Tag Archives: technological utopia

a new New Wave, if you like

I am beginning to perceive a pattern here, though. There is a loose group – a new New Wave, if you like – of British writers whose work might best be described as the natural successor to the ‘mundane SF’ of the early 2000s. These writers are less interested in the widescreen formats of space opera, MilSF and interstellar travel, focusing instead on stories set mainly on Earth in a recognisable near-future, with an emphasis on contemporary politics and class inequalities, the impact of new technologies on ordinary lives. I would include within this group Maughan himself, from way back, but also Simon Ings, Matt Hill, Matthew de Abaitua, Carl Neville and James Smythe (whose 2014-Clarke-shortlisted The Machine stands as a key example of this kind of writing). I have been asking myself for a while now why it is that these writers are so much less visible than they ought to be, given the contemporary relevance and literary excellence of their output. Their work is (surely) right at the cutting edge of science fiction. It is using science fiction to engage directly with social and political questions, demonstrating SF as the radical mode of literature it has always been.

For genre publishing imprints not to acquire and promote this kind of science fiction seems short-sighted and again, counter-intuitive. These writers are important and talented and they deserve recognition. You could argue that it is in this brand of politically engaged, intellectually curious stripe of SF that the future of the genre lies. Especially in our current moment, audiences who look to science fiction for inspiration, information or even a warning about where future developments could take us are hungry for novels and stories that tread that uneven, liminal path between the present as it is experienced and the future as it might be.

I agree with Nina Allan that there’s a real invisibility for some of the UK’s most enviable young* sf stylists, but I also think that the reasons she lists as an argument for their importance are also exactly the reasons for their invisibility. Put simply, sf has always been a deeply nostalgic genre, and the UK is deep in a period of nostalgic escapism more broadly—one that affects its soi-disant liberal left just as much as its Brexit-exceptionalist right, if not perhaps more so in some respects. Maughan and Hill refuse both British exceptionalist nostalgia and the comforts of technological utopianism; there is a market for that refusal, but it is probably too small for the already-struggling publishing houses of the UK market to gamble upon, when they can make more reliable returns with more traditional material. Ditto Ings, who is of course something of an old hand, and also—like de Abaitua—something of an experimental writer. (I am not familiar with Smythe’s work, and literally acquired my first book by Neville yesterday, so I can’t comment on either of them.)

It is meant as no insult to the book-buying public to observe that it seeks the comfortable escapism of familiar generic forms and nostalgic narratives of progress—indeed, this has probably always been the case, though the industry once had enough slack (and, perhaps, enough of a sense of mission in terms of artistic form and expression) that it could more readily support an avant-garde with the profits from the mid-list and the big hitters. But in terms of the genre in particular, I wonder whether the transition to what Clute has called “the new sf” (which rejects the technological utopian modality, and sometimes auto-critiques it in the process of that rejection) may never actually be a transition so much as a budding-off. If sf is what we point at when we say sf, then for the majority of sf readers these writers will never write “proper” sf; they are, if anything, actively opposed to doing so, which is what makes their work interesting (at least to Allan and myself).

Perhaps the slow self-retconning of the literary establishment into believing that it was actually always OK with speculative literatures all along will provide a space for this new form to grow… though that may of course be a vain hope, principally informed by the desire that the stuff I write might someday find someone willing to publish it.

[ * Young in writerly terms, rather than in strictly demographic ones. ]

“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?

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]

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?

a cranky aspiration

Chairman Bruce on AI ethics at LARB:

In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed.