Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

Alter the biogeochemical organism on the fly

Robinson Meyer on the latest IPCC report; climate change is an existential issue in both senses of the term.

More than 30 years after climate change first became a political issue, it feels like we are still figuring it out. This report gets us closer. It makes clear that climate change isn’t only about coal-fired power plants, or gas-guzzling cars; and it’s definitely not about littering or—God help us—recyclingIt’s about the profound chemical and physical specificity of human life. You and I are not free-floating minds that move around the world through text messages, apologetic emails, and bank deposits. We are carbon-based creatures so pathetic that we need a lot of silent plants to make carbon for us.

Climate change requires us to alter the biogeochemical organism that we call the global economy on the fly, in our lifetimes. Such a task should command most of the time and attention of every economist, agriculturalist, investor, executive, and politician—anyone who fancies themselves a leader in the physical workings of the economy, or whatever we call it. It is our shame, and theirs, that they don’t.

Meyer’s piece here goes some way to explaining why it’s immensely frustrating to hear people arguing that they’re doing their bit for the climate by buying a Tesla. These people are almost invariably well-intentioned, but they’re also making the same argument a junkie makes about their methadone.

(I am far from innocent, to be clear; I may not drive or fly, but there are things I don’t want to change about my comfortable lifestyle, and I can make some damned nimble arguments about why I shouldn’t need to change them. But all those arguments — mine, yours, everyone else’s — melt like a glacier under the blowlamp of actuality. No one is to blame, but everyone’s complicit.)

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In related news, one of the projects I work for got a pretty decent write-up at FastCompany, which even quotes a bit of the copy I wrote for the exhibition. How do we get past the inertia discussed above? Well, maybe we try presenting the zero-carbon transition as already having happened — showing that not only is it achievable, but that there will be real social payoffs to balance out the supposed privations. Like, would you rather have a Tesla, or would you rather live in a society where you didn’t need to spend hours every day driving from place to place in order to earn a living?

Admittedly, the Tesla is the easy option, both for you and for capitalists like Elongated Muskrat — but that’s exactly why it can’t make a significant difference.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.

Give me convenience

There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all. There are a number of factors that may explain this dynamic. As Neil Postman noted around the same time that Tierney was writing his book, the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Tierney himself admits that what he has to say is likely to be met “with a degree of self-preserving … denial” because he will argue that “a certain value is not freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” Which is why, as Horgan put it, “we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

L M Sacasas is re-reading all the sociology-of-tech titles that were published in the final years of the previous century, and that we should maybe have read more thoroughly at the time. Can’t quite remember how I stumbled upon his blog sometime late last year, but I’m very glad I did.

Media archaeology with dirty hands: Mattern (2017), Code and Clay, Data and Dirt

  • Mattern, S. (2017). Code and clay, data and dirt: Five thousand years of urban media. U of Minnesota Press.

This is an exemplary introduction chapter for many reasons, and one of things I admire most about it is the tone: it’s critical of the “smart cities” memeplex, without a doubt – framing the book’s project as, in part, asking ‘how the quantifiable aspects of urbanity come to delimit our conception of what an “ideal” (productive? liveable? resilient?) city can be’ (p. x) – but it’s not at all strident or hectoring, which is something I’d like to emulate going forward (having realised that a legacy of my early socialisation in toxic masculinity is a tendency to be a bit fighty and prolix in my academic and critical writing).

Also admirable is the deftness with which Mattern scopes out and targets the disciplinary project at hand: the targets, as hinted above, are urbanists, futurists, civic planners and politicians, and their tendency to sell the latest Next Big Thing as a paradigmatic and innovative shift in the very conception of the urban, when in fact for the most part it’s usually a reinvention or iteration of something almost as old as the notion of the city itself.

‘Recognising the “deep time” of urban mediation, urban historians will ideally be incentivised to reevaluate their prevailing theories about the birth of cities, which ten to privilege economic explanations for urbanisation, and to pay greater attention to the central role played by media and communication in urban history.’

(p. xxv)

It is one of the responsibilities of ‘urban and architectural designers and engineers of all stripes […] to make provisions for a layering of communicative infrastructures old and new, made of both ether and ore, data and dirt’.

(p. xxvi)

Most important to my own work, however, is Mattern’s patient delineation of a media archaeology that takes the “archaeology” part seriously. So it’s not an archaeology in the Foucauldian sense, or at least not exclusively so – but nor is it the processual archaeology of yore, obsessed with its own fantasies of scientism, nor the romanticised (and often orientalist or otherwise othering) form that all too easily ends up as fuel for theme parks and/or dubious nationalistic heritage narratives. But it is figuratively and literally about the excavation of media, about digging up and digging around the media of the past:

‘An archaeological sensibility prompts us to shift our focus from ‘real-time’ data-streams and various speculative ‘futures’ […] toward the longue durée within which those presents and futures take shape.’

(p. xxvii)

That particular citation was both a gratifying and frustrating find: gratifying because it describes pretty accurately what I was trying to do with my doctoral research, and frustrating because it shows there to have been a whole discipline already aimed somewhat in that direction, of which I was almost completely ignorant throughout said doctoral research… though in my defence, doing that research in an engineering department made the likelihood of my discovering its existence through peer recommendation pretty slim.

(Indeed, I learned very early on not to mention the McLuhanean notion that infrastructure could be studied in the same way as media. By comparison, even the flat-ontology social theory I ended up wading around in was considered much less heretical. Hell knows how much more of a fight it would have been to say what I wanted to say if I’d come out as a full-bore media-studies type…)

So I find myself thinking that I can adapt Mattern’s arguments for media archaeology in defence of a related (or perhaps subordinate) discipline of infrastructure archaeology, which is pretty much what I’ve always thought I was doing anyway. Now, as previously hinted, Mattern’s thinking is avowedly McLuhanean (see p. xiii) in that “media” and “infrastructure” are considered to be categories with considerable analytical overlap, if not necessarily commensurate; I don’t want to untangle that at all, but I do want to make a case for a very specific approach to what I term the “concrete” infrastructures – the most basic distributive/transformative systems of provision that underpin other civic systems.

(For a first stab at a formal definition of the “concrete infrastructure” concept, see Raven, 2017; this is an analytical/methodological privilege I’m trying to extend, rather than an ontological one, and will get another fresh outing in a paper for this year’s RGS conference..)

This means that a lot of Mattern’s statements can be adapted to my purposes without any need for heavy translation or remapping (though there are some cases where she uses “infrastructure” in a way that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to do). Here’s a real winner:

‘We can be more attuned to the uneven spread of networks and infrastructurally distributed resources, uneven rates of technological development and commitment to maintenance, and diverse systems of ownership and control…’

(p.xxiii)

What a gift of a quote! Particularly for someone who rails repeatedly at foresight types for the misuse of the Bill Gibson unevenly-distributed-future riff. But here’s another:

‘We in media and design studies need to recognise our objects of study as situated, embedded in particular material contexts, and activated by their interactions with people and non-human actants – other media, other infrastructures, other creatures and things – in those environments.’

(p. xxx)

Obviously the use of “situated” links neatly to the well-known Harawayian riff, which has been a constant in my personal literature since encountering it via the Situated Systems project, which was enacted by a group of friends and colleagues whose work has been pretty much as formative upon me as Saint Donna’s.

But the uppermost of the two quotes above is the culmination of a few short paragraphs which effectively demolish the entire determinist strand of the (Sustainability) Transitions (Management) literature (pp. xxviii-xxix); if I’d had this book two years ago, the lit review in my thesis would be at least two whole pages shorter, if not far shorter still. Combine it with the other quote above, and you get a neat sketch of a radical and critical paradigm for thinking sociotechnical change as embedded in timespace. (One might argue that Mattern’s framing makes it more specifically an urban thing, but I’d counter that “the urban” is just a label we have for a poorly-defined but nonetheless tacitly specific density of infrastructural development.)

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A few quotes pulled for a specific piece of writing that I’m working on at the moment, in which the “smart city” is in the crosshairs:

‘This datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city: those data are harvested, cleaned, flitered, analyzed, rendered visible and intelligible and actionable via an assemblage of media, from sensor to screens, smartphone apps to building management systems.’

(p. ix)

‘Are we to believe that urban designers, administrators, and advocates were not attending to such communicative and quality-of-life concerns before they had the quantitative means to do so – and that such data-driven formalist or behaviourist approaches are better than old-fashioned formalism and behaviourism? Are we to presume that Big Data and the “science” of urbanism make everything better, that citizens are better served when their agency is tethered in part to their functions as data points?’

(p. x)

[claims for evidence of “smartness” in] ‘the urban genome […] all the way back to ancient Rome, Uruk, and Çatalhöyük’ (p. xi); ‘our cities have been smart and mediated, and they’ve been providing spaces for intelligent mediation, for millennia. That intelligence is simultaneously epistemological, technological and physical: it’s codified into our cities’ laws and civic knowledges and institutions, hard wired into their cables and protocols, framed in their architectures and patterns of development.’

(p. xii)

‘Evangelists of our always-already-new media have long promised that new technologies would alternatively allow cities to sprawl luxuriously into disparate wire-linked nodes, or concentrate intensively into clusters of crystalline towers or close-knit communities united by the audible voice. Those media technologies would either render cities obsolete or, alternatively, drive them to their utopian apotheosis.’

(p.xx)

‘We can assert that the means of communication – whether the voice, the printed page, or cellular networks – have also shaped cities throughout history, and that those cities have in turn given form and vitality to their media. Cities and media have historically served as one another’s “infrastructures”.’

(p. xxv)

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That sure is a lot of pull-quotes, given that I’ve only taken them from the introduction! But damn, it’s a fine piece of work: well-written, timely (both for my personal context and more broadly), and calmly assertive. Mattern joins my personal pantheon of thinkers – a dubious honour, perhaps, but nonetheless she’s in good company there.

Organ projection

Kapp’s arguments also represent an important forerunner in theories of media and culture. In the 20th century, German sociological discourse was shaped by two canonical arguments about the prosthesis, one posed by Sigmund Freud, the other by Arnold Gehlen. Freud’s definition of man as a prosthetic god appears in his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. Gehlen presents his Mängelwesen (literally: a being defined by lack) in the 1940 Man, His Nature and Place in the World. In both cases, the theory of prosthesis argues that human organs can and need to be strengthened in their function, protected or outright substituted by the prosthesis. The prosthesis compensates an inherently under-equipped human. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan belongs in this tradition, too, with his notion of media as “extensions of man.”) What unites Freud and Gehlen, however, is the way that their theories drive a hard distinction between nature and culture. The natural body must be superseded in its shortcomings by the assistance of culture in the form of the technical prosthesis. Kapp’s notion of organ projection precedes both Freud and Gehlen and belongs to neither. For Kapp, the prosthesis cannot be cleanly distinguished from the human and its body, to which it always fundamentally relates as an instance of organ projection. If the prosthesis stands in relation to the body like culture stands in relation to nature, then for Kapp the very nature/culture distinction dissolves into the insignificance of a tautology.

From a review by William Stewart at the Los Angeles Review of Books of the newly-translated Elements of a Philosophy of Technology by Ernst Kapp, originally published 1877. That’s another one for the accessions list, then… I seem to be acquiring a lot of U-of-Minnesota Press books lately.