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Apple and Star Wars together explain why much of the world around you looks the way it does - Quartz

Yet “as little design as possible” is precisely not that. It is, rather, the exhaustive application of design until every detail, every offending element, is brought under strict, harmonious arrangement. We notice nothing because everything is under control. And this is where we get to the essence of the resonance between the artifacts of Apple and that of the Empire of Star Wars: the exertion of control, and power, over the complex, messy reality of systems and objects.

The thesis is perhaps a little too neat and just-so, but this is a wonderful piece of writing.

 

Behavioural obduracy

2 min read

Interesting story about throughput experiments on the tube escalators; unsurprisingly, once you think it through, it turns out that keeping half the width of each flight clear for people to run rather than stand loses way more bandwidth overall than it saves for individuals in a hurry.

Trouble is, eny fule kno that you're supposed to stand on the right and that hurrying people can scoot down the left, and no one likes change, least of all British people... so getting them to do it differently withoutchanging the design and rationale of escalators themselves is, unsurprisingly, a lot of hard work. But it's an interesting case, because the practice in question has been and is indeed still being shaped and encouraged by signage all through the rest of the underground system -- signage that's at least as old as I am, I'd guess, if not older. So we're seeing here not the challenge of developing a new protocol or ettiquette for a new technology, but the challenge of erasing a deliberately introduced and well-established individualist public practice and replacing it with a more egalitarian one, without recourse to major material intervention in the infrastructure underpinning said practice. If TfL can crack that problem, it'll be quite an achievement.

 

Cram (2015): "Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body."

"... building the nuclear body has ultimately meant first defining life [as being, in essence, a young white able-bodied American male], and then defining the conditions in which that life should be considered liveable." (p.802)

In this paper, Cram performs a critical archaeology of the nuclear body: "a statistically calculated human template" (p.798) used to assess the risk of radiogenic illness as a result of exposure to radioactive materials. Cram begins with the Atomic Bomb Survivor Study, through which the US government sought to exploit the "scarce and precious intellectual resource" (in their own words) represented by the hibakushas -- "the exposed ones", the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she then moves on to discuss Standard Man, later renamed Reference Man, created by the International Committee on Radiation Protection  (ICRP) to be the "official body through which such information [as gathered from studying the hibakushas] could be applied and understood" (p.800)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reference Man was not only male but young, Caucasian and able-bodied, and assumed to partake in "Western European or North American [...] habit and custom". Realising that not all people exposed to radiation quite fit the template, but unwilling or unable to develop a standardised female model, policy-makers generally utilise a tweaked model in which "they simply give Reference Man breasts, ovaries and a uterus -- creating a hermaphroditic human in order to 'solve' the problem of radioactive gender inequality" (p.801). Racial differences are similarly magicked away through the power of statistics, producing impossible "placeless bodies" -- figures without a ground, characters without a context.

"The notion that Reference Man's hermaphroditic trasnformation equalizes gender inequality in risk calculation ignores the appropriative character of his statistical sex change." (p.801)

Cram then goes on to discuss the role of the nuclear body in shaping the political and technical aspects of the remediation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- land which was ceded to a number of native American tribes in 1855, but which also played host to a significant chunk of the US government's nuclear weapons program, with predictable results. The treaty entitles the indigenous population to "full access" to the land -- but the nuclear body as currently constructed makes physiological and behavioural assumptions which do not match the indigenous population and the lifestyles they wish to engage in. What this means in practice is that the "end point" of the remediation process will be defined at least in part with reference to a model of exposure risk that doesn't tally with the population whose risk is being assessed. As a result, indiginous institutions have developed their own model, based more closely on the sorts of behaviour they consider to be normal for their lifeways, only to be told that their model of "physiologically impossible"... which, while arguably true, is certainly just as true of Reference Man.

Cram's point is that the nuclear body plays an active role in remdiation projects such as that of Hannford "by fashioning subjects that can survive in the post-nuclear future. In identifying who can inhabit remediated space, cleanup renegotiates the relationship between safety, security, and the contamination it leaves behind." (pp.806-7) In other words, as part of a remediation process, models such as Reference Man inform not only the environmental standards to which a space will he held, but also the physiological standards and behaviours expected of those whose lifestyles might be safely accomodated by said space.

"... it is this simplicity -- this abstraction from the lived experience of exposure -- that makes the nuclear body politically useful. Nuclear standards must make radiogenic injury generalizable, translating from diverse and often incomplete sources into explicit statements of cause and effect. Indeed, building the nuclear body has required untangling exposure-related illnesses from the social and spatial relations that give them meaning. [...] policies that rely heavily upon biological parameters in determinign risk, ignore and thus reproduce the greater structural inequalities of exposure-related illness." (p.802)

So, while the notion of the nuclear body as a historical ontology appears to be novel, this is the sort of paper that anyone familiar with the canonical riffs of STS will recognise: technoscientific standards and statistics erasing difference. (And those familiar with the secrets of east Prussian forestry will recognise yet another manifestation of "seeing like a state".) This is a particularly interesting case due to the paradoxical and mutual physiological impossibilities of both Reference Man and the alternatives proposed by the indigenous peoples themselves; neither side in the process recognises the other's model, even as both seek to refine their models further.

This paper has particular interest to me because there's potential for tektology here: it's not that huge a metaphorical leap to see Reference Man et al as fictional characters, as is highlighted by the brief narrative describing "Jane" in the paper's introduction. The physiology and presumed behaviour patterns of these characters generate a "story" when they're introduced into a storyworld which includes parameters for radiation exposure risk; their experience is completely determined by their constitution (both literal and figurative). This in turn isn't unlike the notion of the "thin character" from modernist literary theory: the thin character isn't quite a stereotype, but is something approaching one, and while that works well for certain narrative forms (episodic forms in particular -- such as the sit-com, where the narrative arc of each episode is of a renormalisation of the characters to their stock state and circumstance), but really badly for forms where mimesis (which we might describe as a degree of fidelity to reality, or at least to broadly-held conceptions of reality) is a requirement. And more importantly, Reference Man is repeatedly introduced into narratives of futurity, which -- as I have argued elsewhere -- are a metagenre of narrative forms concerned with depicting futures, including not only science fictions, foresight scenarios and design fictions, but also forecasts and models. (A narrative does not have to be verbal: an annual profit forecast graph is as much a narrative of futurity as an H G Wells novel.)

So while I'm not certain what I can immediately do with the notion of the nuclear body (and the broader type of fictionalised subject-construction which it figures), it definitely feels like another tool for talking about the ways in which technoscience shapes narratives of futurity -- not just formally and structurally, but in terms of whose future it is that gets depicted.

 

Raven, P G & Elahi, S (2015). "The New Narrative: Applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs."

From the abstract:

Both scenario development and design practices incorporate elements of storytelling, but this use remains undertheorised. This paper will draw upon literary theory, film theory and science fiction criticism to develop an analytical model of narrative structure and rhetorics which speaks to the concerns of scenario developers and designers when engaged in shaping the final outputs or deliverables of a futures project.

After highlighting the differing role of telos in art and futures and defining the metacategory of “narratives of futurity”, this paper then defines the terms “story”, “narrative”, “narrator” and “world” in the literary context. It then shows how those concepts map onto futures practice, before going into detail regarding the variety of narrative strategies available across a range of different forms and media, and the qualitative effects that they can reproduce in audiences. There follows the construction of a 2 × 2 matrix based on the critical concepts of narrative mode and narrative logic, within which narratives of futurity might be usefully catalogued and compared, and from which certain broad conclusions may be reached as regards the relation between choice of medium and rhetorical effect. The implications of this analysis are explored in detail.

This paper, part of a Special Issue of the journal Futures on "Scenarios & Design", is among the outputs of 2014's Oxford Futures Forum on the same theme, to which I was privileged to be invited. Many thanks to my co-author Shirin Elahi (of Normann Partners), and to the many people who contributed ideas on the day.

(Thanks to the generosity of the EPSRC, which supports my PhD research, this paper is free for anyone to download under a Creative Commons license.)