Category Archives: Sociology

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 It may also be related to my having withdrawn from the attention-barrage of socnets far earlier—though that means I’ve been feeling that detachment-from-the-immediate for far longer, too, and I’m as yet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.

the arcade fire

A long ol’ piece on Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus by Apoorva Tadepalli at Real Life. It’s the sort of epic longread that merits at least a second thorough go-thru (and has as such been stashed away to that end), but this bit leapt out as being Relevant To My Interests, as the old meme used to go:

Benjamin was fundamentally opposed to anything nearing history as a linear presentation, as development or progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he famously wrote in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” That the Paris arcades were long past their heyday when he began writing was no obstacle; perhaps it was even the point. The assembled fragments give us a way of reading history by collapsing time; they create the “dialectical image,” or the meaning that is generated in the sudden moment of insight that makes history recognizable in the present. Fashion, for instance, is one of the central ways Benjamin explores this dialectical image of collapsed time: style, the most transient of all markers, is forced by mass production and exploited labor into an “eternal return,” forever offering modernity.

This immersion in the ruins of history as a way of “telescoping the past through the present,” as Benjamin wrote, has political importance: It is a way of situating oneself under the spell of the enchanting material, and experiencing history in all its contradictions, rather than trying to deny it through the theoretical approach to historicism that Benjamin’s colleagues advocated. Benjamin writes of the need to “rescue” history with a “firm, seemingly brutal grasp,” to physically wrench it through time in order to clearly see the present; readers of his work today would have to do the same.

I was reading Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss back in the autumn (and somehow never quite got round to finishing it, for an assortment of reasons, not all of which were time-related); even therein it’s pretty clear that, for all the intellectual originality of the Frankfurt School crew who survived the war, the loss of Benjamin was a great tragedy. He was something quite singular, even among that gang of highly singular minds.

I’ve had a hardcopy of the Project since buying it for my Masters back in 2011/12, and then being scared off by its bulk; maybe it’s time to make a project of actually reading the thing? After all, it’s no larger than the Fisher collection from Repeater, and probably more amenable to a daily randomised-and-rationed reading approach…

a metrics of labour other than time

Very interesting long paper by Matteo Pasquinelli; going back through Marx’s notion of the general intellect, he shows that none other than yer man Babbage theorised computing systems not only as a concretisation of labour but a crystallisation of preexisting biases in the workforce. Everything old becomes new again.

… the distinction between manual and mental labour disappears in Marxism because, from the abstract point of view of capital, all waged labour, without distinction, produces surplus value; all labour is abstract labour. However, the abstract eye of capital that regulates the labour theory of value employs a specific instrument to measure labour: the clock. In this way, what looks like a universal law has to deal with the metrics of a very mundane technology: clocks are not universal. Machines can impose a metrics of labour other than time, as has recently happened with social data analytics. As much as new instruments define new domains of science, likewise they define new domains of labour after being invented by labour itself. Any new machine is a new configuration of space, time and social relations, and it projects new metrics of such diagrams. In the Victorian age, a metrology of mental labour existed only in an embryonic state. A rudimentary econometrics of knowledge begins to emerge only in the twentieth century with the first theory of information. The thesis of this text is that Marx’s labour theory of value did not resolve the metrics for the domains of knowledge and intelligence, which had to be explored in the articulation of the machine design and in the Babbage principle.

Following Braverman and Schaffer, one could add that Babbage provided not just a labour theory of the machine but a labour theory of machine intelligence. Babbage’s calculating engines (‘intelligent machines’ of the age) were an implementation of the analytical eye of the factory’s master. Cousins of Bentham’s panopticon, they were instruments, simultaneously, of surveillance and measurement of labour. It is this idea that we should consider and apply to the age of artificial intelligence and its political critique, although reversing its polarisation, in order to declare computing infrastructures a concretion of labour in common.