Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Scenario Spinners

Upgraded and adapted from Moot in response to this comment:
Saying global warming might lead to disaster is using trends to create a scenario or at least prediction. We measure the temperatures over many years and the UN makes its models.
I actually disagree with this. I mean, obviously I agree with the consensus of climate scientists that carbon pollution is catastrophic and non-negligibly anthropogenic and that to the extent that our politics is not shaped by the end of creating a sustainable civilization and renewable infrastructure we are indulging in a form of genocidal, suicidal madness -- but I disagree with this analogy as a justification for the "trend" as a legitimate analytic object or useful methodological recourse. As I said before, there actually is no such thing as an historically agentic or otherwise forceful "trend." "Trends" are retroactive narrative constructions at their best, but usually their retroactivity is falsely projected as if from the vantage of a non-existing superior height (fashion trends announced from fashion authorities) or from the future (which is inhabited by no one at all) in which case they are always prescriptions masquerading as descriptions.

But I believe the climate model is a false analogy on which contemporary futurology especially depends to pretend it is a legitimate quasi-scientific methodology rather than a rather derivative clumsy kind of science fiction literature conjoined to hyperbolic marketing forms even more than usually prone to deception and self-deception. I should add that futurologically-inflected environmentalisms of the geo-engineering, "Bright" Green, technofixated elite Design sorts (despite some earnest adherents) mostly amount to reactionary greenwashing for apocalypse profiteers.

Anyway, given the complexity of ecosystems -- and their complex interactions from idiosyncratic local to planetary scales -- climate science provides a good fudge factor for futurologists to exploit in this way. It isn't accidental that climate change denialists are able to undermine scientific consensus in the field by displacing the debate onto a culture war terrain. Nor is it accidental that the scale of interventions futurologists pretend feasibly to propose in their geo-engineering yackety-yack would be less predictable in their actual effects -- apart from the obvious profits that would accrue to the polluting plutocrats for whom these proposals are actually made -- than the state of the weather already is.

Every legibly constituted discipline produces models of phenomena, every legibly constituted discipline has a foresight dimension. This is because knowing better how phenomena behave under various conditions facilitates more practically useful interactions with them, and leads us to form expectations and make plans accordingly. But "trends" are narratives more than models, strictly speaking, and it is not scientists but English lit majors and PR muckety-mucks who can explain how they operate: they solicit identification the better to peddle forms of consumption.

Futurological scenarios inevitably circumvent historically situated social, cultural, and political dynamisms while purporting to model these dynamisms in relation to physical phenomena. Scenario spinning superficially skims the objects of a host of disciplines without the least mastery or often even grasp of the specificities of those disciplines -- it is an anti-disciplinarian pretense of inter-disciplinarity (a very slippery but indispensable academic aim futurology isn't remotely fit for). I don't disagree that anything can be "trendified" and that you can "pick your trend" and then spit out talk that is legible for others who indulge this nonsense at Davos and TED and in Brockman's reductive bestseller salons, but that is far from saying that it makes the least sense to make this methodological move if one wants to actually understand the world or facilitate sustainable equitable outcomes rather than ride a lucrative gravy train as a guru wannabe.

And, no, scenario spinning doesn't become better or more useful (except of course as a sales pitch) if you entertain and invest in four fantastically impoverished alternative "futures" rather than one. This is the conjuration of a phony complexity, the circumscription of political possibility into a handful of choices on a menu provided by already established actors. Some of these difficulties beset all forms of social science, especially to the extent that they try to shoehorn their own scientificity into an image of engineering. But in futurology they constitute a kind of crisis, and a crisis akin to the crisis of neoliberal for which futurology is, after all, the quintessential discourse.

There are usually better ways of interesting people in a topic that actually affects them than scenario spinning, but I do agree with you that extended metaphors, little thought experiments, and anecdotal sketches have their place in mobilizing affect and concretizing abstractions. I teach rhetoric, after all. But I know better than to pretend rhetoric is a way to grasp the substance and stakes of research or policy outcomes -- rather than more effectively to communicate those stakes and change conduct to facilitate ends once they have been determined by other, better means.


Alex said...

What I think you're saying is that you don't put stock in predictions that have no underlying causal model. That might be a self-consistent viewpoint, though with social processes--global warming depends on the social process of carbon emission--I'm not sure how much we really know. I would agree that we're farther from predicting technological change than predicting global warming.

But unfortunately, technology has been essential to most changes in the human condition. So I think your view reduces to saying we can't know anything, except this little part that, maybe, we can actually model. Or as the story goes, looking under a lamp post for a wallet you dropped on the other side of the street because the light is there.

I wonder then how much it makes sense to care about the long-term future, under this view.

Dale Carrico said...

Far from saying we can't know anything, I am insisting that there are real standards on the basis of which to distinguish the contributions real disciplines make from those of pseudo-science and faith-based initiatives and subcultural enthusiasm from real policy-making. Part of what it means to be reasonable is to accept as the best on offer those candidates for belief which satisfy criteria of warrant -- but another part of what it means to be reasonable to judge which domain of belief applies to the effort at hand and to know what the relevant criteria of warrant actually are. My pluralism is neither nihilist nor relativist, but pragmatic and situated.

All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture and so there is not even a thing called "technology" to develop or not in the first place in my view. What is produced as "natural" or as "artifactual" is a contingent and rather more normative discursive phenomenon than appears in utterly mystified futurological and tech-talk -- de-naturalizing technologization is a function of familiarity and unfamiliarity, attention and inattention, fears and fantasies of agency, the mobilization of a host of mythical tropes and so on. So I probably don't accept the terms on which you are constituting objects as inside of and outside of historical struggle sociocultural positioning at a pretty fundamental level when it comes to it.

Now, politics is the reconciliation of ineradicably diverse ends and the most equitable solution of shared problems in the shared world. Politics and plurality are indissolubly connected and I prefer to think of "futurity" as the openness in the present arising from this ineradicable diversity while "the future" tends on my view to be a disavowal of that openness in the service of a particular stakeholder vantage on the present foreclosing possible presents/presences. "Predicting technological change" is a phrase that is nearly equal parts meaningless and evil in my view.

"Technological change" is better described in this view as "technodevelopmental social struggle" in which one seeks to engage to facilitate better outcomes from specified positions but hardly to "predict" in some alienated way above the fray.

"It" IS Us.

Technoreductive ideology tends to reframe freedom as the amplification of incumbent powers as futurology tends to reframe history as extrapolated parochial currencies -- this is worse than wrong.

Politically, freedom is the ongoing openness and essential unpredictable of futurity present(ed) peer-to-peer, there is no progress, merely the circumscription or ramification of ends arising out of the openness -- it is ethical definitions of the political field that make it possible to tell progressive and aspirations stories (I would define freedom ethically myself as the struggle for ever more sustainable democratic equity-in-diversity, but part of what I know about political futurity is that there are other tales to tell with which I must contend.) I think the best way to care about the long-term future is to care about sustainable equity-in-diversity in the present, because I think in caring about those with whom we share the world, young and old, and in developing the techniques and knowledges for solving our shared problems we make a present to the collective character and common archive and legacy of reason to which generations to come will gratefully make recourse in their own presents.

Phony futurological foresight is an exercise in disavowal and distraction and denial that no one will thank us for -- even as our delusive and frankly disgusting futurologists endlessly congratulate themselves about how they are truly fighting battles and solving problems centuries ahead of time.

Unknown said...

Jay here. In this context, the "trend" is simply the slope of the line in the graph of mean temperatures over time. It's retroactive, since we don't have future data. It isn't in itself agentic, but rather is suggestive of what will continue to happen if the relevant agents continue their present behavior. There's not much narrative to it, besides "the planet has been getting hotter" and the implied "we might want to do something about that".

Dale Carrico said...

I can't tell whether you think you are agreeing with me or disagreeing with me here. As I said, all real disciplines produce suggestive models and all real disciplines have a foresight dimension, simply because actual knowledge about actual phenomena changes our expectations and our conduct. In my exchange with "Alex" I am emphasizing what is problematic in "trends" and "trend spotting" as terms of art in futurological discourses purporting to explain (meta-)historical dynamisms and provide purchase on something they think of as "technological development" (about which I have the most fundamental doubts). Again, as I mentioned before, I am the furthest thing from a climate skeptic, I accept the consensus of climate science that catastrophic climate change is underway and is non-negligibly anthropogenic. The models and the plots on the graph are working for me as you say, as they are for other graphs showing aquifer and topsoil and polar ice depletion and shifting insect vectors and so on. I think we mostly agree about how much the rhetoric of such graphs is indeed narrative in form, but what matters to me here is that futurological "trends" and "scenarios" are definitely narrative, are definitely best understood as literary and marketing genres, and what you are calling a trend (for better or worse) in the context of climate science lends little credibility to futurological just-so stories about imminent AI singularities, internet participation rates suggesting a virtualization of the real, inevitable progressive control over matter unto the nano and them the femtoscale, lifespan increases chugging momentously toward longevity horizons conferring immortality and so on. These narratives are selling faith while pretending to describe and account for phenomena.

Unknown said...

I was considering the quote you disagreed with. I think it uses the word "trend" in a simpler and more technical sense than you read into it. The author uses the word to mean something like "first derivative of the mean temperature with respect to time" while you are reading it as "prescriptive narrative about the future". Hilarity ensues.

Dale Carrico said...

The quote occurred in the context of an ongoing discussion of futurology. I disagreed that the analogy aptly applied to futurological trend-spotting. This is a point that seems to me especially important given the connection of futurological tropes and conceits in too much neoliberal greenwashing policy discourse, but also given a tendency among many Very Serious Futurologists making a bid to sanewash their faith-based initiatives and think-tank con artistry to press just this sort of connection between climate science and robocalypse/goo runaway existential risk crapola. You appear to be fixated on the question of the usefulness of models in climate science about which I am pretty sure everybody in the conversation is in agreement. If this is hilarity, it is in the mode of the comedy of errors.

jollyspaniard said...

One quibble, the UN isn't running the models in and of itself. Their reports are the result of a political process which has been repeatedly criticised by climate scientists.

Humankind has been making climate forecasts since stonehenge. The druids weren't futurists they were guiding people in the here and now. Agriculture requires some foreknowledge to plan effectively.

As to climate science some scientists would still be doing some of this research even if AGW wasn't a factor, albeit with a lot less resources, interest, urgency or controversy. o

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, jolly! Your first paragraph is very well taken -- that wasn't my focus, but I agree with you, and I even think the force of your right observations lends weight to what IS my focus, namely the complexity of technodevelopmental social struggle and the indispensability of proper political analysis (of a kind which futurology rarely is and often actively disdains) to any understanding of these struggles or facilitation of progressive outcomes of them.

As to your latter points, I caution great care. It is important to preserve the distinction between pseudo-science and science precisely in the defense of science even when pseudo-scientists claim to be champions of science and rewrite science in the image of their pet pieties, it is important to distinguish criteria of warranted belief proper to the separate domains of belief even when fundamentalist champions of reason declare such pragmatic pluralism to be relativism.

Precisely because futurological discourses have commandeered the field of the scenario, forecasting, foresight, vision, prophesy and so on we need to be more careful than hitherto in glib references to forecasting and foreknowledges in knowledge production. Again, as I have now repeatedly said -- this isn't impatience you are hearing but gravity -- every legibly constituted discipline produces suggestive models, every legibly constituted discipline has a foresight dimension precisely because an understanding of phenomena changes expectations, conduct, priorities, plans. But the just-so stories of techno-transcendental futurology in the Robot Cult are the revealingly pathological extremities of what are in fact utterly mainstream techno-fixated techno-fetishistic techno-triumphalist neoliberal and neoconservative developmental discourses, from marketing, to policy-making, to corporate-military rationalizations for exploitation and stratification. It is crucial to understand the underlying assumptions, energizing aspirations, enabling conceits of these discourses and also crucial to resist accommodating or assimilating to them in their prevalence in an easy bid for legibility at the cost of supporting reductionism, determinism, eugenicism, death denialism, productivism and a host of other pernicious false idols of our epoch.

That's why I stress these apparently abstruse points so much.