Tag Archives: sociotechnical imaginary

Solargoth

I keep telling myself I shouldn’t pass public comment on solarpunk, firstly because I haven’t done the reading and legwork, and secondly because I know a few people who really have done the reading and legwork (hi, Jay!), and as a good, responsible academic (cough, cough) I know better than to traipse across someone else’s disciplinary patch.

Buuuut… there’s an extent to which solarpunk abuts my own undisciplined domain of sociotechnical imaginaries, and as such I can’t entirely ignore it. Which is why I was intrigued by this piece from Lidia Zuin, in which, by riffing off the recent Multispecies Cities anthology, she seems to be seeking a way past the common critique (of which I have partaken in passing) of solarpunk-as-technological-utopia:

… in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

This, Zuin seems to suggest, is an advance on the more purely aesthetic origins of solarpunk: a reintroduction of instructive failure to the deployment of technological solutions, which Zuin identifies as the legacy of solarpunk’s estranged parent genre, cyberpunk. The extent to which social and political change features in this tales is not apparent from this essay (and so, yes, I should really do the reading, given that tends to be my angle on the issue), but Zuin is heading in a different direction, or rather along a different axis, for her own critique:

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.”

Zuin also mentions the musical act Botanist, ‘a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars’ whose ‘visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers’; this, plus recent music and performance from Björk, points toward a darker direction for Zuin’s solarpunk. Most interestingly for me (as a sociotechnical imaginaries scholar, and a marginal scholar of Bruce Sterling’s work), she also connects the technological-utopian iteration of solarpunk to Sterling’s Viridian Green campaign during the Noughties—which only a few weeks back I myself connected to the market-oriented ecomodernist side of the ongoing dialectic of green hope, in a review of Garforth’s Green Utopias.

Which is not (only) to note that someone else has spotted a (fairly obvious) genealogy in this particular discourse, but rather to note that Zuin is interested in pushing the generic dialectic in the other direction somewhat: in literary terms, that’s the more Vandermeerean New-Weird direction, which in academic-theoretical terms is the (more posthuman) there-never-was-a-Nature antithesis to the (more transhuman) thrust of the Viridian/ecomodernist/tech-utopian thesis.

Zuin concludes:

Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

I don’t want to assume Zuin’s concern here is merely about broadening the market for solarpunk in a world where grimdark is an enduringly popular aesthetic—though there’d be nothing wrong with an author taking that position. (Writers, after all, want to be read, and perhaps also to pay the bills.) But it seems to me that there’s an aesthetic rebellion implicit in Zuin’s position, here, that reads fairly well as a figuration of a more theoretical/philosophical rebellion against solarpunk’s well-intended (but, IMHO, politically naive) techno-optimism. That Zuin mentions Le Guin and Delany as possible inspirations to be drawn upon underscores my point: that this reaching toward a more gothic iteration of solarpunk is—or at least could be—a reaching toward a more critical-utopian mode for the genre.

And that, as regular readers here will be very aware, is of much greater interest to me, in both the literary-aesthetic and critical-theoretical senses.

Sadowski & Bendor (2019), Selling smartness: Corporate narratives and the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary

This one’s a doozy; does exactly what it says on the tin, on the basis of a deep and comparative dive into “smart city” documentation from IBM and Cisco. A useful extension of Jasanoff & Kim’s “sociotechnical imaginary” concept into the corporate mythmaking space, too.

… while some definitions identify the smart city with its technical infrastructure, the smart city is not equivalent to any single technology or collection of technologies. The sensors, networks, and algorithms associated with the smart city could be deployed in other settings and contexts. What makes them “smart city technologies,” therefore, is neither strictly technical (pertaining to functionality, instrumental causes, or driven by efficiency) nor entirely social (produced by specific actors, reflecting particular incentives, or embraced by certain institutions). Smart city technologies become smart city technologies only by association with the idea of the smart city and the narratives, logics, practices, and symbolism of which it is constituted. As a consequence, the smart city can be seen as both a container for innovation and a yardstick for evaluating innovation.

(p. 541)

… these documents [from IBM and Cisco] comprise a narrative according to which the smart city appears inevitable, the only reasonable response to an impending urban crisis. At the same time, since the smart city as an “actually existing” sociotechnical assemblage is still nascent, we argue that the smart city is an anticipatory vision—even a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a set of orienting assumptions and operationalizable propositions about urban planning and development.

(p. 542)

… the smart city is a field of struggle over the political imagination. We should think of these corporate discourses as tools for directing and delimiting what we can imagine as possible. As this paper shows, IBM and Cisco do not set out a suite of scenarios that represent radically different visions and politics. There are variations of the services they offer, but rarely do they deviate from reflecting and reinforcing the technocratic and neoliberal precepts that motivate this vision of smart urbanism [… their] aim is to establish their version of smartness as the future—the only one available or possible.

(p. 544)

By seeking to dominate the discursive field and capture the imagination of city leaders, IBM and Cisco aim to ensure that alternative smart city imaginaries remain effectively closed off. It follows that if we are to open the space for alternatives and counter-imaginaries, then we first need to understand the principles and attributes of the dominant imaginary as a way of better knowing what needs to be challenged and how.

(p. 545)

Given this overall crisis-based framing, we can read the smart city as a reactionary story, and not only the ultimate manifestation of techno-utopian thought. To be sure, those utopian elements are still present, especially in the dreamscapes of smart cities that are built from scratch on empty plots, networked and sensored from the outset. Yet, when we consider the smart city as a piecemeal project of securing against an impending catastrophic future, it begins to take shape as a conservative project in which the best course of action is to pragmatically maintain stability and to technically control uncertainty…

(p. 550)

For tech corporations and city leaders, the sociotechnical imaginary of smart urbanism promises control over myriad urban dynamics and then outlines ways to make that dream come true [… ] the city ceases to be a messy, unknowable, and uncontrollable place. Urban elites can imagine themselves possessing a panoptical power…

(p. 552)

It is important to recognize that the language of “solutions”—like that of “smartness”—is more than just an idle label. [refs out to Bogost and Morozov re “solutionsim”; cf. also James Bridle’s “computational thinking”] By recasting everything as a problem waiting for a techno-fix, especially issues that are social in nature, the space for philosophical reflection and political contention shrinks. Furthermore, in effect, the solutionist language works backward: for those in the business of providing solutions, solvable problems are essential. The crises are tailored to justify the solutions, and the latter come in different forms and guises.

(pp. 552-3)

Three main implementation styles of the “smart city”:

By far, the most common “actually existing” smart cities are those that are retrofitted and renovated with upgrades that transition them from “dumb” to “smart.” This usually starts with one or a few initiatives meant to address a specific problem, such as parking or public safety.

[…]

Then, there is the “shock therapy” method of implementation—or what we call smart shock—in which a city undergoes a quick, large-scale integration of smart urbanism ideals, technologies, and policies into an existing landscape. In these cases, the smart city transition happens to a greater degree and over a short time period. Smart shocks are much rarer than retrofits because they require much more financial and political capital. [e.g. Rio de Janeiro]

[…]

Perhaps the most idealistic models for the smart city are built-from-scratch projects that are being constructed where nothing existed before. A canonical case is New Songdo in South Korea […] These model cities are more like showcases for the technology’s potential: why just tell customers about the smart city with a pamphlet, when you can show them the imaginary in tangible form?

(p. 554-5)

The smart city is a dynamic future-in-the-making. It is an exemplary case of how corporations, not just state actors, actively construct sociotechnical imaginaries to advance their own ends. While it is true that the corporate model is an offshoot of a deeply rooted political economic regime, we must not mistake a contingency for inevitability, despite IBM and Cisco’s efforts. In this vein, reframing and reimagining smart urbanism must involve creating counter-narratives that open up space for alternative values, designs, and models…

(p. 557)