Category Archives: Writing

beyond the valley of the trolls

Interesting interview with Anna Wiener, The New Yorker‘s woman-on-the-ground in Silicon Valley. Her critique is informed by actually having spent a number of years in the trenches of tech, always on the non-coding side of the payroll.

Today’s iteration of Silicon Valley seems ahistorical, anti-intellectual, irreverent in a way that is more reflective of the current phase of capitalism than of any unique industry value. I feel the industry needs to be more closely tied to both the government and academia, and better integrated—not in the current NSA, Stanford-pipeline sort of way. We’ve lost, for example, the tradition of research labs. In the late twentieth century, the countercultural idealism hardened into a libertarian ethos, an anti-institutional, anti-government stance, and also this new form of hubris that was legitimized by venture capital. I think people are incredibly reluctant to surrender that underdog identity, regardless of how true it was, then or now.

Like the interviewer here, I read (and was blown away by) her memoir piece at n+1 back in 2016; if her just-about-to-drop book manages to sustain that same tension and vibe, it’ll be a great (but also enervating) read.

the shell-game of morphological freedom (retro essay reissue)

As the first step in what will presumably be a long, stop-start sort of project, I have retrieved one of my more obscurely-published and less-read essays and republished it here on VCTB*. This piece — a double review of two ostensibly non-fiction titles on transhumanism — never got a proper title, as it was written for a serialised element of the sadly short-lived ARC Magazine‘s supplementary web content, and thus got a thematic/iterative title from the editorial team. As such, I have retitled it “Bigger, better, faster, (Max) More!”, partly in satirical honour of transhumanism’s primary intellectual ideologue, and partly as tribute to an album whose best-known singles are the worst tracks therein.

So, yeah: here’s one of the more searing passages from what was, even by my own standards, a long and incendiary essay in which I first solidified a lot of my apostate thinking about transhumanism:

… what [the doctrine of self-augmentation] lacks, what transhumanism lacks, and what the Californian ideology which underpins transhumanism lacks, is any sense of responsibility for the consequences of your actions upon others. It’s not even that the questions are so new or hard to formulate; the social sciences are grappling hard with them as we speak, in an attempt to resolve the paradox of a world where transhumanists can talk blithely about “improving” and “extending” human capacities without addressing the questions of where the implied baseline is and who gets to police it, and where politicians can talk about market-enabled choice and “diverse healthcare outcomes” while framing disability or long-term illness as one of many ways that the feckless supposedly sponge off of the state. It’s as a part of this globally diffuse paradigm of me-first-why-not privilege that transhumanism starts to look less like an oddball cybercultural anomaly and more like yet another proxy front for oligarchy-as-usual. As James Bridle says, “technology is the reification and instrumentalisation of human desires”; nowhere is that more plain to see than transhumanism.

One of the reasons for unearthing this piece is that I shall probably strip it for parts toward another piece that needs writing in the wake of this gruesome story; regular readers will probably recognise many connections to my “How does the rabbit get in the hat?” talk from late 2017.

[ * — Ultimately I plan to put versions of everything to which I retain the rights (which is pretty much all of my work, I think?) up on my canonical site, but that will require doing a proper job of its infrmation architecture, for which I really don’t have the time at the moment, for reasons which shall hopefully be explained more fully fairly soon. ]

Thousand-yard think

Uncle Warren gets reflective about the reflexivity of the writerly life, or at least his own variant thereof:

… the job gets bigger and more complex and I need more time to, basically, stare into the distance and Figure Shit Out. The figuring out of the shit is a big part of this writer’s work.

Now, I am not a writer in the sense that Warren is a writer. I’m an academic — for the most part, at least, and at least for now. But I’m increasingly convinced that the reason I’m able to be an academic is because it’s a pretty similar gig to being a writer. Or rather, that my particular variant of being an academic is pretty similar to being a writer… and that may be because I half-accidentally set out to create the gig that way, albeit with few expectations of success in doing so. But hey, here I am — and without wishing to do too much of a personal-narrative-carrot-dangle, news received this week suggests that this particular road is gonna keep rolling for another couple of years at least.

(In other words, I landed a post-doc — but the exact shape and circumstance of that will take a while to emerge, so I don’t want to start blathering on about it in public until my PI and I have nailed the thing to the floor somewhat more thoroughly than we have at present.)

Aaaaanyway, point being: I can seriously relate to Warren’s Figuring Shit Out fugue-states, because they’re a big part of how I work — and a part I’ve always been vaguely ashamed of, not least because of the generalised cult of performative productivity that pervades late capitalism, but also due to an adolescence spent working the most menial of blue-collar jobs, in which every minute is monitored by The Man who’s paying to possess them.

It does, of course, look to everyone else like you’re not doing a damn thing. And, often, you don’t have anything to physically present for the hours you’ve burned staring at the wall or whatever.

VERY often, yes. However, the longer I stay upright on this tightrope, the more it becomes apparent that those days in which nothing seems to be produced are actually the foundation of the work that does eventually get produced. (Which is a vindication, I suppose, of a long-ago daydreamy bookworm of a child who was constantly accused of laziness; turns out that kid was just prepping to be a weird sort of science fictional social theorist!)

But still it’s hard to tell myself that a good day of wall-staring is not merely permissible but necessary. I’m supposed to be writing a talk today, having accepted an invitation to appear next week at the next edition of Sheffield’s peripatetic PechaKucha event (on the basis that you’re supposed to take up challenges that shove you way outside your comfort zone*). Which means what I really need to do is sit and think for about half a day, and maybe scribble a page of notes or less in that time.

And I’m struggling to let myself do it. Writing this blog post is a displacement activity, because it feels more productive — as is the load of laundry I’ve already done today. But it’s not more productive at all, because the talk is not writing itself, and it will not write itself until I spend the time needed to plant the seeds from which it will grow.

Find what gives you pleasure. Just do that. Turn everything else off. Live with the stress. Learn to love figuring the shit out.

As stressy and weird and fraught with self-doubt and uncertainty as its associated career dynamics may be, I still can’t quite believe how lucky I am to be doing what I do and being paid for it. Warren’s acceptance and endorsement of Figuring Shit Out is therefore welcome and well-timed, and that’s why I’m making a note of it here for my own benefit (and perhaps for yours).

And with that done, I guess it’s time I got the hell on with doing seemingly nothing.

[ * – For as innately verbose, prolix, tangential and abstract a thinker as myself, the idea of delivering a coherent story with twenty slides and twenty seconds of speech per slide is incredibly daunting. And yes, of course, those self-conceptions are self-limitations — which is why I decided to do this thing anyway. Doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, though. ]

These are the ghosts that get me

Helena “Griefbacon” Fitzgerald, applying her inimitable turns of phrase to the shifting of the seasons, both external and internal:

It’s easy to forget, in the long memory of a worse time, that there was something bright before it; it’s hard not to write a story where every single thing one does before things go wrong is the cause of what went wrong, joy into culpability and fun into guilt. As though bad ideas are never parties; as though parties are always harbingers. As though everything has to be something more than itself.

Passages like that are why I rarely publish memoir material: mine is always too overwrought, while Fitzgerald has the knack of pitching it just right, sat square in the gap in the mix between profound and mundane — words that move you, but which might nonetheless have been said aloud by someone thinking things through while sat across the table from you.

Again, listen:

This is a brutal time of year, even if all times of year are brutal in their own way. No matter how much I try to convince myself that it’s good, actually, the sudden dark after daylight savings feels like an accounting of all the ways I have wasted time and gotten older.

So much more thoughtful than my own recent railing against the elements, no?

(No, I’m not beating up on myself and my own writing, here — this is just a way for me to externalise thoughts about style. By trying to explain it to you, the imagined audience of this blog, I explain it to myself in a way that can’t be achieved by merely thinking about it, or by scribbling in a notebook. I remain one of those writers who writes less to share what they think about something, and more to discover it.)