Anthropo(s)cene

“Most of us have been or will be tourists at some point in our lives. We will travel to someplace at some moment in time in which we are visitors and are not planning to settle. It might be a trip to the coast or to the mountains or to a city, but we will be touring. Disliking tourists, therefore, is really a way to express a dislike for ourselves, our culture, and who we have become. Tourists dislike tourists because people dislike people. We dislike the fact that we always appear to want to consume more.”

From Phaedra Carmen Pezzullo’s Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice, cited in this bleak but important article on the super-toxic timebomb that is the Berkeley Pit of Butte, MT.

No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

Stating the bloody obvious

… those tech creators and tech billionaires who are influenced by Science Fiction seem to assume that because things in Science Fiction work in the society and culture of those created future-set universes, there is an expectation bias that they will work in our real life and present, without much testing or oversight.

Gadgets, services, and technologies work in Science Fiction because it is fiction. They work because it is a narrative, and as such, their authors or filmmakers showed them working. They work because in fiction, it is very easy to make things work, because they aren’t real and don’t need to actually work.

Realizing the unreal from fiction will not make that realization work in the same way in real life. It can’t. The context, timeframe, and people are different. Most importantly, Science Fiction is fiction.

Astonishing, really, that this even needs to be said — though it clearly does need to be said.

However, the author’s relentless capping of Science Fiction betrays what is likely the same superficial engagement with the genre demonstrated by those they are criticising: there’s plenty of science fiction in which the tech doesn’t work, and indeed which is totally about the tech not working, or working in ways orthogonal to its maker’s and user’s original (or at least originally stated) intentions; it’s also hard to square this piece with the effectively mainstreamed (but nonetheless totally wrongheaded) punditry to the effect that science fiction has gone too far in the tech-negative dystopian direction. But hey, when your research needs publicising and a venue has an obvious hook for your pitch, well, we’ve all been there, amirite?

That said, the author’s call for companies to hire social scientists to deal with these sorts of issues is something I’d support — though yer man Damien Williams makes the case far more effectively (not to mention eloquently). Meanwhile, re: science fiction, the distinction between the technological utopian mode and the critical utopian mode was old theory when I picked it up back in 2014, but it’s as relevant as ever. If people are going to turn to narrative forms as spaces of inspiration and reflection — and they clearly are, and clearly always have done — then we might as well use critical narrative form to counter the uncritical stuff, no?

Review of Carl Abbot’s Imagining Urban Futures at Planning Theory & Practice

After a dozen years of writing book reviews, this is the first one I’ve had published in an academic journal*. Here’s the intro:

It’s long been a truism of science fiction (sf) scholarship that the genre has rarely dealt with the city as anything more than an engineering problem to be solved. I said as much in my Master’s thesis back in 2012, while justifying my own clumsy attempt to reconcile science fiction and psychogeography, but the sentiment was best and most thoroughly expressed by the redoubtable scholar Gary K Wolfe, who has argued that cities and the urban “are basically antithetical to the science fiction imagination” (p5).

Carl Abbott’s Imagining Urban Futures doesn’t exactly gainsay Wolfe’s theory, so much as it seeks to show that the genre’s attitude to the urban has in fact changed with time.

Click through to read in full, if you’ve got institutional access; if you don’t, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up in some completely legitimate and legal not-abusive-of-weird-academic-copyright-protocols type of way.

* Not, however, the first review I’ve written for an academic journal; one of my more lengthy and furious** anti-transhumanist screeds has been languishing for so long in the development hell of what was supposed to be a new journal that I’m pretty much presuming said journal ended up stillborn.

** If you’re wondering “why furious?”, the short answer would be “the book in question is a shameless attempt to rehabilitate eugenics and ‘race science'”; it’d be bad enough if that were all it attempted to do, but it’s not. (And yes, it’s an academic title by a tenured professor with a long reputation of going in to bat for morally repugnant positions.) Once I’ve determined for certain that the aforementioned journal is defunct, I’ll try to find somewhere else to publish it, even if it’s just here.

Arming the archipelago / guerrilla na(rra)tion

If people don’t have the conceptual mechanisms in place to understand how narrative is created and employed to manipulate, then the better the fake, the more susceptible and increasingly large segment of the population becomes to this kind of attack. Maybe this kind of media literacy should be the domain of primary-school education not art-activism, but here we are. This is where I personally would focus. Not even deploying this as an attack strategy, in the first place simply as defence. Helping people to better understand how narrative is weaponized against them, and providing them with the critical tools to be able to spot a narrative being manipulated or manufactured against them, regardless of how deep the fake is. What is the plot? What is the motive, where are the incentives? People can’t be attacked in this way if they can see it coming.

Sjef Van Gaalen on strategies for resistance in the war of narratives. If you think we’re at some sort of peak regarding weaponised bullshit right now, you’re sorely mistaken. Get literate, quickly, and then help others learn.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …