Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

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.

“A part of the world’s worlding”: Sofia (2000), Container Technologies

  • Sofia, Z. (2000). Container technologies. Hypatia, 15(2), 181-201.

I first read this back in the heady days of 2016 or so, on the direct recommendation of its author; I don’t get to name-drop very often, but Zoe Sofoulis (writing here as Zo Sofia, as she sometimes does) is a good friend, and served as a much-needed supplementary mentor for a confused science fiction writer turned doctoral student who was busily discovering they were a social theorist while trying to finish a PhD in a civil engineering department. I’m returning to it now partly because I’ve long meant to, but also because there’s a workshoppy-conferency thing coming up based around it, for which I’m intending to write a thing, and I feel like it’s always best to know what you’re riffing on as well as you can.

And what a joy it has been to return to it, with a bunch more years of experience and theory under my belt! A lot of the really good stuff here somewhat passed me by the first time round, but I can see this being a real plank citation going forwards. So, let’s get into it, eh?

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Intro

Sofia’s opening frame is the notion of the re-sourcing of the world, an idea which I believe first surfaces as a couple of asides in Haraway’s justly famed “Situated Knowledges” piece: this is the reduction of the world, through the supposedly objective top-down gaze of the technoscientific “God trick”, to a storehouse of stuff to be extracted and used. Sofia notes here the paradoxical shortages (of land, housing, food, and more) that accompany this perspective of seeming plenitude, and the threat of the exhaustion of the planetary body concealed behind the abundant figure of the “Super Mother” construct so necessary to late-late consumer capitalism.

(It is not a criticism to observe that while Sofia identifies the “want” of “[w]e greedy metropoles” for this “facilitating environment” (p181), the origins or causes of that want—and the distinctions one might make between wants and needs—are not in the frame of this piece; that’s out of scope. But it means that some sort of connective work between the distribution/facilitation focus herein and various strands of libidinal theory could be quite productive.)

So. “Artifacts for containment and supply are not only readily interpreted as metaphorically feminine; they are also historically associated with women’s traditional labours” (p182); they are also largely overlooked by histories and philosophies and tech, much as women themselves have been largely overlooked by history and philosophy more broadly, and Sofia is looking to “unsettle habitual assumptions that space is merely an unintelligent container, or containers dumb spaces” (ibid). To do so, she deploys

  • the ideas of Bateson and Winnicot, in order to think through emergent subjectivities in cybernetic ecologies;
  • Mumford’s thought on the distinction between tools and utensils (which is not quite so purely a gendered issue as he proposed; and
  • Heidegger, for “key insights into the importance of containment and supply in the late modern period”.

I will flag here that the periodicity of this paper is worth keeping in mind: it’s two decades old now, and as such doesn’t quite roll up to the current condition of our global logistical metasystem. This is less a shortcoming than an opportunity to think about those last twenty years as a period of intensified elision, resulting in a configuration that, while not exactly new, nonetheless represents a distinct set of conditions for thinking about containment, facilitation, distribution, infrastructure… but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, here, aren’t I?)

“No environment, no entity”

First up is the polymathic Gregory Bateson, here combining his roles as epistemologist and cybernetics theorist; his “epistemological perspective on the unit of survival […] is a cybernetic one, based around a notion of the immanence of mind and subjectivity” (p182); Sofia summarises this as the belief that “intelligence is not confined to the deliberations of the contending ego or cogito, but can be found in the changing patterns of mutual adaptation and co-adaptation undergone within and by the organism-environment ensemble” (p183). She discusses a (very!) early “smart home” concept (designed by the architect France GaBe) in which drudgeries such as loading and unloading washing machines and dishwashers are engineered away through the use of “specialised cupboards” which do more than merely store things; this adaptiveness between organism and environment is contrasted to the top-down command-and-control concepts that predominate in (male-authored) “smart home” designs.

(Note that this paper pretty much predates the popular apotheosis of the execrable and still-shambling “smart city” concept, but its insights would likely scale up suitably for critical application there as well.)

Next we turn to a provocation from “object relations psychoanalyst” D W Winnicott, as expanded upon by Thomas Ogden (another psychoanalyst: “There is no such thing as an infant [apart from the maternal provision]”. In Sofia’s summary, for Winnicott and those after him, “the baby is seen as part of its environment—the maternal provision” (p184); “the infant’s subjectivity is immanent within and emergent from the context of intersubjective containment” (ibid). The “space” of the self/(m)other system is experienced alongside (or rather in negotiation with?) the inner “space” of fantasy and imagination, and the “outer world of sociotechnical reality”, elements of all of which conjoin in Winnicott’s “potential space”; playing safely therein in is (again glossing Winnicott) “the foundation for later creative experiencing and cultural production” (ibid). Therefore:

In the intersubjectivist model of subject formation, the self is understood as an entity given shape through various dynamic relationships of containment that both construct and occur in spaces that are interpersonal, imaginative, real, active, the products of conscious efforts as well as unconscious or automatic labours.

p184-5

Sofia finishes off this section with an “inventory” of ways in which these insights might be applied to container technologies, which I won’t repeat here—though I will note that she basically drops a half-dozen doctoral thesis topics on the table and leaves them there for others to pick up and run with, because she has other fish to fry in this paper.

Technics of the unobtrusive

This section starts by reiterating the overlookedness of technological forms associated or metaphorically identified with the feminine, and turns to good ol’ Lewis Mumford for a look at why that might be the case. Mumford (in Technics and Human Development) contrasts the “tool” (male, out-in-the-world, attack-y) with the “utensil” (female, stay-at-home, protective), but earlier (in Technics and Civilisation) made a distinction between “machines and tools” and (in Sofia’s words) “technologies of containment and supply, categorised as utensils (like baskets or pots), apparatus (such as dye vats, brick kilns), utilities (reservoirs, aqueducts, roads, buildings) and the modern power utility (railroad tracks, electric transmission lines)” (p186); Mumford’s take is that human attention is drawn by the noisy, mobile and active things in the environment, and as such these utensil-forms get overlooked, despite their necessarily underpinning, well, everything.

Sofia notes that the gendering of containment as female (a la Mumford and many more) is commonplace, but far from universally or rigidly applied, and also that “Mumford’s laments” about their being overlooked are just as applicable to STS/phil-of-tech fields. Exceptions to this include Heidegger (to come), and one Don Idhe, whose phenomenological interpretations Sofia rejects because they “finely differentiate amongst tools and machines, but lump all the utensils and space together as background” (p187); she suggests instead that we seek an analysis that emphasises [utensils/containers] over [tools/machines] as a corrective to this enduring bias, and a way of reclaiming (and maybe even queering?) de facto macho technologies (e.g. the skyscraper, whose undeniably dong-like form nonetheless performs a womb-like protection from the outside world).

But if it’s not (just) the simple gendering, why then the overlooking of container technologies? Sofia suggests we might blame a “misogynistic metaphysics”, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, which represents space as “a passive, neutral vessel”, resulting in “man’s failure to grow up and acknowledge indebtedness to the spatial/maternal environment and the labours of those who sustain this facilitating space” (p188); these labours are “menial” because they are not heroically productive of exciting and admirable things (in something of a pre-echo of Saint Donna’s extension of Le Guin’s “carrier bag” theory).

But that’s “not the full story” either:

The problem is […] the structure of production and reproduction itself. The container is a structurally necessary but frequently unacknowledgeable precondition of becoming. […] To keep utensils, apparatus and utilities in mind is difficult because these kinds of technological objects are designed to be unobtrusive, and, like the environment mother, “make their presence felt, but not noticed”.

p188; emphasis added

Hence Sofia goes on to speculatively (re)interpret Mumford’s taxonomy as such:

The utensil: the generic container, a basket or bowl, perhaps corresponds to the mother as a container into which we dump our excess stuff, and which we come to consider as an extension of ourselves.

Apparatus: the specialized container, like an oven or a vat, in which something may be created or transformed. The apparatus, as well as the specialized space that houses it (the kitchen, the lab, the workshop), could be interpreted as equivalents of the potential space where inner and outer worlds are negotiated in the course of discovery/invention.

Utilities: these can include buildings (from humble cottages to huge environment-controlled spaces like shopping malls or airport terminals) as well as various channels for dynamic flows (like pipes, cables, reservoirs). These technologies reproduce something like the “environment mother” who works unobtrusively to ensure “smooth functioning” and continued supply to the infant whose bodily states and feelings she regulates.

p189

Foregrounding containers

Next follows a brief “domestic survey” of Sofia’s home, which serves to destabilise Mumford’s distinction between the “dynamic” [tool/machine] and the “static” [utensil/container], by observing that a perfectly average kitchen is replete with objects which partake in both aspects to a greater or lesser degree:

The distinction between tool or machine and utensil and apparatus hangs on the dynamic/static distinction, but it could be debated whether holding or containing is simply to be considered as a passively inhering property of a shared space, or whether containing is rather to be thought of as a form of action in itself. I favour the latter interpretation…

p190

Das Ding

This, for me at least, is the chewiest and most interesting chunk of the whole piece. It starts with a gloss on Heidegger’s Thing (stop sniggering at the back!), in which Sofia observes that for Heidegger the jug’s Thingness comes from its being a vessel of holding. How does the jug’s void hold? “[H]olding is active and ambiguously two-folded, comprising the actions of taking and keeping.” (p191)

(Now, this interests me in particular, because it seems to me that while there is surely a two-foldedness to holding, taking and keeping are only one side thereof; to me, the two aspects are rather holding-in and keeping-out. This is where I suspect my own pending piece in this space is going to go… but for now, back to Sofia and Heidegger.)

Sofia identifies some things of note in Heidegger’s account of holding: that he does not consider it passive, but rather a complex action; that it “celebrate[s] spilling out”, and thus emphasises supply; that the functions of taking and holding are fulfilled through the outpouring/supply function, making the jug “a technology of re-sourcing: it can be filled from a source, then itself becomes a source of what it has kept and preserved” (p192). But she identifies a limitation, too, in that not all containers are designed for impermeability and/or one-shot outpourings: containment may be designed as incomplete, permeable or leaky, as well as permanent, which raises the notion of “incontinences”, failures of containment that may be “deliberate […] catastrophic […] or merely embarrassing” (ibid).

Next we step back to Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which Sofia sees an order of container technologies being thematised, through the complementary notions of “humans as dwellers, and building as a letting-dwell” (ibid); dwelling here has connotations of remaining/staying-in-place, but also cherishing, protecting, preserving, caring-for.

There is a notable resonance between this idea of a safe preserve for humans or other entities to become themselves, and the intersubjectivist account of the maternal function as one of actively containing an emergent subject and letting it play safely in potential space, so it can become who it is. The emphasis in both cases is not on the singular entity (the subject, the thing, the organism), but on belongingness to and interactions in an actively containing and preserving environment shared with entities both human and non-human […] Heidegger’s notion […] of making room for involves both admitting and installing…”

p193

Here we encounter briefly Heidegger’s notion of the four-fold, with whose religious overtones Sofia admits to some discomfort, but she does “appreciate the necessity of a concept something like [it] as a way of thinking about how even everyday objects are condensations of many factors which come together in a specific context or network and have no existence or ‘standing’ outside that context” (p193); drawing on Heidegger’s etymological observation that “Thing” in old German also meant “a gathering” (which, interestingly, is much the same in old Swedish), Sofia connects this gathering to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. Which brings us back to the theme of emergence from the first section:

… the thing emerges in a ‘nearness’ or rather a process of ‘nearing’ that gathers remote elements into itself; thus a local and specific object is also a manifestation of its macro-context, a part of the world’s worlding…

The thing, the emergent subject, or the sociotechnical actor […] are to be understood in their specificity, characterised not in terms of the entity’s peculiar properties examined in isolation, but rather as spatially and temporally contingent manifestations that are part of a whole environment, field, or network.

p194

And presto, geographical and sociological levels and scales are collapsed, or at least made navigable-between. And we get a geographer-centric remix of the Winnicott riff from earlier: “there is no such thing as a locality [apart from its globality]“.

Macrocontainment

Now we start getting into that moment of interesting temporality that I flagged up at the start of this reading, as Sofia calls up one more bit of Heidegger, namely “The Question Concerning Technology”, and contrasts the bringing-forth of techne (e.g. making, crafting a chalice or a jug “thing”) with what we might call the “re-source gaze” of late capitalism, which:

“… draws connections between the exploitation of the earth as a calculable resource, the demands of profit-driven development, the character of modern research, apparatus-dependent science, and the mathematization or ‘informatizination’ of the world. ‘Bringing forth’ has been reduced to somethign like imposing upon and ripping out, via an agressive technoscientific ‘challenging-forth’ of the world to reveal itself in the form of resources and information for consumption…”

p195

Heidegger calls the macro-technology (or, in my own terms, metasystem) of re-sourcing the Bestand, which Sofia translates as “standing-reserve”, a “mobilizable stockpile of resources available for instant supply” (p195); Heidegger offers the plane waiting on the airstrip as an example of this systemicity, and Sofia adds the image of “rows of stacked large containers ready equally for transport by road, rail or sea” (ibid); now “[t]he object loses its qualities as the Gegenstand—that which resists and stands against—and the machine loses its standing as an autonomous tool, dissolved into the Bestand, where it is just another ‘completely unautonomous’ element in the abstract and global grid of the resourced world” (ibid). Hence another Winnicottism: “there’s no such thing as a technology [apart from the standing-reserve]”.

(Or, in my own terminology: there is no such thing as an interface [apart from the infrastructural metasystem].)

Now, temporality: just-in-time logistics is quite an old idea, but it has arguably only achieved something close to ubiquity in the last two decades, i.e. since this paper was written. The figure of the waiting plane was probably outdated even then, if not when Heidegger first came up with it: planes don’t wait to be called upon, as that would be inefficient and costly; rather, the plane is in a tightly scheduled pattern of nigh-perpetual motion, so as to avoid being a wasted asset, and the capacity it represents, rather than waiting to be filled up by a shipment or a passenger manifest, is arbitraged out across a complex system of algorithmic markets. In other words, the reserve no longer stands: warehousing represents inventory that isn’t making anyone any money, and empty logistical capacity represents bandwidth going unused, which is why both have been eradicated from as many parts of the supply chain as possible. Sofia’s example of the containers is likewise telling: there is usually a reserve of these, but the size and location of those reserve(s) is an important part of the overall logistical metasystem, to the extent that when the models break (because, say, a global pandemic drops a Chicxulub on your optimally quantified scenarios), a lack of containers (or containers in the wrong place) means that the goods cannot move as they should. Which, when you’re talking about commodities in a globalised economy of foodstuffs, is pretty bad news all round.

Again, for emphasis: the standing-reserve no longer stands; rather, it is in constant motion. A metaphor (not without flaws) that keeps coming to mind here is the difference between a short-order kitchen and the carousel at a sushi joint. (Which, given the role of the zaibatsu in the formation of global supply chains as currently constituted, as described by Anna Tsing, is an interesting figuration; the Toyota Production System, and its countless imitations and evolutions, also emerged from Japan, and it seems interesting that a similar phenomenon emerged in its food culture.)

“One danger of this framework,” Sofia notes, “is that it turns everything, even ourselves, into the same: neither thing, object or subject, but raw material, standing reserve, human resource” (p196); o hai capitalist-realist business-ontology, amirite? (At this point I would want to gesture toward the McLuhan-descended media-archaeological tradition and note that if the medium is the message, then the message of the metasystem—which is also the metamedium—is that everything is reduced to that which must be mobilised and/or arbitraged; the message is exactly re-sourcing, availability, commodification, quantification, standardisation…)

This process was already underway around the turn of the millennium, of course; maybe there were people sounding the alarm on it, too. (I’d be surprised if not.) But the current situation, wherein almost everything is operates on the sushi-carousel logistics model, arguably represents an intensification from the date of this paper, and pretty clearly a step-change from the situation in Heidegger’s time. Heidegger was talking about coal-powered generation plants on the Rhine, but Sofia notes that the same analysis might apply to “the decoding, recoding, storage and distribution of information over computer networks”, and to more concrete/mundane technologies of material supply-chains, too; it is perhaps to be thankful for that this linkage seems so obvious now, though of course that obviousness is the result of the aforementioned intensification (and the knowledge-work of exposing it, which is always, perhaps by necessity, playing catch-up). Nonetheless, this paragraph still stands clear and true, and is worth citing in full:

The Bestand might be created through the process of mathematically efficient calculation and ordering of unlocked resources, but what it also and importantly achieves is the objective of securing abundant supply. As much as this objective answers our primal demands for an environment-mother smoothly and unobtrusively to supply our every need, it also fits neatly with consumer society and profit-driven development. Processes of containment and supply, and the utensils, apparatus, and utilities that help extract, store and distribute resources from the standing-reserve, are not relics of pre-modernity but continue to define a fundamental aspect of what technology is in the late modern epoch: it is about supply, securing access, rapidly making resources available for distribution and consumption.

p196

Quite… though I would argue that the intensification has resulted in the securing-of-supply goal falling way behind the rapidly-making-available goal, because security is slack, security is sub-optimal, and securoity is therefore an intrusion into shareholder value in the short-term. Again, the reserve no longer stands; that which is already moving within the system only stays still when it is more profitable for it to do so, which for most goods—particularly those that decay—is basically never. Inventory is wastage: that’s the basic principle behind just-in-time systems.

And so this intensification I’m trying to get at is a stage in which the idea of the warehouse becomes anathema, because with sufficient arbitraged distributive bandwidth, the world itself is reduced to the role of containment: it is both source and store, and the “gushing forth” of supply starts right at the geological base layer. This process is not complete, of course—and the pandemic, like smaller disruptions previous to it, have highlighted the risks of what I think I might call the mobilised-reserve. But the response to those lurches, and to the pandemic’s spanner in the economic works, suggests that we’re still really not prepared as a civilisation to think seriously about the way this stuff happens.

Drawing to a close, Sofia notes that in Heidegger’s discussion of the bringing-forth that is proper to techne, he effaces the distributive: “the appearance of materials within the smithy’s workshop—the ore, the coal for heating and smelting it, the apparatus and tools used for refining and working it—is only possible though a prior set of techniques and technologies for extracting, moving and storing resources, for securing or coercing human labour power (for example, the slave miners of antiquity), and for tunnelling, digging, gathering, carrying, storing, trading, shipping, and delivering.” (p197)

Sofia raises Heidegger’s elision of his own Bestand, in other words, and thus illustrates a point that I’ve made repeatedly using a rather different metaphor, namely infrastructure as a magic trick, as prestidigitation. The craftsman’s chalice is the rabbit drawn forth from the hat, but for the chalice’s buyer, the magical appearance of the chalice is subsumed into the magic of the craftsman/magician himself. We don’t want to know how the rabbit got into the hat—or rather we would do, if the flourish of the prestige was not amplified precisely in order to catch our attention, and to draw it away from the other hand, from the infrastructure whose elided functions of provision and supply make the trick possible. If we understood that the rabbit appeared by such means, some of the magic we ascribe to the craftsman might be turned instead to the more lowly labourers who make his enterprise possible. Sofia contrasts the artisanal craft of Heidegger’s chalice with “the modern intensities of macro-containment and mega-supply”, but notes—of course—“the dependence of both modes on resource supply, a dependence that becomes elevated to a governing principle in the modern age” (ibid). Given the semiotic premium associated with “authentic” and the “artisanal” production in recent years, it’s hard not to side with Sofia’s observation, and conclude that the optimal reconfiguration of the mobilised-reserve has reduced such distinctions almost to the point of vanishing.

Closing thoughts

Yeah, so: big, chewy paper, lots of things to think with/through. I will note that, though they do get a mention, the form of container which most nakedly bears that name only gets a passing mention as a component of the standing-reserve—I think my own piece will be heading in the direction of the shipping-container. But perhaps the even more telling absence is the most ubiquitous form of container in modern capitalism, namely packaging: the disposable container, invisible precisely due to its ubiquity, disguised by its role as a surface onto which the spectacle might be projected; the waste product (which is often made from a waste product) which is ejected into the externality of the environment once its role of protection, homogenisation and commodification is fulfilled. This is of course less an elision than an oversight we’re supposed to make, the most basic of all prestidigitatory flourishes: the package is the hat from which the rabbit appears to appear.

But even a stage magician tends to use the hat more than once…

luma daze / nine notions of the metasystemic

Among the many things on my list of events to speak at in 2020 was Luma Days, which is a kind of annual arts-community-philosophy shindig in Arles, southern France. Of course, the prospect of actually going in person went the way of almost all long distance travel this year—but Maria Finders and her team have made an admirable job of shunting a lot of their output into online channels, and pivoting the theme of the year somewhat; it was already about infrastructural uncertainties, but that ended up with a pandemic twist, just like pretty much everything else has done.

Absent the possibility of travelling and talking in person, the Luma folk had me write and present a short piece (titled “Nine Notions of the Metasystemic”) via Zoom, before Maria picked my brains in an interview about the piece and much more besides. Here’s the summary text from the website:

Throughout this conversation [Paul] offers us his comprehensive view of the neoliberal infrastructure within its own complex geography in the post-Covid world. He questions technological evolution and the connivance of platforms enabling the infrastructure to lock in and perpetuate existing hierarchies, as opposed to protocols. He also addresses the topic of socioeconomic change, and the role of artists and thinkers in this process, as well as their limits.

Sounds like the sort of thing I’d say, doesn’t it? I recall it being a hot afternoon here in Malmö… and I also recall realising that the somewhat synoptic thing I wrote/presented could be taken as a sort of preliminary survey for the work I want to spend the next decade or so doing. Other than that, in truth, I don’t recall a lot. Many pixels have been spilled, by far better writers and thinkers than I, on the topic of the Covidean timewarp… so I’ll spare any extra philosophising on that front, other than to note that late July feels like aeons ago, even as it also feels like I haven’t really gotten much done since. Selah—that feeling would be more uncomfortable were it not so familiar.

Anyway, point being: the video is up. (It may have been up for a while? I know it wasn’t up a month ago.) It’s not embeddable, I’m afraid—inconvenient, perhaps, but Luma is an independent arts organisation trying to do its thing outside of the usual circuits of capitalist exploitation, and so keeping their IP away from the Stacks is an understandable instinct, not least coz it means they actually get some click-through and engagement on their own site. So please do pop on over there and spend an hour in the company of my overheated brain as it was a little more than four months prior to time of writing… and if you want to pop back and tell me whether I made any sense, well, please do.

(I haven’t watched it back myself yet, so I’m kinda gambling against my own tendency to garble, here. I seem to recall they sent me a transcript, so I might look into tidying that up and seeing if they’re OK with me putting it up somewhere.)

the worst has been averted, at least temporarily

Steven Shaviro on KSR’s new joint:

[Kim Stanley] Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

I’m going to have to read this, and I’m sure it won’t be a chore—but as I remarked to a friend by email yesterday, I’m pretty sure (on the basis of Adam Roberts’s take) that I’m going to find the execution a bit frustrating. KSR’s is a champion worldbuilder, and the oft-repeated critique of his Mars books (which goes along the lines of “if you want to read 500 pages of people arguing about how to run a meeting, it’s pretty good stuff”) bothers me not a whit; if anything, that’s exactly the magic of the Mars trilogy, to have made so good a story out of that side of human action. But nonetheless, the man is not a prose stylist, I think it reasonable to say—and as Roberts points out, the very instrumentalist telos of Ministry has provided an opportunity for some of the very worst literary devices of sf to come out of retirement (though perhaps not without some wry self-awareness, given Roberts’s quoting of an exemplary as-you-know-Bob-ism being delivered by a character called Bob). This doesn’t bother Shaviro, who “prefer[s] straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction”, but me, I’m picky; I read fiction for the pleasure of reading in addition to any didactic/future-explorative malarky, and my tastes have trended much more toward yer actual bourgeois interiorities and/or (post)modern experiments these days.

(That’s the thing, see; you do a Masters in creative writing, you get yourself some pretensions. Or perhaps just more pretensions than before, at least in my case.)

Perhaps more to the point, though, I’m not sure how many of the people we most need to think more hopefully about the future are readers of novels of bourgeois interiority or infodump-heavy sf in the old-school mode. While it’s no reason not to write the stuff (for Robinson, me or anyone else), utopian fiction is probably limited to an audience which is already onside with the need for things to be done differently. The reason I’m excited to do more work like the Rough Planet Guide is that it uses the utopian and design-fiction toolkits to produce something that might actually get read by someone who doesn’t read novels, sf or otherwise. (And for that same reason, the next version of the Guide might well be web-based first and foremost; the book-as-artefact retains a magic for me and other bookish types, but for many folk it’s just a bulky boring thing that they might reasonably assume to contain nothing they want or need to know.)

Back to Shaviro:

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

Regular readers will know the hope/optimism distinction of old, so I’ll not rehearse it again here; I think Shaviro is getting at the same thing, or at least something similar. I’m also a lot less bullish on the technological plausibility of the stuff I’ve seen mentioned in reviews of Ministry so far; I share with Roberts an instinctive distaste for “blockchain” (sorry, Jay!), and I’m close enough to the technical side of transitions research to know that carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) exists only as the handwavium aporia which holds a lot of the two-degrees scenario spreadsheets together, despite being little more than vapourware papered over with research underwritten by our friends in the fossil fuel companies. (See also “the hydrogen economy”; never going to happen!) But nonetheless I find myself unexpectedly at odds with Shaviro’s closer, here:

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Without having read Ministry, this point might be a bit off the mark, but nonetheless: those developments are always going to look politically impossible if they’re portrayed from the perspective of the bureaucratic and technocratic strata, because those strata have internalised (and indeed propagated) the idea of the impossibility of political change; capitalist realism, innit? Ministry, as far as I can tell, is still a top-down telling, even if it tours the sociotechnical trenches; it’s a story of systems, a supply-side story. And sure, we need those stories, we need those systems—but we also need stories of lives lived and practices practiced; we need interiorities, bourgeois and otherwise, down on the demand-side. Because politics with a small ‘p’ is nothing but interiorities writ large—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it should surely be that. It’s kind of amazing to me that so many of us left-of-center folk can sit around dismissing the possibility of political upheaval while at the same time lamenting the massive political upheavals of the last five years; it’s as if the fact that said upheavals went in the opposite direction to what we wanted somehow allows us write them off as something other than political upheavals, and continue to lament the impossibility of change.

Which, given how often that rather dystopian take on the actual situation is accompanied by the “too many fictional dystopias” grumble, strikes me as rather ironic.

rocket from the crypto / two dead letters

Chairman Bruce appears to be repubbing longreads from the now defunct Beyond The Beyond blog. This is a weird experience for me—distinctly atemporal, to use the man’s own term—because I recall reading this stuff at the time. And so it’s familiar and just-like-yesterday, but also so alienated and impossibly historical… I mean, I can’t recall the last time I saw anyone so much as mention the New Aesthetic, but I certainly remember a time when it seemed like everyone was talking about it. (That feeling of atemporal synchronicity is being compounded, no doubt, by my having been going through some of my own published material from the same period over the last couple of weeks… with the added irony that said act of retrospection was to the end of writing a chapter about Sterling for an academic collection.)

TL;DR—middle-age is a headfuck. I kind of understand why my parents went so weird in their forties, now… though I’m not sure I yet forgive the particular direction in which they went weird. And they didn’t even have the internet!

Anyway, the essay in question is the Chairman’s response to the New Aesthetic panel at the 2012 SXSW, and the bit I’m clipping is less about the New Aesthetic than a side-swipe at AI that reads just as true (and just as likely to be ignored) today:

… this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.

Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.

Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.

It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.

Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.

AI is the original suitcase word; indeed, it’s a term that Minsky came up with to describe the way the goal of “AI” kept drifting, and coming up with the term and identifying the problem didn’t get him anywhere nearer to solving it. I was writing a report on AI last year in a freelance capacity (for a foundation in a location whose commitment to the Californian Ideology is in some ways even greater than that of California itself, despite—or perhaps because of—its considerable geographical, historical and sociopolitical distance from California), and tried to make this point, drawing on the tsunami of critiques of AI-as-concept and AI-as-business-practice that have emerged since then, both within the academy and without… but, well, yeah.

I guess we just have to conclude that the sort of person who decides to make Super Mario their best man is not the sort of person who’s going to take it well when you point out that Super Mario is a sprite… no one wants to be the first to concede the emperor is naked, particularly not when they’ve stripped off in order to join the parade. Nonetheless, given the residual enthusiasm for peddling that particular brand of Kool-Aid which still persists among the big global consultancies, the McKinseys and their ilk, there’s probably a few more years in business models offering “Super Mario solutions” before smarter, faster-moving players start focussing on practical applications without the pseudo-religious wrapper. Or, I dunno, maybe not? Seems like people will believe whatever the hell makes them feel like a winner these days, and the very unfalsifiable nebulousness of “AI” might make it all but bulletproof for that very reason. Every era has its snake-oils.