Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

It’s about data and smugness.

In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.

I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.

By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.

The inestimable (and brilliant, and loquacious) Jo Lindsay Walton, interviewed on the intersection of economics and science fiction by Rick Liebling for The Adjacent Possible; a long read, but full of gems.

The above recapitulates, albeit in JLW’s own style, the argument I’ve been making for narrative prototyping in my own academic work: a model must be exposed to the social dimensions which it has necessarily externalised. Human behaviour is inherently unquantifiable — and indeed, the more we attempt to quantify it (and “manage” it on that basis), the more inhumane the results become.

What applies to economics applies equally to infrastructures; it’s wicked problems all the way down, and solutionism is a wicked problem in and of itself (as Keller Easterling also appears to be arguing). Until we understand the role of desire — in the DeleuzoGuattarean sense, but also to some extent in the weaponised-behavioural-psychology-AKA-marketing sense — in sociotechnical change, we will achieve nothing but an accelerating accretion of “solutions” which turn out to be new and intractable problems in their own right.

(See also Tainter on increasing complexity as a strategy for addressing problems arising from existing complexity; to paraphrase very broadly, it works, but it works ever less effectively every time, and only until it no longer works, at which point you’re wandering around the ruins of your civilisation wondering where it all went wrong.)

Dispositionally or structurally retrograde

… typically as designers, and in broader culture, we’re looking for the right answer. As designers we’re still very solutionist in our thinking; just like righteous activism that pretends to have the right answer, dispositionally, this may be a mistake. The chemistry of this kind of solutionist approach produces its own problems. It is very fragile. The idea of producing a ‘master plan’ doesn’t have a temporal dimension, and is not a sturdy form.

Having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions. Our sense of being right escalates this tension. I’ve been trying to think instead of forms which have another temporal dimension that allow for reactivity and a branching set of options—something like a rewiring of urban space. They aren’t vague – they’re extremely explicit – but they allow for responses to a set of changing conditions.

[…]

Regardless of spectacularly intelligent arguments, the bending of narratives towards ultimate, teleological ends – and the shape and disposition of these arguments – doesn’t work for me. Dispositionally or structurally it seems slightly retrograde.

I just don’t see change as singular or ultimate. It doesn’t come back to the one and only answer, or the one and only enemy that must be crushed.

There are many forms of violence, and it almost seems weak to train your gun on one form of it. There isn’t one singular way in which power and authority concentrate, and there’s not one giant enemy. Such thinking leaves you open to a more dangerous situation.

Keller Easterling interview at Failed Architecture, riffing on her latest book, Medium Design (which is apparently only available in print if you get a copy mailed from Moscow). Easterling is among the brightest of lodestars in my personal  theoretical pantheon; her Enduring Innocence not only rewired how I thought about space, but also rewired my conception of how an academic text could be written.

The language of Smart City is always Global Business English

… the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

Chairman Bruce at The Atlantic.

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.