Tag Archives: Technology

theatre of expertise / expertise of theatre

This one’s been doing the rounds in infrastructure-wonk circles, and deservedly so. I’m usually distrustful of any organisation that includes the term “governance innovation” in its moniker; CIGI is a Canadian thinktank founded by the guy who helmed RIM, none of which serves to fundamentally allay that instinctive suspicion, but this is nonetheless a serious, nuanced and in-depth piece on the tech/policy interface, the likes of which is vanishingly rare in the era of the Hot Take. This is the nut of it:

First, the digitization of public institutions changes the balance of government power, by shifting a number of political issues out of public process and framing them instead as procurement processes. Whereas questions around executive authority were historically defined in legislation, they’re often now defined in platform design — and disputes are raised through customer service. This shift extends executive power and substitutes expert review for public buy-in and legitimacy, in ways that cumulatively result in a public that doesn’t understand or trust what the government does. Importantly, the transition from representative debate to procurement processes significantly changes the structures of engagement for public advocates and non-commercial interests.

The second structural problem results when nuanced conversations about the technical instrumentation of a publicly important governance issue are sensationalized. For example, focusing on COVID-19 contact-tracing apps instead of the large institutional efforts needed to contain infection frames the issues around the technology and not the equities or accountability required to serve public interest mandates. One of the reasons for this is that experts, like everyone else, are funded by someone — and tend to work within their own political, professional and economic perspectives, many of which don’t take responsibility for the moral or justice implications of their participation. Consultants tend to focus on technical solutions instead of political ones, and rarely challenge established limits in the way that the public does.

Said differently, technologies are a way to embed the problem of the political fragility of expertise into, well, nearly everything that we involve technology in. And public institutions’ failure to grapple with the resulting legitimacy issues is destabilizing important parts of our international infrastructure when we need it most.

I don’t agree with all of it, but my disagreements are productive, if that makes any sense: there’s a language here for legitimation via expert discourses (or the lack thereof) which is worth engaging with in more detail. Reading it alongside Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power would be interesting, if time permitted: one of the many things that marvellous book achieves is to explain the (surprisingly early) establishment of the technological expert as not just a political actor, but more particularly an actor in the more formalised theatre of statecraft, thus sowing the seeds of what McDonald is discussing in this piece.

(Damn, I really need to re-read that book… though it seems I loaned it to someone and never got it back. Guess it’s time to hit the requisition system again…)

all that mattered was sensation

Much delayed by pandemic disruptions of international mail, here’s a transcript of a heretofore unpublished J G Ballard interview, originally done for an Italian VHS video zine (!) in the Nineties. Comes in both Italian and English, with an accompanying essay by yer man Simon Reynolds… which is presumably where I heard about it, shortly after (or was it before?) relocating. Copies still available, it seems.

the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials

Some cheery theory from Brad Evans…

Giorgio Agamben has been disagreeable on so many points. But his autopsy of the present has led us to one distinguishable truth. As the providential machine of liberalism gasps its final cold breath, the new age, the new normal that has already arrived is a global techno-theodicy. An age where humanity itself has now become the sacrificial object, where the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials, where we all come face to face with the terrifying void, where the transcendental is purely virtual, where the future is already present, where technology is presented as the only thing that might save us and where the poetic is only of use if it can be already appropriated. Such a condition is necessarily bound up with a post-political imagination, micro-managing every breath taken, turning the intimate into a dangerous reckoning, augmenting a simulated reality in which the forces of militarism will truly thrive, while enforcing the most micro-specific segregations and prejudicial assumptions that venture deep into the souls of all planetary life in the name of sheer survival. 


Guilt and shame have already re-entered with their familiar potency. Deployed by shameless leaders who absolved themselves of any guilt while knowing we would be less forgiving when it came to ourselves, especially to our own behaviours and past complicities, the question of shame proved inseparable to our forced witnessing to this tragedy from our own relatively safe distances. And who didn’t feel ashamed about the conditions of life on earth? Ashamed that we didn’t do more to help? That we could not do more to help, apart from isolate. Ashamed as we continued to watch in a horrified submission the continued number counts of daily fatalities? And who wasn’t slightly relieved it wasn’t them being reported upon, thankful to have survived another day? Ashamed that we weren’t the ones being silently killed by an invisible enemy? Might we have even been the contagious? Unwitting carriers in the premature death of others?

And what of our role in society, which appeared so under-prepared and ill-equipped? Should we have been ashamed that our societies are so incapable of slowing things down? That our lives were so caught up in the frenzy of existence, its only in the face of death we learn about the elderly neighbour who was already slowly dying a lonely death? Were we not ashamed of supporting governments whose worthless investments in guns and bombs and other fancy weaponry for destruction proved so irrelevant in this onslaught upon life? Or even ashamed for buying a plant that was apparently an “unnecessary purchase” or walking just a little too far from home? And what of our leaders, who have been shown to be shamefully compromised, dancing with death in their primary insistence upon business as usual, neglectful in their actions, while woefully out of their depth when it came to show the humanity required?

But let us not forget the world was already engaging in forms of lock-down long before this crisis. From building the walls to Brexit, the conscious policy to enclose life was underway and it was perfectly in keeping with the needs of global capitalism and its strategies for controlling human life by getting the masses to desire their own containment. The virus has provided the conditions to accelerate this. So, it’s no coincidence the real winners are the disaster capitalists, the global-tech giants now tasked with administering all aspects of life, and invariably the pharmaceutical industries. As our life was reduced to a motionless existence, slowed down to the point of a horrified inertia, the mechanisms for power have sped up exponentially.

Having spent the last few months in a reading group looking at and around Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, I’ll concede “disagreeable” in the strict sense of a thing with which to agree brings no pleasure… and perhaps with the more alimentary sense of something that is difficult to digest. But not at all hard-to-agree-with in the sense of (once one has finally grasped it) holding the argument up to the actual and looking for discrepancies… and as Evans points out, disaster capitalism, running hotter than ever on an optimised silicon substrate, has not hesitated to take the territory we willingly left on the table.

No conspiracy is needed to explain this turn of events. As a number of people have noted recently with regards to BLM’s critique of policing in the US (and elsewhere), it’s not at all that “our systems” are “broken”. On the contrary, they are working exactly as designed, and with astonishing efficiency (in the strictly economic sense of that term, which is subtly different to the vernacular usage).

an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty

I’ll stop blockquoting Audrey Watters when she stops saying shit that needs saying.

The science fiction of The Matrix creeps into presentations that claim to offer science fact. It creeps into promises about instantaneous learning, facilitated by alleged breakthroughs in brain science. It creeps into TED Talks, of course. Take Nicholas Negroponte, for example, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab who in his 2014 TED Talk predicted that in 30 years time (that is, 24 years from now), you will swallow a pill and “know English,” swallow a pill and “know Shakespeare.”

What makes these stories appealing or even believable to some people? It’s not science. It’s “special effects.” And The Matrix is, after all, a dystopia. So why would Matrix-style learning be desirable? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s desirable, but it’s just how our imaginations have been constructed, constricted even. We can’t imagine any other ideal but speed and efficiency.

We should ask, what does it mean in these stories — in both the Wachowskis’ and Negroponte’s — to “know”? To know Kung Fu or English or Shakespeare? It seems to me, at least, that knowing and knowledge here are decontextualized, cheapened. This is an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty in which human experience and human culture and human bodies are not valued. But this epistemology informs and is informed by the ed-tech imaginary.

“What if, thanks to AI, you could learn Chinese in a weekend?” an ed-tech startup founder once asked me — a provocation that was meant to both condemn the drawbacks of traditional language learning classroom and prompt me, I suppose, to imagine the exciting possibilities of an almost-instanteous fluency in a foreign language. And rather than laugh in his face — which, I confess that I did — and say “that’s not possible, dude,” the better response would probably have been something like: “What if we addressed some of our long-standing biases about language in this country and stopped stigmatizing people who do not speak English? What if we treated students who speak another language at home as talented, not deficient?” Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

Re: “it’s special effects”—it’s also concretised metaphor, which, in the spectacular narrative logic of the cinematic, amounts to much the same thing. Part of this is a kind of meta-literacy problem, in that the deconcretisation of metaphor is a hard-won skill, and (I would guess) related to critical thinking: not something that can be taught, as such, but a strategy of parsing whose acquisition can be supported by a patient and less didactic form of pedagogy. Which is, I suppose, a way of saying that the ed-tech forms generated by the ed-tech imaginary work to sustain a form of education that ensures that the imaginary itself is unlikely to be questioned. Systemic imaginaries, much like actual systems, have a sort of autopoiesis of self-preservation: they work to counter entropic externalities.


There are other stories, other science fictions that have resonated with powerful people in education circles. Mark Zuckerberg gave everyone at Facebook a copy of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, for example, to get them excited about building technology for the future — a book that is really just a string of nostalgic references to Eighties white boy culture. And I always think about that New York Times interview with Sal Khan, where he said that “The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy, like Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ series.” You mean, online math lectures are like a novel that justifies imperialism and genocide?! Wow.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about the way in which the pajandrums of the Valley claim inspiration from books that they clearly haven’t understood in any but the most shallow and uncritical way, and I doubt it will be the last.

some kind of code for consumerism at its most insidious

I’ve got a little girl who’s seven, and she lives in a world that’s all potentially magic. Within her imagination, the possibility of supernatural things sits alongside school and real things. There’s no distinction. At the same time she’s kind of assaulted by magic. What she watches on TV, the magic there is some kind of code for consumerism at its most insidious. They deliberately confuse children’s appetites by mixing magic and stuff up. I sit with her and watch all of this, some of it I really like but some of it is evil. It’s how you approach magic.

There’s that classic line by [Arthur C. Clarke] who says, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. And Marx talks about how the commodity has these almost magical properties. We’re in awe of them because they appear to us as supernatural. It’s like this black box idea: you can’t access the thing, it’s just this mysterious slab. Kids are fascinated by them not just because you’re using them but because they look like amulets or something. They look magical.