Tag Archives: infrastructure

technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position: regardless power, regardless freedom and the desire for excession

More newsletter cribbing, this time from the redoubtable L M Sacasas. Like so much material being produced at the moment, this piece is mostly about the pandemic, and specifically the USian response (or lack thereof); but there’s stuff in here that has broader application, and some themes which VCTB veterans will recognise as favourites of mine. After an opening bit about some inadvertently ironic scare-quotes around the word “freedom” in a store-door chest-thumping sign, we get to this:

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Sacasas has mentioned Borgmann a fair bit since I first started reading him, to the extent that I sought out Borgmann’s best-known book (which, of course, I have yet to read). But Sacasas’s use of these terms is enough for now, particularly the notion of “regardless power”. I often talk about the self-effacement of infrastructure, by which I mean the way in which disguising or obscuring or displacing the consequences of its own extractive and distributive function is a fundamental part of what the infrastructural metasystem does. That last sentence of Sacasas’s in the blockquote above is a gloriously poetic way of making the same point.

That would have been enough to be worthy of note, but Sacasas next takes a detour through magic, with Mumford and C S Lewis as his guides. The former describes magic as “the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfilment” [my emphasis]; the latter noted that:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

The solution is a technique! Until, eventually, technique more broadly is the solution. Well, yes. Both of these riffs combined can clearly walk alongside my own arguments about infrastructure as a magic trick, in the Clarke’s-Third-Law sense of the term—magic as in illusion, prestidigitation, magic as apparent provision ex nihilo. Magic as in rabbits from hats.

Sacasas returns to the pandemic, and in so doing makes another point which I think is more generally applicable:

… there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that!


The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I part ways with Sacasas a bit in this last paragraph, because I tend to believe that there is a shared moral framework, just one that was always-already riven with a fundamental contradiction that the pandemic has made it impossible to unsee. (Though the extent to which we’re performatively poking our own eyes out to justify our blindness would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic; this is the point I was trying to make a while back in that piece about bioethics.) And also because he’s now framing it as a simple opposition between two poles, rather than the dialectic that he earlier suggested it might be: I’m more in sympathy with that dialectical framing, because it fits with my sense that the current vibe of of epistemic collapse is caused by the struggle of powerful networks to find a workable synthesis that retains a maximal amount of their own privilege, and to impose it on everyone else.

But lurking behind the pandemic-focussed point here is the underlying argument that “regardless freedom” is intimately related to “regardless power”, accompanied by a clear connection between that dyad and the seemingly magical affordances of infrastructural systems. “The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power.” That’s the the libidinal urge for excession in the fufilment of practices, there, being engendered by the very systems which make excession conceivable in the first place… for once you’ve been shown that you can (seemingly) get something to appear as if from nowhere, with (seemingly) minimal costs or consequences, then you will start to wonder what else might be made more magical in much the same way.

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)

expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for (‘think about the box’, redux)

The excellent Alexis Lloyd observes that the road to hell has in recent years been paved with “user-centred” design; while well-intended, it’s also pernicious.

… in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.

This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.

Note my emphasis there: user-centred design is part of the prestidigitatory process, the front-of-house flourish of consumption that distracts attention from the concealed systems of extraction, production and distribution. Provision ex nihilo; it’s not a bug, it’s THE feature.

So what’s the alternative?

To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?

Personally I would underline “to begin with” a couple of times. STEEP is a step on from a lot of commonly-used foresight frameworks, but more often than not the ‘S’ component ends up being a gesture or genuflection in the direction of some currently fashionable shibboleth such as “wellbeing” or “resilience”; ditto the use of some rough quantitative estimate of “sustainability” in the environmental column.

These are points that I started trying to make a long time ago, though I was almost laughably bad at making myself understood, in part because I lacked (and indeed still lack, to some extent) a complete language with which to map this way of seeing the world in order that it might make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in my own brain-pan. (A curse that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, etc etc.)

Indeed, it’s what I was grasping toward with my early exhortation to “think about the box”, in my first (and painfully stilted) public presentation of any significance, way back in 2013 at Improving Reality:

Back to Lloyd:

If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

To reference another Douglas Adams idea, where might we find the Total Perspective Vortex? I’ve never believed that I have all the right answers, nor indeed many of them; rather, my whole point is that no one can have all the right answers, and thus matters of design need to be approached from a plurality of subjectivities and transdisciplinarity.

However, I do believe I have (some of) the right questions. I’m just not yet able to articulate them all in a useful way… and that is the labour of theory, at least for me.

archaeology of prestidigitatory production

A short Doug Rushkoff riff that chimes with my extended infrastructure-as-stage-magic metaphor:

The industrialist’s dream was to replace [workers] entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.

Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

Provision ex nihilo. The seemingly magical product or service always sells better. Rushkoff points off in the direction of the metamedium, too:

While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.

Infrastructure as a metasystem is complicit in its own effacement. Its purpose is not only to enable our prosthetic consumptions, but further to obscure their consequences by displacing them in timespace. It is the veil that capital draped over Gaia, the entangled cause and effect of the social/natural dichotomy.

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?