Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

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?

a defiant assertion of the individual against its own impermanence

Doug Rushkoff knows the score:

Ironically, transhumanism is less about embracing the future than fixing the human experience as it is today. Medical and life extension interventions seek only to preserve the person who is alive right now. Cryonics seeks to freeze the human form in its current state in order to be reanimated in the future. Uploading one’s mind simply transfers the human brain, or a perfect clone of it, as is, into a more durable substrate.

In some ways, transhumanism is a reactionary response to the sorts of changes inherent in nature, a defiant assertion of the individual against its own impermanence. The cycles of life are understood not as opportunities to learn or let go, but as inconveniences to ignore or overcome. We do not have to live with the consequences of our own actions. There’s an app for that.

There’s a missing point here, though, which is that the “we” of the transhumanist is always an in-group “we”, even if only implicitly—that comes most often, I think, from an underexamination of the rhetoric by the majority of folk who identify with the movement. However, it’s quite clear and explicit in the actual writings of its intellectual leading lights, whose commitment to free markets and eugenics is replete with all the dogwhistles you could ask for. If you’re not on Team Immortality, then you’re just a walking organ farm, a store of tradeable fragments of genetic value.

But a double thumbs-up for Rushkoff noting the point about avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, which for my money is rooted in the failure of transhumanists to understand their always-already privileged cyborg status, courtesy of the infrastructural metasystem. I’ve been reading (finally!) Anna Tsing’s magisterial The Mushroom at the End of the World this week, and she illustrates the point very clearly: the role of supply chains, which extended the logic of the earlier national / regional infrastructures to a global scale (and in the process operationalised an off-the-radar mode of accumulation) is—quite deliberately—the effacement of consequences (whether environmental or social, if that’s a distinction you want to make) and the externalisation of risk (under which category we can file pollution and emissions).

So, once more, for the avoidance of doubt: transhumanism is a solutionist cult that is not even congizant of that which it fetishises, an unneeded and incoherent answer to the question “what can you offer the man who already has literally everything?” There is far less to fear from its prestidigitatory promises of technological uplift than there is to fear from the political projects being built backstage.

(I know there are some readers of this blog who identify as transhumanists, but who reject those political projects explicitly and vocally. I humbly offer that those people, and others like them, need a different name for their political identity; while it may once have been more contested, transhumanism is a toxic brand, and far beyond rescue. Posthumanism has always been the leftward path taken from the same starting concepts; regrettably, perhaps, it’s heretofore been more a academic-theoretical position than a movement. But it’s never too late to change that! If you grok Haraway, for example, I’d argue you’re a posthumanist already.)

some notes on Martin Parker’s managerial heroisms

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece by Martin Parker at Aeon—hell, anyone who wrote a book titled Shut Down the Business School has gotta be on my side of the fence, right?—but it takes a problematic turn at the end that I think is worth digging into. Let’s start with the good stuff: after a reference to Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” essay and a look at “fantasy futurisms” a la Silicon Valley, we take a turn into etymology, which is always and forever my jam. The word in the frame is management

The London Encyclopaedia (1829) has an entry for ‘Manage’, which suggests that it is:

an obsolete synonyme of management, which signifies, guidance; administration; and particularly able or prudent administration of affairs: managery is another (deservedly obsolete) synonyme of this signification: manageable is tractable; easy to be managed.

This sense of management as coping, as dealing with a particular state of affairs, is still passable in everyday English. You might ask ‘How are you managing?’ if someone has told you about some problem they face. To organise complex matters, to arrange people and things, to be resilient in the face of adversity, now that requires managery. This second meaning, not distinct but different in emphasis, emerges in the 19th century with the class of people called ‘managers’. These managers do management. And as this occupational group grows throughout the 20th century, driven by the growth of the capitalist corporation, so the business school expands to train them.

At the present time, that sense of managing as the art of ‘organising’ to cope with challenges is largely obscured by the idea of the manager as someone who helps to create financial value for organisations, whether they operate in state-engineered pseudo-markets, or the carbon-max madness of global trade. This means that questions about what sort of future human beings might create tend to be limited by the horizon of the management strategies of market capitalism. This version of the future isn’t about radical discontinuity at all, just an intensification of the business practices that promise to give us Amazon Prime by drone at the same time that the real Amazon burns. This is what they teach in business schools – how to keep calm and carry on doing capitalism. But the problems we face now are considerably bigger than a business school case study, so is it possible to rescue managery from management?

Lot of interesting semantic slippage there; OK. Now, back to the B-school heroism—Parker’s term, and I’m highlighting it deliberately—of the Lords of the Valley, and the futures they produce:

In the hands of technology entrepreneurs, driven by the imperatives of shareholder value and richer even than the robber barons of a century ago, the future has been displaced into the soma of fantasy, colonised by people who want you to pay a subscription for an app that helps you sleep, a delivery service that allows you to stay indoors when it’s wet out, or a phone that switches on the heated seats in your car before you leave home. This is a future of sorts, but it’s a business school version in which everything is pretty much the same, just a bit smarter and more profitable. It’s being sold to us in adverts at the cinema and in pop-ups on our screens, as if it were the real future, but it’s not. For something to count as the future, for innovation to be as inspiring as the Eiffel Tower, Apollo or Concorde, it must promise something that has never been before. It must be a rupture, a break in the ordinary series of events that produces a future that is altered in profound ways, and something on the horizon that is unknowable, but different.

This is the paragraph where Parker and I start to part ways, because he proposes to replace the new (B-school) heroism with an older heroism. Now, I’ll concede that there was a lot more substance to the heroic projects he mentions than can be found in apps for tracking your poop or getting someone else to do your laundry, but they came with their own problems. The Apollo programme is a fine case in point, and to his credit Parker notes critiques contemporary to the project as well as more recent ones. But there’s nonetheless an attempt to have the old cake and eat it, here—an attempt to disconnect that old (and, on the basis of the chosen examples, tellingly phallic and thrusting) heroism from the current iteration.

Parker goes next to Nye’s technological sublime, and uses it as a figure for an inspirational and national-pride-stoking modernity, the concretisation of change—which it was, of course. But there are two sides to that technological utopianism, and we’re living in the torsions of its dialectical working-out right now. Sure, New Deal economics, NASA as a state-run project of unprecedented scale; all good stuff. But recall its primary motivation, behind the aspirational rhetorics, as a pissing context with the USSR. Yes, OK, “Apollo was also one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, and inspired feelings of admiring wonder among millions of people that still resonate half a century later”—but while my as-yet short tenure in Sweden has shown me that “technocratic” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, Parker’s rehabilitation of management with Apollo et al as a model, while well intended, is veering toward the same sort of place that Neal Stephenson went with Project Hieroglyph… which is to say, back to the technoutopian modality manifest (not at all coincidentally) in both Apollo and the golden age of sf. You’ve heard this line of reasoning before, I’m sure: “things were better back in the day; we used to build more big stuff back then; therefore maybe if we built more big stuff, things would be better again?” Well, maybe—but better for whom, exactly, and better how?

Regular readers will know that the technological utopia is not where I think we need to be going. The reason why pops up as Parker closes out the piece, which starts out just fine:

… what I do want to rescue is the sense that the future can be different: the sense that science-fiction writers have always had that yesterday and tomorrow don’t need to be the same. Capitalism has captured the future, and is now commodifying it and selling it back to us as gizmos and widgets, or else distracting us with fantasy – defined by its refusal to engage in realism or real problems. As the literary critic Fredric Jameson said in 2003, or rather said that someone else said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’

Yeah, I’m with you. But it’s the question of what exactly should be different about that future that matters—so what is the thread that connects Apollo and Farcebook, the worm in the apple of both? We mentioned it earlier, but here it is again:

Now, more than ever, we need these stories about the future. Not the cityscape lensflare adverts in which we all have friends and lives that play to a soundtrack of Coldplay-lite thanks to our oh-so-very-smart telephones, and the sort of marketing taught in business schools. We need real futures, stories about radical changes that we’ll all be making in order to build the world differently. Deserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space, underground distribution systems that bring us what we need so that our roads can become parks for children to play in. These futures need to co-opt stories as compelling as those being told by Marvel and Samsung – not puritan warnings about what you can’t have, but pictures of lives that are rich and full, in which people can be heroes and you have nice things to eat.

No, no, no—we can’t all be heroes. That‘s the thread, that‘s the worm, as Saint Donna and Le Guin have made very clear. Totally agree on the refusal of puritanism, but heroism is not the solution to that; as Parker himself noted above, heroism is just as much a feature of the managerial masculinities of the Apollo program as of the Valleybros. And how are “[d]eserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space” distinct from the “cityscape lensflare adverts” that we’re dismissing here? In my experience, the former are the handwavium solutionist infrastructures that will supposedly make the latter feasible without anyone changing anything they already do; further externalisations of production and extraction, colonial enterprises, a continuation of capitalism, just, y’know *waves hand* over there, somewhere?

I’m all for a future where our kids play in the parks that we made from the motorways—but that future needs fewer heroes, fewer charismatic megaprojects, fewer technological “solutions”. It’s only by refusing the possibility of heroism that we may make the space for an appreciation of those who carry the cooking utensils, farm the crops, clean the latrines; Apollo-era modernism consolidated the process of hiding those roles behind the technological sublimity of infrastructure, and the application-mediation of the techbros is a continuation of that process of obfuscation and effacement, just at a different strata of the metasystemic apparatus. Etymology is not enough: managery remains trapped in the heroic figure of the manager. It’s not enough to close the B-schools; you’ve got to run the priesthood out of town, too.

Capitalism is an ideology of heroism; just listen to the valorisation of “wealth creators” if you (still) need the proof. We can’t arrest the former by creating more of the latter; the hero is contrary to collective effort. Our utopias must be not technological, but critical.

Indistinguishable from magic? Extractivism, the infrastructural metasystem, and the obfuscation of consequences

This is a video-paper I prepared for a virtual conference called Extraction: Tracing the Veins, running this week under the aegis of the Political Ecology Research Center at Massey University, NZ and Wageningen Univeristy, NL.

My paper is a part of the Technology & Infrastructure panel, and if you think mine sounds of any interest at all, then I’d ask that you go and give my co-panellists the same attention you would grant to me.

You can leave feedback and questions on the panel’s webpage if you want to, or drop a comment here, or even leave one on the Y*uT*be page for the video if you prefer.

It was an unusual experience, producing a video for a conference paper—not really so different a process in terms of writing the piece and developing the slides, but recording and editing the script and compiling the video was an interesting new challenge. It feels a little amateur, but I suspect that’s a legacy of having been a sound engineer in a former life: all I can hear are the cheap production values, and the hurriedness of a project completed in the run-up to a relocation. BUT: it’ll be easier and faster next time, and hopefully I’ll have more time to plan and integrate the production into the drafting of the actual paper itself. I have a feeling that there’ll be a lot more of this sort of work in academia in the near- to medium-term future…