Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

a Rube Goldberg machine made of fucking corpses

Plenty of critiques of the NFT “art” scene exist, but they—neither unreasonably nor unnecessarily—tend to focus on the (socio)technological side of the phenomenon. These two essays from back in June cropped up on Metafilter yesterday, coming at it from a more art-critical and political-economic angle… and while they’re pretty depressing in many respects, it’s a long time since I read pieces of this length which hinge on their author’s repeatedly stated boredom with the object of critique, but which are nonetheless really fun to read*.

Clip from the first one:

The product being labored over for the contemporary artist of social media is not “the work of art” but “the gestalt experience of art-posting”. From that perspective, artists might be more or less successful but the same is true of any gig economy worker. Imagine if every warehouse worker could simply be timed and optimized and would have their livelihoods determined by their profit making metrics! We’re headed in that direction but this will not make Amazon employees entrepreneurs, it just will make them proletarians subject to a particularly horrific conditioning, the final dream of Fordism. Twitter and Patreon aren’t that, just yet, but I think once you stop seeing people using it as producing individual WORKS but producing a WHOLE GESTALT EXPERIENCE it’s more apparent that these workers are profoundly fungible. Twitter has finally successfully done for all forms of art what factory production did for ceramics and textiles, which the Arts and Crafts movement struggled hopelessly against. And all without producing a standardized product at all!

Clip from the second one:

So sweep aside literally everything I’ve said about the APPARENT Rube Goldberg contraption that is cryptokitties and behold the real one: the same gold bug economics that all of cryptocurrency runs on, a deranged libertarian conviction that currencies that people use to buy basic shit for survival should ONLY EVER BECOME MORE RARE AND VALUABLE. In the first one of these I said I didn’t want to talk about Blockchain cause it’s stupid and boring. But I arrived at that after going through this frustrating emotional relationship that involved comprehending the incredibly clever structure blockchain uses to achieve a deflationary basis and trustless records of transactions, getting kind of impressed, remembering that this is a Rube Goldberg machine made of fucking corpses, getting insanely mad, then eventually just getting bored. They managed to invent a Rube Goldberg machine that on final examination is just banal: the ultimate banality of finance capitalism, which not even The Wolf of Wall Street could make look anything other than repulsive and tedious.

Understanding that this is all a huge dumb alchemy mechanism for turning coal into a virtual gold by way of Chinese power plants helpfully clarifies why cryptokitty design contradicts itself fundamentally. The breeding mechanics and extra bullshit? It’s just a pretext. The Rube Goldberg really is a mechanism for generating token uniqueness: literally, unique tokens, non fungible tokens, tokens that hold different values due to their attached artistic content, and so cannot be used interchangeably. But also, token uniqueness, uniqueness that only exists on a surface level, because it only needs to be surface level in order to fulfill a minimum of it’s pitch to investors.

[ * Briefly donning my Grandpa Simpson mask, I will note that this sort of writing was a staple of the golden age of blogging, and I miss both the time in which more of it was being made, and the time in which I had the time to read and write more of it myself. Please consider your clouds to have had my fist vigorously shaken at them. ]

half-arsed cynicism as gateway drug to solutionism, example #632

So close, but yet so far. Alan Jacobs on geoengineering:

The argument that the exploration and testing of geoengineering technologies should be stopped is not “a worthwhile argument.” It’s a dumb argument. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in the emissions-reduction basket, for the simple reason that there is no good reason to believe that the world’s governments will impose the necessary constraints.

So we can’t trust the world’s governments to come through on emissions reduction, but we can somehow trust them to “impose the necessary constraints” to prevent unilateral and poorly-thought-through geoengineering interventions adding new perturbations to a complex system the size of a planet which we’ve already made a mess of by meddling with it unthinkingly?

C’mon, man. If you’re going to be cynical, at least fucking commit to it.

climate change aesthetics and the logic of the spectacle

Via Andrew Curry’s reliably interesting Just Two Things newsletter, here’s a piece by the Magnum photography collective about the portrayal of climate change in contemporary photography, and in particular the work of a non-profit called Climate Visuals, which is…

… founded in research in social science; they use evidence gathered from focus groups in Europe and the USA to examine the emotional responses to different photographic depictions of the climate crisis. Smith says they want to see a more compelling and diverse visual language around climate change: less “polar bears, factories and glaciers… all of which have the really neat trick of signifying climate change, but still producing a large amount of cynicism and inactivity”. It’s this cynicism that they hope photography can help overcome in order to build our collective investment in reducing environmental harm.

Now, for the sake of the avoidance of doubt, what I’m going to discuss here is not intended as an attack on the integrity or intentions of these photographers. Quite to the contrary: what interests me about this piece is the way it shows them wrestling with a problem which manifests in my own theoretical work, and which I believe to be inescapable. This problem affects all of us who are working for change in the collective human relation to the environment, but it is maybe most easily (and rather ironically) illustrated with the issues that these shutterbugs find themselves faced with.

“I think it depends on what you expect photography to do or what you expect of the photographer,” says Sim Chi Yin in reference to the challenges posed by photographing the climate crisis. “I think this is a deeper question about whether photography and photographers are expected to be advocates and activists as well,” she continues. “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. Sim has been working on her project Shifting Sands, documenting the social and environmental cost of the land reclamation industry in East and Southeast Asia. Previously taking an ‘infrastructural gaze’, shot at ground level, capturing the people and places affected, she has since adopted a birds-eye view, producing strikingly beautiful other-wordly landscape photography. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of photography, particularly in the realm of editorial, for making terrible things look too beautiful. This is an all too familiar conundrum for Smith in his work at Climate Visuals: “I spend a lot of my time arguing with the media about social science but the other side is that I spend a lot of time arguing with social scientists about the subjective qualities of photography,” he says.

The phrase “infrastructural gaze” there is an interesting choice, not least because I would probably find myself arguing that it was the bird’s-eye view that was the infrastructural (because systemic/managerial) gaze rather than the ground-level shots (which would provide a more situated perspective). However, the point is not to abolish the systemic perspective entirely, so much as to dethrone it: the systemic perspective is valuable precisely for its ability to portray the complexity and metasystemicity of that which to individuals on the ground appears either as technologies of interface, or as conduits regulated in such a way as to prevent local access to their capacities.

But the seductiveness of the managerial/systemic perspective—the aesthetic snap and thrill of what Haraway referred to as the “god trick”—is plain to see, as well. Put simply, infrastructures which are ugly up close (in both the aesthetic and functional senses) display an elegant, mathematical beauty when seen from above and at scale:

Sim Chi Yin, Singapore. Tuas. 2017. From “Shifting Sands”, 2017

Artists are interested in beauty (or perhaps more accurately in aesthetics), but that is not unique to artists; it is surely also true of the planners and architects and “transition managers” who develop infrastructural projects like the above, just as it is true of the rest of us. And it’s probably fair to say that a majority of people are more attracted to beautiful and orderly aesthetics, rather than an aesthetics of of chaos and destruction. At least this is the dominant assumption among the people who make editorial decisions around which photographs to publish, which naturally effects the choices that photographers make about their shots:

… though accurate and impactful depictions of the climate crisis are the goal, the photos need to be published if you’re going to achieve that, and the pictures have to be good or that’s not going to happen. For Sim Chi Yin, the beauty of her Shifting Sands images were an entirely deliberate move away from the more ‘ditactic heavy-handed approach’ she once took; here, the aestheticization of a challenging topic is a strategy to encourage on-going engagement in a difficult conversation.

I want to zoom in on the use of the phrase “the pictures have to be good”, and so I’m going to re-emphasise my earlier point about not impugning the photographers in this analysis. These are artists trying to communicate toward a particular goal within an industrial structure where the decisions on what messages are fit to be commissioned and passed on are not under their control: in order to reach a wide audience (and to be paid enough to do the work), they are obliged to make these compromises with editorial requirements. Not to belabour the point, but the same constraints apply to most academics, though in different ways and to different degrees; in both cases, a large part of the job is finding a just way to do what you feel needs to be done that is compatible with the requirements (and the rhetorical framings) of your funders.

My interest in the use of the word “good” is due to its centrality to Guy Debord’s theory of the Society of the Spectacle, whose fundamental rhetoric he summarised as “that which appears is good; that which is good appears”. The point being is that “goodness” in the context of the Spectacle, while retaining its own surface appearance of being a moral valuation, is in fact evacuated of any moral and ethical content by the circularity of the spectacular premise: the “goodness” of a thing is merely a measure of its fitness to take a place in the semiotic torrent.

Furthermore, the Spectacle is the field in which capital’s recuperation of its most savage critiques is enacted. So Sim’s bird’s-eye images, as seen above, are good to certain audiences—to certain markets-for-imagery which are constructed and maintained by systems that end in editorial teams, but which of course extend back to profit-oriented corporations working on a global publishing platform whose incentives and imperatives are entirely predicated on clickworthiness. But there are other audiences, audiences for whom the aesthetic of chaos and despoilment is a better fit with their preconception of the state of the world—and for those audiences, the Spectacle provides “good” images as well, reaffirming the narrative assumptions and thus the identity of the audience/consumer. Critiques of capitalism are easily made into products; we might argue in fact that this has been one of the great growth industries of the neoliberal period.

Riffing very deliberately on Marx, Debord also noted of the Spectacle that its basic operational premise is that of separation: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Thesis 4). This point is echoed in the Magnum piece:

Many people don’t relate to these images beyond the shock and awe of the moment, because it doesn’t resonate with their own demographic construct. This in turn, has resulted in the othering of communities in the Global South as they are continually represented as victims, often by foreign Western photographers, as a way to capture the climate crisis in a way that’s seen as visually appealing. Rarely do we see the photography of practitioners with lived experience of climate disasters in the Global South, and rarely do Western photographers’ cameras turn to document the effect of climate change closer to home.

But the crucial point here is that—unless you decide to go with Debord’s closing exhortation, and aim for self-liberation from the Spectacle as a precursor to bottom-up communist organisation against it—the Spectacle is the only game in town. Debord and the Situationists used this insight to inform the practice of détournement, which was the forerunner of the techniques used by groups like the AdBusters, and arguably also a precursor to contemporary meme culture. The basic premise is that, if you can’t get outside the Spectacle, outside of the metamedium, then you need to learn the logics of the media embedded within that ecosystem of media, and find ways to turn them against the Spectacular flow. Which is what these photographers (and perhaps all artists) are each trying to do, in their own individual ways… but the prevailing currents of the Spectacle are far harder to fight against now than they were in Debord’s day:

Jonas Bendiksen […] says that “photography has a tendency to oversimplify; it’s not the easiest medium to formulate a complex thought process; it tends to rely on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ and be less focused on the complexities of things”. He’s increasingly interested in the ‘grey zones’, for instance how photography of Western consumerism also provides an important perspective on the climate crisis, but is frustrated by limitations of the platforms that are available. There’s an increasing pressure, driven by social media, for single images or a couple of slides to have an impact, to be easily-digestible. Climate change, particularly its effect on the Global North, will not reveal itself so it can be fitted neatly onto social media feeds.

So what’s my point? To put it very simply indeed, my point is that the despoilments with which these photographers and I are concerned—a category that includes sand-dredging and pipelines, but also the frantic commerce of surplus in the Global North which relies upon those extractions—are performed through infrastructural systems. Without the global logistical network that distributes resources and the commodities into which they are formed, the scars on the planet which are the markers of the thing that many of us refer to as the Anthropocene would be almost impossible to make at their current scale; but those systems are also by this point crucial to the most basic parts of human existence in the most “advanced” economies (as it appears the UK is about to find out the hard way).

Furthermore, those logistical systems have long been inseparably entangled with the systems of information distribution and control whose many functions also include being the medium of the Spectacle itself; information and images are, at this level of analysis, simply another category of resources and commodities to be distributed.

This is why I have argued many times before now that infrastructure colludes in the effacement of its own consequences—an effect analogous to the prestidigitation at the heart of any good stage-magic trick, which is achieved through a combination of physical displacement (i.e. stuff being moved around behind or beneath the stage) and the misdirection of attention. Infrastructure puts the rabbit in the hat.

But as Susan Leigh Star took pains to remind us, infrastructure is made of people as well as technological objects. And sure, those systems (as Langdon Winner first pointed it out) have political biases and assumptions baked into them (though Winner might not agree with me that the greatest and most fundamental bias embedded in infrastructure is the logic of capitalism itself). Infrastructure is hard to change, slow and expensive; people can also be pretty rigid (as we’ve been shown very clearly over the last eighteen month), but their rigidity is ideological, narratological, and might yet be won over, or at least shifted slightly.

How is that to be achieved?

Smith makes it clear that it’s not just the photographers and content generators, who sit at the wide bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of the photography industry, who can play a role in shifting public perceptions of the climate crisis. It’s also the agency, distribution, and media companies who occupy the top of the pyramid and choose what is and isn’t seen by a wider audience. There needs to be the funding and interest to commission work that can take on the long story-arc of the climate crisis in all its complexity.

Now that’s a hopeful position (as distinct from an optimistic one). I don’t think that changing attitudes at the top of that pyramid will be an easy job—and I doubt Smith and his fellow photographers do either. But the only other options would seem to be Kevin Kelly’s cozy accommodation to the status quo (and yeah, fuck that noise), or a pessimistic refusal to stand in the path of one of countless metaphorical (but also often actual) bulldozers.

I can understand both of those choices—though I find the former increasingly hard to forgive, because it is predicated on a sort of wilful blindness. But I have to believe that it’s worth trying to détour the stories that we tell one another through the Spectacle, even as I’m aware that the most likely outcome is their recuperation and commodification—as Debord noted, contradiction and narrative conflict is not a bug in the Spectacular system (as Marx believed contradiction was the bug in the system of capital), but rather a central feature of it. The recuperation and monetisation of counternarratives is depressingly plain to see; five minutes on the birdsite should be more than enough to make it obvious.

But I’m not ready to give up just yet. As is increasingly the case for me, the words of the Starbear still provide a light in the gloom:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K Le Guin

Selah.

kelly’s antiheroes

It’s been quite a few years from the last time I was suffiently wound up by Kevin Kelly’s cyber-Amish techno-optimistic sermonising to write a blog post rebutting it, but it seems some things are more reliable triggers than others.

So, here’s Kelly’s latest salvo, entitled “The Case for Optimism”, and my step-by-step rebuttal of it—which, for the avoidance of doubt (and—rather optimistically perhaps, hahah!—for the deflection of reply-guy criticisms) is not an argument in favour of pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are equally useless, because they both argue for a fixed attitude to any and every circumstance and issue, while largely sweeping aside any subjectivities or subtleties that may be in the mix.

OK, let’s get on with it. The first half of the piece provides what are meant to be “the general case for optimism at any time”, and I’ll take each of them in the order they appear.

Pre-visualise success

“History is filled with accounts of people who held an optimistic belief others thought unlikely, or even impossible.”

History is also, for the most part, devoid of accounts of people who held optimistic beliefs others thought unlikely, or even impossible, that ultimately came to nothing. History is written about the winners, if not always by them.

“… the deep history of new ideas makes it very clear that the optimistic stance of believing something is possible is a requirement to make anything new real, and is thus more powerful than pessimism.”

I’ll concede it might be necessary, but the implication that it is sufficient is what pushes this dangerously close to that ‘manifesting’ credo, which in much the same way propagates because the few who seem to succeed because of it get asked how they did it all the time, and those who didn’t, don’t. This is a surprisingly woo theory for someone who claims to be a rationalist. It’s also a sort of survivorship bias.

Civilisation requires optimism

“Civilization depends on an implicit degree of general optimism. It is a collaborative exercise. Civilization amplifies and accumulates cooperation between strangers. If you expect that you can trust a stranger, that is optimism.”

Circular reasoning, and/or begging the question. Civilisation goes undefined except in terms of the phenomenon claimed to be central to it. You could make the same argument, but swap in pessimism for optimism, and it would be just as unfalsifiable.

Long-termism

Hard to believe this isn’t a whistle for the rebranded transhumanist gang. But leaving that aside, you could argue the opposite just as easily: early sedentary grain states didn’t build grain stores because they were optimistic about next year’s harvest or the disposition of their neighbours.

Asymmetric possibilities

“Every question answered by science generates at least two new questions, two new territories of unknown things that we now know we don’t know. In this way our ignorance expands faster than our knowledge, which is healthy. Because behind this expansion there is a great asymmetry: what is knowable but still unknown will always be larger than what we already know, meaning there are more possibilities waiting to be discovered than have already been discovered. This asymmetry in knowledge is reason to be optimistic, because it means there are no limits to our improvement.”

This asymmetry is just as much reason to be pessimistic; the possibilities waiting to be discovered are not necessarily good or beneficial possibilities for “civilisation”. You might also say that it indicates a huge limit to our improvement in that, if this theory holds, then we progressively know less of the sum total of what there is to know even as we learn more things. But then the theory assumes that “knowledge” is like some sort of loot box in a FPS, out there waiting to be picked up and made use of, rather than something we construct and refine and (crucially) continually supersede in a rolling scientific metaproject. Scientometrics, Kev! Half-life of facts, innit?

Historical progress

“A fair and rational evaluation of the scientific evidence demonstrates that progress is real over historical times.”

Long arc of history, blah blah. Pinkerism, only absent even Pinker’s handwavey definition of progress.

Deeper currents

A three-parter:

“1) Progress is mostly about what does not happen.”

Pinkerism again.

“2) Bad things happen fast, while good things take longer.”

This is too facile to deserve a counter-argument.

“3) The solutions to most problems will create new problems. But if we can create 1% more solutions than problems, that 1% compounded over decades equals civilization. However 1% of almost anything is invisible in the now, lost in the noise. Such a small differential is really only visible in accumulation and seen in retrospect.”

See above re “civilisation”, and also “asymmetric possibilities”.

“Optimism is therefore inherently hard to see in real life.”

I dunno, Kev, I see optimism every damned day. Perhaps that’s my availability bias… but hey, if we’re checking for beams in one another’s eyes?

“Optimism looks past the superficial to reckon with the essence of deeper change.”

Again, with the right audience, you could swap in “pessimism” here and get a round of applause. I’ll concede that you may believe this after the manner of a secular faith, but it is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable.

Now, if you wanted to argue that optimism as a form of faith is worthwhile—which is pretty much your first point in this list, really—I think that’s an interesting claim that’s worth discussing. But it’s a metaphysical claim, not an empirical one.

Healthy resilience

“Optimism yields happier and more resilient people. Optimism equips people a greater ability to deal with hardship, and less stress in their lives. Optimism can be learned, especially by children.”

Effects confused with causes. Happy, resilient people find it easier to be optimists, because they are unencumbered by Shit Life Syndrome.

To be clear (because my ire here may imply otherwise) but I believe Kelly’s belief in this stuff to be quite sincere and well-intentioned. But nonetheless, this is just a few steps of reasoning away from the classical conservative assumption that sick people are basically malingerers, and that those who haven’t succeeded just haven’t tried hard enough.

Future ingenuity

“Optimism is not utopian. It’s protopian — a slow march toward incremental betterment.”

Protopian? I see someone’s come up with a marketable label for critical utopianism… though there’s a lot more to it than “a slow march toward incremental betterment”, which is not utopianism or protopianism but Whig history.

The rest of this section is a reiteration of the metaphysical argument for optimism… and again, considered as a form of faith, well, there’s plenty of worse ones about.

But to get on a horse that regular readers here have seen me flog time and time again: optimism, like faith, is passive. It assumes that it’ll all come out in the wash if we carry on doing basically what we’re doing. But the problem with that position is that it refuses to engage with the possibility that the problems coming down the pipe are not simply new hazards in new levels of a game called Civilisation, but are actively produced by the paradigmatic approach to playing that game which we call Progress.

Kelly almost sees this, too, but falls in to the solutionist trap yet again, into a faith in a deification of human ingenuity:

“… the cost of that overall betterment is a barrage of bewildering new problems brought on by progress. […] But as bad as the world’s future problems will be, the reason we can and should be optimistic is that our estimates of future woes don’t take into account our ability to solve them.”

On a finite planet, in a finite universe governed by entropy, we cannot assume that we will always be able to “innovate” our way out of the consequences of all the previous “innovations”.

This also contradicts Kelly’s earlier argument about “being a good ancestor”; what sort of ancestor deploys “solution” after “solution” in the full and admitted knowledge that said “solutions” will inevitably produce new and greater problems? An ancestor who is short-selling the future, that’s who.

Again, it’s a paradigm problem. Do I have to use the C word?


Now we get to the “concrete reasons for optimism” section, which at least gets us out of the metaphysical-masquerading-as-empirical. What have we got, then?

Total Urbanization

“The first driver of optimism is therefore simply a continuation and completion of the on-going industrial revolution.”

Well, the industrial revolution was a pure and unalloyed good for all concerned, wasn’t it? <checks notes> OK, ah, some disagreement on that one, it seems.

“Urbanization provides the benefits of density, such as higher bandwidth, and more diverse jobs. These improvements are desired by most young people around the planet. Ask them what their dream is and they will tell you they want t-shirts and sneakers, an air-conditioned room with plumbing and wifi, and a job doing something of their choosing.”

So the ideal future is the continuation of consumer capitalism; OK, that’s a goal, that’s concrete. But let’s assume that all those young people get that fly drip and the air-con and a job they want to do. First of all, who’s gonna empty the bins? (Yeah, I know—smart robots, right? We’ll get to that one in a bit.)

Secondly, where’s the cotton for those T-shirts getting grown, and whose water rights will be bought out to grow it? Will the kids who get their dream job of sewing the new Yeezys also be able to afford the new Yeezys? Not under the current system, they won’t! If you’re going to be pro-capitalism, you should at least do yourself a favour and familiarise yourself with how that wonderfully fecund production of novelty is achieved, and at what price.

(To recognise that exploitation of human labour is the engine of capitalism is not a Marxian position, to be clear; the Marxian position is to both recognise that and to believe it to be monstrous.)

Universal Connectivity

“[W]hen all adults on a planet connect, they can cooperate at a scale and speed never before possible. Existing large institutions are also enhanced by this acceleration, while entirely new forms of collaboration are now possible. In the next two decades we will likely witness at least one grand project created by one million people around the globe working together on it in real time — a feat enabled by universal connectivity. When all 8 billion people are connected together we have more of a chance to prosper together.”

Hey, Kev; 1994 called, and it wants its old WIRED magazines back.

Ubiquitous AI

“A zoo of hundreds of different species of new types of mind will be working with humans to solve problems. These non-human minds (sometimes with bodies we call robots) will do work humans don’t want to do, or can’t do. Humans and AIs together will co-create new desires and new jobs. The long-term driver of progress — automating physical jobs — will continue, and then begin to take over non-physical chores as well. The three chief consequences of AI will be the liberation of humans from their unwanted jobs, the explosion of new services and formerly impossible products that are co-created with AIs, and new occupations and desirable tasks for humans. AIs and robots are designed for efficiency and productivity, while these millions of new human jobs are primarily tasks where inefficiency is tolerated.”

Two possibilities here: 1) you’re right that AI’s are “minds”, and that means we’re essentially going to build a non-human slave class; 2) AI is really just a suitcase word for branding new technological gimcracks, which will require vast amounts of energy to run and vast amounts of natural resources to build.

(Actually there’s a third possibility, namely that “AI” is currently and will remain for the most part in perpetuity a way to black-box poorly-paid human labour in a way that makes it seem more like magic than exploitation.)

Until such a point as a coherent and testable definition of “AI” is established, recourse to “AI will fix it!” will remain the purest and most marketable form of technosolutionism available—so long as you can bring yourself to overlook the growing catalogue of failures and abuses and biases embedded into vital systems under the banner of “AI”, that is.

Sustainable Energy

Now, this is a category where I definitely see cause for hope. But still:

“We can double our energy efficiency simply by decarbonizing the economy. In fact we can achieve 50% of what we need for climate change simply by powering all of our machines, furnaces, and vehicles with electrons instead of oxidation.”

[citation needed]

Also, sure, efficiency seems like a good idea, but there’s this thing called the Jevons Paradox. If we switch 100% to renewables but keep following the curve of energy consumption increase we’re already on, we just land ourselves with a different problem—or rather the same problem with a different expression.

Accelerated Innovation

Constantly claimed, at least as far back as Alvin Toffler, if not further—but only demonstrable by recourse to spurious metrics, e.g. patents granted per year. A shibboleth of the Hot Take Futures Factory.

Innovation has, if anything, slowed down to a crawl; the last serious innovation was heavier-than-air- flight. You bring me a good case, I’ll bring the counterposition.

Bio-Engineering

Lots of optimistic stuff about our expanding knowledge of DNA and whatnot here, and so I redirect you to the scientometrics point above, and also note that for all the celebration of the sequencing of the human genome, surprisingly little has come of it, with the arguable exception of transhumanist arguments regarding genetic code as intellectual property and/or genetic capital. And I’m sure Kev knows the arguments I mean… he should do, given he thinks that “[i]ncreasing control of living systems at their foundational level will provide great progress in our own longevity and wellness.”

And then there’s some stuff about lab-grown meat, which as far as I’m concerned is still at the driverless-car stage of “technological readiness”: hypothetically possible, even demonstrable, but as yet not shown to be capable of “scaling”. And if you think that the lab-meat folk won’t find as many corners to cut as the real-meat industry does under the incentives of surplus accumulation, well, I guess that’s optimism at work, eh? But the arc of history you’re so keen on doesn’t look quite so rosy when plotted along that particular axis….

Generational Handoff

“The world-wide Boomer generation will be retired and made redundant in 25 years.”

This is by far the least optimistic thing you’ve written so far, Kev. But carry on.

“The next generation will come of age. This is good news for the world, because the young have better ideas, and the ambition to see their change come about.”

Well, possibly, but OK; where are you going with this? <reads on>

Ah, so every young person in the world will have equal access to the same educational resources, and real-time translation will overcome the obstacle of their not necessarily speaking English, which is good because we know the only decent employers in the world are gonna demand English speakers, amirite?

Though I’m a bit fuzzy on this one, because I thought we said earlier that every youngster would get their Yeezys and aircon and dream job—howzat work if everyone’s still competing for the presumably plum jobs at Anglophone employers? Lotta folk gonna end up with their second, third or nth-choice jobs, it seems to me… and that’s gonna mean pay differentials, because you can’t have a hierarchy of desirable jobs to compete for without the incentives for competition working to sustain it… ah, but what do I know? A World Economic Forum survey says 18-35 year-olds believe the world is better provided with opportunities than struggles, and I guess if I can momentarily unlearn everything I know about survey design—not to mention the WEF—then maybe I can take refuge beneath that comfortingly quantitative claim.)

And that’s the lot… apart from a closing caveat which is really a mea culpa that doesn’t recognise itself as one:

“I am talking about the state of the world and its future on average global terms. […] Local harms are the norm. In the same way, even in a world of indisputable progress not all regions will experience the same health. Parts of the globe may suffer war, disease, famine, unrest in times of prosperity. It may be very bleak in some areas, where pessimism seems totally appropriate. History suggests these bleak times are temporary, and that on average, better times will come.”

For whom, exactly, are the bleak time temporary? For whom are the better times a-comin’?

“The case for optimism is a longer-term view, and a bigger-place view.”

The case for optimism is, it seems, the view from a nice coastal town in California.

“Based on the evidence, we should be able to picture progress at the scale of two decades around the planet for the average person, even if there are scars of inequality throughout it.”

The average person does not exist. The average person is a statistical fiction. And it’s real easy to wave away those scars of inequality when they’re seen on some sidewalk-dwellers face through the windows of your Uber Prime. Progress looks great from where you are, because you are sat atop the pyramid of inequality upon which is is predicated.

This is not an argument for optimism, or even for change. It is an argument for business as usual, from someone for whom business as usual has turned out pretty damned nicely. So why not do the next generation a favour, as per your own argument, and remove one particular Boomer influencer from intellectual circulation a quarter-century early?

I’m not optimistic that’ll happen, mind you. But I can still hope.

pronunciation guidance

A big part of the life-in-a-new-country experience is exposure to and (if you refuse the specious role of the “ex-pat”) learning a new language. For reasons that are presumably obvious, I have not yet been able to take formal in-person lessons in Swedish, but I have done over 400 days of Du*ling* at this point; as a result, I can read and write to what I’d guess is the same level of competence as a five-year-old native speaker, but my pronunciation and comprehension of speech are lame as hell, because they’ve not gotten much exercise yet.

The thing with a second language is that you question everything about it in a way you simply don’t with your first: I suspect this is (at least for me) a conscious attempt to map the differences between them in order to enact a sort of spontaneous translation. I’m also informed that this is actively unhelpful in the long run, because languages simply don’t map precisely onto each other like that; the really obvious challenge comes with prepositions like “in”, “on”, “to”, in that you expect there will be a word that does exactly the same job of describing relations between other words in a sentence, but there just isn’t. There’s often a fair bit of overlap—“i” and “på” in Swedish are pretty close to working the same way as “in” and “[up]on” in English, for instance—but if you rely on mappings of equivalence, you’ll get tripped up by the still-plentiful cases where they describe a relation that doesn’t fit at all with the supposed equivalent from your own language. Hence the value of repetition and practice: you just have to learn the new word by way of seeing it used in context, repeatedly, which is exactly how native speakers learned to use it, and how you learned to use your own native language.[i]This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, … Continue reading

One thing that is relatively easy about learning Swedish, however, is pronunciation from written text. Or, more accurately, it’s relatively easy to know how a word should be pronounced; actually forming the sounds in the right way with the right rhythm and stress is quite another matter! But here there are fairly consistent rules: most letters only have one sound associated with them, and the exceptions (e.g. the letter g, which quite often sounds more like a y, or consonant pairs such as sk or sj, which come out as a sort of breathy cwh sound which I can’t really describe phonetically in a way that would make sense to an English-speaking reader) are pretty consistent.

This causes one to realise even more than one had beforehand that, to be blunt, the rules of English spelling are utterly bat-shit inconsistent. Which is why this essay at Aeon was such an interesting read, because there’s a reason for that, and that reason is profoundly sociotechnical in nature: moveable type turned up in Britain at a moment when the written language was already in flux, as English reasserted itself after the long hegemony of Norman French.

Some standards did spread and crystallise over time, as more books were printed and literacy rates climbed. The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with had; thankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.

[…]

Other spellings arose, and were then cemented through the power exerted by the visual shape of similar words. The existence of would and should, for example, brought about the spelling of could. Would and should were once pronounced with the ‘l’ sound, as they were the past-tense forms of will and shall. Could, however, was never pronounced with an ‘l’; it was the past tense of can. Could was coude or cuthe. Then the visual power of would and should attracted could to their side. At printing’s rise, the ‘l’ sound was already often absent from the pronunciation of would and should, so the ‘l’ was less a cue to pronunciation than to word type. Could is a modal verb, same as would and should. There was no explicit intention to make them look the same, but the frequency of their appearance nudged them toward ending up that way.

This is an interesting case-study for the emergence of standards, because the vectors of influence on fixing those standards flow in both directions: from the printing houses, who wanted to simplify and speed up the typesetting process, but also from the readership, which (albeit unconsciously, one assumes) wanted a more consistent written language, because a consistent written language “gets out of the way” and allows reading to be a more efficient and absorbing experience. Movable type frequently (and deservedly) does well in those risible “ten most amazing human innovations” listicles, but there’s an implicit assumption there that this work of standardisation in spelling was either a linguistic fait accompli before Gutenberg and Caxton came on the scene, or was somehow achieved by the print industry as a “solution” to a pure business problem (if indeed the question of linguistic consistency even occurs to the writers of such pieces). But of course there is something rather more dialectical at work, here: the reader and the printer are shaping the language through an interaction mediated by the technologies of the printing press… and the press itself had emerged from a series of similarly complex mutual shapings on the European continent. The emergence of reliable roads is an often overlooked factor in both the production and distribution of printed matter; it’s there in Febvre & Martin (2010), but as description rather than analysis, because they’re Marxist historians rather than STS types.

But to return to the matter of spoken pronunciation, something else was also afoot:

in the years when printing was slowly establishing and fortifying spelling habits, English was undergoing what’s now called the Great Vowel Shift. In broad terms, over the course of a few centuries, sounds changed and vowels moved around. Words such as name and make, for example, once had an ‘ah’ vowel as they do in German name and machen, or English father. During the Great Vowel Shift, it moved to more of an ‘eh’ vowel as in bed, and eventually to the ‘ay’ where it is today. But the words affected in this way continue to be spelled with the ‘a’ of father.

Words that ended up with an oo spelling generally used to be pronounced with a long ‘o’ sound. Moon and book both used to sound something like moan and boke; the two o’s, quite logically, represented a long ‘o’, before moving to an ‘u’ sound, as in June. However, sometimes the long vowel became a short vowel: eg, the more lax ‘u’ vowel, as in push. Moon (also goose, food, school) ended up with the June vowel, while book (foot, good, stood) with the push vowel.

Now, I know very little about the Great Vowel Shift, and certainly nothing at all about its causes. But the article suggests that “[w]hen an English speaker sat down to write something at the end of the Middle Ages, the way they wrote it could depend on where they lived and what the dialectal pronunciation of vowels was there”, as well as “what they had read and incorporated into their spelling habits”. This leads me to guess that the greater consistency of a language like Swedish may be something to do with its smaller population of speakers, and the role of literacy in local governance and economics, which was mediated by the church… but I am suddenly and uncomfortably aware of just how limited I am when it comes to not only the Swedish language, but also the country’s history, and so I’ll stop speculating.

Besides, it’s high time I did my daily language practice…

Works cited

Febvre, L., Martin, H.-J., Nowell-Smith, G., & Wootton, D. (2010). The coming of the book: the impact of printing, 1450-1800. Verso.

Footnotes

Footnotes
i This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, they’ll say they don’t know, and that they’ve never even thought to ask. Because why would you?