Category Archives: Politics

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…)

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…

option paralysis

A society that bestows sovereignty of choice on consumers faces two immediate problems. First, there is the business challenge of anticipating and influencing the exercise of that sovereignty. What do consumers want? Surveys and focus groups were among the tools developed in order to help mass producers tailor their products – and advertisements – to the desires of their target market. Opinion polling simply extended this method to the ‘sale’ of politicians and policies. The emergence of huge platforms, such as Facebook and Google, in the 21st century vastly expanded and fine-tuned this science of taste, but didn’t substantially alter its strategic objectives.

Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.

The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet […]

It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?

Offered (rather uncharacteristically) without comment.

the banality of the sacrificial truth

With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.

You know the world has been turned on its head (or on its feet, depending on how you saw the world before, I guess) when Žižek starts coming across as an optimist… though I guess you could counter that by saying that he’s consistently contrarian. Anyway, point being: I do not share his optimism regarding capitalism’s inability to survive the shift he’s describing here. It’s certainly possible that it might not survive it, but far from a fait accompli—to say otherwise is to fall into the same trap that Matt Colquhoun observes in folk who claim that “capitalist realism is over”, as if saying it were sufficient to replace the hard work of making it so. (Disclaimer: I’ve definitely done this myself. Magical thinking is very tempting in trying times.)

That said, Žižek’s observation of the pandemic’s exposure of the sacrificial truth of capitalism rings clear, at least to me, echoing as it does the bioethical implications of the pandemic that I discussed (or, more accurately, ranted about) months ago. But the neoliberal order’s response to (and incorporation of) that exposure was already then apparent, as manifest in the almost immediate establishment of global league tables of national death rates: the logic of market competition applied itself immediately, and we’re still arguing over who dun covid bestest, months later, despite it being far from over.

Furthermore, the same logic is starting to be applied to the sacrificial sectors: a competition to decide who gets the putative vaccine first, who gets to stay the safest for the longest time while we wait for it. Perhaps the Hunger Game vibes of this contest will eventually provoke some kind of pushback, as Žižek believes. But to return to Fisher, we’d do well to remember and respect capitalism’s ability to absorb, incorporate and commodify the fiercest attacks made upon it. The only counter to that paradigm is (a return to) a more communal, situated and grass-roots form of political organisation… and the medium-as-message constitution of the systems through which we are obliged to communicate and organise in lockdown and lockdown-adjacent circumstances are demonstrably and explicitly geared to exactly the opposite social dynamic. It is notable that the only political activity of any vitality at the moment is happening in the streets, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Is that an argument against lockdown measures? It’s not meant as one, but it might well be taken as such, I suppose. My point is that during lockdown, those privileged enough to be in lockdown experience the world outside only through multiple layers of mediation; the (very real) risk to older folk and the immune-compromised appears as part of the spectacle, but the (equally real) risk to the people embedded in the supply chains (in one’s own nation, but also far beyond it) which make living in lockdown possible appears far less frequently, if at all. The risk is indeed “directly spelled out”, as Žižek says—but to assume that this spelling-out of the universality of risk won’t result in people falling back on the old class and national divisions as a ready-made template for the (re)distribution of said risk seems optimistic in the worst possible passivity of that term. (OK, sure, the WHO has said everyone needs to pull together—but at this point it should be obvious that, for the most part, state apparatuses are taking only what they consider to be politically efficacious from the WHO’s pronouncements; an soft-pedalled argument for internationalism is unlikely to leave much of a mark, I’m assuming.)

After all, that (re)distribution of risk is always-already ongoing—and the metasystem’s effacement of consequences, now amplified still further by lockdown’s forcing us into a situation where our perception of the situation is so thoroughly and seamlessly mediated and curated by algorithms intended to flatter our pre-existing perspectives, makes it oh-so-easy to pretend that it isn’t. That which is appears is good; that which is good appears.

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?