On the seductive obduracy of infrastructure fictions

7 min read

If there's one good thing to come out of the current race-for-the-gutter in Western political discourse, it's that we're starting to talk about rhetoric and narrative with a sense of urgency. Better late than never, eh?

Here's a bit from a Graun piece on Trump, Brexit et al:

The fourth force at work is related to our understanding of how persuasive language works. Over the course of the 20th century, empirical advances were made in the way words are used to sell to goods and services. They were then systematically applied to political messaging, and the impressionistic rhetoric of promotion increasingly came to replace the rhetoric of traditional step-by-step political argument. The effect has been to give political language some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing, but to strip it of explanatory and argumentative power.

"The impressionistic rhetoric of promotion"; make a note of that phrase. Note also that advertising and marketing -- those colourful Mad Men! -- were industries that emerged very directly from the propaganda machineries of the second world war, on both sides. (It wasn't just Nazi rocket scientists who found new gigs on the other side of the Atlantic.)

The political aspect is ugly enough, but there's an extent to which that particular nastiness is at least a known quality, even if it's only responded to with a sort of nihilistic mistrust rather than vigorous critique: to say that politicians purvey bullshit is such a truism that even the cynical tend to act as if embarrassed that you saw fit to raise the point at all. Of course politics is performed like marketing now; what did you expect?

However, the corrolary of that observation -- that marketing is performed like politics -- is a somewhat harder sell (if you'll excuse the deliberate pun). But it's no less true for that: as I've argued elsewhere, political narratives and the narratives of advertising both fall under the metacategory of narratives of futurity:

... “futures” are speculative depictions of possibilities yet to be realised, as are “designs” [...] in this, they belong to a broader category of works that includes product prototypes, political manifestos, investment portfolio growth forecasts, nation-state (or corporate) budget plans, technology brand ad spots, science fiction stories, science fiction movies, computerised predictive system-models, New Year’s resolutions, and many other narrative forms. While they may differ wildly as regards their medium, their reach, and their telos, all of these forms involve speculative and subjective depictions of possibilities yet to be realised; as such, labelling this metacategory as “narratives of futurity” avoids further diluting the (already vague) label “futures”, while simultaneously positioning “futures” among a spectrum of other narrative forms which use similar techniques and strategies to a variety of ends.

To avoid further self-citation, that paper goes on to outline some basic components of the rhetorics of futurity: the techniques through which narratives of futurity are shaped in order to achieve certain effects. These can be observed in political narratives and in advertising... but they can be (and should be!) observed in the popular technoscientific discourse, whether in the form of formal "futures scenarios", or the less formal pronouncements of Silicon Valley's heroic CEO class.

So it's of great relief to me that people are starting to do so. Here's a bit on the fintech industry's revival of the "cashless society" dream, for example:

This is the utopia presented by the growing digital payments industry, which wishes to turn the perpetual mirage of cashless society into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, a key trick to promoting your interests is to speak of them as obvious inevitabilities that are already under way. It makes others feel silly for not recognising the apparently obvious change.

To create a trend you should also present it as something that other people demand. A sentence like "All over the world, people are switching to digital payments" is not there to describe what other people want. It's there to tell you what you should want by making you feel out of sync with them.

To make a "future" happen, in other words, one should aim to convince one's audience that a) it already is happening, and that b) they're missing out.

(Those who share my misfortune in having read a number of novels by arch-libertarian fantasist Terry Goodkind may recognise this as a variation on the 'Wizard's First Rule' -- a topic which I keep meaning to rant about at greater length.)

But how to give the as-yet-unrealised a sheen of plausibility? Here's another (different) piece at the Graun on technological mythmaking:

... most technological myths mislead us via something so obvious as to be almost unexamined: the presence of human forms at their heart, locked in combat or embrace. The exquisite statue, the bronze warrior, the indestructible cyborg – the drama and pathos of each plays out on a resolutely individual scale. This is how myths work. They make us care by telling us a story about exemplary particularities.

It’s a framing epitomized not only by poems and movies, but also by the narratives of perkily soundtracked adverts. You sit down and switch your laptop on; you slip into your oh-so-smart car; you reach for your phone. “What do you want to do today?” asks the waiting software. “What do you want to know, or buy, or consume?” The second person singular is everywhere. You are empowered, you are enhanced, your mind and body extended in scope and power. Technology is judged by how fast it allows you to dash in pursuit of desire.

(Don't even get me started on the total absence of desire from the popular models of "innovation" or "technological transitions", or whatever we're calling it this week.)

A successful narrative of futurity can be astonishingly obdurate. When I gave my "Infrastructure Fiction" talk to Improving Reality 2013, I was lucky enough to have been gifted a perfect example by no less generous a man than Elon Musk, in the form of his 'transportation alpha concept', Hyperloop. Three years on, and despite countless engineers and architects and planners pointing out the insoluble flaws in the idea, the Hyperloop zombie shambles on... and the damned thing is even raking in investment from people who, if they don't know better themselves, should surely at least be employing some people who do know better.

But why is that a problem? Am I not just pooh-poohing a brilliant visionary who's trying to make a difference to the way we run the world, and those trying to make his dreams a reality?

We just can’t sustain economic growth without improving our infrastructure. Any government that takes the Hyperloop hype that “this is happening now” at face value risks wasting precious resources on an idea that may never become reality – all the while, not spending those resources on technologies, like high-speed rail, that exist and deliver real benefits.

Leaving aside the shibboleth of economic growth for another time, that's the problem right there: narratives of futurity occlude the reality of the lived present. Marketing and adverts seduce; futurity is the plane onto which desire is projected. Meanwhile, the success and acclaim of narrators like Musk add cachet and appeal to their stories; after all, the guy founded Amazon, right? Well, you wouldn't want to miss out on his next great success, now would you?

I think it telling that neither of the groups trying to develop Hyperloop are funded by Musk, who presumably has the sense to get someone to run a CBA before he starts spending money: he critiqued his own story, in other words, and revealed it to be wanting.

But don't for a moment imagine that he and others like him aren't aware of the seductive power of narratives of futurity. They are, in truth, the only thing that Silicon Valley has ever sold.