Tag Archives: solutionism

(not) giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise

One of the joys of having unplugged from the birdsite again is being able to largely ignore the whole crypto/Web3/NFT circus, at least in its most immediate expression. Of course, various people are writing about it more slowly, and it’s probably a function of my pre-existing biases that have ensured the vast majority of what I’ve read tends to cash out as academic or practitioner-accented versions of NOPE NOPE NOPE. Without any shame for the hipsterness of the statement, I’ll note that I was skeptical of this stuff when it was still new (and I have the receipts to prove it).

But when people I respect contradict or challenge me, well, I do my best to listen. Here’s yer man Matt Colquhoun:

The world is changing, both on- and offline, but our imaginations are slow to catch up. Without an insistence upon it proceeding otherwise, Web3 will be (and is being) used to replicate the pre-existing cultural hegemony of Funko-Populist finance bros.

Let’s just stop to do a full on gatsby.gif at that lovely coining in the last line, there. Chapeau, sir.

Now, Matt seems to me to be saying that he’s worried that by NOPEing out of this space entirely, we’re giving up the chance to seize the potentially good bits of this assemblage. On that point, I agree. But my instinct—and I will gladly concede that it is very much an instinct, one nurtured by the intense disillusionment of the Nougties blogging goldrush (of which I was arguably one of the people who did moderately well, albeit in a very drawn-out and roundabout sort of way), but also from, ah, let’s just say an earlier stage of life during which I was exposed to an awful lot of hucksterism and hustle of an even more naked sort—my instinct, leavened with a bit of research (though not so much as an advocate would insist was a precondition of having an opinion), says to me that there’s nothing there fight for, or if there is, the triumph of the very worst potentials thereof—already very much in the ascendant—is effectively baked in due to its unfolding within the inducement structure of capitalism more broadly.

None other than Evgeny Morozov sees it as being worse still: by looking for the bright side of this mess, we end up giving it a veneer of progressive respectability:

How does one criticize a flawed, unrealistic, and extremely partial narrative that is, nonetheless, being rapidly turned into reality? This is not a problem that one can solve by adopting a more pragmatic, solutions-oriented attitude that many of the proponents of Web3 demand from their critics. The goal here cannot just be to find a more progressive use for DAOs or tokens or NFTs. I’m sure they exist – and many more of them can be found in due time. But what is the point of such search expeditions, when, in the end, such efforts are only likely to help in the left-washing of the Web3 brand, giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise?

As he puts it, “there is no ‘there’ there”; the self-referentiality of the whole edifice means anything you do to fight it just gets hoovered up by the rhetorical cyclone.

But back to Matt:

But there are a number of alternative visions out there — the latest issue of Spike Art magazine contains advocates for a bunch of them, who are both optimistic and pessimism about the current state of things. The worry I have, and that many others have, is that it may already be too late. What depresses me isn’t so much how NFTs are being used by the internet’s most naïve denizens, but that their idiocy atrophies the political imagination of the rest of us.

In that sense, the responsibility for our unabating digital dystopia lies as much with the mindless naysayers as it does mindless enthusiasts. The narcosis of an old digital radicalism is developing necrosis. Something has got to give, but we need to realize that this needn’t be the communities we hold dear in themselves. There is space for them to well and truly thrive, if we demand and carve out that space, just as we did when the internet first became available to us.

Now, I have a lot of time for Matt’s negation-of-the-negation argument, to the point that I have once phrasing of it blu-tacked to the wall above my desk. Maybe it’s just a function of me being An Old nowadays, but I think the reason for the necrosis of digital radicalism is the acceleration of the capture process with each new iteration of the digital frontier… plus, perhaps, a dawning realisation that perpetually turning to the next frontier is a foundational plank of the thing we’re trying to fight against.

To reiterate a point from a few days back, this ain’t me going all primitivist and suggesting “we can do without technology”; far from it. But I think I do perhaps feel that getting away from this attitude where the technological is often or always the site—a non-spatial site, which is perhaps another root of the problem—of the next potential victory. I try not to cite ol’ Grandpa Karl too often, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of him, but I’m pretty sure that his basic argument was that while technology might serve to enable a more socialist world, it could only do so once the political economy in which it operated had been reconfigured. Seize the means of production first, right? Then reorganise the uses it’s put to. So wading in to the Web3 shitstorm to me feels like trying to fine-tune (post-)Fordism for socialist ends: totally well-intended, but ultimately of use only to the factory owners.

Matt doesn’t want “the communities we hold dear” to be sacrificed to to the necessity of change, and yeah, I hear that. I guess I’m just not so convinced as I once was—and those who’ve known me long enough will know that I was super convinced, a bona fide Web2.0 evangelist—that a change of medium to the next new thing is going to keep those communities vital. To be honest, I think making better, slower use of the superseded media might be a better place to start. The Arab Spring didn’t fail because social media wasn’t sufficiently advanced or decentralised; it failed because the systems of power it was arraigned against were too deeply entrenched, and those media were in turn embedded into those structures from the get-go.

Eh, I dunno—like I say, I’m An Old now, and increasingly identifying with the (historical, rather than vernacular) label of Luddite. Sure, the Web3 powerloom might revolutionise many of the things I do for a living… but even if the nice guys work out a way to do that, is it going to compete with the monkey-jpeg people and Andreessen-Horowitz? Not bloody likely, mate. I only have so much fight left in me, and I’m not wasting it in a space where the signal-to-noise ratio (not to mention the VC bankroll) is that high.

Still, good luck to anyone who wants to brave it. Because I agree with Matt’s parting line, as well:

It is our complacency, not Web3, that will be the death of us.

And yeah, maybe I’m just NOPEing out of the definitional struggle of our times… but I can’t see what work there is to be done there, let alone how to start doing it. Perhaps I just don’t have enough of a stake in it? Perhaps the (veeeerrrry relative) security of early career academia has seduced me away from the vanguard? Quite possible.

But I very clearly remember believing that having my own website and socnet handles would lift me out of the neoliberal precariat, and I remember seeing that—even as it did so for a very lucky few of us—it made things even worse for those who missed the bus. My sense that Web3 &c. will be an even crueller and faster clusterfuck goldrush is, as I say above, predominantly instinctual—which is perhaps to say imaginative.

I can’t imagine a metaverse in which things are better for most people. But I can imagine a world in which we’ve decided that chasing our emancipation down the fibre-optic backbones and into the data-centers will look, in hindsight, like a very weird thing people once believed, like the indulgences that came off the early printing presses. Progress is the greatest lie ever told, and Web3 looks like the very shiniest empty box it has ever been put in.

Good luck in there, but count me out.

epistemic humility vs. “the engineer’s disease”

This post is prompted in part by a post by Cennydd Bowles, in which he riff on Nathan Ballantyne’s notion of epistemic trespass. Reading it reminded me of a term I’ve seen frequently, most often on MetaFilter, where it has been part of the lexiconic furniture for some time. An ask-the-hive-mind entry on that site traces the notion of “the engineer’s disease” back to 2002, so it’s plausibly an internet-era coining—which, interestingly, means it’s a term critical of engineering which emerged during what might be seen as the peak of engineering’s cultural hegemony, and thus in hindsight a weak signal of sorts.

The engineer’s disease is related to (and perhaps subsumed by, if not subsuming of, the briefly better known solutionism); here’s a description from that MeFi page:

engineers and other technical folks assuming their technical knowledge of systems (usually computer, mechanical/electrical) gives them expertise in solving other complex issues

Very much a lay precursor to Ballantyne’s trespass, then, but the concept is much older than the term. As someone else in the MeFi thread points out, Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) is a satire of “Engineer’s Disease writ large”, as they illustrate with a pithy quote from the novel which immediately brought me back to the experience of reading it:

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.”

Bowles notes that epistemic trespass is ubiquitous in the public-intellectual sphere, and (rightly, I think) connects it to the capitalist imperatives that power the hot-take attention economy, albeit using kinder words than I have chosen. But he also notes its particular prevalence in the tech scene, broadly conceived, and his explanation for it seems plausible, particularly given his own identification with that scene:

Dabbling got many of us here in the first place, and a field in flux will always invent new topics and trends that need diverse perspectives. But by definition, trespass happens on someone else’s property; it’s common to see a sideways disciplinary leap that puts a well-known figure ahead of existing practitioners in the attention queue.

This is certainly inefficient: rather than spending years figuring out the field, you could learn it in months by reading the right material or being mentored by an expert. But many techies have a weird conflicted dissonance of claiming to hate inefficiency while insisting on solving any interesting problem from first principles. I think it’s an ingrained habit now, but if it’s restricted to purely technical domains I’m not overly worried.

Of course, it isn’t restricted to technical domains, so Bowles riffs on Ballantyne to recommend epistemic humility:

It’s easy to confuse knowledge and skills, or to assume one will naturally engender the other in time. Software engineers, for example, develop critical thinking skills which are certainly useful elsewhere, but simply applying critical thinking alone in new areas, without foundational domain knowledge, easily leads to flawed conclusions. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is almost always ethically suspect, but it’s doubly irresponsible outside your comfort zone and in dangerous lands.

No one wants gatekeeping, or to be pestered to stay in their lane, and there are always boundary questions that span multiple disciplines. But let’s approach these cases with humility, and stop seeing ourselves as the first brave explorers on any undiscovered shore.

We should recognise that while we may be able to offer something useful, we’re also flawed actors, hampered by our own lack of knowledge. Let’s build opinions like sandcastles, with curiosity but no great attachment, realising the central argument we missed may just act as the looming wave. This means putting the insight of others ahead of our own, and declining work – or better, referring it to others who can do it to a higher standard – while we seek out the partnerships or training we need to build our own knowledge and skills.

As Bowles notes, no one wants gatekeeping… but as one of the foundational notions in STS assures us, gatekeeping—or “boundary objects”—are exactly what allow us to even talk about “spheres” and “domains” of expertise in the first place. Which is perhaps to say that while no one thinks they want gatekeeping, we all do it, and it’s actually a vital part of how ideas move between domains; when it’s done right, those ideas retain a coherence and usefulness across their sites of use while allowing for more specific deployments at each site. When it’s done badly, well, you get what Bowles and Ballantyne and Vonnegut are talking about: the transposition of ideas as particularly parsed by engineers (or techies, or coders, or whoever else it might be) into spheres where those parsings are inappropriate, no matter how well-intended, and potentially destructive.

As with pretty much everything he writes, Bowles here aims to draw out the inherent good that he sees in the denizens of the tech domain, and I would note that it is this essential generosity of spirit on his part that makes him a writer I always read: to put it another way, while he thinks with domains, he does not think with them deterministically (in the way that the “engineer’s disease” label definitely does).

I believe (or at least I believe I believe) similarly that most people are basically decent and well-intentioned, but I suspect I take a more structural view than Bowles on the shaping of intention into action—which is to say, I suspect that the time for making reasonable pleas for the tech domain to wind its neck in a bit has long since passed. This is not due to any fundamental malice or recalcitrance on the part of engineers and techies, to be clear, but rather the extent to which that domain has achieved hegemonic levels of control and influence over economic and discursive systems.

Which, I suppose, could easily be parsed as a call for “more regulation”… and I suppose that, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also a call for a reconceptualisation of what regulation means, as well as how it’s executed; regulatory capture is probably one of the biggest factors in the securing of that hegemony. Which means that this is really a call for a revaluation of our values around technology, with the proviso that for me the category of “technology” extends to things like regulation and governance as well as, y’know, gadgets and apps and such.

Indeed, perhaps that particular conceptualisation of technology, which—as many of my readers will already be aware, but, for the avoidance of doubt—is definitely not original or unique to me, is the keystone to the change I’m calling for. But it would have to be in turn a part of a broader renunciation of the implicit supremacisms of humanism itself, which in turn would need to recognise that such ideas can never be conquered, only dealt with dialectically.

These thoughts were brought to you by my having re-read a bunch of Latour over the holidays, and by my having binged my way through Claire North’s brilliant Notes from the Burning Age in the last two days; I’ll hopefully find the time to write up my thoughts on the latter in soon.

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.

“A sterile and decontextualised narrative”: Grossi & Pianezzi (2017), Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?

  • Grossi, G., & Pianezzi, D. (2017). “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?”. Cities, 69, 79-85.

Pretty simple paper, this one, in the sense that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the specific case (Genoa, Italy) is not of great relevance to me right now, but I want to drag some quotes out of it and into the reading journal here in order to make citing and glossing it easier in future. This is made easy by its clear restatement(s) of the basic point… there’s also a pretty comprehensive lit review in there, though, so a good jump-off point if you wanted to dig deeper into the bloated floating signifier that is the “smart city”. (Insert old joke about wrestling a pig here.)

So, yeah: the top-line gloss would be that “there is a high level of agreement in the literature that there is as yet no common definition of a smart city”, and further that “despite private corporations and cities promoting the smart city as a revolutionary utopia, this paradigm is an expression of the neoliberal ideology” (p79).

After a (very) quick historical tour of the utopian concept, the authors arrive at Bloch’s notion of the “concrete utopia”, as distinct from the “abstract utopia”, and gloss the former as “a project connected with reality that leads citizens forward into historical transformation and social revolution” (p80). They then argue that a bunch of authors have identified the “smart city” as being a Blochean concrete utopia—though I know at least two of the papers that they cite as evidence for this claim (one of which I have already annotated here), and they do no such thing. I wonder if some subtlety of argument has been lost in translation, though, because it would be fair to say that the “smart city” trope self-identifies as a concrete utopia… and if we carry that reading forward, the rest of the paper still makes perfect sense, as the authors go on to note that “when translated into practice, the smart city utopia often conflicts with its aspirations” (p80), which is (in my own reading, at least) a significant part of the point that Söderström, Paache & Klauser were making.

There follows some referencing of Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey (one of whose works will be annotated here imminently, and not at all coincidentally) in order to delineate a dialectic between utopia and ideology. This leads up to a restatement of the paper’s main point, namely that “the smart city utopia is a fundamental facet of the neoliberal contemporary ideology” (p80), which az eny fule kno is about the penetration of market-fundamentalist logics into every aspect of life; e.g., “the diffusion of city rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities is an example of the disciplinary and normalising power of neoliberalism to generate competition among cities by transforming their difference in deviances from a norm of smartness assumed to be best practices” (ibid.)—is a long-winded way of saying that the “smart city” trope sets up a nebulous and techno-utopian standard against which all cities are implicitly measured and, inevitably, found wanting. The paradigm is heavily focussed on the handing-over of the “management” of cities to privately-owned tech firms, which (no surprises for those of you following along at home) “results in the adoption of a profit-oriented approach and in an increasing involvement of private actors, holders of innovation and technological knowledge” (ibid.). Leaning on a classic Swyngedouw paper (2005), the authors note that enacting the “smart city” trope as (re)produced by its manifold advocates “may lead to a privatization of decision making and an exercise of power insulated from democratic accountability” (p81); an unbolted stable door through which numerous horses would appear to have already escaped. There’s another quotable riff later on, where they note that “the smart city discourse describes citizens as consumers rather than as political actors” (p84).

Middle section sets out a methodology based on Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics” (which I don’t know much about—but given it seems to involve Bakhtinian ideas about languages as structures of/for social philosophies, I probably should do), and looks at the case of flooding crises in Genoa, and the ways in which “smart city” rhetorics there have both devolved responsibility for amok urbanisation (manifest in part via the enthusiastic covering of historical floodplains with fancy new building projects), and explicitly called for predictive modelling and measurement to enable competitive development practices to continue apace. To label this as a neoliberal project is about as non-controversial as it gets—unless of course your audience is of the sort that objects to the existence of the term in and of itself (which is to say, unless your audience is itself ideologically oriented to neoliberalism).

A good clear summary in the conclusions section (which kinda confirms my feeling that they’ve misread Söderström and friends, who were making pretty much the same points, absent the particular focus on the N-word):

The smart city utopia serves the interests of of big multinational ICT companies, while neglecting the need of political (not only technological) answers to public and common interests. It conveys neoliberal values and shapes urban problems by making visible some aspects while at the same time obscuring others. Thus, the emphasis on fancy technological solutions risks diverting attention away from issues, such as the broad impact of urbanization, that require a long-term “urban-planning based” approach driven by the political willingness of municipalities. […] What the promoters of smart city [sic] claim to be a concrete utopia proves to be on the contrary an abstract utopia, a sterile and decontextualised narrative that preserves existing relations of power, rather than challenging them.”

(p84)

Pretty simple; not the most original paper in theoretical terms, but then they do note that part of their aim is to take a predominantly theoretical critique into a more empirical territory via the Genoan case-study, which I guess they achieve.

But it’s got some useful quotes for an ongoing project, though, which I dare say will come in handy again if the zombie meme that is the “smart city” stumbles on into the post C19 world… which seems all too likely, given the enthusiastic embrace of privately-provided technological surveillance measures for infection control. What could possibly go wrong?

the self-isolation of solutionism

Via Chairman Bruce comes news that various ongoing driverless car experiments are quietly leaving town while everyone’s busy worrying about other things. If such solutionisms are even a temporary casualty of the pandemic, then we’ve already found a silver lining to this particular cloud… as Sterling notes, it’s likely that the circumstances are providing a convenient excuse for pulling the plug on something that was massively overpromised in order to attract venture capital investment (and the innovation budgets of those cities lucky enough to actually have one). Might we see the “smart city” go the same way? We can but hope.

(Of course, there’s good odds that the same grifters behind driverless cars etc. will now pivot to pandemic “solutions”… but as already noted by people everywhere, individualist solutions look absurd against a pandemic backdrop, which inevitably highlights the necessity of collectivist systems.)