Category Archives: Sociology

Indistinguishable from magic? Extractivism, the infrastructural metasystem, and the obfuscation of consequences

This is a video-paper I prepared for a virtual conference called Extraction: Tracing the Veins, running this week under the aegis of the Political Ecology Research Center at Massey University, NZ and Wageningen Univeristy, NL.

My paper is a part of the Technology & Infrastructure panel, and if you think mine sounds of any interest at all, then I’d ask that you go and give my co-panellists the same attention you would grant to me.

You can leave feedback and questions on the panel’s webpage if you want to, or drop a comment here, or even leave one on the Y*uT*be page for the video if you prefer.

It was an unusual experience, producing a video for a conference paper—not really so different a process in terms of writing the piece and developing the slides, but recording and editing the script and compiling the video was an interesting new challenge. It feels a little amateur, but I suspect that’s a legacy of having been a sound engineer in a former life: all I can hear are the cheap production values, and the hurriedness of a project completed in the run-up to a relocation. BUT: it’ll be easier and faster next time, and hopefully I’ll have more time to plan and integrate the production into the drafting of the actual paper itself. I have a feeling that there’ll be a lot more of this sort of work in academia in the near- to medium-term future…

they refuse to engage with the roots of the problem

Scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists bemoan denialism, but have no solutions to offer apart from urging us to fight harder not to get sucked into an ocean of misinformation. This is because they refuse to engage with the roots of the problem, which cannot be addressed by doubling down on the denial that there are any legitimate sources of understanding apart from science. After scientism has hollowed out public discourse of any way to present and disagree about values and ways of living, where else is discontent with policies that claim to only ‘follow the science’ to be directed except at the science itself? 


By fostering a political culture, in which placing responsibility for a political decision on ‘the science’ is a viable way of defending it, scientism has made challenging science the only way to challenge political decisions. But, in both cases, a debate that should be about politics is misdirected. Political decisions cannot merely follow science, because political decisions, as any decisions for that matter, are motivated by specific interpretations and values. They are not merely dictated by the facts. As Jana Bacevic recently wrote in an Op-Ed in The Guardian: “What policymakers choose to prioritise at these moments is a matter of political judgment. Is it the lives of the elderly and the ill? Is it the economy? Or is it political approval ratings?” If our ability to discuss and argue over values had not been degraded, we could demand that policy-makers defend their choice to prioritise certain values over others, rather than taking refuge in the claim that scientific facts determine what choices they make, as though they were hardly choices at all. 


For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.

  • Raban, J. ([1974] 2017). Soft City. Pan Macmillan.

Shades of Viriconium, wot? Pointed at the Raban above by a passing reference in the intro for Lieven Ameel’s forthcoming The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning, the publication of which I’m very much looking forward to.

an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty

I’ll stop blockquoting Audrey Watters when she stops saying shit that needs saying.

The science fiction of The Matrix creeps into presentations that claim to offer science fact. It creeps into promises about instantaneous learning, facilitated by alleged breakthroughs in brain science. It creeps into TED Talks, of course. Take Nicholas Negroponte, for example, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab who in his 2014 TED Talk predicted that in 30 years time (that is, 24 years from now), you will swallow a pill and “know English,” swallow a pill and “know Shakespeare.”

What makes these stories appealing or even believable to some people? It’s not science. It’s “special effects.” And The Matrix is, after all, a dystopia. So why would Matrix-style learning be desirable? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s desirable, but it’s just how our imaginations have been constructed, constricted even. We can’t imagine any other ideal but speed and efficiency.

We should ask, what does it mean in these stories — in both the Wachowskis’ and Negroponte’s — to “know”? To know Kung Fu or English or Shakespeare? It seems to me, at least, that knowing and knowledge here are decontextualized, cheapened. This is an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty in which human experience and human culture and human bodies are not valued. But this epistemology informs and is informed by the ed-tech imaginary.

“What if, thanks to AI, you could learn Chinese in a weekend?” an ed-tech startup founder once asked me — a provocation that was meant to both condemn the drawbacks of traditional language learning classroom and prompt me, I suppose, to imagine the exciting possibilities of an almost-instanteous fluency in a foreign language. And rather than laugh in his face — which, I confess that I did — and say “that’s not possible, dude,” the better response would probably have been something like: “What if we addressed some of our long-standing biases about language in this country and stopped stigmatizing people who do not speak English? What if we treated students who speak another language at home as talented, not deficient?” Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

Re: “it’s special effects”—it’s also concretised metaphor, which, in the spectacular narrative logic of the cinematic, amounts to much the same thing. Part of this is a kind of meta-literacy problem, in that the deconcretisation of metaphor is a hard-won skill, and (I would guess) related to critical thinking: not something that can be taught, as such, but a strategy of parsing whose acquisition can be supported by a patient and less didactic form of pedagogy. Which is, I suppose, a way of saying that the ed-tech forms generated by the ed-tech imaginary work to sustain a form of education that ensures that the imaginary itself is unlikely to be questioned. Systemic imaginaries, much like actual systems, have a sort of autopoiesis of self-preservation: they work to counter entropic externalities.


There are other stories, other science fictions that have resonated with powerful people in education circles. Mark Zuckerberg gave everyone at Facebook a copy of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, for example, to get them excited about building technology for the future — a book that is really just a string of nostalgic references to Eighties white boy culture. And I always think about that New York Times interview with Sal Khan, where he said that “The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy, like Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ series.” You mean, online math lectures are like a novel that justifies imperialism and genocide?! Wow.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about the way in which the pajandrums of the Valley claim inspiration from books that they clearly haven’t understood in any but the most shallow and uncritical way, and I doubt it will be the last.