Tag Archives: Technology

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?

the captured city

Seems like Jathan Sadowski (previously) is doing pre-promo for a new book on the “smart city” memeplex:

The “smart city” is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It’s better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future. The phrase itself is part of the ideological infrastructure it requires. As the cliché goes: Who wants to live in a dumb city? But if we focus on the version of smart urbanism on display in corporate brochures and concept designs, even if critically, we may miss the real impact of the underlying transformations in urban governance they foretell […]

These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing. Sensors, cameras, and other networked surveillance systems gather intelligence through quasi-militaristic methods to feed another set of systems capable of deploying resources in response. In reality, the urban command centers — or, the sophisticated analytics software that create relational networks of data, like that produced by the CIA-funded Palantir — are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public.

Contrary to the suggestions of “smartness” shills, these systems are not used by the general public but on it.

I was sold even before I hit the Haraway citation.

A way to sell selling itself, redux

With the obligatory cynical caveats*, this two-hander article on online advertising at The Correspondent may be a shoo-in for this year’s Most Buried Lede award:

Marketers are often most successful at marketing their own marketing.

Ouch. Not exactly news, perhaps… but I guess it’s oddly reassuring to have your assumptions confirmed. (But also suspicious; hence the caveats.)

Also looks like a strong case for [organisational autopoeisis / black-boxing], with a side-serving of dysfunctional competition ideology:

… companies are not equipped to assess whether their ad spending actually makes money. It is in the best interest of a firm like eBay to know whether its campaigns are profitable, but not so for eBay’s marketing department.

Its own interest is in securing the largest possible budget, which is much easier if you can demonstrate that what you do actually works. Within the marketing department, TV, print and digital compete with each other to show who’s more important, a dynamic that hardly promotes honest reporting.

Capitalism, laydeezangennelmun, amirite? [conger-eel.gif]

To repeat a familiar saw for regular readers: always remember that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”:

Lewis admitted that it’s not all bad. Decisions have to be made, somebody has to lay out a strategy, doubt must stop at some point. For that reason, companies hire overconfident people who act like they know what they cannot possibly know.

But of course, strong social constructionism is blasphemy, right? The idea that major foundational notions of how business works, or how economics and governance works, are just talked into being by fast-mouthed hustlers instinctively preying upon the Emperor’s New Clothes fallacy-plex? UNTHINKABLE.

[ * – Caveats: 1) as a qualitative investigation, this article has a pretty small n; furthermore, 2) the subtext that Farcebork et al are far less effective at manipulation than is currently believed is the sort of story that Farcebork et al might be very pleased to enable; however, 3) I struggle to credit Farcebork et al with a command of political dynamics sufficiently subtle to conceive and execute even a fairly crude psy-ops counterplay of that nature. ]

Give me convenience

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

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

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.