Tag Archives: heroics

leveraging their putative goodness / the psychopathology of private infrastructures

You may remember Joel Bakan from such influential Noughties non-fiction books/movies as The Corporation. Well, Bakan’s back, and his earlier thesis — that corporations, if considered as people, are basically psychopaths — is no less true than before. In fact, he claims it’s worse, because concepts like “corporate social responsibility” have merely encouraged them to become superficially charming psychopaths.

The fact is, despite all the celebratory talk, corporations will not – indeed, cannot – sacrifice their own and their shareholders’ interests to the cause of doing good. That presents a profound constraint in terms of what kinds and amounts of good they are likely to do – and effectively licenses them to do ‘bad’ when there’s no business case for doing good.

The further problem – and this is the part about democracy – is that corporations are leveraging their new putative ‘goodness’ to support claims they no longer need to be regulated by government, because they can now self-regulate; and that they can also do a better job than governments in running public services, such as water, schools, transport, prisons, and so on.

This later point is not original to Bakan, but it deserves to be repeated — and furthermore demands to be appreciated more thoroughly than it is:

For many tech players, monopoly is built into their business models. Facebook, for example, has to be the place everyone goes for social connection. Amazon needs to be the platform for all shoppers and retailers. Google, the search engine everyone uses. The value of these companies is based on being the one place where everyone goes. That gives them a monopoly on the two things that have value in the tech space – attention and data.

It also incentivises them to go beyond their sectors, to invade and dominate other sectors…

These companies are infrastructures. They are also media. (These terms are not contradictory.)

The unstoppable logic of monopoly should be familiar from the hey-day of the rail barons, but we carefully (and, it seems, very deliberately) chose to forget all of that as we slipped into neoliberalism’s vampiric embrace during the latter third of the twentieth century. But the analogy is so clear, it’s almost absurd: think back to the way in which the railways colonised last-mile delivery, lodgings and hostelries, materials extraction and processing; recall the collusion of rail barons in buying up land alongside the routes their track would follow.

(Heck, recall that the seed of the comms network that we erroneously and reductively call “the internet”, namely the telegraph, first emerged as an internal function of the railways themselves, and was subsequently expanded and spun off once the railways themselves had stopped being so exciting to investors and capitalists alike.)

This is not malice, though it might well be greed; the contextual incentives of capitalism produce these effects almost inevitably. It is a Skinner box we collectively built around ourselves, and it’s been there so long that for the most part we question it no more than a fish questions its immersion in water.

It’s not software that’s eating the world; software is merely the interface to the hardware, the functional mask of magical provision draped atop the infrastructures that are eating the world and vomiting the chunks back up in our mailboxes. Long before fibre, it was the railways eating the world — until eventually their miraculous bubble of profit popped against the pin of practicality. It always turns out that you can’t make a profit from infrastructure if you want it to be fair and efficient — though you can profit by riding the wave of expansion and making impossible promises.

And when that wave crashes down, and you’ve long since cashed out, the world will be faced with the necessity of funding the upkeep of what you built — because what you built ate the world that came before it. The disruption you worship, the legacy you crave, the transformation you dream of… it’s already achieved.

But just like any other male western hero, you’ll walk away and leave everyone else to deal with the aftermath, because maintenance isn’t sexy, and there’s no way you’re going to be the one who carries the cooking kit.

The corporation is a psychopath, because heroes are psychopaths, and we’ve become accustomed to the entrepreneur as the hero of our age.

Time to turn the page.

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)