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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


The press release is the foremost tool of disruption

4 min read

I'd never heard of Audrey Watters before today; after reading this brilliant dissection of ed-tech futures, I hope to hear a great deal more from her in future.

Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy [of education-sector disruption through technology], these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But “truthy,” to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.

Fantasy. Fortune-telling. Or as capitalism prefers to call it “market research.”

Cf. a favourite riff from a few years ago: "investor story-time".

But there's more good stuff:

It’s both convenient and troubling then these forward-looking reports act as though they have no history of their own; they purposefully minimize or erase their own past. Each year – and I think this is what irks me most – the NMC fails to looks back at what it had predicted just the year before. It never revisits older predictions. It never mentions that they even exist. Gartner too removes technologies from the Hype Cycle each year with no explanation for what happened, no explanation as to why trends suddenly appear and disappear and reappear. These reports only look forward, with no history to ground their direction in.


“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release. I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task. This is particularly true if you make your prediction vague – like “within our lifetime” – or set your target date just far enough in the future – “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

This is the core trick of the huckstery end of futurology (which is, regrettably, the thicker, more visible and well-funded end); it is also, and not at all incidentally, the core trick of marketing and politics. "What I tell you three times is true."

And here's the glorious rabble-rousing closer:

... I don’t believe that there’s anything inevitable about the future. I don’t believe that Moore’s Law – that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years and therefore computers are always exponentially smaller and faster – is actually a law. I don’t believe that robots will take, let alone need take, all our jobs. I don’t believe that YouTube has been rendered school irrevocably out-of-date. I don’t believe that technologies are changing so quickly that we should hand over our institutions to entrepreneurs, privatize our public sphere for techno-plutocrats.

I don’t believe that we should cheer Elon Musk’s plans to abandon this planet and colonize Mars – he’s predicted he’ll do so by 2026. I believe we stay and we fight. I believe we need to recognize this as an ego-driven escapist evangelism.

I believe we need to recognize that predicting the future is a form of evangelism as well. Sure gets couched in terms of science, it is underwritten by global capitalism. But it’s a story – a story that then takes on these mythic proportions, insisting that it is unassailable, unverifiable, but true.

The best way to invent the future is to issue a press release. The best way to resist this future is to recognize that, once you poke at the methodology and the ideology that underpins it, a press release is all that it is.



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.



Lessons from infrastructural history: Angkor Wat edition

1 min read

Perhaps Ozymandius died of thirst?

Evans, however, now believes that environmental factors played a significant part [in the collapse of Angkor Wat]. “Looking at the sedimentary records, there is evidence of catastrophic flooding,” he says. “In the expansion of Angkor, they had devastated all of the forests in the watershed, and we have detected failures in the water system, revealing that various parts of the network simply broke down.” With the entire feudal hierarchy reliant on the successful management of water, a break in the chain could have been enough to prompt a gradual decline.

Optimisation is the enemy of resilience. And if you think that you don't live in a feudal hierarchy reliant on the successful management of water, I recommend that you look at capitalism from a slightly different angle.


On economic metaphors

3 min read

From a piece at Teh Graun, entitled "We need a new language to talk about the economy":

Looking further back, Keynes was a master of the disruptive metaphor. He described the “animal spirits” of investors whose rationality he questioned, and dismissed the self-styled “wolves and tiger” of industry as pathetically “domesticated” beasts. He was even credited with livening technical debate about the efficacy of monetary policy in a liquidity trap by talking of “pushing on a piece of string”. Keynesians across the Atlantic, such as Lauchlin Currie, rationalised the deficits of Roosevelt’s New Deal as “pump priming” the economy. The image here is of an old-fashioned well, where you have to pour in a little fluid to clear air from the valve, which then allows you to pump out a far larger volume of water. It had intuitive appeal for the very many Americans who had then been raised on farms, but hydraulics remains a promising source of imagery. Where orthodox economics and the moralising that goes with it emphasises solid “stocks”, assets and liabilities of particular values – a nasty debt, a nice nest egg or indeed an empty cupboard – the real economy operates through continuous “flows” of payment and activity.

Hydraulics is one metaphor for flows, certainly, but it only holds for systems through which there is only one substance flowing. A more complex but more powerful metaphor, then, might be the metabolic processes of a living organism, which captures the complexity of multiple mutually essential flows of resources and information... which is perhaps why it was one of Marx's favourites. So not a new metaphor needed so much as a return to an older one, perhaps? (The Marxian notion of the metabolic rift informs much of Haraway's theoretical work, and is a central plank in McKenzie Wark's wonderful Molecular Red.)

The liberal left's continual search for a new economic metaphor might well be rooted in the assumption that there is a "real" economy for the metaphor to represent -- a signified behind the signifier, so to speak. The problem is that economics itself is a metaphor, a morality story, a sign that refers to itself; economic theories do not describe reality, they merely narrate it, interpolating meanings and values into the movement of material and ideas in space and time. Economics does not explain, it defines. Its laws are not immutable, like the laws of physics, but plastic like the laws of the land -- a game in which the habitual winners are awarded the rights to edit the rulebook.

Money does what it does because that's what the books about money say it must do. Endless dissections of neoliberal capitalism's Byzantine mysteries are ultimately pointless, like seagulls following a trawler; we merely reinforce its hegemony by attempting to argue with it in its own terms. The master's tools will not dismantle the master's house, and all that.

If we want an new economics, we must write it ourselves.