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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

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

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.

Amen.

 

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? ;)

 

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.

 

The end of the codex and the death of Literature

2 min read

Interesting (and appropriately rambling) talk by Will Self, expanding on his recent thesis that a) the technology of the codex is on the way out, and thusly b) so is capital-L literature. I'm not sure I buy it completely, but his argument goes to lots of interesting places, and I recognise a lot in his description of the academy as a sort of care-home for obsolescing art-mediums such as the modernist novel.

(The audience, on the other hand, replete with writers and teachers of writing -- two categories that overlap a great deal, as Self points out -- fails to recognise his description with such venom that it's hard not to characterise their response as classic denial. That said, these are anxious times in the academy, and particularly at the arts and humanities end of it, and being lectured about the demise of your field of expertise by a man still managing to make a living producing that which you study must be a bit galling; in essence, Self does here to literary scholars what Bruce Sterling repeatedly does for technologists and futures types. The difference appears to be that literary scholars know a Cassandra when they hear one.)

Also of interest is Self's characterisation of the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, perhaps because it is both vaguely canonical and seemingly unexamined: that old tautologous chestnut about literary fiction not being a genre because it doesn't obsess over reader fulfilment and boundary-work. That may be true of literary writers, perhaps (though Barthes is giving me some side-eye for saying so), but it is to ignore the way the publishing industry deals with the category, which is almost entirely generic... and that's a curious oversight for someone who predicates their argument about literature's decline on explicitly technological dynamics. Nonetheless, well worth a watch/listen.