Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

accumulations (three different ones)

So much chewy material in this genuine monster of an Evgeny Morozov essay at New Left Review. Absorbing it fully would likely take a number of re-reads, not to mention a greater familiarity with the literatures and debates he’s navigating here; as such, to the only precis I can offer is Morozov’s own, from near the end of the piece:

The ultimate irony here is that the best evidence that ‘accumulation via innovation’ is—like capitalism itself—still very much alive, can be found in the same technology sector that Durand writes off as feudalist and rentierist. We can see as much when we abandon the overdetermined macro-narratives of these analytical frameworks—be it Harvey’s ‘neoliberalism’ as a political project or Vercellone’s ‘cognitive capitalism’. Thinking of technology firms the way Marx would have likely thought about them—that is, as capitalist producers—surely yields better results.

But the bit I wanted to clip here for my own (and I suppose rather narrower) uses is this:

… if the ‘political’ was so instrumental to the constitution of the ‘economic’, one might as well ask just what is gained by presenting capitalism as a system that keeps the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ apart? That capitalists and their ideologues talk that way is one thing; the extent to which this is an accurate description of what actually occurs under capitalism—the thesis of Woods’s article—is another. Here one is reminded of Bruno Latour’s quip that modernity speaks with a forked tongue: it says that science and society are poles apart—but this strategic confusion is precisely what allows it to hybridize them so productively. It may be that the story of the political and the economic under capitalism is very similar.

My ears always prick up when someone invokes Oncle Bruno—naturellement!—but that’s an analogy which could come in very handy, even (if not particularly) when working with Latour’s own writings.

In other news, this week I’m waving-not-drowning (or so I hope) in the riptides of Swedish academia’s Eastertide grant application season, and fretting over poor L____’s being holed up in a mid-tier Manchester hotel for the next six days, thanks to her having started to exhibit C19 symptoms on the first day of a conference. She’ll be fine, I’m sure, but of all the places to ride out a nasty virus, that’s pretty low on the list.

a position of negligible influence

Given my line of work, I should probably be among the many people who scour the latest missives from the IPCC as soon as they drop. My reasons for not doing so are two-fold. Firstly, I’m very short of time, and scanning 800+ pages of written-by-committee material in order to confirm the details of what I already know to be the general case is not a productive use of the time I have.

Secondly, I’m aware that the bit that actually gets read by anyone other than the scientific community—the tellingly-named “executive summary”—is bowdlerised to such an extent that it effectively negates the effort of the main report. It’s depressing to have that knowledge reconfirmed, but it is at least heartening to see that the fact of that bowdlerisation—and the people who are involved in making it happen—is starting to become somewhat newsworthy in itself:

Unlike the research-heavy chapters, which are controlled entirely by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government representatives from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in the history of the IPCC. According to leaked reports, representatives from Saudi Arabia in particular argued for multiple references to carbon capture and storage and the watering down of language on shutting down fossil fuel production.

Oil company representatives were also included in this process as both authors and editors of the report, which has been the case since the IPCC began. For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco – Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company – was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. A longtime Chevron staffer was also the review editor for the chapter on energy systems.

Fellow academics sometimes take me to task for my flat-out refusal to cater my work to audiences in the policy and business sectors; this is exactly why I stick to my guns. The revolving door between those two assemblages means it’s wasted effort.

Better, then, to build a mandate from the ground up by understanding the social side of the problem. Which is what many of us are trying to do… but while I was aware that the distribution of resources for that struggle were unevenly distributed, to say the least, the numbers are even worse than I would have guessed:

Social scientists hoping to make further inroads into not only the IPCC process, but policymaking more broadly, have a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Dana Fisher, director of the program for society and the environment at the University of Maryland and a contributing author to chapter 13. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking.

“We have insufficient funding to support the sort of large-scale research that enables you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in the report.

Less than 1% of research funding on climate from 1990 to 2018 went toward social sciences, including political science, sociology, and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.

Less than one percent. In the accounts of most big firms, that would be considered a rounding error, hardly worth a footnote. Which is exactly how most social scientific research on climate change is treated in the IPCC reports, funnily enough.

But like I say, perhaps our relentless messaging is paying off a little bit; we make that <1% work pretty fucking hard, after all.

“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

To see someone publicly knocking the information deficit model—which was already discredited in medical science by the mid-1980s, incidentally—is always nice; to see it coming from a representative of one of Wild Billy Gates’s foundations borders on cognitive dissonance. Gates’s projects are, unsurprisingly, profoundly solutionist in their approach to the issue, due to solutionism being a load-bearing plank of the paradigmatic episteme; it’s not malice, it’s just the way people think about these things in this period of history. So for one of his people to be talking about the problematic sustainment of power relations is therefore kinda weird, though I’m confident that Breakthrough Energy has some palatable pretzel logic through which “not needing any more climate science” converts neatly to “unquestioned roll-out of disruptive and innovative solutions from the private sector”. Which is to say: they’re still working on the info deficit model, but in a way that builds on the expertise of the tech sector for selling solutions. Everyone’s aware of the problem; a market has been created. The opportunity which recognises itself is doing what it does best, unable to confront the possibility that its self-recognition is the root of the problem it’s trying to solve.

Ah, well—there ain’t much point in bitching. The only thing to do is to do the work… though sometimes a bit of bitching into the aether is what you need to be able to pick up your shovel and wade into the sewers once again. Selah.

cultural fracking / “indie sleaze”

Nothing is more eyerollingly contemptible than someone else’s nostalgia, for the very obvious reason that—d’uh—there were better things to be nostalgic about when I was young.

The above, for the avoidance of doubt, is meant to be read as deeply ironic, but there’s also an element of truth to it. This has become very apparent over the last week or so, with the tidal surge of the ‘indie sleaze’ concept gurgling up through the cultural sewer system.

I’m going to assume you already know what I’m talking about, here, because I’m a writer and theorist with a blog and not a news site; if you’re not aware of the ‘indie sleaze’ memeplex, then the article at tQ I’m about to cite heavily will probably explain it sufficiently for you to get what I’m on about. But I hazard that if you’re not yet aware of it, you’ll likely not care much for having been made aware of it, at least in the specifics; you might find the abstract points I make below to be of interest, but then again, you might not. Caveat emptor, innit.)

(ETA: have just noticed that the URL for that tQ piece includes the phrase “Mandela effect“, but the article doesn’t mention it by name at all; I wonder what, if anything, got left on the cutting-room floor?)

So, yes—Daniel Dylan Wray comes in early in his piece with an observation that’s older than either of us:

Nostalgia and the 20-year cycle are common in music. It’s no big surprise that a bunch of people pushing 40 start getting a bit warm and mushy remembering when they were 23 and full of pills and Red Stripe while listening to Soulwax. It’s human nature. It’s nice to remember good times with old friends.

(It’s a mark of my being that little bit older still than Wray that the mention of Soulwax makes me feel less warm-and-mushy and more decline-and-fall… because I recall Soulwax as a vaguely interesting band who threw it all away by spearheading that immensely tedious yet undeniably popular mash-ups phenomenon. And so it goes.)

But anyway, to put it in a capsule, ‘indie sleaze’ is a label suddenly being used to gather and package curated images and vibes (but, crucially, very little actual music) associated with the Noughties indie boom. According to Wray,

… there appears to be little else going on other than some people wallowing in the past while trying to convince themselves that it, or maybe even them, possesses some sort of contemporary relevance. As though if one keeps saying that something is happening enough times then it will eventually become true. It feels like the signs of a creeping millennial midlife crisis. Some of the stuff being posted under the indie sleaze hashtag already indicates a seemingly inevitable generational shift into ‘it was better back in my day’ territory. The next generation of Weller haircut mods or acid house dads are now seemingly upon us.

Well, quite. “Same as it ever was,” to quote a band from the generation before mine, that said generation quoted at me relentlessly; this is not a new thing. Wray consults an academic specialist in nostalgia to get some insight, or at least some side-sight, on this thing.

“There’s two ways of looking at it,” Routledge tells me. “The cynical way is that these are totally distorted memories. The more positive side is that as humans it’s really important to have a story arc, a narrative. It is kind of like filmmaking and the reality of the past is like the raw footage. Well, that doesn’t make for a good movie. What makes a good movie is when you go in there and you find the pieces that you think tell the story you want to tell. So I don’t think it’s total fiction, that footage is there right? But where it becomes more creative, and more imaginative, is how we make editing decisions.”

My bold, there, to highlight what is probably a fairly obvious point, in order that I can deliberately overstate it in a way I’ve done before: all narrative is curation. Yes, literally all narrative, making no distinction by media, or even between fiction and non-fiction: telling a story is about reducing the huge volume of stuff and events in the world (imagined or real) to a coherent and curated selection that thereby imposes meaning on a a volume too vast for our meaning-making capacity to handle.

It is thus very much in that spirit that I will note that Bill Gibson concretised Routledge’s metaphor in the maguffin of the very pertinently-titled Pattern Recognition… which, just to compound the synchronicity, is a cultural phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the raw material from which the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic is being lashed together. Which brings us neatly to:

The whole thing just feels like such a weird, tenuous, desperate grasp for something that isn’t there. A bit of a front. One that people are using to mask the reality that the music they like, or make, has been deeply out of fashion for some time and are jumping on an opportunity to convince themselves its back.

What’s really odd about it is just how immediately people have swallowed it up and digested it without question. “It’s fascinating,” says Routledge of it all. “I wonder if it becomes like a self fulfilling prophecy? Like the buzz just makes it come back? Like a viral marketing campaign.”

The claim of the upper paragraph there is, I think, a bit of generational sour grapes on Wray’s part—and I say that without meaning to judge him harshly for it, because my identifying it as such is totally a function of remembering a number of times when I’ve felt exactly the same about some cultural thing-of-the-moment. Nonetheless, I think that assumptions of bad faith of this type are best not left unquestioned… and Routledge’s response starts getting to the meat of what I think this is really about. He continues:

Why has it taken such hold? (At the time of writing fresh articles are still appearing daily from major titles.) And why now? “I’ve looked at this in the context of music, film and fashion,” says Routledge. “And it’s around this age, late 30s and early 40s, that this generation gets the reins of power over culture. What I mean by that is: who’s calling the shots at the film studio, who is the editor of the magazine? That’s when these people are in charge. Obviously they’re not in charge of the bottom up organic cultural movement but they’re in charge of the discussion of it. So I think that’s part of the cycle – who gets to decide what gets the green light.”

Routledge is half-right here, I would argue, in that yes, the age cohort he’s describing is dominating the discourse on the topic, but not because they’re “in charge” of anything. Rather, it’s because the algorithmic systems have surfaced a connection between that cohort’s perfectly natural nostalgia, the “raw footage” of the era in question, and—crucially—an audience which might be formed into a viable (if momentary) market. A market for what, though—new music? Fashion? Hot-take articles? All of these, and none of them; a market for attention, first and foremost. This is an emergent phenomenon in which no one—not even those who have programmed the algorithms that underpin (what remains of) the web and social media—is truly in control of. Those algos identify and amplify tiny seismic quivers of attention, just like an amplifier amplifies the tiny signal from a guitar pick-up… and that guitar pick-up then catches a bit of the amplified signal and sends it back round again, and then, well, you all know where this metaphor goes (particularly if you’ve ever had the misfortune to hear me play guitar).

The question of the temporality—the twenty-year cycle—is interesting, but that predates the internet by a long distance, so I think we can ascribe that to the nostalgia circuit that Routledge is talking about, something that existed in earlier, less gain-y iterations of the cultural amplification system. (Sorry, but I’m doubling down on the guitar feedback metaphor, partly because it’s apropos to the particularities of the story, but mostly because it’s the illustration of runaway positive feedback that’s most easily identifiable to the largest number of people without having to get into Systems Theory 101.) What’s unusual here, if anything is unusual, is the rapidity of the response (so, the gain of the amplifier) and the shallowness of the source material (so, the low level of the signal, which correlates to the sensitivity of the pick-up).

Wray gets this, or almost gets it, I think, but then pivots away from the deeper implications:

Obviously this whole thing is ridiculous and seems to be little more than an exercise in SEO. Which is fine as fashion and trends are supposed to be ridiculous from time-to-time, and the era of so-called indie sleaze certainly was. Whatever happens in the fashion world with indie sleaze (and I’m sure it will continue to be a thing while the right people are claiming it is a thing) remains separate to the discussion in question here because you can’t consciously replicate a youth culture movement, even if you want to. They are, in essence, born from the very pure and potent power of naivety.

Yes, it is exactly an exercise in SEO, but the point is that there’s no real causal chain, no one who can really be said to have started the exercise—not even the person who started the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic curation process. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of such aesthetics being curated all over the place right at this very moment; it’s only when the attentional pick-up passes over one particular string, vibrating away in the seething quantum void of culture, that the sound gets heard, and the sympathetic resonances start up.

Now, sure, the movement of the pick-up—or rather pick-ups, because there are many agents doing this sort of work, some for money, some for pleasure, some for a mix of both—is directed to some extent. And also, sure, the question of whether the resulting note is sweet enough (or fuzzy enough, or whatever) to appeal to enough attentional agents that the pick-up is held in place for long enough for the note to ring out, that’s a function of cohort nostalgia, as Routledge notes above… but I think it may also be a function of the neophilia of another, younger cohort. Because while there’s some money to be made out of selling people’s youth back to them all over again, there’s not enough to really sustain that note over time; for that sustain, you need to use the nostalgia circuit as the pre-amp, and then shove that boosted signal through the power-amp that can drive the speaker cabinet. And the power-amp is, and always has been (since the 1950s, at a guess, though possibly before) the hunger among young people for some alternative to what’s already on offer in the culture surrounding them. That’s what the Noughties indie boom was at the time; it’s what the various things-called-indie around the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s were (which is to say, the sounds of the 60s rehashed for a generation who had only heard the banal and bowdlerised stuff successfully recuperated by capital in the intervening years).

It is, in short, what friend-of-the-show Jay Springett calls cultural fracking… and much like its namesake, it is driven by a deep imperative of extraction in a system which, for all its uncritical worship of the notion of “innovation”, struggles to actually do anything new at all. All it can do is amplify a signal it stumbles upon. But because the gain of the resulting amplification has become so high, and the sensitivity of the pick-ups so refined, and the number of people trying to make a buck by waving the pick-up around in hope of finding the Next Big Thing has become so vast, there’s hardly any space for a new and genuinely novel signal to develop. So it’s new bottles for old wine, over and over again.

(This, incidentally, is one part of my enduring beef with the notion of “innovation niches” in transition studies; the observation that novelty emerges from niches is almost tautological in its obviousness, but the assumption that novelty might therefore be “fostered” by seeking out niches and “managing” them is business ontology at its very finest, and also serves to ensure that no niche is left alone long enough for any substantive novelty to develop.)

Ugh… I felt sure when I started this post I had a more substantive point to make, but it seems my argument is basically “OMG u guiz this is capitalism plus infrastructure!!!1”. Which is at least consistent, I guess? So regular readers (those who haven’t long since clicked away elsewhere) may like to think of this as a case-study, which will perhaps be referred to (and made better use of) at some later juncture.

(Alternatively, you may prefer to put it down to procrastinatory displacement activity while working from home on a day of astonishingly foul weather. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.)

this addiction can be overcome

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the theory’n’philosophy crowd come out swinging for “disruption”:

In order to resist disruption it is not enough to demonstrate that its benefits are based on shaky evidence. […] While these analyses are useful to debunk the illusion that innovation is always an improvement, they do not modify the widespread enthusiasm for it. “Exaggerated claims for disruption,” as Mark C. Taylor points out, “usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of a preoccupation with the present in a culture addicted to speed.”

This addiction can be overcome by thinking through longer stretches of time. It requires practices that reexamine our existential narratives, such as politics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, though each of these contemplative fields faces disruptive forces of its own in, respectively, populist pronouncements delivered through Twitter, over-prescription of drugs, and scientistic analytic thought that displaces existential questions […]

It should not come as a surprise, as Stiegler points out, that disruption was “announced and foreshadowed not just by Adorno and Horkheimer as the ‘new kind of barbarism’, but by Martin Heidegger as the ‘end of philosophy’, by Maurice Blanchot as the advent of ‘impersonal forces’, by Jacques Derrida as ‘monstrosity’, and, before all of these, by Nietzsche as nihilism.” If disruption is the culmination of these events we must pursue these authors’ experimental responses, which called for different conceptual platforms where existence can continue to strive.

On the other hand, where were y’all five, ten, twenty years ago? Hell, forty years ago—he may have used a different conceptual language, and have come from a fairly liberal standpoint, but even Langdon Winner was making this point while I was still at primary school. And then there’s the OG media ecology mob, of a similar vintage, whose best work is only now being returned to, like long-forgotten letters from Cassandra stashed away for years under the bed in an old cigar-box… though there we can perhaps blame the utopian (mis)readings of McLuhan that accompanied the early internet, I dunno.

Ah well—better late than never. Not like my own apostasy isn’t a form of atonement, eh?

an immaterial objection

Via L M Sacasas, an interview by Evan Selinger with David Chalmers, who appears to be analytical philosophy’s current useful idiot from the POV of the tech scene.

Does that seem harsh, whether on analytical philosophy in general or Chalmers in particular? Well, given said discipline prides itself on a rigour that the filthy continentals supposedly abjure, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after this line from the final paragraph:

One big difference between VR and physical reality is that material goods in VR are abundant.

I don’t know where to even start with such a monumentally stupid and contradictory statement.

But while it’s tempting to laugh and roll our eyes at these people, they are not marginal cranks. This, as Sacasas points out, is what a lot of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world actually believe, as an article of faith; “transhumanism is the default eschatology of the modern technological project”, and that should worry anyone who doesn’t see Ready Player One as a utopian document.