paradigm, at least for those earlier generations that marveled at the spread of electricity. With its disproportion between physical effort and visual impact, the light switch is the device paradigm made emphatic.

[…]

The switch became a crucial interface between ordinary people and an all but invisible infrastructure, between potent natural forces harnessed by new technologies and the day-to-day doings of everyone. It was the banal object wherein the juggernaut of modernity became the stuff of everyday life.

Clips from an excellent essay, “At the Flip of the Switch” by Sandy Isenstadt, at Places Journal. Lots of parallels with my own theoretical work. I’m astonished that I never stumbled across the work of Borgmann before, but the curse of the contemporary academic corpus is precisely its size: this is not the first time I’ve found a literature effectively parallel to (or at least shadow-mirroring) the ones I was working with, but which is all but unacknowledged by them.

(The ubiquity of this phenomenon, particularly when it comes to technological and infrastructural topics, is almost certainly political: put simply, heresy goes uncited. The effect is compounded by the ubiquity of search engines in literature review processes: heavily cited works float to the top, and everything else sinks into the long tail. If nothing else, it explains why the last five years of my life have felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall.)

BAU infrastructure futures

Residents of Lebanon have three basic options: buy a generator subscription, own your own generator, or splurge for what’s known as an uninterruptible power supply.

When you move into an apartment, you will most often connect with the local generator owner who will set up a subscription for 5 amps, 10 amps, 15 amps, or more, depending on your budget and consumption during the scheduled power outages. Residents will also do this with their water providers—one bill and service provider for filtered water, and another bill and service provider for gray water. (Water utilities are likewise a … gray area.) Internet is handled by another ad hoc collection of quasi-legal independent operators, as is trash, which the city is supposed to take care of but often fails to collect. These entities are more than private providers or secret crusaders. They are a necessary convenience to which one is connected through inconvenient terms.

Decent if slightly fetishised piece at Wired on life in Beirut under infrastructural uncertainty. This sort of set-up is likely far from being unique to Lebanon; similar conditions certainly pertain in unplanned favelas in the Global South, and will become more commonplace in the “developed” world in the not-too-distant future. This is the “unbundling” paradigm taken to its inevitable and obvious conclusion, the ugly end-game of the free-markets! flavour of decentralisation. This is the BAU future — yours, mine, and pretty much everyone else’s.

Roamin’ roads, redux

The WaPo [via the good folk at Moving History] reports on some interesting research which comes to a conclusion that (I hope) no regular reader here would be surprised by: current geographical levels of population and prosperity in Europe correlate strongly with the Roman road network laid down around two millennia ago.

Dalgaard and his colleagues marshal convincing pieces of evidence to argue in favor of a causal link that runs from ancient roadbuilding to modern-day prosperity. For starters, Roman roads weren’t typically built with trade in mind: their primary purpose was to move troops and supplies to locations of military interest. Trade was an afterthought.

“Roman roads were often constructed in newly conquered areas without any extensive, or at least not comparable, existing network of cities and infrastructure,” Dalgaard and his colleagues write. In many instances, the roads came first. Settlements and cities came later.

Just because I’m not a quant doesn’t mean I don’t like to see someone run the numbers and do the GiS work; indeed, it’s a pleasure to see an instinctive qualitative conclusion bolstered by solid research. As such, it’d be nice for someone to run a more detailed study of the same correlation focussed on Britain (for which some fine person did a tube-map style plot of Roman roads a while back)… and as an imminently unemployed self-employed researcher with experience in matters infrastructural-historical, I stand ready should anyone decide they’d like to fund such a study. Our operators are waiting for your call, etc etc.

In the meantime, have you read Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power? Because, by whatever gods (or the lack thereof) you may believe in, you really should — because it’s a  brilliant book exactly about how those Roman roads formed the basis of the road network we have now (as well as how the civil engineer came to be a thing, and the relationship of infrastructural provision to the projection of domestic state power, and much more), but also just because it’s a brilliant book, full stop.

Cold equations in the care vacuum

In a nutshell, over-reliance on computer ‘carers’, none of which can really care, would be a betrayal of the user’s human dignity – a fourth-level need in Maslow’s hierarchy. In the early days of AI, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum made himself very unpopular with his MIT colleagues by saying as much. ‘To substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love,’ he insisted in 1976, is ‘simply obscene.’

Margaret Boden at Aeon, arguing that the inability of machines to care precludes the “robot takeover” scenario that’s so popular a hook for thinkpieces at the moment.

I tend to agree with much of what she says in this piece, but for me at least the worry isn’t artificial intelligence taking over, but the designers of artificial intelligence taking over — because in the absence of native care in algorithmic systems, we get the unexamined biases, priorities and ideological assumptions of their designers programmed in as a substitute for such. If algorithmic systems were simply discreet units, this might not be such a threat… but the penetration of the algorithm into the infrastructural layers of the sociotechnical fabric is already well advanced, and path dependency means that getting it back out again will be a struggle. The clusterfuck that is the Universal Credit benefits system in the UK is a great example of this sort of Cold Equations thinking in action: there’s not even that much actual automation embedded in it yet, but the principle and ideals of automation underpin it almost completely, with the result that — while it may perhaps have been genuinely well-intended by its architects, in their ignorance of the actual circumstances and experience of those they believed they were aiming to help — it’s horrifically dehumanising, as positivist systems almost always turn out to be when deployed “at scale”.

Question is, do we care enough about caring to reverse our direction of travel? Or is it perhaps the case that, the further up Maslow’s pyramid we find ourselves, the harder we find it to empathise with those on the lower tiers? There’s no reason that dignity should be a zero-sum game, but the systems of capitalism have done a pretty thorough job of making it look like one.