Tag Archives: Technology

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.

A way to sell selling itself

VR/AR is ad-tech. Everything built in studios (except for experimental projects from independent artists) is advertising something. That empathy stuff? That’s advertising for nonprofits. But mostly VR is advertising itself. While MTV was advertising musicians, the scale and creative freedom meant that it launched careers for people like Michel Gondry, Antoine Fuqua, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, etc. A band from a town like Louisville or Tampa could get in touch with a local filmmaker and collaborate on a project and hope that 120 Minutes picks it up. There were entry points like that. And the audience was eager to see something experimental. But a VR audience is primed to have something like a rollercoaster experience, rather than an encounter with the unexpected. The same slimy shapeshifter entrepreneurs that could just as well build martech or chatbots went and colonized the VR space because they have a built in excuse that it took film “fifty years before Orson Wells.” Imagine that. A blank check and a deadline in fifty years.

The always-insightful Joanne McNeil. Everything the Valley does is marketing; that they’re still flogging away at a horse two decades dead tells you everything you need to know about what the word “innovation” really means.

The Metamedium

From a review at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“Zielinski argues that what he calls “media” (a dense composite notion encompassing both discourse and its material supports) has vanished from the horizon because it is now ubiquitous.”

Obviously I need to read the whole book to make this claim more solidly, but nonetheless: this chimes with a chunk of my own infrastructural theory, where I claim that what we think of as “media” – which are themselves highly complex and increasingly emergent socio-technical systems – flow over and through a medium-of-media, a metamedium. That metamedium is the tangle of infrastructural socio-technical systems to which I refer as “the metasystem”, which has also been pulling a very effective disappearing trick over the last century or so.

Indeed, these two systems are effectively the public and private faces of a single coin. The metasystem is the screen upon which the Spectacle is projected; it is the conceptual veil which allows the enduring Western fiction of the social/natural dichotomy to persist, the discursive prestidigitation which distracts us from the (spatially) distant consequences of our technologically mediated consumption.

(Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism; poking holes in utopia

#stacktivismTomorrow (Weds 15th October 2014) sees me boarding a train down to That London, in order to be a talking head at a salon titled (Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism at the Goethe Institute. If you’ve not been following along, #stacktivism is Jay Springett’s invention, and it’s less a manifesto than a call for seeing the world anew, a campaign for the disenchantment of infrastructure… or is it? That’s all the fun of a #hashtag, see — you don’t get to control it, it’s a floating node in the discourse. So come along and discuss what we might do with it. Tickets are a mere £6 (via Eventbrite), and going by the warm-up conversation over email, it’s going to be a stimulating session. There’s a recommended reading list and everything!

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In other news: after reading Kevin Kelly’s collection of “desirable-future haikus”, I coughed up a rant about the innate determinism of the technological utopia over the weekend. The short version: tech-focussed futurists are finally hitting the same problematics of the utopian form that the New wave sf writers hit in the late 70s, and the reason it’s impossible to draft a plausible technological utopia is that we’ve all lived through enough false promises to not be taken in se easily any more.

(As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that the #miserableweb phenomenon on Ello is less a function of Ello itself, and more a function of a general cynicism about social media; there was some seriously utopian hopes around social media back in the Noughties (I held many of them myself), and it clearly did some good things, but then Snowden showed us around the dungeon of Omelas, the Great White Hetero Male got all revanchist, and the scales fell from our eyes. Turns out the lord of the flies doesn’t believe in digital dualism either.)

Dan Hon picked up my ball and ran with it a bit in his newsletter thing. I think he pretty much gets the gist of my point, but he kinda shifts the blame onto the marketing and advertising of tech rather than the discourse of tech, of which marketing is only one subsystem; advertising certainly reproduces uncritically diegetic technological utopias (and the internet now re-reproduces ((and sometimes remixes)) them losslessly and infinitely), but there are also the interactions of biz-school dogma, neoclassical economics (profit uber alles) and the positivist epistemologies of the STEM disciplines to consider. Technological determinism is not a simple belief; it’s just one visible manifestation of the dominant worldview.

Hon illustrates the point for me, in fact. He talks about the utopian tech ads of the “information superhighway” era, and how only now are we actually seeing a roll-out of the services that were promised to us on the back of the internet. Then he says:

“… it’s like we still *want* to buy concert tickets wherever we want, and we still *want* to say goodnight to our kids over Facetime or whatever.”

There’s a valid point here, which is that convenience has always been a marketing cornerstone, and that making things easier is a form of progress. But the thing about Facetime is the killer example: Facetime solves the problem of being able to say goodnight to your kids when travelling on business, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a business culture that expects you to spend shit-loads of time away from your young family — which is a systemic problem with many other side-effects besides keeping you away from home, and one that technology tends to exacerbate at the molar scale, even (if not especially) when it seems to ameliorate it at the molecular scale. Or, to put it crudely: in order for an iPhone to make your life easier, a number of Chinese workers must make their lives rather more difficult. The benefits of technology are not at all evenly distributed, and neither are the downsides.

So perhaps it’s just capitalism that’s the culprit? That’s part of it, I’m sure — but capitalism is a construct, and blaming constructs is lazy (not to mention, um, unconstructive?). But the intimate interconnection between neoclassical economics, technoscientific production and climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and we’ll never fix a problem that’s essentially technological in origin by just throwing more technology at it; that’s about as rational as trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline.

(Which, to be clear, is not a primitivist call for the abandonment of technology in toto; on the contrary, it’s a call for us to flatten our ontologies, to redefine the notion of “the problem” into something a little less selfish and a little more systemic.)