Category Archives: Technology

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How to map nothing: Shannon Mattern on geographies of suspension

Back on 27th January, the UCL faculty of the Built Environment (virtually) hosted a seminar talk by the mighty mighty Shannon Mattern; a little more than a week ago, they uploaded a recording of said talk to A Popular Video-sharing Platform. This is that video, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly; I will not sully you or demean Prof. Mattern by trying to summarise it, because while I certainly took notes, the sheer volume of ideas in this thing—which naturally speaks very much to the concerns of The Ongoing Situation, while also being relevant to the world which preceded it, and the one which will succeed it—is quite astonishing*. (All the more so, given it was apparently conjured up out of little more than a vague thematic idea in the fortnight preceding its delivery.) So, enjoy!

[ * — Also because, frankly, I’m so behind on things I’m meant to be writing, or in some cases meant to already have written, both for other people and for myself, that I can’t presently justify the couple of hours that it would take to rewatch this, return to my notes, and do it justice. So just watch it, y’know? ]

partially-automated bi-utopian communism

I’ve been quietly impressed by the ubiquity of Aaron Benanav across a variety of venues as he promotes his recently-published book Automation and the Future of Work, of which I received a copy a while back. Benanav’s been a guest on blogs and podcasts aplenty, and I’m glad to have read and listened to some of them, despite not yet having gotten round to the book itself. I suppose it’s a mark of a successful promotion drive that these encounters have encouraged me to bump the book higher in my TBR queue—though that of course assumes that the message of the book itself is of interest.

Which it very definitely is. His main point, which is made all the more persuasively (for me, at least) for its lack of spectacle and hyperbole, is that the very commonplace thesis that “robots are coming for our jobs!” is wrong. Benanav’s refutation starts from the erroneous use of unemployment rates as a proxy indicator for lack of labour demand; the latter is very real, he argues, but the former misframes the issue in a way that leads to mistaken conclusions, via a focus on the technoutopian spectacle of OMG ROBOTS. The actual situation, he says, is “that 45 years of economic stagnation and welfare state retrenchment, rather than workplace automation, are the forces making for a severe global jobs problem. It is a problem that long predates recent high tech innovations.” But there’s an interesting bit of intellectual judo, here, in that Benanav then goes on to say that we can achieve something like the fully-automated-luxury utopia promised by the automation evangelists without the need for the automation: instead, we reorganise and redistribute the work that still needs doing.

What I didn’t expect—but maybe should have?—was that Benanav draws a fair bit on utopian theory (an interest rooted in a life-long interest in science fiction). He talks about two models for workers’ emancipation, the first being the old autonomy/worker-controlled-workplace vision, and the second being the perhaps more modern (and more utopian?) vision of being free of work in the sense of being able to quit and do something else “beyond work”. The former is more appealing to those of us who do what we might call non-bullshit jobs, who value what we do, but wish we were able to do it for a reasonable number of hours a week, without being steered by MBAs who don’t understand the work they’re trying to manage; the latter is more appealing to someone loading the dishwasher at Wetherspoons, or pushing pedals for thin tips on Deliveroo. Benanav’s point is that a successful vision of a reconfigured society needs to accommodate both of these utopian urges:

People within emancipatory politics are going to have to think about these two visions of emancipation and the way that they relate to work and the possibilities within them. The inspiring vision of the future will likely be one that speaks to both experiences: on the one hand, transforming meaningful work to be done better—with greater worker (and consumer) control—and, on the other hand, working less. There is a connection, although not a direct one, between these different concrete experiences of work and the sorts of places people find it easier or more meaningful to engage in struggle and conflict. My sense is that engaging with utopian literature, even the misguided techno-utopianism of the automation literature, is worthwhile as a way to build a stronger emancipatory movement.

Further on in this interview, he hints that this distinction is mirrored in a comparison of Morris’s News from Nowhere and Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread: in the former, work becomes the true fulfillment of life, while in the latter, the lack of work provides the space for fulfillment to be found (or created).

So, yeah: while I can’t yet recommend the book on the basis of direct experience, I’m pretty sure that I will be able to do so once I get round to reading it. In the meantime, maybe take the opportunity to listen to the man make his own arguments? This episode of New Left Radio is ideal:

Lana Swartz, payment as media

I watched this LCC guest lecture by Lana Swartz as a livestream about a month back, and glad to see it’s finally made its way out to public availability. The basic argument is right there in the title of this post—payment as media—but I wholeheartedly recommend anyone with an interest in the usual theoretical thematics of this blog to take the time to watch it, because the detail is rich and fascinating:

It’s also nice to see a smart and successful scholar who takes the same cram-in-as-much-material-as-possible approach to talks like this as I do myself; here Swartz tears through a huge amount of territory, and I struggled to keep up with my note-taking. Now of course I can rewatch at leisure… but I’ll also be requisitioning the book, which sounds like it will be an utter goldmine for Planritningen research.

stop press: technologist spontaneously (re)invents postmodernism

Matt Webb thinks through the map’s mediation of the territory. I don’t mean to whale on Webb here, to be clear, as he’s by far one of the more enlightened and well-intentioned thinkers in that space. But nonetheless this is a salutory reminder that, sociologically and philosophically speaking, the tech world is lagging the leading edge by around half a century.

duckrabbit, figureground, mirrorscreen

In this episode of Excerpts Of Other People’s Output Used For The Aggrandization Of Personal Theories Which Remain Stubbornly Underwritten, I will be quoting a newsletter from Drew Austin, riffing on Kyle Chayka’s “ambient TV” essay; the bolding is my own.

Describing other ambient shows like Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” which combines pleasant food imagery with soothing narration, Chayka writes, “The shows are functionally screen savers, never demanding your attention; they do draw it, but only as much as a tabletop bouquet of flowers.” If minimalism is the dominant aesthetic of the iPhone era—and Chayka has written about that too, calling it AirSpace—maybe this is the reason: We need our built environment to be a blank canvas onto which this always-available digital content can be projected, figuratively if not literally. Anything more baroque runs the risk competing or clashing with the handheld ornamentation we’ve already provided. I want to call this visual Muzak, but it’s more like the opposite, filling the foreground rather than the background. The physical space itself is the Muzak. Last year I wrote an essay about AirPods in which I described the sparse environments of Sweetgreen and Equinox as “pleasant backdrops for solitary device usage.” Always-in headphones complete the transition by giving us an auditory foreground on par with the phone screen’s visual counterpart. But that’s only what we do in public: Once we’re home, as we have been plenty this year, we’re happy to let all of this recede toward the background once again, if only because more of our own devices are competing for the foreground.

There’s a tension in Austin’s description, here, where the device (or the interface, in my own theoretical ontology) oscillates between performing the roles of ground and figure: either it’s the medium through which selected content flows into the perceptual field (the frame around the painting, so to speak, only reduced to a non-ornamental function of support and display whose unnoticedness is perhaps more rhetorically invasive than the gilt filigree’d baroqueisms of the cliched surrounds of old painterly masterpieces), or it’s the (medium-is-the-)message itself, and the content of the content is reduced to the function of passing the time in consumptive solipsism. This seeming binary suggests to me that actually both roles are simultaneous and constant, and there’s a sort of duckrabbit thing going on in both the user experience in question, and our analyses of such.

Furthermore, this perceptual ambivalence is a kind of evolved technological advantage, the killer meta-application: a medium upon which multiple media meet, enabling the rapid shifting of contexts and contents without any sense of discontinuity. Multimediation is not new, of course, but the convergent multitool interface device (i.e. phone and/or laptop plus peripherals, with the big screen in your home counting increasingly as one of the latter) takes the always-on-whatever’s-on of Nineties-era ambient television to the on-everywhere-anything’s-on of the present moment. Barriers to the continuity of content consumption, and to the curation of that content, are dissolving rapidly; the figureground of the screen, as the primary face of the interface constellation, the duckrabbit black-mirror, flips less its own role as background or foreground than our own role as (notional) actor or audience.

Thinking-out-loud, there… but there’s an older and simpler idea from the archives which also expresses itself here, and is the main reason I wanted to snip Austin’s bit above: the interface is the screen on which the Spectacle is projected. Among the functions of the Spectacle is to misdirect our attention from the prestidigitatory provision of the infrastructural metasystem/metamedium behind (or rather beyond) the interface; in an emergent manner (incentivised by accumulation, enabled by externalities), the metasystem colludes in its own self-effacement, and it does so by acting as the channel of the Spectacular. As the man himself said: “That which appears is good; that which is good appears.” That an already Spectacularised society would successfully evolve/produce interfaces which encourage their users to re-relate to them(selves) across multiple contexts—in a manner that not only justifies their constant use, but practically mandates it—should come as no surprise, especially as the tropisms of media technology have always bent toward the profitable, whether that profit is political or crudely commercial (a distinction that this evolution-like structuration also serves to dissolve with time).

The metaphor of graphical IT interfaces has long been the window, but it has never been a window any more than the vistas of landscape painting were windows. The screen modality came first, in which the Spectacle is projected onto the surface of the interface in an ever-more-sophisticated (and hence spectacular) fashion. But while it was long accessible to the very wealthy in the form of portraiture, the mirror modality has been a much more recent arrival for the rest of us; the black mirror reflects our faces in the literal sense, but also in the sense of acting as a space in which we curate a Muzakal backdrop against which to position the portrait of the personality, the fiction of the Self. Duckrabbit, figureground, mirrorscreen… the instability of the interface is a prelude to its integration into the invisiblity of the metasystem beyond, which is the fate of all interfaces over time. The oft-promised world of tiny wearables (or implants) and augmented/virtual realities is as much the fantasy of the metasystem itself as that of its servants; perpetual and place-agnostic provision ex nihilo, even of provision itself. The window externalises everything, even the Self from the self, and does so through a process of aestheticization. Containment—the Janus-faced phenomenon of keepings-out which are also always already keepings-in, and vice versa—is the inevitably fundamental logic of a world predicated on content. Whether the chicken preceded the egg is a question with no satisfactory answer, and thus perhaps not worth asking.