Category Archives: Sociology

Against the asymptote

Joi Ito:

“For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn’t understand it now, “it” would understand and “solve” itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union’s master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is “tamable.” Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.

Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the Singularity bubble believe in S-curves: nature adapts and self-regulates, and, for example, when a pandemic has run its course, growth slows and things adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity—especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence—is fundamentally a flawed one.

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.

The Greimas square-dance

More KSR on anti-anti-utopianism, this time at Commune Magazine:

Clearly we enter here the realm of the ideological; but we’ve been there all along. Althusser’s definition of ideology, which defines it as the imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence, is very useful here, as everywhere. We all have ideologies, they are a necessary part of cognition, we would be disabled without them. So the question becomes, which ideology? People choose, even if they do not choose under conditions of their own making. Here, remembering that science too is an ideology, I would suggest that science is the strongest ideology for estimating what’s physically possible to do or not do. Science is AI, so to speak, in that the vast artificial intelligence that is science knows more than any individual can know—Marx called this distributed knowing “the general intellect”—and it continually reiterates and refines what it asserts, in an ongoing recursive project of self-improvement.

That’s the dovetail I didn’t know I was looking for  that connects to this recent NYT longread on Oncle Latour:

Crowded into the little concrete room, we were seeing gravity as Latour had always seen it — not as the thing in itself, nor as a mental representation, but as scientific technology allowed us to see it. This, in Latour’s view, was the only way it could be seen. Gravity, he has argued time and again, was created and made visible by the labor and expertise of scientists, the government funding that paid for their education, the electricity that powered up the sluggish computer, the truck that transported the gravimeter to the mountaintop, the geophysicists who translated its readings into calculations and legible diagrams, and so on. Without this network, the invisible waves would remain lost to our senses.

Pessimism of the Intellect / Optimism of the Will

KSR’s angry optimism [CCCBLab, Barcelona]:

The way that we create energy and the way that we move around on this planet both have to be de-carbonized. That has to be, if not profitable, affordable. Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. It’s not that it’s technologically difficult (we already have the solar panels, the electric cars, we have the technical problems more or less solved in prototype) but the mass deployment of those is a huge human project, equivalent of everybody gathering together to fight World War II. Everybody agrees that, yes, this is important enough that people’s careers, lives, be devoted to the swapping out of the infrastructure and the creation of a de-carbonized, sustainable, physical plan for the rest of civilization.

Well, this isn’t the way capitalism works, as currently configured; this isn’t profitable. The market doesn’t like it. By the market I mean – what I think everybody means, but doesn’t admit – capital, accumulated capital, and where it wants to put itself next. […] It’s just the way it is and there is no control over that except for nation-state governments, each one looking at its own responsibility and power and feeling in competition with others, not wanting to lose its differential advantage.

Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.

No further comment. BUT —

… I think there is a difference between cruel optimism and angry optimism, where you have the Gramscian pessimism in the intellect but also optimism of the will. Use the optimism as a club, to beat the crap out of people who are saying that we are doomed, who are saying let’s give up now. And this “let’s give up now” can be very elaborated academically. You can say: “Well, I’m just into adaptation rather than mitigation, there’s nothing we can do about climate change, all you can do is adapt to it.” In other words, stick with capitalism, stick with the market, and don’t get freaked out. Just adapt and get your tenure because it is usually academics who say it, and they’re not usually in design or architecture, they aren’t really doing things. They’re usually in philosophy or in theory. They come out of my departments, they’re telling a particular story and I don’t like that story. My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.

Cf. the good work they’re doing at Into the Ruinsclimate change (and concomitant political, economic and sociotechnical change) as inescapable but nonetheless survivable, storyable. Solarpunk is in a similar space, but more over on the utopian side of the spectrum, which is likely why its proponents have produced so little so far: they’re not yet testing their dreams hard enough to generate storyable worlds from them.

(By “storyable” I mean “more than a mere backdrop or set-dressing; a world/context which plays as generative a role in the plot as any of the characters do, if not significantly more so”. None of which is to say that solarpunk is no good; more to observe that it’s a young scene of predominantly young artists, and is still finding its feet in aesthetics and technique alike. Writing science fiction is not uniquely hard, but it is hard in a unique way, and the speculative toolkit has evolved many of its conventions through necessity as much as ideology; it’s a cliche, and I resisted it myself, but you have to learn the rules before you have any chance of challenging them successfully and systematically.)

Head like a holist

From a Timothy Morton interview at Orion Magazine:

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

The holism that Morton describes here is far from being limited to our thinking about ecology; the sciences, and indeed the social sciences, are riddled with it. (The inverse of Thatcher’s nihilism, in which “the social” becomes both the source of and answer to every challenge, a sort of sociological alpha-and-omega, is still very prevalent — though I’d argue it’s slightly preferable.) As Morton points out, the problem is rooted in language, but perhaps more particularly in narrative; the systemic is difficult to narrate, because narrative — at least in its most popular and prevalent forms — needs heroes and villains, black hats and white hats, causes and effects. Climate change is particularly sticky in this regard. As I like to put it: no one’s to blame, but everyone’s complicit.

(Cf. Bruno Latour’s re-reading of Lovelock’s Gaia theory against the greater-than-the-parts holism of Earth Systems Science. As I understand it, a lot of the OOO philosophers regard Latour’s work as being quite close to their own thought; Harman in particular refers to Latour frequently, and has even written a book on him (which is still somewhere in my TBR pile). I’ve found what OOO I’ve read (which still isn’t much) to be interesting, but it lacks utility, a sense that I might use it to think with purpose beyond simply thinking; that utility is exactly what I get from Latour, and is presumably also the aspect of Latour’s work that makes him “close, but not close enough” for Harman. When discussing this with an academic philosopher, he suggested to me that “social theory” was “a category created to contain would-be philosophers who in some way ascribed to Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it”; I was quite delighted by that, even after it was made very clear that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.)