Tag Archives: sociotechnical change

the worst has been averted, at least temporarily

Steven Shaviro on KSR’s new joint:

[Kim Stanley] Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

I’m going to have to read this, and I’m sure it won’t be a chore—but as I remarked to a friend by email yesterday, I’m pretty sure (on the basis of Adam Roberts’s take) that I’m going to find the execution a bit frustrating. KSR’s is a champion worldbuilder, and the oft-repeated critique of his Mars books (which goes along the lines of “if you want to read 500 pages of people arguing about how to run a meeting, it’s pretty good stuff”) bothers me not a whit; if anything, that’s exactly the magic of the Mars trilogy, to have made so good a story out of that side of human action. But nonetheless, the man is not a prose stylist, I think it reasonable to say—and as Roberts points out, the very instrumentalist telos of Ministry has provided an opportunity for some of the very worst literary devices of sf to come out of retirement (though perhaps not without some wry self-awareness, given Roberts’s quoting of an exemplary as-you-know-Bob-ism being delivered by a character called Bob). This doesn’t bother Shaviro, who “prefer[s] straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction”, but me, I’m picky; I read fiction for the pleasure of reading in addition to any didactic/future-explorative malarky, and my tastes have trended much more toward yer actual bourgeois interiorities and/or (post)modern experiments these days.

(That’s the thing, see; you do a Masters in creative writing, you get yourself some pretensions. Or perhaps just more pretensions than before, at least in my case.)

Perhaps more to the point, though, I’m not sure how many of the people we most need to think more hopefully about the future are readers of novels of bourgeois interiority or infodump-heavy sf in the old-school mode. While it’s no reason not to write the stuff (for Robinson, me or anyone else), utopian fiction is probably limited to an audience which is already onside with the need for things to be done differently. The reason I’m excited to do more work like the Rough Planet Guide is that it uses the utopian and design-fiction toolkits to produce something that might actually get read by someone who doesn’t read novels, sf or otherwise. (And for that same reason, the next version of the Guide might well be web-based first and foremost; the book-as-artefact retains a magic for me and other bookish types, but for many folk it’s just a bulky boring thing that they might reasonably assume to contain nothing they want or need to know.)

Back to Shaviro:

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

Regular readers will know the hope/optimism distinction of old, so I’ll not rehearse it again here; I think Shaviro is getting at the same thing, or at least something similar. I’m also a lot less bullish on the technological plausibility of the stuff I’ve seen mentioned in reviews of Ministry so far; I share with Roberts an instinctive distaste for “blockchain” (sorry, Jay!), and I’m close enough to the technical side of transitions research to know that carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) exists only as the handwavium aporia which holds a lot of the two-degrees scenario spreadsheets together, despite being little more than vapourware papered over with research underwritten by our friends in the fossil fuel companies. (See also “the hydrogen economy”; never going to happen!) But nonetheless I find myself unexpectedly at odds with Shaviro’s closer, here:

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Without having read Ministry, this point might be a bit off the mark, but nonetheless: those developments are always going to look politically impossible if they’re portrayed from the perspective of the bureaucratic and technocratic strata, because those strata have internalised (and indeed propagated) the idea of the impossibility of political change; capitalist realism, innit? Ministry, as far as I can tell, is still a top-down telling, even if it tours the sociotechnical trenches; it’s a story of systems, a supply-side story. And sure, we need those stories, we need those systems—but we also need stories of lives lived and practices practiced; we need interiorities, bourgeois and otherwise, down on the demand-side. Because politics with a small ‘p’ is nothing but interiorities writ large—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it should surely be that. It’s kind of amazing to me that so many of us left-of-center folk can sit around dismissing the possibility of political upheaval while at the same time lamenting the massive political upheavals of the last five years; it’s as if the fact that said upheavals went in the opposite direction to what we wanted somehow allows us write them off as something other than political upheavals, and continue to lament the impossibility of change.

Which, given how often that rather dystopian take on the actual situation is accompanied by the “too many fictional dystopias” grumble, strikes me as rather ironic.

Media archaeology with dirty hands: Mattern (2017), Code and Clay, Data and Dirt

  • Mattern, S. (2017). Code and clay, data and dirt: Five thousand years of urban media. U of Minnesota Press.

This is an exemplary introduction chapter for many reasons, and one of things I admire most about it is the tone: it’s critical of the “smart cities” memeplex, without a doubt – framing the book’s project as, in part, asking ‘how the quantifiable aspects of urbanity come to delimit our conception of what an “ideal” (productive? liveable? resilient?) city can be’ (p. x) – but it’s not at all strident or hectoring, which is something I’d like to emulate going forward (having realised that a legacy of my early socialisation in toxic masculinity is a tendency to be a bit fighty and prolix in my academic and critical writing).

Also admirable is the deftness with which Mattern scopes out and targets the disciplinary project at hand: the targets, as hinted above, are urbanists, futurists, civic planners and politicians, and their tendency to sell the latest Next Big Thing as a paradigmatic and innovative shift in the very conception of the urban, when in fact for the most part it’s usually a reinvention or iteration of something almost as old as the notion of the city itself.

‘Recognising the “deep time” of urban mediation, urban historians will ideally be incentivised to reevaluate their prevailing theories about the birth of cities, which ten to privilege economic explanations for urbanisation, and to pay greater attention to the central role played by media and communication in urban history.’

(p. xxv)

It is one of the responsibilities of ‘urban and architectural designers and engineers of all stripes […] to make provisions for a layering of communicative infrastructures old and new, made of both ether and ore, data and dirt’.

(p. xxvi)

Most important to my own work, however, is Mattern’s patient delineation of a media archaeology that takes the “archaeology” part seriously. So it’s not an archaeology in the Foucauldian sense, or at least not exclusively so – but nor is it the processual archaeology of yore, obsessed with its own fantasies of scientism, nor the romanticised (and often orientalist or otherwise othering) form that all too easily ends up as fuel for theme parks and/or dubious nationalistic heritage narratives. But it is figuratively and literally about the excavation of media, about digging up and digging around the media of the past:

‘An archaeological sensibility prompts us to shift our focus from ‘real-time’ data-streams and various speculative ‘futures’ […] toward the longue durée within which those presents and futures take shape.’

(p. xxvii)

That particular citation was both a gratifying and frustrating find: gratifying because it describes pretty accurately what I was trying to do with my doctoral research, and frustrating because it shows there to have been a whole discipline already aimed somewhat in that direction, of which I was almost completely ignorant throughout said doctoral research… though in my defence, doing that research in an engineering department made the likelihood of my discovering its existence through peer recommendation pretty slim.

(Indeed, I learned very early on not to mention the McLuhanean notion that infrastructure could be studied in the same way as media. By comparison, even the flat-ontology social theory I ended up wading around in was considered much less heretical. Hell knows how much more of a fight it would have been to say what I wanted to say if I’d come out as a full-bore media-studies type…)

So I find myself thinking that I can adapt Mattern’s arguments for media archaeology in defence of a related (or perhaps subordinate) discipline of infrastructure archaeology, which is pretty much what I’ve always thought I was doing anyway. Now, as previously hinted, Mattern’s thinking is avowedly McLuhanean (see p. xiii) in that “media” and “infrastructure” are considered to be categories with considerable analytical overlap, if not necessarily commensurate; I don’t want to untangle that at all, but I do want to make a case for a very specific approach to what I term the “concrete” infrastructures – the most basic distributive/transformative systems of provision that underpin other civic systems.

(For a first stab at a formal definition of the “concrete infrastructure” concept, see Raven, 2017; this is an analytical/methodological privilege I’m trying to extend, rather than an ontological one, and will get another fresh outing in a paper for this year’s RGS conference..)

This means that a lot of Mattern’s statements can be adapted to my purposes without any need for heavy translation or remapping (though there are some cases where she uses “infrastructure” in a way that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to do). Here’s a real winner:

‘We can be more attuned to the uneven spread of networks and infrastructurally distributed resources, uneven rates of technological development and commitment to maintenance, and diverse systems of ownership and control…’

(p.xxiii)

What a gift of a quote! Particularly for someone who rails repeatedly at foresight types for the misuse of the Bill Gibson unevenly-distributed-future riff. But here’s another:

‘We in media and design studies need to recognise our objects of study as situated, embedded in particular material contexts, and activated by their interactions with people and non-human actants – other media, other infrastructures, other creatures and things – in those environments.’

(p. xxx)

Obviously the use of “situated” links neatly to the well-known Harawayian riff, which has been a constant in my personal literature since encountering it via the Situated Systems project, which was enacted by a group of friends and colleagues whose work has been pretty much as formative upon me as Saint Donna’s.

But the uppermost of the two quotes above is the culmination of a few short paragraphs which effectively demolish the entire determinist strand of the (Sustainability) Transitions (Management) literature (pp. xxviii-xxix); if I’d had this book two years ago, the lit review in my thesis would be at least two whole pages shorter, if not far shorter still. Combine it with the other quote above, and you get a neat sketch of a radical and critical paradigm for thinking sociotechnical change as embedded in timespace. (One might argue that Mattern’s framing makes it more specifically an urban thing, but I’d counter that “the urban” is just a label we have for a poorly-defined but nonetheless tacitly specific density of infrastructural development.)

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A few quotes pulled for a specific piece of writing that I’m working on at the moment, in which the “smart city” is in the crosshairs:

‘This datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city: those data are harvested, cleaned, flitered, analyzed, rendered visible and intelligible and actionable via an assemblage of media, from sensor to screens, smartphone apps to building management systems.’

(p. ix)

‘Are we to believe that urban designers, administrators, and advocates were not attending to such communicative and quality-of-life concerns before they had the quantitative means to do so – and that such data-driven formalist or behaviourist approaches are better than old-fashioned formalism and behaviourism? Are we to presume that Big Data and the “science” of urbanism make everything better, that citizens are better served when their agency is tethered in part to their functions as data points?’

(p. x)

[claims for evidence of “smartness” in] ‘the urban genome […] all the way back to ancient Rome, Uruk, and Çatalhöyük’ (p. xi); ‘our cities have been smart and mediated, and they’ve been providing spaces for intelligent mediation, for millennia. That intelligence is simultaneously epistemological, technological and physical: it’s codified into our cities’ laws and civic knowledges and institutions, hard wired into their cables and protocols, framed in their architectures and patterns of development.’

(p. xii)

‘Evangelists of our always-already-new media have long promised that new technologies would alternatively allow cities to sprawl luxuriously into disparate wire-linked nodes, or concentrate intensively into clusters of crystalline towers or close-knit communities united by the audible voice. Those media technologies would either render cities obsolete or, alternatively, drive them to their utopian apotheosis.’

(p.xx)

‘We can assert that the means of communication – whether the voice, the printed page, or cellular networks – have also shaped cities throughout history, and that those cities have in turn given form and vitality to their media. Cities and media have historically served as one another’s “infrastructures”.’

(p. xxv)

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That sure is a lot of pull-quotes, given that I’ve only taken them from the introduction! But damn, it’s a fine piece of work: well-written, timely (both for my personal context and more broadly), and calmly assertive. Mattern joins my personal pantheon of thinkers – a dubious honour, perhaps, but nonetheless she’s in good company there.

“Deviant and non-average practices” — Fam, Lahiri-Dutt & Sofoulis (2015), Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices

Fam, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Sofoulis, Z. (2015). Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(3), 639-651. [link]

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(A timely rediscovery that echoes with Carson’s digs at Accelerationism… )

This is the introductory editorial piece from a special issue devoted to qualitative demand-side approaches to water consumption research; while the focus is on water, much of what’s being argued here is just as applicable to other infrastructurally-mediated consumptive practices—which is to say, pretty much all of them. The special issue “captures and emphasises the importance of local information and on-the-ground interactions, as well as discursive processes and embodied knowledge, in researching everyday water practices in the sites of households and similar locales.” (p642; strongly reminiscent of Haraway’s situated knowledges)

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The paper begins with a critique of the ‘scaling-up’ dogma as an indicative feature of technocratic approaches which:

“… [treat] social change as an engineering problem, where individuals within the society are provided expert opinions aimed at changing their attitudes to produce a more economically rationalist and efficient set of water consumption behaviours. […] The preoccupation with scaling up tends to go with a preference for psychodemographic approaches […] that aim to produce behavioural modifications in populations of consumers, such as through mass media campaigns pitched to an imagined ‘average’ consumer.” (p640)

(This is our old friend the knowledge deficit model, shown decades ago in medical research to have no empirical or theoretical basis, but which is still central to a huge swathe of interventions into consumption. See also the literature on “imagined publics”, which should not be confused with “imagined communities”; the latter imagines itself, while the former is imagined by communication professionals.)

“The foremost implication [of scaling down] is scalar, or geographical: the household is not a mere building block of some larger social unit, nor a convenient site for accessing individuals and their psychologies, but is an entity worth studying in its own right […] a household-scale approach reveals that households are internally differentiated and include specialist domains of practice, often linked to the gender, ages and cultural backgrounds of its members, rather than unique psychologies and behavioural choices.” (p642; also “lived sociotechnical realities”, the household as a particular configuration of infrastructural affordances in relation with the values and meanings held by household members)

The real value of going beyond the bell-curve: “the deviant and non-average practices revealed in smaller-scale qualitative studies indicate what scope there is for experimentation and innovation” (p642); this is why most “innovations” research is tautologous  hindsight, because it can’t recognise a successful change until long after it’s actually proven itself and become average.

That said, household-level studies don’t produce an infinity of social variation; because of contextual commonalities across a geographical area (e.g. divisions of labour, domestic and paid, within the household; infrastructural affordances), “a handful of main types may be distinguished” in a regionally-bounded study. (p643)

There follows a very brief archaeology of the role of cultural theory in addressing consumption cultures and practices: Bordieu (channeling Spinoza); Giddens’s “structuration” (discursive vs. practical conciousnesses); theories of practice, which “focus on the things that people do and view patterns of consumption as embedded in the social context in which they are done”. (p644)

“A focus on practice does not abolish concern with individual motivation, but reduces individual psychology to just one of many social, technological and habitual factors that shape a practice and that are enacted in it.” (p645, emphasis added)

A scaled-down approach … reveals that not all end-users are created equal.” (p648)

“Social research is particularly valuable at the early stages of adapting to new technologies, when learning is still taking place, practice has not yet been automated into a routine, and technologies have not yet retreated into the background of awareness.” (p648)

Closes with an observation that “unreactive” metadata collection strategies beloved by positivist research paradigms (e.g. smart metering for utilities) explicitly devalue the knowledges of their (often unknowing and unconsulted) subjects; by contrast, participatory methods allow people to articulate what is meaningful to themselves, for themselves; this reinstates both the possibility of, and agency for, bottom-up change.

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Nothing hugely new in this one, at least for me—I’ve known Zoe Sofoulis for a good few years, and this is very much a standard (if still mostly ignored) set of arguments in favour of the sort of practice-theory-rooted research she (and others) favour. But there’s some good frames and quotes in there, making it a useful citation for arguments against the status quo of consumption research and/or policy intervention.

There is no meaningfully superhuman way to install a ceiling fan

In the history of both technology and religion, you find a tension between two competing priorities that lead to two different patterns of problem selection: establishing the technology versus establishing a narrative about the technology. In proselytizing, you have to manage the tension between converting people and helping them with their daily problems. In establishing a religion in places of power, you have to manage a tension between helping the rulers govern, versus getting them to declare your religion as the state religion.

You could say Boundary AI problems are church-building problems. Signaling-and-prayer-offering institutions around which the political power of a narrative can accrete. Even after accounting for Moravec’s paradox (easy for humans is hard for machines/hard for humans is easy for machines), we still tend to pick Boundary AI problems that focus on the theatrical comparison, such as skill at car-driving.

In technology, the conflict between AC and DC witnessed many such PR battles. More recently VHS versus Betamax, Mac versus PC, and Android versus iOS are recognized as essentially religious in part because they are about competing narratives about technologies rather than about the technologies themselves. To claim the “soul” of a technological narrative is to win the market for it. Souls have great brand equity.

A proper brain-hoser of a longread from the latest episode of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter*; religion, sociotechnical change, artificial intelligence, societal alienation, ceiling fans. So much to chew on it took me an hour to pick a pull-quote; it is completely typical for Rao to just wander about like this between big-concept topics and find connections and comparisons, which is why I started reading him a long, long time ago.

* It appears you can’t see the latest episode in the archives, presumably until it is no longer the latest episode, because [newsletters]. Drop me a line if you want me to forward the email version on… or just trust me when I say that if you’re intrigued by the pull-quote, you should just subscribe anyway. Not like it’ll cost you anything, beyond a bit of cognitive bandwidth.

Cyborg dialectics / a perpetual state of transition

Cyborg dialectics with Kimiko Ross

Dresden Codak. Started following his original webcomic way way back in the Noughties, when it was just as much of a one-person labour of love as it is now (though the artwork has gone from good to astonishing over the years).

Back then DC (and I, for my sins) were fellow-travellers of transhumanism; DC is, I suspect (on the basis of my reading of their work, rather than any direct knowledge), still a smidgen closer to that scene than I am these days, but the Dark Science series (go read some) has been steadily developing what feels like a much more posthumanist position — an understanding of the cyborg as a (sociotechnopolitical) metaphor, in other words, rather than the naive concretised misparsings of sf images so fetishized by the transhumanoids. This panel seems to confirm that feeling quite bluntly, at the same time as it resonates with stuff I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks*. Plus I thought maybe it was time I posted something that wasn’t just words.

* Things have been quiet because I’ve been in Sweden for close to three weeks, a “visiting scholar” set-up that is now drawing to a close. It’s been insanely busy and tiring, but very much in the positive sense.