Category Archives: Sociology

Stating the bloody obvious

… those tech creators and tech billionaires who are influenced by Science Fiction seem to assume that because things in Science Fiction work in the society and culture of those created future-set universes, there is an expectation bias that they will work in our real life and present, without much testing or oversight.

Gadgets, services, and technologies work in Science Fiction because it is fiction. They work because it is a narrative, and as such, their authors or filmmakers showed them working. They work because in fiction, it is very easy to make things work, because they aren’t real and don’t need to actually work.

Realizing the unreal from fiction will not make that realization work in the same way in real life. It can’t. The context, timeframe, and people are different. Most importantly, Science Fiction is fiction.

Astonishing, really, that this even needs to be said — though it clearly does need to be said.

However, the author’s relentless capping of Science Fiction betrays what is likely the same superficial engagement with the genre demonstrated by those they are criticising: there’s plenty of science fiction in which the tech doesn’t work, and indeed which is totally about the tech not working, or working in ways orthogonal to its maker’s and user’s original (or at least originally stated) intentions; it’s also hard to square this piece with the effectively mainstreamed (but nonetheless totally wrongheaded) punditry to the effect that science fiction has gone too far in the tech-negative dystopian direction. But hey, when your research needs publicising and a venue has an obvious hook for your pitch, well, we’ve all been there, amirite?

That said, the author’s call for companies to hire social scientists to deal with these sorts of issues is something I’d support — though yer man Damien Williams makes the case far more effectively (not to mention eloquently). Meanwhile, re: science fiction, the distinction between the technological utopian mode and the critical utopian mode was old theory when I picked it up back in 2014, but it’s as relevant as ever. If people are going to turn to narrative forms as spaces of inspiration and reflection — and they clearly are, and clearly always have done — then we might as well use critical narrative form to counter the uncritical stuff, no?

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.)

A certain hermetically sealed quality

Like nightmares, dystopias have a certain hermetically sealed quality. By their nature, they are inescapable—a dystopia you can escape from is not a dystopia, it is the third hour of Love, Actually. The circumstances that create any brave, new world simultaneously cauterize its edges and destroy memories of the world before. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, as near as Winston can recall, “He had first heard mention of Big Brother… at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London… ” To an extent, this is also how history works, as unlikely ephemera like Donald Trump fluke their way into awful existence and, in doing so, retroactively annihilate our former, lingering sense of other possibilities. For instance: remember when it seemed inevitable we’d have our first female president? Remember when public racism resulted in an exile from public life? Remember when we still had a functioning EPA? Disasters are amnesiac in nature.


… the best, maybe only, way of resisting dystopias, is to keep in mind that it was not always thus.  What has happened is an aberration, and the world worked a different way for a very long time.  Dystopias—fictional and real—are perhaps unavoidable, but not irreversible.  The cliché goes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Maybe it would be truer simply to say that those who forget the past are doomed.

Adam O’Fallon Price at The Paris Review. Not entirely sure he isn’t himself somehow relocating an uncritical liberal utopia to the past in this piece — in fact, I’m fairly sure he is doing so, though perhaps unwittingly, and that’s just as big a mistake as dytopianism — but the point about the amnesia of disasters is solid, and says something quietly profound (and profoundly disturbing) about our experience of temporality. Guy Debord might implicate the Spectacle in this phenomenon, and I’d be very willing to back him up on it.

There is no meaningfully superhuman way to install a ceiling fan

In the history of both technology and religion, you find a tension between two competing priorities that lead to two different patterns of problem selection: establishing the technology versus establishing a narrative about the technology. In proselytizing, you have to manage the tension between converting people and helping them with their daily problems. In establishing a religion in places of power, you have to manage a tension between helping the rulers govern, versus getting them to declare your religion as the state religion.

You could say Boundary AI problems are church-building problems. Signaling-and-prayer-offering institutions around which the political power of a narrative can accrete. Even after accounting for Moravec’s paradox (easy for humans is hard for machines/hard for humans is easy for machines), we still tend to pick Boundary AI problems that focus on the theatrical comparison, such as skill at car-driving.

In technology, the conflict between AC and DC witnessed many such PR battles. More recently VHS versus Betamax, Mac versus PC, and Android versus iOS are recognized as essentially religious in part because they are about competing narratives about technologies rather than about the technologies themselves. To claim the “soul” of a technological narrative is to win the market for it. Souls have great brand equity.

A proper brain-hoser of a longread from the latest episode of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter*; religion, sociotechnical change, artificial intelligence, societal alienation, ceiling fans. So much to chew on it took me an hour to pick a pull-quote; it is completely typical for Rao to just wander about like this between big-concept topics and find connections and comparisons, which is why I started reading him a long, long time ago.

* It appears you can’t see the latest episode in the archives, presumably until it is no longer the latest episode, because [newsletters]. Drop me a line if you want me to forward the email version on… or just trust me when I say that if you’re intrigued by the pull-quote, you should just subscribe anyway. Not like it’ll cost you anything, beyond a bit of cognitive bandwidth.

“A model of how to be and how to behave”: Szeman (2015), Entrepreneurship as the New Common Sense

Szeman, I. (2015). Entrepreneurship as the new common sense. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(3), 471-490. [link]


Via a Wired article on the start-up Boomtrain, Szeman introduces the increasingly ubiquitous entrepreneurial story, “narratives that make it seem as if financial and social success is, in the main, inevitable in the new world of the devices and gadgets that increasingly mediate our lives” (p472); despite the less than rosy story of Boomtrain in the article, this “cautionary tale does little to deflate the dream of entrepreneurial success currently circulating in the world [… it’s] an exception to a now general and widely-accepted rule: the entrepreneur has become a model of how to be and how to behave, and not only in the world of business. Entrepreneurship has come to permeate our social imaginaries in a way that has quickly transformed its claims and demands on us from fantasy into reality.” (ibid)

Szeman next discusses the original definition of the entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk” (see Cantillon, 2010) in an otherwise orderly and boring economic system dominated by states and large collectivist corporations; he cites Willard Whyte’s Organisation Man (a regular touchstone of Keller Easterling’s, IIRC) as a template for the contemporary form of corporate power, if not its content (hints of D&G’s nomadology here) in order to observe that, on one level, not much seems to have changed. What has changed is the status of the entrepreneur: once a minor character in the capitalist pantheon, this archetype is now exemplary:

“Entrepreneurship is a sticky idea around which contradictory and multiple constellations of other ideas coalesce; like many instances of common sense [to be clear, Szeman is implicitly deploying the Gramscian formulation of ‘common sense’ throughout this paper], this one sutures together certain (irresolvable) contradictions and challenges, making the existing situation seem natural, to-be-expected, and thus not only bearable but (in this case) anticipated and exciting […] the entrepreneur is the neoliberal subject par excellence — the perfect figure for a world in which the market has replaced society, and one whose idealization and legitimation in turn affirms the necessity and veracity of this epochal transition.” – p474

As a result, “political, economic, aesthetic and educational structures have been and are still being reshaped” around the entrepreneurial archetype (ibid); governments are very much complicit in this shift, with a particular focus on youth through the HE system — and from my own current standpoint within a Russell Group university in the UK, this is painfully hard to refute. Entrepreneurial course-products are “explicitly designed to create new forms and modes of subjectivity […] The language of risk and uncertainty that has always accompanied entrepreneurial activity has become generalised […] risk is a universal condition of existence.” (p475, my bold emphasis)

This risk has two dimensions:

  1. “the disappearance of sites and spaces for accumulation” (ibid): state and capital are both desperate to innovate their processes; “increasingly limited possibilities of growth” make entrepreneurs the ideal subjects, as they put the most effort into finding new possibilities for the lowest capital outlay;
  2. precarity (cf. Butler): assurances and insurances slowly and socially built up against corporeal vulnerability have been eroded and/or dismantled since the 1980s (if not before).

“… precarity has in fact become a universalised condition of contemporary existence due to the practices of the neoliberal state and global finance. Entrepreneurial subjects arise in response to this universal precarity: they are actors needed by states and capital alike to invent new forms and spaces of accumulation, but they also constitute a new form of subjectivity appropriate to the uncertainties that attend contemporary capitalism.” (p476)

“In a perverse way, the new programs of entrepreneurship appear to meet a demand that preexisted them, and not vice versa” (p477); the situation has “produced opportunities [for the entrepreneurial subject] hitherto unavailable.” (ibid) Success or failure is purely a matter of individual ability and/or desire; everyone is assumed to start from the same equal footing; structural inequalities effectively elided (or reframed as the whining of losers / the politics of envy?). There is a confusion of formal freedoms with actual freedoms, a contradictory assumption that the freedoms within capitalism might somehow transcend capitalism’s inherent limits. Examples include libertarian seasteading, Thiel’s drop-out-of-college fellowship fund, and ‘sharing economy’ evangelism (note that this piece was likely written in 2014, before the sharing economy backlash was briefly mainstreamed), all of which “imagine a better, more fulfilling world peopled by autopoetic microentrepreneurs [… These technoutopian desires] constitute attempts to rethink process without ever questioning the system in which those processes operate; and rather than imagining different futures, they remain trapped in a perpetual present, a cycle of unending creative destruction in which nothing fundamental can ever change.” (p478, author’s italics, my bold emphasis)

Linguistic and social shifts reframe poor people as potential entrepreneurs whose energies lie dormant in the absence of the appropriate programs to enable their flourishing (see Federici, “ideologies of microentrepreneurship”); these shifts in turn enable and/or legitimise:

  1. the rollback or elimination of social safety-nets;
  2. a change in self-perception among the poor, in which they internalise the ‘entrepreneur or nothing narrative’ wholesale; “poverty can now only be a personal failing” (p479, see Karim, “a political economy of shame”).

This subjectivity is perhaps even more ubiquitous in the Global South, as manifest in the “hawkers, importers, market merchants, restaurateurs, scavengers, mechanics [and others] whose work takes place off the books all over the world.” (p480)

“One last point needs to be made: not only are we all expected to be entrepreneurs today, we are all expected to like it; from the perspective of entrepreneurial common sense, there are no unhappy entrepreneurs.” — p480, author’s italics

This is fine.

“… as the utopian situation for the entrepreneur remains always the present, cruel optimism turns virtue into vice […] even as entrepreneurs insist on the significance of their contributions to shaping the future, they occupy an ahistorical landscape in which time stands still.” — p 481, author’s italics, my bold emphasis

Referring to Dardot & Laval, the imperative of maximum performance in all spheres of life, as exemplified by professional sports, has become mandatory for all (p482); the entrepreneurial subject requires little or no monitoring or management system (other than the underlying precarity of the context in which they are operating — cf this super-bleak bit from Charlie Stross); engenders a sort of pathological hyperproductivity and a dissolution of the  already-porous borders between ‘work’ and ‘life’; the self as a perpetual metaproject. The unironic appropriation of Beckett’s “fail better” riff from Worstward Ho as the de facto motto of entrepreneurial culture (I have done this myself); Freud’s repetition compulsion. “The repetition of failure becomes a badge of pride, a marker of living well, of engaging in properly ethical behaviour, and of having achieved the good life.” (p483)

“The status of entrepreneurship as a new common sense of subjectivity and economic practice […] would suggest that it constitutes an ideal subjectivity for neoliberal forms of governmentality, one that it has been searching for all along. […] It is a mechanism of selfhood and subject formation that begins from the premise that there is no one to count on, no one who can do anything for you other than you yourself.” HOWEVER: “Entrepreneurship may be simultaneously the height of neoliberal subject formation and its limit — a peak on the other side of which lie subjects with no fidelity to governments or states.” — p484, author’s italics

I’m not sure I buy Szeman’s final ray of hope, here (he goes on to suggest that this notion of Peak Neoliberal Subject Formation represents a “kernel of political possibility”), but that’s because I really want to buy it, and it seems far too easy a way out of something that seems otherwise almost entirely inescapable. As noted above, this was likely written at least four years ago; that sure as shit wasn’t a peak year for the dynamics of entrepreneurial subject formation, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. Overall, this is one of those valuable papers which serves to provide a solid suite of references and arguments for an intuition that I’ve harboured since the early Nineties: that the huckster story has become a hero’s story.

(Cf. Only Fools & Horses, which — not to deny its values as comedy and popular entertainment, lest I be lynched and/or have my passport rescinded — would seem to stand as an early document in the subject formation that Szeman is talking about here: Del-boy is a huckster and a serial failure, and that’s exactly why we’re encouraged to, and ultimately do, identify with him.)

Pretty sure there’s some sort of overlap with the wizards of innovation trope, too — though that story tends to have a different generic feel, perhaps because told from a different POV and for a more select (and, indeed, generic) audience.