Category Archives: Technology

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some notes on Martin Parker’s managerial heroisms

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece by Martin Parker at Aeon—hell, anyone who wrote a book titled Shut Down the Business School has gotta be on my side of the fence, right?—but it takes a problematic turn at the end that I think is worth digging into. Let’s start with the good stuff: after a reference to Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” essay and a look at “fantasy futurisms” a la Silicon Valley, we take a turn into etymology, which is always and forever my jam. The word in the frame is management

The London Encyclopaedia (1829) has an entry for ‘Manage’, which suggests that it is:

an obsolete synonyme of management, which signifies, guidance; administration; and particularly able or prudent administration of affairs: managery is another (deservedly obsolete) synonyme of this signification: manageable is tractable; easy to be managed.

This sense of management as coping, as dealing with a particular state of affairs, is still passable in everyday English. You might ask ‘How are you managing?’ if someone has told you about some problem they face. To organise complex matters, to arrange people and things, to be resilient in the face of adversity, now that requires managery. This second meaning, not distinct but different in emphasis, emerges in the 19th century with the class of people called ‘managers’. These managers do management. And as this occupational group grows throughout the 20th century, driven by the growth of the capitalist corporation, so the business school expands to train them.

At the present time, that sense of managing as the art of ‘organising’ to cope with challenges is largely obscured by the idea of the manager as someone who helps to create financial value for organisations, whether they operate in state-engineered pseudo-markets, or the carbon-max madness of global trade. This means that questions about what sort of future human beings might create tend to be limited by the horizon of the management strategies of market capitalism. This version of the future isn’t about radical discontinuity at all, just an intensification of the business practices that promise to give us Amazon Prime by drone at the same time that the real Amazon burns. This is what they teach in business schools – how to keep calm and carry on doing capitalism. But the problems we face now are considerably bigger than a business school case study, so is it possible to rescue managery from management?

Lot of interesting semantic slippage there; OK. Now, back to the B-school heroism—Parker’s term, and I’m highlighting it deliberately—of the Lords of the Valley, and the futures they produce:

In the hands of technology entrepreneurs, driven by the imperatives of shareholder value and richer even than the robber barons of a century ago, the future has been displaced into the soma of fantasy, colonised by people who want you to pay a subscription for an app that helps you sleep, a delivery service that allows you to stay indoors when it’s wet out, or a phone that switches on the heated seats in your car before you leave home. This is a future of sorts, but it’s a business school version in which everything is pretty much the same, just a bit smarter and more profitable. It’s being sold to us in adverts at the cinema and in pop-ups on our screens, as if it were the real future, but it’s not. For something to count as the future, for innovation to be as inspiring as the Eiffel Tower, Apollo or Concorde, it must promise something that has never been before. It must be a rupture, a break in the ordinary series of events that produces a future that is altered in profound ways, and something on the horizon that is unknowable, but different.

This is the paragraph where Parker and I start to part ways, because he proposes to replace the new (B-school) heroism with an older heroism. Now, I’ll concede that there was a lot more substance to the heroic projects he mentions than can be found in apps for tracking your poop or getting someone else to do your laundry, but they came with their own problems. The Apollo programme is a fine case in point, and to his credit Parker notes critiques contemporary to the project as well as more recent ones. But there’s nonetheless an attempt to have the old cake and eat it, here—an attempt to disconnect that old (and, on the basis of the chosen examples, tellingly phallic and thrusting) heroism from the current iteration.

Parker goes next to Nye’s technological sublime, and uses it as a figure for an inspirational and national-pride-stoking modernity, the concretisation of change—which it was, of course. But there are two sides to that technological utopianism, and we’re living in the torsions of its dialectical working-out right now. Sure, New Deal economics, NASA as a state-run project of unprecedented scale; all good stuff. But recall its primary motivation, behind the aspirational rhetorics, as a pissing context with the USSR. Yes, OK, “Apollo was also one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, and inspired feelings of admiring wonder among millions of people that still resonate half a century later”—but while my as-yet short tenure in Sweden has shown me that “technocratic” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, Parker’s rehabilitation of management with Apollo et al as a model, while well intended, is veering toward the same sort of place that Neal Stephenson went with Project Hieroglyph… which is to say, back to the technoutopian modality manifest (not at all coincidentally) in both Apollo and the golden age of sf. You’ve heard this line of reasoning before, I’m sure: “things were better back in the day; we used to build more big stuff back then; therefore maybe if we built more big stuff, things would be better again?” Well, maybe—but better for whom, exactly, and better how?

Regular readers will know that the technological utopia is not where I think we need to be going. The reason why pops up as Parker closes out the piece, which starts out just fine:

… what I do want to rescue is the sense that the future can be different: the sense that science-fiction writers have always had that yesterday and tomorrow don’t need to be the same. Capitalism has captured the future, and is now commodifying it and selling it back to us as gizmos and widgets, or else distracting us with fantasy – defined by its refusal to engage in realism or real problems. As the literary critic Fredric Jameson said in 2003, or rather said that someone else said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’

Yeah, I’m with you. But it’s the question of what exactly should be different about that future that matters—so what is the thread that connects Apollo and Farcebook, the worm in the apple of both? We mentioned it earlier, but here it is again:

Now, more than ever, we need these stories about the future. Not the cityscape lensflare adverts in which we all have friends and lives that play to a soundtrack of Coldplay-lite thanks to our oh-so-very-smart telephones, and the sort of marketing taught in business schools. We need real futures, stories about radical changes that we’ll all be making in order to build the world differently. Deserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space, underground distribution systems that bring us what we need so that our roads can become parks for children to play in. These futures need to co-opt stories as compelling as those being told by Marvel and Samsung – not puritan warnings about what you can’t have, but pictures of lives that are rich and full, in which people can be heroes and you have nice things to eat.

No, no, no—we can’t all be heroes. That‘s the thread, that‘s the worm, as Saint Donna and Le Guin have made very clear. Totally agree on the refusal of puritanism, but heroism is not the solution to that; as Parker himself noted above, heroism is just as much a feature of the managerial masculinities of the Apollo program as of the Valleybros. And how are “[d]eserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space” distinct from the “cityscape lensflare adverts” that we’re dismissing here? In my experience, the former are the handwavium solutionist infrastructures that will supposedly make the latter feasible without anyone changing anything they already do; further externalisations of production and extraction, colonial enterprises, a continuation of capitalism, just, y’know *waves hand* over there, somewhere?

I’m all for a future where our kids play in the parks that we made from the motorways—but that future needs fewer heroes, fewer charismatic megaprojects, fewer technological “solutions”. It’s only by refusing the possibility of heroism that we may make the space for an appreciation of those who carry the cooking utensils, farm the crops, clean the latrines; Apollo-era modernism consolidated the process of hiding those roles behind the technological sublimity of infrastructure, and the application-mediation of the techbros is a continuation of that process of obfuscation and effacement, just at a different strata of the metasystemic apparatus. Etymology is not enough: managery remains trapped in the heroic figure of the manager. It’s not enough to close the B-schools; you’ve got to run the priesthood out of town, too.

Capitalism is an ideology of heroism; just listen to the valorisation of “wealth creators” if you (still) need the proof. We can’t arrest the former by creating more of the latter; the hero is contrary to collective effort. Our utopias must be not technological, but critical.

it takes a village to hate a capital

An excerpt from a chewy Will Davies longread about WhatsApp at Teh Graun from a few weeks back:

WhatsApp is certainly an unbeatable conduit for circulating conspiracy theories, but we must also admit that it seems to be an excellent tool for facilitating genuinely conspiratorial behaviour. One of the great difficulties when considering conspiracy theories in today’s world is that, regardless of WhatsApp, some conspiracies turn out to be true: consider Libor-fixing, phone-hacking, or efforts by Labour party officials to thwart Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects. These all happened, but one would have sounded like a conspiracy theorist to suggest them until they were later confirmed by evidence.

A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.

The full political potential of WhatsApp has not been witnessed in the UK. To date, it has not served as an effective political campaigning tool, partly because users seem reluctant to join large groups with people they don’t know. However, the influence – imagined or real – of WhatsApp groups within Westminster and the media undoubtedly contributes to the deepening sense that public life is a sham, behind which lurk invisible networks through which power is coordinated. WhatsApp has become a kind of “backstage” of public life, where it is assumed people articulate what they really think and believe in secret. This is a sensibility that has long fuelled conspiracy theories, especially antisemitic ones. Invisible WhatsApp groups now offer a modern update to the type of “explanation” that once revolved around Masonic lodges or the Rothschilds.

It’s taken me a while to get to this (because life), but it stuck in my mind strongly due its coming in on the same day as a blog post from yer man Ahmet Sabanci, himself riffing on some Jay Owens tweetage:

There’s also another problem with this approach to private groups. Thinking that people only go to private places because they want somewhere to spread their “dark” ideas is just dismissed the problems platforms causing. Just think about how algorithmic timelines, forced interactions, surveillance based ads and economic models, context collapse and doomscrolling affects people.

While all of these happening, it’s more than normal for people to look for a place which they can have more control over…

[…]

It’s clear that whatever is motivating people to be more private online is something much bigger than any scapegoating attempt we see. It’s also getting more and more clear that people want more control on their digital interactions and want private spaces to talk about things which they want to keep inside a smaller group.

To be fair, and to his credit, Davies does not climb on to the SHUT IT ALL DOWN bandwagon, and it’s nice to see someone else making the McLuhan connection to the affordances of social media. But there’s an extension to that argument, which Davies implies without following fully: WhatsApp is a village, with all the curtain-twitching conformism and suspicion of outsiders that anyone who grew up in a village (hi, hello, yes) will surely recognise. And it bears noting that, while it was parsed in simple technoutopian terms in the early days of the internet, the “global village” concept was meant by McLuhan to be a much more nuanced idea along those lines.

Much of the horror of Twitter, at least for me, is its application of the social dynamics of the village (or the schoolyard) to a population with no effective upper bound. WhatsApp is interesting because it has a Dunbar number that makes it much closer to an actual village, albeit one that may not be defined by spatial proximity. Which is to say that, in many (though not all) respects, WhatsApp is a pretty good model for a very old form of sociality rather than a new one.

This is where Sabanci’s point comes in: the insularity of the village was arguably a reaction to its infrastructural isolation. The village was the only thing that villagers had any control over; events elsewhere in the world would roll up as faits accompli, whether that be news that the king was dead (long live the king), or that the heathens were invading. The world beyond the village was chaotic at best and hostile at worst.

Plus ça change, non? Ah, but what has changed is the rapidity with which “breaking” news (i.e. events in the process of unfolding, rather than presented as complete and settled) can arrive at the village. To return to Davies’s examples: it’s one thing to receive word that the Masons have stitched up the appointment of some powerful figure, but it’s quite another to receive word that the same stitching up is ongoing, incomplete. All infrastructures, but particularly those of communication, fold geographical timespace: That London is no longer a distant source of laws or taxes or proclamations that arrive as facts, but rather a site where facts are always-already in the process of being assembled into truths, by means that are alarmingly reminiscent of the petty machinations around the vicarage fete, only played for far higher stakes.

Or, more simply: for the villager, That London is revealed to be a village, or a conglomeration of villages, about whose doings—which affect your own doings, without much chance of reciprocation—one can be informed while the doing of them is still ongoing.

Which is to say that Davies and Sabanci appear to making a similar argument, which I might restate along these lines: the retreat into small-group discourses dominated by a sense of persecuted isolation can be seen as a retreat to a sociality small enough to offer the respite of conformity and mutual trust (however illusory and riven by small-n power dynamics such may actually be); this is in part a reaction to a world where contextual changes are no more amenable to the villager’s influence than they ever were before, but where the sudden visibility of the processes of change, and their exposure as being a product of village-y group dynamics which you recognise as being similar to the ones in which you are immersed, make you feel increasingly powerless in proportion to your level of informedness.

Or, more simply: the appeal of the victimised village mindset is driven by the accumulation of evidence which suggests that your village is in fact being victimised by another village with far greater power and influence.

Per Sabanci, the banning of private group messaging systems—were such even realistically possible—would do nothing to address the problem; indeed, it would likely amplify the sense of persecution. Villages were insular because they quite justly felt themselves to be small islands in a sea of chaos; small wonder, then, that under the circumstances a similar sociality should prove popular and pervasive. If those in positions of institutional power have a genuine interest in reducing the prevalence of conspiracy theory and adjacent forms of thinking—which, to be quite clear, I suspect many of them are not—then the only likely way of achieving it is to stop behaving in a manner which is amenable to analysis through the conspiracy-theoretical lens. Which is not to say that they are conspiring in some Illuminati-like manner at present, but rather that the operations of networks of privilege, freshly exposed by the folding of timespace by communications infrastructures, look to outsiders sufficiently similar to conspiracy that they will jump to that conclusion with ease, particularly if prompted to do so by the carefully targetted messaging of an opposing network of privilege.

Or, more simply: if you want people to stop whispering in closed rooms that you’re plotting their demise, maybe do a better and more public job of working towards their thriving?

Indistinguishable from magic? Extractivism, the infrastructural metasystem, and the obfuscation of consequences

This is a video-paper I prepared for a virtual conference called Extraction: Tracing the Veins, running this week under the aegis of the Political Ecology Research Center at Massey University, NZ and Wageningen Univeristy, NL.

My paper is a part of the Technology & Infrastructure panel, and if you think mine sounds of any interest at all, then I’d ask that you go and give my co-panellists the same attention you would grant to me.

You can leave feedback and questions on the panel’s webpage if you want to, or drop a comment here, or even leave one on the Y*uT*be page for the video if you prefer.

It was an unusual experience, producing a video for a conference paper—not really so different a process in terms of writing the piece and developing the slides, but recording and editing the script and compiling the video was an interesting new challenge. It feels a little amateur, but I suspect that’s a legacy of having been a sound engineer in a former life: all I can hear are the cheap production values, and the hurriedness of a project completed in the run-up to a relocation. BUT: it’ll be easier and faster next time, and hopefully I’ll have more time to plan and integrate the production into the drafting of the actual paper itself. I have a feeling that there’ll be a lot more of this sort of work in academia in the near- to medium-term future…

an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty

I’ll stop blockquoting Audrey Watters when she stops saying shit that needs saying.

The science fiction of The Matrix creeps into presentations that claim to offer science fact. It creeps into promises about instantaneous learning, facilitated by alleged breakthroughs in brain science. It creeps into TED Talks, of course. Take Nicholas Negroponte, for example, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab who in his 2014 TED Talk predicted that in 30 years time (that is, 24 years from now), you will swallow a pill and “know English,” swallow a pill and “know Shakespeare.”

What makes these stories appealing or even believable to some people? It’s not science. It’s “special effects.” And The Matrix is, after all, a dystopia. So why would Matrix-style learning be desirable? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s desirable, but it’s just how our imaginations have been constructed, constricted even. We can’t imagine any other ideal but speed and efficiency.

We should ask, what does it mean in these stories — in both the Wachowskis’ and Negroponte’s — to “know”? To know Kung Fu or English or Shakespeare? It seems to me, at least, that knowing and knowledge here are decontextualized, cheapened. This is an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty in which human experience and human culture and human bodies are not valued. But this epistemology informs and is informed by the ed-tech imaginary.

“What if, thanks to AI, you could learn Chinese in a weekend?” an ed-tech startup founder once asked me — a provocation that was meant to both condemn the drawbacks of traditional language learning classroom and prompt me, I suppose, to imagine the exciting possibilities of an almost-instanteous fluency in a foreign language. And rather than laugh in his face — which, I confess that I did — and say “that’s not possible, dude,” the better response would probably have been something like: “What if we addressed some of our long-standing biases about language in this country and stopped stigmatizing people who do not speak English? What if we treated students who speak another language at home as talented, not deficient?” Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

Re: “it’s special effects”—it’s also concretised metaphor, which, in the spectacular narrative logic of the cinematic, amounts to much the same thing. Part of this is a kind of meta-literacy problem, in that the deconcretisation of metaphor is a hard-won skill, and (I would guess) related to critical thinking: not something that can be taught, as such, but a strategy of parsing whose acquisition can be supported by a patient and less didactic form of pedagogy. Which is, I suppose, a way of saying that the ed-tech forms generated by the ed-tech imaginary work to sustain a form of education that ensures that the imaginary itself is unlikely to be questioned. Systemic imaginaries, much like actual systems, have a sort of autopoiesis of self-preservation: they work to counter entropic externalities.

Also:

There are other stories, other science fictions that have resonated with powerful people in education circles. Mark Zuckerberg gave everyone at Facebook a copy of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, for example, to get them excited about building technology for the future — a book that is really just a string of nostalgic references to Eighties white boy culture. And I always think about that New York Times interview with Sal Khan, where he said that “The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy, like Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ series.” You mean, online math lectures are like a novel that justifies imperialism and genocide?! Wow.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about the way in which the pajandrums of the Valley claim inspiration from books that they clearly haven’t understood in any but the most shallow and uncritical way, and I doubt it will be the last.

some kind of code for consumerism at its most insidious

I’ve got a little girl who’s seven, and she lives in a world that’s all potentially magic. Within her imagination, the possibility of supernatural things sits alongside school and real things. There’s no distinction. At the same time she’s kind of assaulted by magic. What she watches on TV, the magic there is some kind of code for consumerism at its most insidious. They deliberately confuse children’s appetites by mixing magic and stuff up. I sit with her and watch all of this, some of it I really like but some of it is evil. It’s how you approach magic.

There’s that classic line by [Arthur C. Clarke] who says, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. And Marx talks about how the commodity has these almost magical properties. We’re in awe of them because they appear to us as supernatural. It’s like this black box idea: you can’t access the thing, it’s just this mysterious slab. Kids are fascinated by them not just because you’re using them but because they look like amulets or something. They look magical.