Tag Archives: L M Sacasas

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…

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.

the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete

Procrastinating this morning by catching up on a stack of as-yet-unread newsletter emails from L M Sacasas. This bit in particular, from 11th March, chimed with a lot of my recent early-morning thinkings-through of The Ongoing Situation:

… it is curious to note again the recent proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, something I’ve previously attributed to the failure of authoritative public institutions and narratives, or, to put it another way, to the collapse of common sense in Arendt’s use of the phrase, as an experience of the world held in common. But now I want to suggest as well that conspiracy theorizing is something like a mannerist manifestation of the detective story. The detective story genre is often characterized as a characteristically modern production in its insistence that even the most heinous and mysterious aspects of human experience can be neatly and adequately addressed by the persistent application of empirical reasoning. Conspiracy theories are simply detective stories that are quite obviously trying too hard, or, to keep with the literary theme, protesting too much, in the face of their increasing implausibility.

So, where does this leave us. I began by asking why this virus had taken on such an eery, disconcerting quality, why it had unnerved us so profoundly. Curiously, as many have observed, one of the recurring features coronavirus discourse is emergence of two camps: those who are accused of panic and those who are accused of reckless nonchalance. The more some appear to “panic,” the more others double down on their cavalier indifference. These reactions, however, are not necessarily opposites as much as they are two very common modes of coping with the same distressing realization: the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete. The unpredictable, the unknown, the incalculable, the capricious aspects of our experience will always be with us. The conquest upon which we have staked our hope will never be complete. And each phenomenon that makes it impossible for us to ignore this fact will mess with our heads and trouble our hearts.

As Sacasas also did, I will state here for the record that this is not in any way to diminish or dismiss the very real challenge and threat of the pandemic. I will further note that our both feeling the need to point that out is a phenomenon entirely tied up with the dynamic of distress that Sacasas is discussing above.

Give me convenience

There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all. There are a number of factors that may explain this dynamic. As Neil Postman noted around the same time that Tierney was writing his book, the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Tierney himself admits that what he has to say is likely to be met “with a degree of self-preserving … denial” because he will argue that “a certain value is not freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” Which is why, as Horgan put it, “we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

L M Sacasas is re-reading all the sociology-of-tech titles that were published in the final years of the previous century, and that we should maybe have read more thoroughly at the time. Can’t quite remember how I stumbled upon his blog sometime late last year, but I’m very glad I did.