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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dumb Present Disappoints Dumb Futurist

In Twitter, Instagram, And The Internet of (Disconnected) Things, John Pavlus complains:
You’ve heard of the “internet of things”: that just-over-the-horizon utopia in which our formerly dumb, disconnected physical appliances become “smart” and digitally networked. Here’s what I didn’t see coming: an ironically reversed “things of the internet” scenario, in which our formerly networked, interoperable apps and web services evolve into siloed products that can’t and won’t talk to each other. Welcome to the future: you can use gadgets like Twine and WeMo to make your air conditioner talk to your toaster, but you can’t make your Instagram photos show up on Twitter, or your iPhone work natively with Google Maps… Not being able to share photos seamlessly from one social network to another may be the epitome of a “first world problem;” getting lost in the Australian outback because your smartphone manufacturer replaced a bulletproof mapping app with its inferior homemade version is a bit more serious. But in either case, the essential value of these information technologies -- their ability to seamlessly interface with each other as only bits, rather than atoms, can -- is being purposely eroded. The vision is almost comically retrograde: Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook each seem to think that they can provide every conceivable digital functionality to the user all on their own at each other’s expense, much like GM’s “kitchen of tomorrow” at the 1964 World’s Fair promised to meet every need of a 20th-century housewife with one brand. Fifty years later, nobody has (or wants) a kitchen built solely out of General Motors products. So why do Twitter and Facebook act like there is a personal information-technology equivalent?
Are you kidding me? Are you really asking why prevalent for-profit concerns are aspiring toward monopoly like they always do? I mean, have you ever heard a little ditty by the name of capitalism? Why is this being called "comically retrograde" -- precisely what faith in what inevitable progress narrative is being crushed here? Are you quite sure all this wasn't just comically idiotically predictable? Of course, I personally can't imagine anything more bleakly predictable than the "ironic" outcome, Pavlus "didn't see coming": that of in principle "interoperable apps and web services evolve[ing] into siloed products that can’t and won’t talk to each other."

The danger in my saying so, of course, is that the futurologist will hear my incredulity in futurological terms. Would futurologists make better predictions if they read more Marx? More Keynes? More Polanyi? And much less Hayek and Friedman? I do suppose, sometimes, they might, but the deeper problem here is the problem of mistaking forecasting for understanding as such, of mistaking making bets for having thoughts, of mistaking ideal gizmos in one's head for the actual techniques that get discovered, understood, implemented in actual history. What I am trying to say is not that "my" smart skeptical futurology is smarter than the dumb panglossian futurology of others, but that the futurological framing of technodevelopmental quandaries is always much dumber than it looks... right up to the moment it looks dumb to everybody because it turns out it has gotten everything wrong again.

An easy way to begin to get at this deeper problem is to make the rather obvious observation that in his piece Pavlus is terribly wrong to say that "apps and… services evolved" into anything at all. Our artifacts and techniques do not evolve, but are crafted by people working in the context of organizations with ends in mind, ends stratified by political stakes that are susceptible of analysis. Like Pavlus's reference to "irony" (the rhetorical figure of reversal) and to real outcomes as "retrograde," his mobilization of "evolution" here indicates an all too typical futurological flattening of the contentious field of technodevelopmental social struggles in their actual stakeholder diversity, their institutional complexity, their sociocultural dynamism, their impulsive, inertial, plural political changeability.

Actually, things here are even worse than they seem, since not only is it wrong to think of culture in reductively biological terms (hi, "memes"!), but it is probably mistaken to think that when futurologists speak of the "evolutionary" it is really more than vestigially biological anymore anyway, since most futurologists have gone through some variation or other of the digital-utopian conversion experience whereby they now think even of evolution as a kind of abstract algorithm rather than an empirical generalization. When this digitized pseudo-evolution assumes its prophetic pop-tech futurological cadence "evolution" has become a more or less teleological fantasy in which abstract gadgets imperfectly revealed in the antics of real ones are imagined to be competing in a kind of abstract "problem space" always only optimizing through this competition toward convergence onto already-assumed ideal outcomes, defined by idealized capacities (often so idealized that they amount to the omni-predicates of theology, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence). That is to say, futurologists are not only wrong to think of culture in evolutionary terms (and it pays to remember that all culture is prosthetic, all prostheses are cultural) but one also tends to go wrong if one accepts what passes for "evolution" in futurological analyses as evolution, strictly speaking.

If you think I am belaboring my point when I speak of the futurological as premised on abstract ideal gadgets abstract-ideally optimizing in an abstract idealizing problem space toward abstract idealized outcomes defined by abstract idealized capacities let me point to two key futurological "tells" that manage to appear already in the short passage I quoted already by Pavlus. Recall the very first sentence of his piece: "You’ve heard of the 'internet of things': that just-over-the-horizon utopia in which our formerly dumb, disconnected physical appliances become 'smart' and digitally networked." That term "Internet of Things" was coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, at the height of the irrational exuberance of the Long Boom dot.bomb, by a "branding manager" (yes, yet another "tech-pioneer" involved in marketing and promotion, act surprised) for Proctor and Gamble who later became involved in a RFID company called, I kid you not, "ThingMagic." Now, really think about what Pavlus begins by assuming: namely that you have already heard of a "thing" called "the internet of things" that names something everybody knows but that doesn't exist. When that non-existing thing you've all "heard of" turns out not only not to exist in the present but to occlude the arrival of a present in which the "opposite" exists (the "retrograde" "ironic" "devolutionary" "didn't see coming") Pavlus says portentously "welcome to the future"!

Of course, it is precisely "The Future" that the futurologist imagines he imaginatively inhabits in the present through the conjuration of futurological conceits like "an internet of things" (or mastery through air power, or energy too cheap to meter, or the paperless office, or automated/ plastic/ 3D-printed/ nanotech superabundance, or bioengineered multi-century lifespans, or human extrasolar diaspora, or digital uploading into virtual paradises). As I never tire of insisting, there is no such thing as "The Future," and there never will be. We are not living in a disillusioning "The Future" ironically reversing "The Future" the futurologists pined for, we were are and will be living in present futurities the substance of none of which can be discerned until one is disabused of the illusion of "The Future" altogether. "The Future" is a fantasy that solicits identification always at the catastrophic cost of dis-identification with the open futurity substantially existing in the present resulting from the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders (with different histories, different situations, different wants, different capacities, different knowledges, different foresights) who share in the contestation and making of the world now unto next now. To think futurologically in terms of "The Future" is always to get fatally wrong, and from the get-go, the plural present futurity in which technoscientific change and developmental struggle always only actually happens.

But Pavlus is far from just disillusioned, he is mad. When he declares "the essential value of these information technologies -- their ability to seamlessly interface with each other as only bits, rather than atoms, can -- is being purposely eroded" he is not expressing exasperation that "The Future" with which he imaginatively identified made a fool of him by turning out to be a mirage, he is expressing rage at the interference of human beings who stand in the way of the pristine logical unfolding of the pseudo-evolutionary teleology he remains invested in still. You will now have noticed in the retelling the tell-tale invocation of the faith of the digital-utopian I mentioned before in Pavlus's genuflection at the primacy of "bits" over "atoms." But I think you might also now be beginning to suspect that this preference for bits over atoms not only undergirds his skewed mis-framing of evolutionary analysis as an asymptotic optimization toward ideal outcomes, but may actually represent more than a factual mistake but also a troubling normative take, an active distaste and disdain for material atoms, biological bodies, social struggles that cashes out in his apparent hostility at political stakeholders who in their diversity have the temerity to impede the spontaneous crystallization of superlative outcomes with which Pavlus has identified "The Future" and with which he personally identified over present-futurity.

I cannot stress strongly enough the fact that there is no such thing as "the essential value of these information technologies" in the first place but always only their actual value to actual stakeholders in pursuit of an actual diversity of actual ends in the actual present. Our artifacts and techniques are articulated by material environments and material histories, and to misrecognize them as always only imperfect avatars of "essential capacities" and as sigils designating the course toward the Destiny of an optimal realization of those "essential capacities," is to evacuate these artifacts and techniques of their substance and to indulge in a discourse of no reliable use to present technodevelopmental deliberation but only one more faith-based initiative offering up distractions and consolations for the present distress of objects who could be subjects in the struggle over technoscientific change.


joe said...

Wow for a bunch of supposedly smart people they never saw megacorps leveraging their own products over someone elses and ruthlessly cutting the balls off of the competition?...

What did these guys think, that the corporations would just all magically hold hands and share their toys for the greater good....bit socialistic isn't it?

I don't really care if someone spends their life in the pursuit of making more and more money, have at it, but for Pavlus to then decry that same system because it's not to his liking is dumb.
It is what it is genius, you and your kind wanted it (you know all that uber libertarianism, free market is the bestest thing evah!, your movement is chocked with) , well tough shit now.

jimf said...

> I mean, have you ever heard a little ditty by the name of capitalism?
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has dismissed criticism
over how little corporation tax his company pays, saying it's
just capitalism.

Schmidt is "very proud" of the corporate structure Google set
up to divert profits made in European countries, such as the UK,
to its firms in the low-tax havens of Ireland and The Netherlands,
thus minimising its tax bill.

"We pay lots of taxes; we pay them in the legally prescribed
ways,” he told Bloomberg. “I am very proud of the structure
that we set up. We did it based on the incentives that the
governments offered us to operate.

“It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m
not confused about this."