Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.

Five years of infrastructure fiction

Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s tendency to repub stuff from the past, I am reminded that it’s about five years since I gave my original Infrastructure Fiction talk at ImprovingReality 2013 in Brighton. It seems like a lifetime ago, but also like it was just yesterday. Studying for a PhD does weird things to your perception of time.

Anyway, there’s the video if you fancy a (re)watch; if you prefer slides and text (which I certainly do), there’s a full version of the thing still available on Futurismic, though some time soon I should probably move that to a site that actually belongs to me*.

I’m kind of amused to note how early I nailed down the ideas that ended up informing my doctoral work… though I’m far closer to actually developing those ideas now, not least because doctoral work can drift in unexpected and unintended directions, and mine certainly did so. And therein lies a story… but I’ll save that one until the adventure in question is properly finished, I think. (The protagonist is currently still a-wander in the hinterland of corrections.) In the meantime, I’ll remark only that my presenting skills have improved considerably since this, my first proper speaking gig… though on the evidence, it would have been hard for me to get much worse.

* — I handed the Futurismic domain name back to Chris East some time ago, but he’s plainly not yet had the time to do owt with it, as it’s still pointing to the legacy site as sat on my server.

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.