Category Archives: Politics

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?

geography of fear / fear of geography

Back when I used to live in Velcro City’s original namesake, I remember being told many times over, by many different sources, that difficult cases of social exclusion or dysfunction were often tagged by overburdened social workers in the area with the acronym NFP—“normal for Portsmouth”.

Quite how normal (or not) those cases actually were—and quite how true the story was, given that I don’t think I ever heard it first-hand from a social worker—is not the point. (Though I would note that little I have learned since about Po-town or the rest of the UK has given me reason to suspect it of being a complete falsehood; it was always a troubled polis, in a lot of different ways.) The point is that I’m getting a stark lesson in the situated subjectivity of normality right now, and struggling to process it.

To be clear, there are many worse struggles I could be facing; this is not a call for pity, by any means. Furthermore, I suspect everyone’s getting some variant of the same thing, whether on top of other more vital struggles or not: the pandemic is global, but the way we experience it is predominantly local, even as we are plugged in to various sources of news and opinion and experience from elsewhere. Coronavirus is throwing all sorts of new light on the world, and not much of it seems to be flattering in terms of institutional preparedness and honesty.

Things are particularly weird for me right now because I have little precedent for what normal looks like in my current location. I’ve been living in Sweden for a few weeks, and one of those weeks was spent in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in Lund and Malmo before, but not enough to have a feel for what a busy day or a quiet day looks like. As such, how normal things are now is something of an open question for me. It’s definitely quiet here on campus at Lund… but there are people chatting in the corridor outside my office door right now, and there are students in the common areas downstairs, though perhaps fewer than one might expect even this close to the end of the semester. There were people on my train in to work, though again, fewer than I’d expect for the time of day. There were people at the bar I went to last night, but not many, and the vibe was subdued. There was plenty of food in the shops yesterday, and at present I have no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this evening, too.

All of which is to say: when I open up my channels of news and experience from the UK and the US, I’m slapped with a huge wave of cognitive dissonance. Things are looking pretty panicky in the Anglosphere right now, to say the least.

I have various thoughts and feelings about all of this stuff, but I’m largely keeping it to myself—not least because I’m not an expert in epidemiology or disaster management, and furthermore I’m not sure that anyone needs or wants my lukewarm takes on how things are being handled by anyone, anywhere. There’ll be time enough for that after the pandemic—which, for the sake of total clarity, I very much believe to be a real thing.

But I can’t help but be drawn to the differences between the public vibe here in Sweden and elsewhere—particularly that of the UK, where most of my experiential accounts are coming from. The Swedish government has recommended self-isolation to those with symptoms of respiratory infection, and there’s a recommendation also against gatherings of more than 500 people which is not, AFAIK, actually a thing with any legal force so much as a polite suggestion from the powers that be (albeit one delivered with a justified confidence that it will be followed without significant protest or argument). Lund University is carrying on pretty much as normal, modulo the afore-mentioned self-isolation (my PI, bless him, has had a fever for over a week, but is sat at home grinding out impact evaluations for an ongoing project), and the inevitable uptake of the opportunity to work from home by knowledge workers in a country where working from home is a very easy ask, and where sick pay is decent and unlikely to be quibbled over. And as already mentioned, trains are running, shops and bars are open, toilet roll and teabags are still obtainable without recourse to black-marketeering.

But just across the water, the Danes have closed their borders. Well, they’ve closed them to anyone but Danes… or anyone with a really good reason to be there (e.g. caring for a sick relative), or people going between Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport) and Sweden without stopping anywhere in between… or people involved in mantaining supply chains, such as truck drivers. A lockdown with that many exceptions is likely to be fairly unsuccessful… and it’s been suggested to me that this might be reflective of a long-standing anxiety about borders and infection that is endemic to Denmark.

(Though that suggestion has mostly come from Swedes, who do rather pride themselves on not being the Danes, in what I can already tell is one of the most epic nation-state-scale cases of the narcissism of small differences one might wish to encounter. Heck, it may well be that the Swedes are sticking with a calm and open-for-business attitude primarily as a way of differentiating themselves from their Scandi cousins. It’s probably quite handy to be able to point at your more performatively racist neighbours when you’re a polite, tacit type of people who don’t want to talk about your own problems with a rising far-right movement.)

And as for the UK… well, I’m too distant to get a good read on it, and I’m staying well out of social media as usual. My decision to quit the platforms has never looked wiser, to be honest—and that outsider’s perspective makes it all the easier to agree with Ryan Diduck when he suggests that “[i]t’s almost as if the media were the virus”.

(And again, for the avoidance of doubt: I’m not denying the existence of the virus as a thing, and nor is Diduck, as far as I can tell. But there’s a definite medium-as-message element to the discourse around the virus, and that piece makes a damn good grasp for it.)

None of this is to discredit people’s fears or anxieties, either. I suspect it’s easy for me to be a bit sanguine precisely because I’m in a sanguine environment, with little exposure to the amplificatory feedback loops of the birdsite et al. I dare say that if I were still in the UK, and had no expectations of being anywhere else any time soon, I would be feeling a lot more precarious. But therein lies my point: the virus has become a surface onto which all other social anxieties are being projected. As I remarked to someone last week, it’s as if after what must be a decade of those nauseating and bedamned “keep calm and carry on” snowclone posters, and all the lively but nonetheless very stiff-upper-lipped protesting and pushback about The B-Word, the virus has finally cracked the lid on what passes for the British geist, and released a vast cloud of anxiety, fear and anger. Ditto the US—it’s as if in both cases everyone has spontaneously moved on from bargaining and anger about the situation, and finally started focussing on its concrete implications. Here I’m modifying a Źiźek riff from this morning, which is (it seems to me) uncharacteristically positive: now we’ve all been forced to face the truth that can no longer be denied, bargained with or argued away, we’re going to (have to) start working on the problem instead of just shouting or tweeting about it. Sickness as solidairty, solidarity in sickness… the possibility of the pandemic as a force for a renewed and networked internationalism.

I’m plugged in sufficiently well to know that’s not going to be a fashionable take—and presumably even less so, given who I’ve just cited. But if you won’t take it from ol’ Slavoj, how about Rebecca Solnit? A newsletter in my inbox this morning reminded me of her thinking in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which are summed up in this 2009 NYT review of her book A Paradise Built in Hell:

… this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”

[…]

Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.

My feelings and opinions about the situation alluded to above might be lightly summarised by my observing that the most panicked populations at the moment would seem to be those with the most dysfunctional and authoritarian governments. (The functional authoritarians, e.g. China, appear to be weathering it pretty well after a bad start.) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t concerned; nor am I suggesting that a state response is not necessary. What’s interesting here is rather the character of the response, both of (and also between) the dysfunctional state and its public, and the light that the situation is throwing on those governments. If Źiźek and Solnit are right, we may see a new sense of cooperation and solidarity emerging at street level as this thing progresses… and we might also find that a whole cavalcade of emperors are suddenly understood to have been naked all along, by people who will swear blind that they were never duped in the first place.

Gotta find your hope where you can, right? Stay safe, everyone—and try not to give in to the fear. (Especially not the fear of your fellow humans, regardless of where exactly on the planet they may be from, or currently living, or recently returned from.) This handwashing PSA via Damien Williams pretty much nails it, I’d say:

konst för alla

From a visit to Malmö Konsthall yesterday afternoon. The have-a-go workshop is of course familiar from UK museums, particularly during school holidays. What was quite a surprise for me was that here, this stuff is just sat there, waiting to be used, without permission or supervision or justification… I’m pretty sure I could have just sat myself down with an easel and got to work, and no one would much have minded at all.

(I didn’t. But maybe I will.)

Among the challenges of moving to any new place, but perhaps in particular a place that still has a patina of social-democratic utopianism as seen from your place-of-origin, is the challenge of avoiding the temptation to see only the things that confirm your wisdom in having moved there. This sort of hey-it’s-YOUR-museum just-get-on-with-it vibe is an obvious object for that temptation, echoing as it does the Scandinavian allemansrätten or right-to-roam — though it’s worth noting that the latter implicitly contains an injunction to treat the common resource with respect, and one presumes a similar assumption nestles within the Konsthall workshop space, too.

I’m thinking here of things like enclosure, and the grotesque fiction of the “tragedy of the commons”, which is less a historical theory than one of capitalism’s self-fulfilling prophecies… but I’m clearly going to have to spend a lot more time reading up on the realities of these things before I get into any serious pontification. (After all, I’m a proper academic now — I can’t go around making half-baked sociological claims on the basis of anecdotal evidence!)

fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking

A bunch of snips from an interview with Matt Ward [via Matt formerly-of-BERG Jones], until fairly recently Head of Design at Goldsmiths:

Speculative Design can act as a mode of inquiry or it can be a form of strategic practice within industry. At its worst it’s an aesthetic, a step-by-step guide or corporate vapourware, at its best it creates a gravity centre, attracting people to discuss different types of futures, whilst using the tools and the language of design to explore and expand our notion of the possible.

[…]

… we never design for today. We’re always projecting and imagining a world where our work will exist. Even design with the fastest turnaround times, from concept to production (say editorial publishing), you’re always thinking of a person in the future, using and engaging with your work. We design for a world that doesn’t yet exist. We’re constantly imagining (or making assumptions about) the conditions and possibilities of the future world we hope to inhabit. This is why, over the last decade, more work is focussed on different environmental and political possibilities, because these issues dominate our attention and imagination.

[…]

In informal educational settings, in workshops in industry for example, I see speculative methods can be used effectively to loosen up creativity – allowing diverse stakeholders to explore possibilities without getting stuck on the near term problems. By “suspending disbelief”, you can examine the values and assumptions your organisation holds.

He drops some good, concise gotchas for the practice near the end, too:

As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, over stating the power and claims of design can ultimately undermine it as an approach. Using it as a method doesn’t guarantee interesting or resonant work. Over selling its power risks it being dismissed in the future or turning us into snake oil sellers.

I’m having to think about this a lot right now, because I’m dragging something fairly closely related to SD into the world of environmental politics, where people on all sides are pretty desperate for some sort of magic wand to make everything better. It’s important that I continue to remind them, and myself, that SD and/or narrative prototyping is not and cannot be that magic wand — though it might be a way to support the creation of highly situated magic wands in those circumstances where it’s done successfully. Which is of course related to:

Designers are comfortable seeing prototypes as a fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking – a process of thinking through issues and ideas without finalising a future possibility. However, these futures, seen out of context, can become concretised in the imaginations of non-designers. The proposals, that we give material form, are often misinterpreted as possible and desired, not propositional and problematic. In other words, be careful what you wish (design) for.

This is our old friend, the hazard of hoaxiness — the interpretation, presumably fostered by the social conditioning of decades of marketing and advertising, of any designed object or service or environment as a promise rather than a proposal (as mentioned just a few days back, in fact, in the context of charismatic megaprojects).

This got under my skin early on, and has always been one of my major issues with mainstream futures studies and scenario-based methods of foresight — it’s genuinely terrifying how quickly people will not only start to eat their own dogfood, but also claim that they like the taste.

Last but not least:

If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.

Yeah, this. Political science (and the social sciences in general) are still pretty bad at this, but that’s at least in part down to the institutional inertia of disciplines, and of the academy more broadly; a lot of folk at the coalface desperately want to do more co-productive work, but getting it funded can be a real challenge. (There’s more than one reason I’ve come to Sweden; no UK research council would touch my work with someone else’s barge-pole, and that’s not only because of my vocal contempt for the ubiquity of “innovation” as the dominant quantum of value.)

I’ve attempted to keep myself honest on this aspect by drawing on theories prevalent in social-practice arts and placemaking, wherein the artist/researcher is not the author of the project so much as its catalyst and midwife… though this means I’m now in the interesting position of having to actually *do* that, rather than simply hold it up as an ideal.

But as Ward makes clear above, it’s necessary. It became obvious to me early on that a significant factor in the foreclosure of futurity experienced by ordinary people is that they feel like they’re subjected to a barrage of grand promises (or threats) that fail to materialise. We’ve spent a couple of decades telling people — with, for the most part, the best of intentions — how they should live under/against climate change. But social-practice placemaking recognises that people are the experts in their own lives — and so it’s time to try asking them how they think they want to live with climate change.

I am confident that the answers will surprise us. As such, resisting the urge to correct those surprising answers will be the real challenge.

weapons of mass distraction

Geoff Manaugh / knows the score*. Your outrage is exactly what they want:

… an endless landslide of trivial distractions has been steadily eliminating the ground needed for systemic political change. People who might once have been an opposition—or, even better, people who might once have been leaders capable of articulating a clear way forward, rather than a muddled, shy, often weirdly apologetic way to resist someone else’s initiative—are left genuinely believing that if only Mike Pompeo could be forced to admit that an NPR reporter knows where Ukraine is, then some sort of symbolic, magical goal will be achieved.

Remix as necessary for non-USian contexts. Note that he’s not saying you shouldn’t get angry; he’s saying that taking your anger to the birdsite and performing it to your siblings-in-anger is not just useless, but actively counterproductive.

Note also that he’s right.

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BLDGBLOG is of the blogs I’m gladdest to see fire back into life this year; Manaugh was always something of a blogging hero to me back in the day, someone to emulate. He has a deceptively simple “beat” or home topic, often approached from a more-or-less science-fictional angle; he writes clearly and regularly; and he can be quite concise. I am much better at two of these things than the third one yes ok no prize for pointing that out thankyouverymuch. Prolixity is my signature move; other blogs are available!

[ * There is a prize for identifying this cultural reference in the comments, but receiving the prize is contingent on your managing not to make me feel old in the manner of your mentioning it. So good luck with that! ]