Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

collecting for the collective

Got yer weak signals right here, guv:

Called B-Wa(h)renhaus (an untranslatable pun meaning both department store and “conserving house”), the store covers over 7,000 square feet and sells used and upcycled clothing, furniture, phones and other electronics. In an attempt to reach beyond the usual people who already patronize secondhand shops, the store’s location is also significant: It’s not in an especially hip location, or a flea market known for knock-down prices, but within one of Berlin’s most established, middle-of-the-road department stores.

The new store’s initial six-month run will be on the third floor of the Kreuzberg neighborhood’s well-known Karstadt department store, but the city’s plans to sponsor its own re-use stores extend way beyond that time limit. The city says that it aims to open three or four re-use stores across Berlin in the near future. Its longer-term ambition, according to the city’s 2020-2030 waste master plan, is to launch a store in every one of Berlin’s 12 boroughs.

These city-run stores (which already have one-off, smaller-scale counterparts in cities including Hamburg and Vienna) won’t just be standard secondhand markets designed to save useable goods from going to landfill sites. According to the city’s press release, Berlin hopes to use the stores to “anchor the re-use of used goods in urban society” by functioning as centers to educate and spread tips on re-use — especially to sections of the public that aren’t currently much involved in the circular economy. The initiative is part of a broader plan from Berlin’s ruling center-left/Green/left coalition that looks to slash waste in all areas of the city’s economy. 

This is a form of scaling up I could happily get behind; the city-state is the ideal scale for this sort of operation, because the material logistics needed to centralise the stock can be made pretty efficient. It’s notable that the city is actually collecting the stuff rather than simply taking donations; the article doesn’t mention it, but I dare say that they’ll save whatever they’re spending on those collections through a reduction in flytipping. The article also doesn’t mention whether they have a delivery option; I’m guessing there must be one, given Berlin’s the sort of city where a lot of folk go without owning a car.

(All the second-hand stores in Malmö—which are not state-run, but predominantly charity-based operations—do affordable delivery, or at least the ones that carry furniture. And you can get some surprisingly good stuff for surprisingly low prices… almost all the furniture in my apartment which didn’t come over with me has come out of second-hand stores, or from a loppis, which is basically the Swedish word for a yard-sale. It helps that Malmö, much like Berlin, is a very left-leaning town; where one finds batikhäxorna, there too will one find bargains.)

The Berlin thing chimes with a bit toward the end of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which I was re-reading last week:

“… in making recycling the responsibility of ‘everyone’, structure contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility […] Instead of saying that everyone—i.e. every one—is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no-one is [responsible], and that’s the very problem. The cause of eco-catastrophe is an impersonal structure which, even though it is capable of producing all manner of effects, is precisely not a subject capable of exercising responsibility. The required subject—a collective subject—does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed.” — p66

OK, so “world’s hipster capital opens state-run thrift-store” is not exactly a epochal change in terms of the quantitative impact of consumerism—though I’d argue it’s still far better than nothing. But beyond that, it’s a sign of governmental structures—heavily-left-leaning ones, admittedly—stepping up to be the face and the logistical infrastructure of that collective subject that Fisher’s talking about above; it’s the State de-cloaking, taking responsibility, getting its hands dirty, and (assuming I’m not misparsing him on the basis of a very quick skim of the latest immense tranche of words he released) trying to grapple with the slowdown economics that Dan Hill has been thinking so hard about all summer long.

Oh, and there’s one more thing missing from that article which took me a while to notice: there’s no mention of an app. Even if there is one, and it just didn’t merit inclusion in the press release, I think that’s a weak signal in its own right—particularly in the context of a tech-heavy city like Berlin. The first cracks in the facade of solutionism? Well, a guy can dream…

hauntological metasystemics

I’m cited* in this piece by Kelly Pendergrast at Real Life, but that’s not the (only) reason I’m clipping from it; I’m citing from it because it’s really good, and because it takes ideas from my heretofore most completely ignored journal paper and takes them exactly in the direction I hoped people would take them. So yeah, self-aggrandizement, sure; guilty as charged. But Pendergrast’s point, and mine, is that we’re all in this together—not because some ham-faced PPE graduate thinks saying so might make it so, but because we sprung the trap of cyborg collectivity on ourselves long ago, and are only now really starting to realise it. Therefore, anyone advancing that same understanding should get some signal boost. (Not that I’m much of an amplifier these days, but hey; I had my time.)

And if they come at that understanding through a haunted-house metaphor, well, so much the better:

In the real world of the cyborg collective and its composite parts, the horrors of the house are entirely non-metaphoric. Turn a tap in some parts of Flint, Michigan, and poisoned water still flows out, years after the city’s water crisis became a national disgrace. Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes: black lung, denuded environments, death. Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it.

I love haunted house stories. Their capaciousness holds whole histories of private trauma and Freudian neurosis, and reflects myriad social concerns about the function of the nuclear family and the horrors at its heart. But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private. It may be purchased, and thus legally private property, but it doesn’t stand alone. Through its extending wires, pipes, inputs and outputs, the house (with few off-grid exceptions) is tied up in the cyborg systems of the city and the supply chains and logistical inputs that extend around the globe. Inside the house, the comfort and nurturing care I feel is a product of the infrastructural and sociotechnical systems that rely on the work of many others.

That riff about house-as-property is one that I’ve wanted to follow for a while, but theory work has necessarily taken a backburner while I concentrate on the work I’m actually funded to do… but there’s an interesting counterconceptualisation via the Haraway/LeGuin complex (in that LeGuin suggested the house might be seen as another of her “carrier bags”), and from my mentor and friend Zoe Sofoulis, who has written on container technologies from a feminist standpoint.

Containers and other infrastructures of storage are an interesting wrinkle for my theory, because they seem to break the rule that infrastructures either transport or transmute–but if we consider transportation as a four-dimensional phenomenon, then the container (and particularly reefers, and other forms of storage which preserve as well as protect) does indeed enact a transportation, albeit one with a velocity of zero: storage moves things through time without moving them through space.

(Preserving forms of storage are thus actually decelerative: they slow down the effects of time on that which is stored. When the container itself is then accelerated through timespace, you get an extension of the distance that the stored thing can travel before decaying. This all plugs in nicely to that Marx-via-Harvey thing about infrastructure warping timespace… and, now I think about it, will come in handy as part of a paper I’m currently co-writing on packaging and plastics. Turns out there’s a use to this thinking-out-loud business after all!)

Anyway, enough of my waffle—back to Pendergrast, who is more interested in the increasingly concrete (pun not entirely unintended) political ramifications of that dawning realisation of cyborg collectivity, and also shares some concerns about what Tim Carmody neatly popularised as the systemic sublime:

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” But I get it. And I’ve felt it: the uncanny mystique of larger-than-life steel and concrete power plants, or the gut-drop of standing on the edge of a dam spillway, imagining yourself slipping over and sluicing into the deep canyon of water below. In part, these fantasies of the sublime are a symptom of our alienation from infrastructural systems and the powers that animate them. If it’s not clear whose interests infrastructure serves, and how our own lives and housebodies are enmeshed in the macro systems, the only thing left to do is spectacularize, fetishize, or destroy.

That passage really resonated, perhaps because I’d only yesterday seen the press blurb for a new book by Michael Truscello, in which…

… he calls for “brisantic politics,” a culture of unmaking that is capable of slowing the advance of capitalist suicide. “Brisance” refers to the shattering effect of an explosive, but Truscello uses the term to signal a variety of practices for defeating infrastructural power. Brisantic politics, he warns, would require a reorientation of radical politics toward infrastructure, sabotage, and cascading destruction in an interconnected world.

And part of me is all like “yay, someone’s taking this stuff seriously!”, but the other part is like “uh, I’m really not sure advocating sabotage and destruction of the metasystem is a good move”; I’ll wait until I’ve read the thing before calling it either way, but given the very clear illegibility of infrastructure to the majority of citizens, this is a bit like telling an astronaut to stick it to his boss by poking holes in his spacesuit.

Pendergrast, however, is taking a rather more nuanced look at the same issue:

I want more for us than to spend every precious moment scrambling to arrange childcare or make sure our friends don’t get evicted. Collective care without the collective assemblage of infrastructure is near impossible, so we need to figure out how to maintain the systems that still function, and how to fix the ones that are broken or working against us.

In some cases, pieces of the existing collective cyborg will need to be dismantled. The pipelines that cut across Native land and spill oil onto the prairie: those can go. The highways that slice through neighborhoods, benefiting those on one side of the divide while immiserating those on the other: those can go too, ripped up for barricades and projectiles, “the use of the city against the city, in the name of the city.” Other parts can stay but must be redistributed, brought into collective ownership so the waters and warmth and phone lines are shared equitably and wrested away from the profit motive. Infrastructure is a massive investment, and much of that investment has already been made. To maintain it, to take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day, is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined.

Far from the spirit world of the haunted family house, the housebody and its appendages are earthed and rooted in material space. If the house must be imagined as a womb, perhaps that’s OK: the parent/fetus relationship was never a private relationship either. The parent eats, drinks, connects to the appendages of the collective cyborg, in order to nourish and nurture the creature within.

No surprises with the shout-outs to maintenance; Shannon Mattern has a posse. (And there might be something that could be done with Clute’s notion of Bondage, which is of course a concept from his critical theory of horror… ) But that haunted-house/parent-fetus figuration in Pendergrast’s piece, damn, that’s a work of art. It’s an amazing and humbling thing to see your ideas reflected back at you, but made better.

( Disclaimer: yeah, I know I’m being very loose by putting “hauntology” in the title of this post, even if we think about the post-Fisher understanding of the term… but nonetheless, I think there’s a sense in which the now-betrayed promise of infrastructures as utilities—available to everyone, well-maintained and fairly priced, etc etc—could be argued to be the unacknowledged base layer of all those foreclosed-upon futures. Or, more simply: I can probably make a case for it if pressed, and no one is likely to press for me to do so anyway, so, yeah, it’s staying. )

[ * – I owe not just my awareness of that citation, but the citation itself, to Deb Chachra, whose fastidiousness at attributing her sources is exemplary–particularly in the context of an academia in which, as one has slowly come to realise, such fastidiousness is often the first thing to go overboard in the race for recognition. So thanks, Deb, and thanks, Kelly Pendergrast. You’ve made a marginal theorist feel momentarily good about his work. Thanks also to Jay Springett for sending me the link as well. Something something power of networks something. ]

platforms make markets

Rob Horning again, on the hustle economy the gig economy the ubiquity of platforms as obligatory labour intermediaries:

The “hustle” platform seems like a mere means of distribution for the “creators” or “entrepreneurs” who own the means of production (their own bodies). But in fact the “hustle economy” scenario is not so different from working in a factory. The creators have labor power, which they effectively sell to the platforms, which control the means of producing the “things” that matter here: reaching potential customers at scale, sustaining a means of limiting access to goods, maintaining the business infrastructure that facilitates exchange, aggregating the supply of “creators” to create a sort of network effect that subordinates the value of individual creators to that of the entire catalog that a platform owns. Maybe the simpler way of saying that is platforms make markets. That is their product. They serve neoliberalism’s tendency to marketize any aspect of existence that has hitherto resisted it in the name of bringing the market’s “discipline” to wayward aspects of sociability.  In submitting to a platform, whatever “existing skills” a creator has are reformatted, warped to fit the scheme devised to exploit them for profit. I think Marx calls that “formal subsumption,” when a capitalist organization of production appropriates pre-existing skills and reshapes them so as to primarily valorize capital. Then, when the existence of Patreon, etc., is taken for granted, the new skills that can be acquired take the shape demanded or anticipated by those platforms, on their terms and to their benefit and for their continued survival (“real subsumption”). The platforms begin to produce the sorts of creators they need to profit.

It’s not at all different to working in a factory—in fact, it’s basically piecework, but piecework done for factories that have given up any pretense of producing a specific product or type of product to the end of capital accumulation; they’ll flog whatever the pieceworkers are able to produce. Or rather, they’ll provide a system whereby the pieceworker can flog that thing—and flog themselves—and cream off whatever the market will bear.

Work itself, when organized through platforms, is no longer “skilled,” but just abstract spare capacity that capital can take or leave when it needs it, dipping into the pool of reserve labor on its own terms. Patreon et al. bring that model to forms of work that otherwise seem resistant — the kinds of things contingent on one’s reputation or personal brand. “Anyone with noncommoditized skills can do this,” venture capitalist Li Jin tells Dewey — anyone can sell themselves on/to a platform. It’s no accident that VC types champion these models with deceptive rhetoric about inclusion and empowerment; the models are designed to line their pockets while impoverishing the world, and they work better when every possible person is exploited. That’s the beauty of scale.

Oooh, look: it’s our friend scale again! Which is, I think, the fundamental feature of platforms as a business model… and that’s related to the natural-monopoly tendency of infrastructures of distribution.

In short, all platforms are labor platforms. They turn “life” into “work” wherever possible, for “creators” and consumers alike, tracking and redistributing user behavior on the platforms’ terms. Commodification makes inroads in more and more aspects of everyday life and comes to dictate more and more of social relations. Why make friends when you can have followers? Why speak from outside a company’s paywall? The platforms are not offering a way to survive in a crisis; they are exploiting a crisis to introduce a regime that makes immiseration a permanent condition. The tides rise but never recede.

To return to a point I keep drifting away from (because easily distracted), the platform model is not the inevitable outcome of the natural-monopoly tendency in distributive systems—or at least it doesn’t have to be. (Capitalism’s incentive structures make it effectively inevitable, as Horning is pointing out above: “platforms make markets”.) However, the protocol model could achieve the same opportunities for the pieceworker, but without the proprietary capture and rake-off associated with a successfully scaled monopoly platform; the platform model in this case would look like a suite of open-source tools for website building and online payments, a fairly-priced postal service, and a search function that wasn’t massively biased in favour of platforms already within the search engine operator’s own value chains (for both uses of the term “value”). Protocols also make markets—but they make markets with freedoms-from as well as freedoms-to.

With the hopefully assumed caveat that it’s far from being a silver-bullet solution to this or any other socioeconomic challenge, we could really do with remembering what the rail barons were, and why so many states eventually decided to nationalise those early systems of distribution (which, you may recall, also included telegraphy, the forerunner of the communications infrastructures which we still erroneously refer to as “the internet”).

The natural-monopoly tendency of distribution networks can be a problem, but it’s also the source of their usefulness—their utility, you might say. Nationalisation, or some other form of common ownership, gives you the horizontality of the platform without the verticality of the associated value extraction chain; open protocols provide a level playing field that still permits for innovation at the producer level with regard to products and services, and for middle-men operators who have genuine value to add to the process.

But: you have to regulate the system in such a way that the middle-men can’t make themselves into an obligatory passage point—which is to say, you have to keep the infrastructure layer free from commercial interference, at minimum. Well-designed and constantly revised standards and regulations at that level can, in theory, make sure that the interface layer doesn’t ossify into a platform model.

(For an example of this sort of set-up, think of the road network, at least in the UK. It’s not without its flaws, certainly; nor has it avoided becoming a site of ideological economic interference. But in terms of being a transportation protocol which is effectively open to all users, provided they stay within the standards and regulations, it’s so exemplary as to be almost invisible. Admittedly, the neoliberal era has seen the assembly of de facto platform business models upon the road network, but that was achieved more through stock-market malarkey than actual competition. Effective and reliable distribution requires detailed knowledge of the last mile as well as the system as a whole; a national-scale firm can’t really do that, unless making a good job of the last mile is an imperative of its reason for existing. And because the last mile is the expensive bit, as well as the difficult bit, no national-scale distribution firm oriented toward shareholder returns will ever do it well, because it’s the easiest place to shave off your overheads. Effective and reliable networks of distribution, when seen as entire systems, are almost inevitably loss-making; if there is any point at all to the existence of the state, then providing that fundamental infrastructure for economic and informational exchange, and underwriting those losses as the unavoidable cost of having an economy, is surely it. I might even go so far as to say that the state is its infrastructure; all the other stuff is just platforms and protocols running on that network.)

We learned all this once before, in the era of the rail barons, but we allowed ourselves to forget it—because, as a friend put it earlier today, history never actually ended, per Fukuyama, but everyone nonetheless stopped paying it any heed. But it feels like we’re starting to remember it again, collectively, and to find ways of narrating this systemic causality that might help build the grass-roots political will for busting up the platform barons of the Valley, and the ideological scaffolding that they stand upon. The struggle will be long, and victory is far from assured—but nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?

theatre of expertise / expertise of theatre

This one’s been doing the rounds in infrastructure-wonk circles, and deservedly so. I’m usually distrustful of any organisation that includes the term “governance innovation” in its moniker; CIGI is a Canadian thinktank founded by the guy who helmed RIM, none of which serves to fundamentally allay that instinctive suspicion, but this is nonetheless a serious, nuanced and in-depth piece on the tech/policy interface, the likes of which is vanishingly rare in the era of the Hot Take. This is the nut of it:

First, the digitization of public institutions changes the balance of government power, by shifting a number of political issues out of public process and framing them instead as procurement processes. Whereas questions around executive authority were historically defined in legislation, they’re often now defined in platform design — and disputes are raised through customer service. This shift extends executive power and substitutes expert review for public buy-in and legitimacy, in ways that cumulatively result in a public that doesn’t understand or trust what the government does. Importantly, the transition from representative debate to procurement processes significantly changes the structures of engagement for public advocates and non-commercial interests.

The second structural problem results when nuanced conversations about the technical instrumentation of a publicly important governance issue are sensationalized. For example, focusing on COVID-19 contact-tracing apps instead of the large institutional efforts needed to contain infection frames the issues around the technology and not the equities or accountability required to serve public interest mandates. One of the reasons for this is that experts, like everyone else, are funded by someone — and tend to work within their own political, professional and economic perspectives, many of which don’t take responsibility for the moral or justice implications of their participation. Consultants tend to focus on technical solutions instead of political ones, and rarely challenge established limits in the way that the public does.

Said differently, technologies are a way to embed the problem of the political fragility of expertise into, well, nearly everything that we involve technology in. And public institutions’ failure to grapple with the resulting legitimacy issues is destabilizing important parts of our international infrastructure when we need it most.

I don’t agree with all of it, but my disagreements are productive, if that makes any sense: there’s a language here for legitimation via expert discourses (or the lack thereof) which is worth engaging with in more detail. Reading it alongside Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power would be interesting, if time permitted: one of the many things that marvellous book achieves is to explain the (surprisingly early) establishment of the technological expert as not just a political actor, but more particularly an actor in the more formalised theatre of statecraft, thus sowing the seeds of what McDonald is discussing in this piece.

(Damn, I really need to re-read that book… though it seems I loaned it to someone and never got it back. Guess it’s time to hit the requisition system again…)

history is constantly being re-animated, re-mixed, and re-heated

Dang, how have I missed out on reading Aaron Z Lewis before now? Please excuse the following long stream of lengthy excerpts, but there’s too much good stuff here to pass by…

Each subculture has an implicit understanding of its “ideological conversion funnel”. This phrase, borrowed from digital marketing, refers to the stages that people go through on the way to becoming a True Believer, from first contact with a mysterious meme to full-on understanding of a grand narrative. The conversion process is known to the in-group, but largely illegible to outsiders. Unlike offline communities, these subcultures aren’t always neatly labeled, and people don’t consciously choose to join them. The “gravity” or “current” of social media algorithms pulls people into orbit around ideological sub-groups. Algorithms are the riverbed, and users are the water.

In the early days of the internet, the Web’s surface was relatively smooth and its “gravitational force” was weak. You could random walk without getting sucked into any black holes. During the 2010s, social media platforms “dug into the Web surface, dragging activities down their slopes … As a result of this magnetic-like attraction, caused by the web slope, Internet users slowly slide down the slope in a digital drift,” writes Louise Druhle. The virus has likely accelerated this process because it’s pushed so much cultural activity online.

I’ve recently been using the gravitational metaphor to discuss momentum in sociotechnical transitions. Lewis is looking here at something pretty far over to the social side of the scale—or so it seems at first. But values and ideological frameworks are part of the constitutive make-up of practices… and what’s particularly interesting about this situation is that the same technological substrate is producing such a fecundity of different divergent value-systems among its user-base; Lewis returns to this point later on. Along the way, we get a fairly succinct description of postmodernity without actually mentioning the p-word, nor invoking any of the demons of Theory:

As the line between “internet culture” and “Culture” gets increasingly blurry, Old Media gets increasingly confused. Online tribes are basically proto-political coalitions, sprouting in the graveyard of America’s zombiefied corporate media. This is, of course, a huge gravitational shift in the landscape of power. In 2004, an anonymous George W. Bush official famously told the New York Times:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Sixteen years later, it’s clear that digital media has made things a little more complicated. The old guard is now left to study the activities and new realities of online tribes. These groups are constantly churning out unsanctioned narratives that attract large followings, and that’s how things have sorted out. As in the media revolution sparked by Gutenberg, the powers that be are not too pleased about losing their monopoly over the technologies of reality creation.

CF this fragment from a much longer piece by James Curcio, guest-posting at Ribbonfarm a while back:

‘In modern political performances’, writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, ‘the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs and tastes – ‘ an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility’. Not only from responsibility, but also from reality. Possibly one of the most quoted poems of the previous century, Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ does a terrific job of anticipating a core anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial worlds, which is maybe not so surprising when we consider modernity coming to self-awareness in the aftermath of the First World War. That is, of course, that ‘the centre cannot hold’.

Many generations separate us now from the outcome of that apocalyptic conflict, and its sequel, yet the existential crisis, even the core political ideologies remain fundamentally the same. We may find no better presentation of the reactions to this crisis than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence, a world with nothing sacred, copies without originals. Postmodernism didn’t generally proclaim a solution, but it does uncover problems that we’ve yet to satisfactorily answer as a society. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with today’s headlines, of the collapse of consensus reality – or the consensus that there is one – into the event horizon of what author-philosopher R. S. Bakker refers to as a ‘semantic apocalypse’. People are right to feel anxious, though this particular crisis is different in quantity but not kind from the sort of unmooring and acceleration which followed the advent of the printing press.

(A quick reminder reminder: postmodernism was not a creed, but a diagnosis, the denial of which is looking more absurd even as it is stated more loudly with each passing week. Curcio is a far more theory-oriented writer, but Lewis is making much the same point throughout this piece I’m snipping from. And now we return you to our regular programming…)

Lewis’s take on temporality is particularly exciting, as I’m thinking a lot about the Marx-via-Harvey-and-others notion that infrastructure folds and warps timespace—but, rather surprisingly for me (as I always seem like such a placeless abstractionist when I discuss things with colleagues who are planners and geographers), I tend to get tied up in the spatial side of that phenomenon, and have yet to really get to grips with the temporal. This whole piece—which draws a fair bit upon the writings of yer man Venkatesh Rao—is full of fuel for a bit of time-travel of my own, such as:

Unlike the clocks of Old Media, the subjective time zones of internet subcultures are a de-centralized creative expression that reflect the idiosyncrasies of many different reality tunnels. Whereas geographic time zones sit next to each other in a very orderly fashion, internet time zones are kaleidoscopic and multi-layered — they allow you to look back at the same time line through many different lenses. There are as many versions of history as there are subcultures.

The conversations of internet subcultures often feel substantive and expansive compared to the shallow discourse of presidential debates, op-ed pages, and cable TV shows. Mainstream news cycles rarely last more than a few hours, and their narratives are constantly shifting. They don’t tend to give a big-picture sense of where we came from or where we’re going. Internet subcultures, by contrast, are building grand narratives and meme worlds that help people feel their way through the chaos that’s currently unfolding. These stories cut deep, down to the most foundational questions of race and religion and destiny. We shouldn’t be too surprised that complex conspiracy theories, intergenerational trauma, and age-old religious fervor are coming to the fore — in a contest of narrative memes, deep history is a serious competitive advantage.

And then:

Thanks to the ghosts in the digital graveyard, our selves are strung out across extremely long stretches of time. The internet allows one body to ingest the memories of thousands, creating a new kind of interiority that’s almost superhuman in its scope. I probably come across more perspectives in a single Twitter session than my great grandparents heard in their entire lifetimes.

In a 1970 interview, Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed this situation and described what it might do to our minds: “We live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and all futures that will be are here now. In that sense, we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of the varieties of human expression re-constitutes the mythic type of consciousness, of once-upon-a-time-ness, which means all-time, out of time.”5 The psychological shift that McLuhan saw on the horizon 50 years ago is now being felt all across the Web. The line between present and past is getting increasingly blurry now that we all carry around a miniature Library of Alexandria in our pockets. We can’t agree on where we’re headed because we can’t agree on when we are.

Mmmm, McLuhan. Is it just me, or are a lot of people starting to (re)read and cite McLuhan again? But the interpretation has changed a lot since the the glory days of the Wild Wired West… for which we should probably be thankful; McLuhan was much less the optimist than he was painted by the early webbies and cypherpunks, a much more nuanced thinker than the glosses tend to imply (though this is perhaps true of all philosophers and theorists).

Lewis is a bit of an optimist himself, it turns out:

The algorithmic feeds that grew to prominence in the 2010s are a circus that set up shop in the lobby of the Library of Alexandria. As we spin round and round the carousels, everything seems to dissolve into an atemporal soup at the end of history. “History ends not when the stream of apparently historic events ends,” writes Venkatesh Rao, “but when the world loses a sense of a continuing narrative, and arrives at what psychologists call narrative foreclosure” — a hollowing out of the collective imagination, a sense of the future being cancelled. The ghosts of yesteryear float around the Cloud, hoping we’ll continue to embody their trauma, fight their battles, and live out their dreams and memes.

But maybe our ability to imagine collective futures hasn’t been damaged for good. The old ghosts don’t just haunt us, they also give us inspiration. Last time we saw this much history emerge from hibernation was in 14th century Italy, and the Renaissance was about to begin. Like those who came before us, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of memories and histories that are bubbling up to the surface. We’re still in the early days of the digital age, and I trust we’ll figure out how to adapt to the time machines we’ve built.

I’d rather not trust in that possibility; instead, I’d rather work toward that result in whatever small way I can. (To be fair, given Lewis’s background, I suspect he probably does too… but hope > optimism is becoming one of my obsessional dichotomies, and this site is where I exercise those obsessions, so, yeah.)

Lewis wraps up with—praise whatever deity you prefer!—an appeal to the materiality of the virtual, and a reminder that the infrastructural metasystem not only has a (biiiig) material-extractive-emmissive footprint, but also exhibits characteristics of strength and weakness simultaneously—a brittleness, if you like.

Just as the early viewers of television sometimes forgot that they weren’t seeing an un-mediated stream of Reality, us early users of digital media sometimes forget that social media algorithms are not showing us the world as it is. A recommendation algo is a “frame” that can be hacked, gamed, and messed with. More than anything, it’s a funhouse mirror that reflects back a warped image of whatever you hold up to it. The questions it thinks you’re asking, the answers it thinks you’re seeking, the things it thinks you care about, the narratives it thinks you believe in. “There are as many internet architectures as there are users,” says Louise Druhle. “Each of our clicks serves to sculpt the internet according to our own image.”

We’re transitioning from a world of linear narratives and time lines to a garden of forking memes that we’re free to explore and tend to. The gardening games with the richest soil, the deepest roots, and the most interesting characters will attract the most people.

But if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that all of our virtual toys teeter precariously atop an infrastructural system that is currently under great threat (to say the least). Digital memory is material. The Cloud is made of rare earth. Lamps in video games use real electricity. In cyberspace, we’re constantly surrounded by simulations, abstractions, and pseudo-events that make it all too easy to forget about the geological stack that undergirds our virtual hall of mirrors. We forget that the garden of forking memes is rooted in the earth — in the underwater fiber-optic cables and server farms and electric “nervous systems” that connect us all together. Most designers and technologists try to hide the material complexity that lurks beneath the surface of the internet. They want it to be “indistinguishable from magic.” But if we continue to crop the earth (and the ecological crisis) out of the frame, we’ll soon cut off the very branch we’re sitting on. Without sustainable infrastructure, the digital garden will decay and disappear.

“Indistinguishable from magic”, heh… that’d make a good title for a talk, wouldn’t it?