Category Archives: Sociology

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.

Also:

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.

the feared disseminators of complexity

A new discovery, made within Simon Reynolds’ response to the shuttering of Beyond the Beyond: Matti Swiedmann’s Red Velvet Corridor.

Top of the stack of posts at present is this thing, rambling around in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard… all the intervals in that haunting earworm of a scale that I’m still teaching myself to play. I got as far as this passage before knowing I was on board:

… all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

I guess one upside of the demise of the blog as a popular medium is that there’s space for people to write like this and leave the comments open without having to spend hours of every day wading through the moronic vitriol of replyguy chumps. Blogs may be dead media, but old infrastructures have a tendency of hanging around and being put to new uses once they become unprofitable… Reynolds’s beloved Hardcore Continuum relied upon the graveyards of British industry to be its seeding-bed, after all. It’s nice to know there’s still some of us out here, dancing in the ruins.

unknowable differences populating an imagined horizon

Struggling to write on sociological topics (or indeed on anything that engages significantly with social dimensions, whether academically or otherwise)? David Beer is, too:

… beyond the problems of the speed of change and a lack of focus, there is also a sense that the thing I’d normally be analysing – society – will not be the same. Unknowable differences are currently populating an imagined horizon. Those futures should be examined, but I’m also waiting to see what the social world that emerges will look like. It’s hard to do sociology and social science when you aren’t quite sure what the social is and how it is working. It could be that increased networking, heightened and more visual social media connections, video links, mobile tracking and other features will persist, these will need to be thought through in detail.

The new social formations might well be even more technologically centered than those that went before. The scale of the changes might even mean that we will need to rethink the domain assumptions, ideas and theories that have underpinned social analysis. Maybe, as things settle into their new formations, some new openings will be found. Social research at a distance is proving hard to fathom. Once any new variants of the social can be seen then the possibilities for understanding will need to be widely explored.

This is an issue that is coming up a lot among colleagues and friends at the moment. It thus feels a little odd to find myself in one of my more seemingly productive phases… but that may have something to do with a significant chunk of my last fifteen years having been spent in imitation of the lock-down experience when it comes to patterns of working: as much as I’m not particularly happy to be back there, working in my living-room is actually far more familiar to me than having an office to go to and colleagues to hang out with. It may also be related to my having withdrawn from the attention-barrage of socnets far earlier—though that means I’ve been feeling that detachment-from-the-immediate for far longer, too, and I’m as yet uncertain as to whether that’s a net win with regard to my work. (With regard to my mental health, however, it remains perhaps the smartest move I’ve ever made.)

I guess the takeaway point here is that, if you’re struggling to concentrate on writing about the world, don’t be too hard on yourself; some of the greatest minds in that business are struggling, too.

(That said, the Hot-Take Futures Factory still seems to be running at full tilt, but I think that serves only to underscore the point Beer is making: any serious engagement with social issues requires the starting admission that prediction is bunk at the best of times, and all the more so under the current state of fluxion. But ThoughtLords gotta ThoughtLord, amirite? Those Teslas won’t pay for themselves.)

the city bureaucrat of the future learns, not preaches

The appearance of this piece by Barcelona’s chief technology and digital innovation officer, Francesca Bria [via Sentiers] is serendipitous, given that one of the tasks on my slate this week is to do the edits and tweaks on a long-overdue chapter on the “smart city” for a forthcoming Handbook of Social Futures. Five guidelines for thinking about digital platforms for socialist urbanisms… take it away, Senyora Bria:

First […] acknowledge that digital technology can help citizens to solve many of their problems without having to wait for help from remote bureaucracies. […] Done properly, [bottom-up democracy] will also enable new forms of solidarity and collective action – not just the perpetuation of the “solutionist” mindset that reduces all problems to the level of the individual user or consumer.

Second, city leaders should be humble and confess they do not have all the answers but that they trust the citizens to help find them; the city bureaucrat of the future learns, not preaches. […] Digital infrastructures that empower citizens to participate in politics cannot be run using business models based on the manipulation of collective behaviours and fake news. They must be in public hands and controlled by citizens themselves.

Third, […] assure that citizens’ data is not only safe but that it’s actually generating public, not just private, value. […] Whoever wants to build new services on top of that data would need to do so in a competitive, heavily regulated environment while paying a corresponding share of their profits for accessing it.

Fourth, city leaders need to remember that their task is to reconcile private and often short-term preferences of their citizens with the long-term public good. [To paraphrase: “let’s learn from and not repeat the AirBnB clusterfuck, yeah?”]

Finally, cities – and the people who lead them – should show more humility and stop flaunting their cosmopolitanism and uniqueness […] what point is there in “greening” or “revitalising” the city if the price is environmental and economic devastation in the countryside – which, eventually, wreaks havoc on the city too?

Should be fun trying to find a way to paraphrase all that in a way that doesn’t lose the nuance…

The full APA-style citation, to save myself (or anyone else) the work of reconstructing it later on:

  • Bria, F. (2019, April 17). You’re thinking about smart cities in completely the wrong way. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/reboot-britain-francesca-bria

better isn’t best, but

Sean Guynes drops his second of two essays on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. If it’s a book you know, or if it’s a book you simply know of, I recommend this piece wholeheartendly—and on that basis, the rest of Guynes’s Le Guin re-read to come at Tor.com. (And if you haven’t even heard of it, ehrmahgehrd get yourself a copy and fix that right away.)

I’m clipping this bit in particular, though, because it’s such an elegant and eloquent summary of an argument I’ve been pushing for more than half a decade, and intend to push for the rest of my forseeable:

If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Yes, exactly this. And now is a moment in which we need to remember and rehearse that attitude more than ever.