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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank


In which I find Amitav Ghosh's missing monocle, and return it to him that he might see more clearly

5 min read

Poor old Amitav Ghosh is wondering where all the fiction about climate change might be... when in fact it's right under his nose, and he simply chooses to disregard it as being insufficiently deserving of the label "literature".

Right in the first paragraph, he answers his question and immediately discards the answer:

... it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

If for "literary imagination" we substitute "bourgeois imagination", that last sentence is no surprise at all -- because this is about genre, which is a proxy for class.

And when Ghosh surveys the few examples of supposedly literary fiction that have dealt with climate change, look what happens:

When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

Now, I'll concede that most of them have preferred generic labels other than science fiction for their works at one time or another, but it's very hard to make the case that Atwood, Vonnegut and Lessing haven't written works that slip very easily into the sf folksonomy, while McCarthy has written a very successful dystopia. So that's half of Ghosh's successes demonstrably working in the speculative fiction tradition... but they can't be speculative fiction, because they're too good for that trash. They've won awards and stuff -- awards that aren't rocket-shaped. Ipso facto, no?

To his credit, Ghosh gets pretty close to the technical distinction in narrative strategy that demarks the dichotomy he's observing, via one of Moretti's more interesting theory-nuggets:

This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers”. According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control – to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence”. It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative”.

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background ... while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

I offer that the absence of Moretti's fillers -- often but not always replaced with anti-fillers designed to re-enchant the novelistic universe, and make of the universe a character in its own right -- is a way to describe one of the more fundamental strategies of speculative fictions, where it is preferable to have a world with more surprises, more adventures, and more than the occasional deus ex machina). Moretti's fillers are basically the opposite of worldbuilding; they remove complexity, rather than adding it.

And here we see the true root of the problem, the reason no one who identifies as a writer of "serious" "literary" fiction can handle climate change in their work -- look at Ghosh's language, here, and tell me he doesn't feel the class pressure of genre (my bold):

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

It's clearly not that "the novel" as a form can't handle climate change: science fiction novels routinely invert the obstacles set out in Ghosh's piece in order to do their work. It's that to upset those particular obstacles is to break the rules of Literature Club, to go slumming it with the plebes of genre fiction: literary fiction can't write about climate change, or about any other topic that requires an understanding of the storyworld as a dynamic and complex system, because -- as a self-consciously bourgeois genre in its own right -- it cannot commit the sin of portraying a world where the bourgeoise certainties no longer pertain, wherein hazard and adventure and unexpected events are revealed to be not merely routine, but to be the New Normal.

Take it from a squatter in the generic out-houses, Amitav old son: there's only one way you'll ever get literary fiction that deals with climate change -- and that's by acknowledging, however grudgingly, that not only was science fiction capable of being literature all along, but that science fiction began by asking the question whose suppression is the truest trope of the literary: what if the world were more important than the actions of individuals?


The difference between information and knowledge: a riposte to Helen Milner on libraries

7 min read

It's been nearly a decade since I was employed in the public library sector, and I thought I'd become immune to reacting with blind fury to every mealy-mouthed consultant that proposes "reinventing" the library for "the digital age"... but apparently not. Here's the latest facile salvo in a war of attrition that's been ongoing for about fifteen years, if not longer, from a "digital inclusion charity", no less. A snippet for flavour:

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture.” Helen Milner, Tinder (No, not that Tinder... brilliant bit of misbranding, wot?)

There are two points I'd like to make in response to Milner's transparent shilling for more funding to be diverted in the direction of her own operation.

The first is to peel away the euphemism of "community hubs" and show what that tends to mean in practice. What it has meant for at least a decade is that in addition to the core functions which libraries were intended to provide -- of which more later -- they have long served as spaces of refuge for the homeless, and for those with mental illness; when governments speak of "care in the community", libraries are one of the places it happens. The same goes for troubled and truant adolescents, lonely older people, and the other groups left on the margins by neoliberal socioeconomic dogma. Library staff, especially the frontline staff, have two jobs, if not three: they are library staff, and they are de facto care workers and PCSOs as well (while lacking any of the training or legal protections given to actual care workers and PCSOs, such as it is). And of course "library staffing" also covers the running of the more visible and celebrated "community hub" functions. If you think for a moment library staff spend their days sat on their hands waiting to shush people, then you've clearly not visited one in a long, long time. They're busy, bustling places, and the lending of books is -- tragically, and often quite literally -- the very least of what they do.

And for fifteen years or more, they've also been acting as de facto free-to-air internet cafes, often under the patronising banner of "The People's Network". To be clear, I fully support the provision of internet facilities in libraries, and I support even more fully the provision of free internet access for those unable to access it elsewhere -- not least because the Daniel Blakes of this world need that access in order to avoid being sanctioned for failing to apply for work in the approved manner, which is to say online.

The error was to assume that internet provision for libraries and internet access for more general use could be delivered together. It certainly saved some beancounter somewhere a lot of ugly red marks on a balance ledger, but locating the People's Network in public libraries actively damaged the core functions of libraries -- predominantly by consuming vast amounts of staff time, through dealing with administrivia and managing the resulting queues of people, but also through eating into floor space and operational budget... and also, truth be told, by eating into the image of libraries as places of relative peace and quiet.

Now, my second point: let us recall what a library really is -- or what it was, at any rate. Milner's position seems to be something along the lines of "libraries store information; the internet stores information; but the internet is newer and better and faster and cheaper, and should therefore supplant libraries because [markets]."

This is a dangerous comparison, and this is why: libraries are not merely stores of information, they are curated stores of structured knowledge with the ultimate in natural-language query interfaces, namely human beings trained to understand how to answer the most complicated and random questions imaginable. (And believe you me, people ask some profoundly complicated and random questions of library staff... and those staff take pride in being able to answer them.)

The internet is not a library, because -- considered as a whole -- it is not curated or structured; indeed, these are the considered to be the internet's great selling point (and with some justification). The internet, as people have started to notice, isn't very good at supplying knowledge; there's knowledge out there, but one needs to know where to look for it, how to judge its veracity, which sources can be trusted on which topics. Knowledge is structured information; the internet is just information. 

But before you decry the curation and gatekeepering of knowledge represented by the archaic structures of libraries, recall that the internet has its librarians, too. The bodies now curating and structuring knowledge on our behalf have names like Google, Bing, Microsoft, Facebook. They are not trained to understand people at all; they are trained to provide what the customer wants, even when the customer doesn't know what they want. They are algorithms, larded all through with the implicit biases of their creators. They structure information, but they do not structure knowledge; algorithms can't do knowledge. Knowledge is a cognitive function of sentient beings; it requires not only the sorting and ordering of information, but the parsing and evaluation of information. And no amount of repeating the words "artificial intelligence" or "expert systems" will ever change that fact. Information -- or data, if you prefer -- can only become knowledge through human activity. All an algorithm can do is sort information into vaguely related piles, and let you sift through it yourself.

And that's why we should fear those who would see librarianship disappear, to be replaced by rows of gleaming terminals -- fear them, and fight them to the last. Because whether knowingly or not, they seek overturn a practice that has underpinned civilisation itself for thousands of years, and replace it with a digital teddy-picker.

Think of the inside of a library, for a moment: picture the orderly shelves, the labels on the spines, the ranks of books sorted by subject and topic, the staff waiting to not just give you a book, but give you the book which will best answer the question you've brought.

By comparison, the internet is a warehouse with a huge undifferentiated pile of books in no particular order, staffed by little robots who can find you any book which has the words of your question somewhere in its text, but who always present you with the book that was closest to the top of the pile, on the assumption that it's being on top of the pile means it gets used the most, and must therefore be the most relevant, because otherwise why would people keep asking for it?

That's why we live in a world of Putins, Trumps and Brexits. And that's why if you decide that we need to provide more free internet access for "the people" -- which, to be clear, I think would be a good thing to do -- you either need to separate that provision from library services to some extent, or alternatively provide the funding not only for the terminals and the network connection, but for _more_ trained frontline query staff than ever before, able to teach questioners how to evaluate the information that the algorithms provide -- able to teach people how to build their own knowledge, in other words.

And when you phrase it like that, it becomes pretty clear why the state would be happy to see the library system disappear. "Libraries gave us power," as the Manics once sang -- the power to empower ourselves, to acquire knowledge without being patronised, flattered, or dripfed falsities by partisan media and multinational corporations with expensive agendas to advance.

We mustn't let them take that power away. It was too hard won for that.


Thee formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly.

2 min read

... talk of “evidence-based policy”, which we’re all supposed to be wildly enthusiastic about at the moment, makes my blood run cold, because at the back of it is the assumption that it is possible to gather reliable evidence from human society in real time. That’s a *really* big ask, and no amount of big data or surveillance is going to get around the formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly. In many cases, having more data makes the problem worse. So there’s always going to be this tension between politics, which is an historically contingent activity, and science, which as much as possible treats the world and everything in it as if it were a linear, symmetrical system. So, then, look at this the other way: can we ever actually *separate* science and politics? No. There’s no way citizens can be expected to simply hand money over to some scientific priesthood and expect *no* return for their investment. But the bitter truth is that any experimental activity is a hugely wasteful, and demanding rigid outcomes and takeaways is a sure-fire way to deaden and demoralise your science base.

Simon Ings


Move slow and fix things

3 min read

There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.

Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.

But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.

Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.

Bonus snippet:

Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.


Play as counterpoint to the infrastructural mediation of industrial spacetime

3 min read

Yeah, it's another Will Self talk, this time from Nesta's 2016 FutureFest -- he's pretty on-point with a lot of my interests these days, which makes me think I should probably make the effort to read more of his fiction*.


‎So this talk is ostensibly about fun and play, but Self being Self, it wanders off (see what I did there?) into psychogeography and other places. What really interested me in particular was his positioning of play as a counter to the constrictions of technologically mediated life: he talks of (and I paraphrase from memory and scribble notes, here) the way in which smartphones have 'fused industrial time and space into our cerebellums', with the result that we are rarely (if ever) in that state of unplacedness and unproductivity which the d‎érive was designed to discover. Now, this is scarcely an original observation on Self's part (Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy is in some respects entirely about what one character refers to as the 'eversion of cyberspace'), but the positioning of play and the derive against it is interesting to me because it opens the door on a way to experience infrastructure while receiving minimal or no support from it. The industrial conception of time was reified by the spread of the railways, and with them, the telegraph; meanwhile, the GPS network has seen a similar thing happen to the industrial conception of space, which, like its temporal cousin, is all about ownership and apportionment -- maps don't create or describe territories, but capture them, divide them up (all the better to be conquered).

Like Self, I don't se much likelihood of these systems rolling back any time soon, absent the sort of socioeconomic collapse in which the lack of GPS would be the last thing on anyone's mind. However, play and playful approaches to industrial spacetime -- per Debord and company, but perhaps minus their death-wish nihilism -- might nonetheless still offer escape from the invisible matrix, even if only temporarily.

(I also like his idea of walking to and from airports, though I suspect it wouldn't be viable for every journey, even assuming one had the free days required; I sure wouldn't want to try walking from Boston Logan to Harvard Square, f'rex.)


[* -- I remember during the late 90s a friend loaned me a copy of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, right around the time that said friend and others were getting into the cocaine glamour of superclubbing...oh, the irony. I mostly took away from the book the timely (and subsequently justified) warning that cocaine's worst side-effect was the way in which it turned ordinary people into monumentally self-deluded and paranoiac arseholes, but perhaps the affect of the writing -- which is as seedy and unsettling as the descent into fuckedupness it describes -- put me off reading him again.]


The arena of acceleration

5 min read

Fairly chewy here by Aaron Vantsintjan, in which he does a little comparison of accelerationsim and degrowth. Utopian visions (and the appropriate delimiting thereof) appears to be an important axis of difference... and both introduce the notion of desire into their theories of change, albeit in very different manifestations.

... it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”. However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’; the embracement of ’imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Snricek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Indeed, progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable.

Fast-foward to some concluding remarks:

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.


Through [Paul] Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point – at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

It strikes me that what both accelerationism and degrowth lack, and what Virilio was implicitly arguing in favour of, is a better theory of infrastructure, given that infrastructure is the medium of metabolism, the arena of acceleration.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I? ;)


In the rush for the latest gimmick, we are losing the joy of ‘things’?

After all, what is a society other than a collective agreement of the meaning of objects?

Generally of interest, but I particularly liked that little line.


Dispatches from the Last Mile

2 min read

Plucking out a few important and (hah!) connected points from a Jan Chipchase splurge on travelling through "Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s GBAO [Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region] and China’s western provinces":

12: The premium for buying gasoline in a remote village in the GBAO is 20% more than the nearest town. Gasoline is harder to come by, and more valuable than connectivity.

42: After the Urumqi riots in 2009 the Chinese government cut of internet connectivity to Xinjiang province for a full year. Today connectivity is so prevalent and integrated into every aspect of Xinjiang society, that cutting it off it would hurt the state’s ability to control the population more than hinder their opposition. There are many parts to the current state strategy is to limit subversion, the most visible of which is access to the means of travel. For example every gas station between Kashi and Urumqi has barbed wire barriers at its gates, and someone checking IDs.

60: The difference between 2.5G and 3G? In the words of a smartphone wielding GBAO teenager on the day 3G data was switched on her town, “I can breathe”.

Incredibly rapid habituation to networked and wireless IT among hinterland populations; technoscientific "seeing like a state" governance paradigm continues apace; controlling movement of physical materials in space easier and more effective than controlling movement of information in context of governing hinterlands. (Look out for that latter one in Brexit Britain; the weak signals have been there for a long, long time.)


Last dregs of summer


OFWAT the fuck?

5 min read

I would say I'm speechless over the latest bon mots from the UK's water regulator, but as the paragraphs below demonstrate, that would be a lie.

Cathryn Ross, the chief executive of Ofwat, said: “The uncomfortable truth is that, when it comes to retail offers, water companies provide an analogue service in a digital age. Customers tell us they think they should have the freedom to choose and don’t understand why water is the only retail market in which there isn’t some form of competition.”

Oh gosh, yes -- your discomfort with this conclusion is palpable, isn't it? I'd be interested to see how that question was phrased to those customers; y'know, whether it was an open-ended "what would be good?" sort of question, or whether you delicately steered them toward the idea that they should have "freedom to choose" (which, lest we forget, is a reminder that late-late capitalism is essentially an endless Groundhog-Day repetition of the penultimate scene in the original Ghostbusters, wherein one is constantly offered the opportunity to "choose the form of the destructor").

But really, Mrs Ross, if you and your colleagues in the UK's water regulatory body can't think of a way to answer that lack of understanding in your client base, I politely suggest that you are in the wrong industry, and that you might be better suited to commodities trading, as you seem to have the requisite instincts.

If you want to explain to people why they don't have a choice of water supplier, you start with our old friend, the hydrological cycle; then you get a map of their region, labelled with the locations of reservoirs and watersheds, and the main trunk pipes of your network, and you explain, as patiently as possible, that the reason you don't get a choice of water company is because geography and physics are immutable even to the magic of capitalism, despite repeated claims to the contrary.

You explain that the hypothetical saving of £8 per household (which is a 25% increase on the per-household savings you were quoting last month, incidentally) will be generated (if indeed it is generated at all) by the same sort of frantic market churn that's ramping up the costs of their gas an electricity every damned quarter, and presumably accompanied by the same opaque and wilfully deceptive pricing tiers to be encountered in the energy market (which, lest you need reminding, is a market repeatedly found to be rigged, over-priced and utterly baffling to most consumers, and appears to have a regulatory body just as craven and capitulatory as that by which you are currently employed).

You point out that it would actually make much more sense to manage water in the UK through one united system that covers the entire country, allowing for movement of water between regions, but that such an option is ideological poison to the sharp-suited lobbyists who really make the choices that matter; you might even reiterate the fact that, since acquiring the actual physical infrastructure of the old water boards -- infrastructure for which the private watercos paid, quite literally, nothing -- the companies you're supposed to be regulating have systematically underinvested in said systems because it made more sense to keep paying dividends to their shareholders, given it turns out that turning a profit on the provision of safe and reliable water for all is extremely hard to do -- in fact, almost impossible -- unless you take shortcuts on capacity and maintenance.

But why bother, eh? People like choice; people like things to be cheaper, even when they're already way cheaper than they realistically should be. Free markets solve everything, after all -- heck, the only reason water isn't too cheap to meter is that the market just isn't free enough!

Of course, this rather elides the root of the problem that marketisation is really meant to solve, namely the fact that the south-east of England already has way too large a population for its watersheds to provide for, while large parts of the north have surplus supply -- thanks, not at all incidentally, to serious public investment back before Thatcher and friends decided to let British heavy industry decline, again based on the assumption that Markets are Magic™! It elides the fact that water marketisation will end up being one more way that the south-east and London gets to suck the marrow out of the hinterlands. It elides golf-courses; it elides the practices of soft-drinks companies and Big Agriculture; it elides the craven complicity of well-heeled consultants and experts from the Sainted Order of the Revolving Door in their enthusiasm to appease the caprice of Mammon, who is their only lord and master.

But it's all too complicated to explain to the proles, isn't it? So buy them off with some bullshit about marginal savings on household bills, file your report; tell Caesar what is pleasing unto Caesar. After all, odds are you'll be dead (or at least comfortably retired) before the true scale of the deliberate and monumental fuck-up you've just advocated will become sufficiently apparent that anyone starts asking where the bodies are buried.