Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

revenge effect

From the conclusion section of Carabantes, M. (2021). “The Coronavirus as a Revenge Effect: The Pandemic from the Perspective of Philosophy of Technique”. Science, Technology, & Human Values.

The main goal of technique is freedom. We use it to free ourselves from the burdens imposed by nature, such as getting food and shelter. However, modern technique, because of its five essential characteristics of universalism, self-augmentation, automatism, autonomy, and monism, tends to extend its control over everything, including the human being, to ensure the optimal efficiency of the whole system that we demand. If this control condition is not satisfied, and human freedom is not limited in the way technique requires, then the result will be the loss of efficiency because we are interfering in its functioning; and this efficiency may be critical when technique is introduced in order to neutralize some of the worst unwanted consequences of technique itself, such as global environmental issues, enhanced terrorism, and fast worldwide pandemics. Therefore, modern technique calls, under threat, for the establishment of a centralized and authoritarian organization of humanity. Thus, the paradox arises: modern technique as a whole entails a revenge effect because the search for freedom results in the loss of it. Our ingenuity turns against us.

If we want the comfortable material life provided by industrialism but do not want severe environmental degradation, then we need this kind of organization. If we want the popularization of robotics to democratize technique and to empower the people but do not want devastating terrorist attacks, then we need this kind of organization. If we want goods and passengers to travel fast and cheap in airplanes all over the world but do not want pandemics like the current one, then we need this kind of organization. In sum, if we want the many benefits of modern technique but at the same time want to avoid its often-disastrous side effects, trade-offs, and revenge effects, then we need this kind of non-democratic organization. From these and many other cases, it follows that Ellul’s (1964) prediction seems correct: modern technique leads to a new kind of slavery.

Looks like I’ll be adding Ellul to the infrastructural-theoretical reading list; I think this author’s use of slavery is a little strong, but habituation—my preferred term—seems like it would swap in well.

How to map nothing: Shannon Mattern on geographies of suspension

Back on 27th January, the UCL faculty of the Built Environment (virtually) hosted a seminar talk by the mighty mighty Shannon Mattern; a little more than a week ago, they uploaded a recording of said talk to A Popular Video-sharing Platform. This is that video, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly; I will not sully you or demean Prof. Mattern by trying to summarise it, because while I certainly took notes, the sheer volume of ideas in this thing—which naturally speaks very much to the concerns of The Ongoing Situation, while also being relevant to the world which preceded it, and the one which will succeed it—is quite astonishing*. (All the more so, given it was apparently conjured up out of little more than a vague thematic idea in the fortnight preceding its delivery.) So, enjoy!

[ * — Also because, frankly, I’m so behind on things I’m meant to be writing, or in some cases meant to already have written, both for other people and for myself, that I can’t presently justify the couple of hours that it would take to rewatch this, return to my notes, and do it justice. So just watch it, y’know? ]

always primed with its own conditions of dissolution and abolishment

Interesting little essay here from one Duncan Stuart, a new name at Blue Labyrinths, which I will cite at length:

[Sylvain] Lazarus takes seriously the work of French historian Marc Bloch, who argues in his 1949 book The Historians Craft, that the past is given and the future contingent. Lazarus demonstrates that for Bloch the past and the present are fundamentally linked, and this linkage means that the present becomes a given as well. In doing so Bloch’s thought closes off the present from the possible. Yet to say that only the future contains the possible is in fact to say that the possible will never arrive. The future is always to come, and when it comes it is the present, which is then given as it is fundamentally linked with the past.

Lazarus finds no way through these problems as long as we maintain a conception of time. In order to preserve the idea of the possible for politics, he must either abolish time or make the present the realm of the possible. Yet if the present becomes the realm of the possible, then so too does the past and all three tenses of time – past, present, future – lose their analytic distinction. To attach the notion of the possible to the present, then, is to abolish time. Making room for the possible requires the abolishment of time itself.  


Literature too is about the possible. Not always and not necessarily. It does not always exploit this potential. Yet the ease with which literature does away with the conventions of time, the ease with which it demonstrates different forms of life and different worlds shows that more than being about unreality, being about the fictive, it is about the possible. It is about fashioning a different reality. Likewise, there is always the potential for politics and the abolition of time, but this does not necessarily happen. Reality, or at the very least political and social reality, is always primed with its own conditions of dissolution and abolishment.

To say that literature can abolish time because it is fictive is to say that it is fundamentally an exercise in daydreaming. To say that it can abolish time because it is concerned with the possible is to reimbue it with political and radical potential. If there is one thing I know about this world – past, future and present – it is that another world is possible.

I’m clipping this because it comes at an issue in which I’m interested—namely temporality and utopia—from a rather different theoretical point of origin. The argument excerpted above seemed to me to be something of a parallel to Genevieve Lively’s (2017) case for (post)modernist narratological strategies as a literary training ground for approaching futurity with a greater sense of the possible. Lively frames this idea within the anticipations/’futures literacy’ concept-bundle (with which I have some lingering issues, not all of which are purely scholarly in origin), and of course the enduring gotcha (which applies to most arguments about fictional forms as tools for futuring-with-publics) is that the readership for prose-fiction-as-entertainment is pretty small, and diminished still further once we factor in a tolerance for Joycean narratological trickery. However, applying those narrative strategies to other media and to other purposes, while far from suggesting a panacea, has surely got to be worth trying.

there is no transition

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but seeing arguments for non-solutionist and demand-side approaches to decarbonisation research appearing in a journal from the Nature stable feels like a sign that the idea is getting some traction at long last. That said paper is by Elizabeth Shove, a brilliant and tenacious researcher whose work has been a huge influence on my own—and who has done a huge amount of leg-work over the years in both fighting against behaviourist and managerial models of consumption, and advancing social practice perspectives as an alternative—makes it all the sweeter.

… the timescales across which energy research is defined and framed do not exist in isolation. Seconds are part of minutes, and seasons are part of years. What look like comparably massive ‘turns’, for instance from renewables (wind) to fossil fuels (coal), are made of overlapping trajectories, not all unfolding at the same rate and pace, and made up of different units (seconds, minutes) that are not equivalent but that are part of the historical periods in which they are set.

This is obvious, but research problems are routinely carved out in ways that obscure these interactions and the threading together of past, present and future. Energy efficient building renovation is a good example in which the age of the building, the payback time on investment, the lifespan of the owner/occupier, and the durability of different materials interact.

Interventions in buildings and in energy systems occur within and as part of multiple dynamic processes that defy easy description, but that are crucial for conceptualizing and fostering transitions not only in the types of fuels that are ‘plugged’ in to the supply system, but the timing of demand and thus in the making of a substantially lower carbon society.

Research agendas that focus on ‘the’ energy transition, and debate about how long this transition might take overlook this point. Given that energy systems (supply and demand together) are woven into society and into the constitution of always-changing sociotemporal rhythms there is unlikely to be any one such shift now or in the years ahead.

That last point—very much contra the self-referential definitions of ‘transition’ from the Geelsean MLP literature, still hugely popular in policy circles—was a major plank of the argument of my doctoral thesis. As I put it in my discussion chapter:

… if we are to think of transition at all, it is perhaps better to think of it not as a bounded entity, not as something that somehow happens to entire populations all at once, but rather as a basic condition of existence in human society. Transition is not “there, and then”, but ubiquitous and perpetual, always-already ongoing everywhere, albeit at different rates and in different directions. The transitions of the MLP are stories that only make sense in hindsight, tautological artefacts of their own analysis; in effect, “transition” is a fairytale that we repeat in the hope that repetition will make it come true.

If we wish to truly understand the dynamics of sociotechnical change, rather then merely describe a dynamic which we imagine might be amenable to certain forms of control or management, then we must abandon the hackneyed plot of transition and return our attention to the actual actors on the stage.

Raven, PG (2018), Making Infrastructure Legible, p262

The more distance I get from the process of writing that thesis, the more I understand why it was such a struggle to get the damned thing passed in the context of a civil engineering department…

partially-automated bi-utopian communism

I’ve been quietly impressed by the ubiquity of Aaron Benanav across a variety of venues as he promotes his recently-published book Automation and the Future of Work, of which I received a copy a while back. Benanav’s been a guest on blogs and podcasts aplenty, and I’m glad to have read and listened to some of them, despite not yet having gotten round to the book itself. I suppose it’s a mark of a successful promotion drive that these encounters have encouraged me to bump the book higher in my TBR queue—though that of course assumes that the message of the book itself is of interest.

Which it very definitely is. His main point, which is made all the more persuasively (for me, at least) for its lack of spectacle and hyperbole, is that the very commonplace thesis that “robots are coming for our jobs!” is wrong. Benanav’s refutation starts from the erroneous use of unemployment rates as a proxy indicator for lack of labour demand; the latter is very real, he argues, but the former misframes the issue in a way that leads to mistaken conclusions, via a focus on the technoutopian spectacle of OMG ROBOTS. The actual situation, he says, is “that 45 years of economic stagnation and welfare state retrenchment, rather than workplace automation, are the forces making for a severe global jobs problem. It is a problem that long predates recent high tech innovations.” But there’s an interesting bit of intellectual judo, here, in that Benanav then goes on to say that we can achieve something like the fully-automated-luxury utopia promised by the automation evangelists without the need for the automation: instead, we reorganise and redistribute the work that still needs doing.

What I didn’t expect—but maybe should have?—was that Benanav draws a fair bit on utopian theory (an interest rooted in a life-long interest in science fiction). He talks about two models for workers’ emancipation, the first being the old autonomy/worker-controlled-workplace vision, and the second being the perhaps more modern (and more utopian?) vision of being free of work in the sense of being able to quit and do something else “beyond work”. The former is more appealing to those of us who do what we might call non-bullshit jobs, who value what we do, but wish we were able to do it for a reasonable number of hours a week, without being steered by MBAs who don’t understand the work they’re trying to manage; the latter is more appealing to someone loading the dishwasher at Wetherspoons, or pushing pedals for thin tips on Deliveroo. Benanav’s point is that a successful vision of a reconfigured society needs to accommodate both of these utopian urges:

People within emancipatory politics are going to have to think about these two visions of emancipation and the way that they relate to work and the possibilities within them. The inspiring vision of the future will likely be one that speaks to both experiences: on the one hand, transforming meaningful work to be done better—with greater worker (and consumer) control—and, on the other hand, working less. There is a connection, although not a direct one, between these different concrete experiences of work and the sorts of places people find it easier or more meaningful to engage in struggle and conflict. My sense is that engaging with utopian literature, even the misguided techno-utopianism of the automation literature, is worthwhile as a way to build a stronger emancipatory movement.

Further on in this interview, he hints that this distinction is mirrored in a comparison of Morris’s News from Nowhere and Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread: in the former, work becomes the true fulfillment of life, while in the latter, the lack of work provides the space for fulfillment to be found (or created).

So, yeah: while I can’t yet recommend the book on the basis of direct experience, I’m pretty sure that I will be able to do so once I get round to reading it. In the meantime, maybe take the opportunity to listen to the man make his own arguments? This episode of New Left Radio is ideal: