Category Archives: Technology

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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.

“A sterile and decontextualised narrative”: Grossi & Pianezzi (2017), Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?

  • Grossi, G., & Pianezzi, D. (2017). “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?”. Cities, 69, 79-85.

Pretty simple paper, this one, in the sense that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the specific case (Genoa, Italy) is not of great relevance to me right now, but I want to drag some quotes out of it and into the reading journal here in order to make citing and glossing it easier in future. This is made easy by its clear restatement(s) of the basic point… there’s also a pretty comprehensive lit review in there, though, so a good jump-off point if you wanted to dig deeper into the bloated floating signifier that is the “smart city”. (Insert old joke about wrestling a pig here.)

So, yeah: the top-line gloss would be that “there is a high level of agreement in the literature that there is as yet no common definition of a smart city”, and further that “despite private corporations and cities promoting the smart city as a revolutionary utopia, this paradigm is an expression of the neoliberal ideology” (p79).

After a (very) quick historical tour of the utopian concept, the authors arrive at Bloch’s notion of the “concrete utopia”, as distinct from the “abstract utopia”, and gloss the former as “a project connected with reality that leads citizens forward into historical transformation and social revolution” (p80). They then argue that a bunch of authors have identified the “smart city” as being a Blochean concrete utopia—though I know at least two of the papers that they cite as evidence for this claim (one of which I have already annotated here), and they do no such thing. I wonder if some subtlety of argument has been lost in translation, though, because it would be fair to say that the “smart city” trope self-identifies as a concrete utopia… and if we carry that reading forward, the rest of the paper still makes perfect sense, as the authors go on to note that “when translated into practice, the smart city utopia often conflicts with its aspirations” (p80), which is (in my own reading, at least) a significant part of the point that Söderström, Paache & Klauser were making.

There follows some referencing of Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey (one of whose works will be annotated here imminently, and not at all coincidentally) in order to delineate a dialectic between utopia and ideology. This leads up to a restatement of the paper’s main point, namely that “the smart city utopia is a fundamental facet of the neoliberal contemporary ideology” (p80), which az eny fule kno is about the penetration of market-fundamentalist logics into every aspect of life; e.g., “the diffusion of city rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities is an example of the disciplinary and normalising power of neoliberalism to generate competition among cities by transforming their difference in deviances from a norm of smartness assumed to be best practices” (ibid.)—is a long-winded way of saying that the “smart city” trope sets up a nebulous and techno-utopian standard against which all cities are implicitly measured and, inevitably, found wanting. The paradigm is heavily focussed on the handing-over of the “management” of cities to privately-owned tech firms, which (no surprises for those of you following along at home) “results in the adoption of a profit-oriented approach and in an increasing involvement of private actors, holders of innovation and technological knowledge” (ibid.). Leaning on a classic Swyngedouw paper (2005), the authors note that enacting the “smart city” trope as (re)produced by its manifold advocates “may lead to a privatization of decision making and an exercise of power insulated from democratic accountability” (p81); an unbolted stable door through which numerous horses would appear to have already escaped. There’s another quotable riff later on, where they note that “the smart city discourse describes citizens as consumers rather than as political actors” (p84).

Middle section sets out a methodology based on Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics” (which I don’t know much about—but given it seems to involve Bakhtinian ideas about languages as structures of/for social philosophies, I probably should do), and looks at the case of flooding crises in Genoa, and the ways in which “smart city” rhetorics there have both devolved responsibility for amok urbanisation (manifest in part via the enthusiastic covering of historical floodplains with fancy new building projects), and explicitly called for predictive modelling and measurement to enable competitive development practices to continue apace. To label this as a neoliberal project is about as non-controversial as it gets—unless of course your audience is of the sort that objects to the existence of the term in and of itself (which is to say, unless your audience is itself ideologically oriented to neoliberalism).

A good clear summary in the conclusions section (which kinda confirms my feeling that they’ve misread Söderström and friends, who were making pretty much the same points, absent the particular focus on the N-word):

The smart city utopia serves the interests of of big multinational ICT companies, while neglecting the need of political (not only technological) answers to public and common interests. It conveys neoliberal values and shapes urban problems by making visible some aspects while at the same time obscuring others. Thus, the emphasis on fancy technological solutions risks diverting attention away from issues, such as the broad impact of urbanization, that require a long-term “urban-planning based” approach driven by the political willingness of municipalities. […] What the promoters of smart city [sic] claim to be a concrete utopia proves to be on the contrary an abstract utopia, a sterile and decontextualised narrative that preserves existing relations of power, rather than challenging them.”

(p84)

Pretty simple; not the most original paper in theoretical terms, but then they do note that part of their aim is to take a predominantly theoretical critique into a more empirical territory via the Genoan case-study, which I guess they achieve.

But it’s got some useful quotes for an ongoing project, though, which I dare say will come in handy again if the zombie meme that is the “smart city” stumbles on into the post C19 world… which seems all too likely, given the enthusiastic embrace of privately-provided technological surveillance measures for infection control. What could possibly go wrong?