Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

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.

Event horizon

The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.

[…]

Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.

Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth that illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines. 

L. M. Sacasas

Competition demands exponentiality

We hold, first, that the “religion of the Singularity” is not new—it must be understood as a symptom of neoliberal rationality in the Information Age. Second, we argue that the same neoliberal logic is exemplified by recent developments in the urban process, its value flows, and its associated forms of governance. Finally, we conclude that to surpass the contradictions of info-capitalism that unfold in the ideology of the Singularity and of tech-infused urban life, we can turn to alternative models of ownership. Only by wresting back control of information and space can we begin to build radical alternatives to Singularitarian reduction.

Claudel & Shafer (2019), “A Rumble in the Taupe Hum of Info-Capital: On Reduction and the Neoliberal City“. Journal of Design and Science.