Haraway on truth, tech, and resisting extinction ⊗ Utopian overreach ⊗ The cult of the imperfect ⊗ The troubling age of algo entertainment — No.102

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → Donna Haraway on truth, technology, and resisting extinction ⊗ Utopian overreach ⊗ The cult of the imperfect ⊗ The troubling age of algorithmic entertainment ⊗ We live in The Good Place. And we’re screwing it up.

A year ago → Don’t believe every AI you see.

In case you look at a message’s scroll bar before starting to read; this is one of the longest issues in a while but with more quotes than usual so depending on how you read this newsletter, it might not be that long. And actually, I’d love to know more about how you read, do you click through often or simply read my takes? Do you read the quotes? Are their too many, too few (!!), just right?

This week a long-time subscriber joined the paid membership and mentioned that “it’s been on my todo list for a while.” If it’s also your case, here’s the membership page, you can check this off the list right now ?.

Donna Haraway on Truth, Technology, and Resisting Extinction

Long read at Logic mag, an interview with Donna Haraway, which starts with a biographical section on where she lived, studied, taught, how her thinking evolved, and some of the philosophical battles fought. Then goes into some of her most important works like the Cyborg Manifesto, how her views have evolved, her new focus on environmental issues, her view of techno-utopianism and Stewart Brand (“They are not friends. They are not allies.”), and on the Anthropocene framework.

For someone not trained in any of the fields she has worked on, some of the biographical part needs some Googling DuckDuckGoIng to properly grok, but the second half gives directions and keys to better understand pretty much everything I include in the featured articles in Sentiers. So yeah, do read it and I’m putting it in a file somewhere as a starting point for more research. (There’s a bunch of quotes below, I probably highlighted three times as many. Btw, I linked to an excerpted version of this back in June, the full version is much better.)

[On being asked, “but do you believe in reality?”] We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holding-ness of things. Do things hold or not? […]

[W]e have the ongoing enclosure of the commons. Capitalism produces new forms of value and then encloses those forms of value—the digital is an especially good example of that. This involves the monetization of practically everything we do. And it’s not like we are ignorant of this dynamic. We know what’s going on. We just don’t have a clue how to get a grip on it. […]

In a moment of ecological urgency, I’m more engaged in questions of multispecies environmental and reproductive justice. Those questions certainly involve issues of digital and robotic and machine cultures, but they aren’t at the center of my attention. […]

Those communities may need other kinds of technologies than those promised by the techno-fix: different kinds of mortgage instruments, say, or re-engineered water systems. I’m against the kind of techno-fixes that are abstracted from place and tied up with huge amounts of technocapital. This seems to include most geoengineering projects and imaginations. […]

The kinds of conversations around technology that I think we need are those among folks who know how to write law and policy, folks who know how to do material science, folks who are interested in architecture and park design, and folks who are involved in land struggles and solidarity movements. I want to see us do much savvier scientific, technological, and political thinking with each other, and I want to see it get press. The Stewart Brand types are never going there. […]

[On the Anthropocene.] Extractivism and exterminationism are not human species acts. They come from a situated historical conjuncture of about five hundred years in duration that begins with the invention of the plantation and the subsequent modeling of industrial capitalism. It is a situated historical conjuncture that has had devastating effects even while it has created astonishing wealth.

Utopian Overreach

Here the author is not (quite) talking about utopian fiction, he uses the word to represent the world imagined by various technologists and their critics, specifically the digital-wellness movement, including Tristan Harris, Cal Newport, et al. They are all painting / imagining worlds with no complexity, inventing futures (even if only by creating a product) with missing parts. They are using the same language, much of the same assumptions. Ibrahim also proposes that both “sides” are based on a separation of human and machine, where we could also be thinking about Mark Poster’s “humachine” or Haraway’s Cyborg, which also makes me think of the western separation of mind and body. I’m doing the TL;DR here but it’s a super interesting line of thought, I encourage you to read the whole thing.

“Who rules in your utopia, and how are they selected?” and “Does the society in your utopia hinge on equality, or is it something else?” A universalized mode of living and being almost always leaves someone out, always producing “losers.” […]

What these interventions all have in common is how they frame our problems with technology as a matter between the individual and a specific device or app rather than the social, moral, and infrastructural relations that ultimately bind them together. […]

Rather than addressing the complexity of our relations with each other, institutions, social conditions, or anything else that communication technology plays into, digital wellness offers self-help as self-reliance while leaving the broader, underlying conditions unaddressed. […]

The digital-wellness movement tends to presume that the usefulness of technology comes at the expense of human capability, as if these were inherently zero-sum rather than potentially complementary. So it responds to the question of human agency by decontextualizing technology use and depicting it as being a matter of the individual’s unilateral will. […]

The anxieties, fantasies, and possibilities technology evokes are contextual; they vary according to the power relations among individuals, groups, and institutions within a given circumstance, because of the multitude of power, privilege, race, and other sociocultural dynamics that exist in relation to these technologies. The digital wellness utopia flattens all that into a single concern, reflecting the anxieties of one particular group — the demographic that includes Silicon Valley technologists.

The Cult of the Imperfect

Text excerpted from On the Shoulders of Giants, by Umberto Eco, where he uses Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Curtiz’s Casablanca to show that cult classics are cults “precisely because they are basically ramshackle, or ‘unhinged,’ so to speak.” It’s their imperfectness, the disjointed parts, that gives fans something to attach to, something to remember, something to cite. A perfect movie is it’s own thing, with no random phrase or imperfection to hold on to.

It turns out that the horrible stylistic excesses [in The Count of Monte Cristo] are indeed “padding,” but the padding has a structural value; like the graphite rods in nuclear reactors, it slows down the pace to make our expectations more excruciating, our predictions more reckless. Dumas’s novel is a machine that prolongs the agony, where what counts is not the quality of the death throes but their duration. […]

To give rise to a cult, a film must already be inherently ramshackle, shaky and disconnected in itself. A perfect film, given that we cannot reread it as we please, from the point we prefer, as with a book, remains imprinted in our memory as a whole, in the form of an idea or a principal emotion; but only a ramshackle film survives in a disjointed series of images and visual high points.

The troubling age of algorithmic entertainment

Navneet Alang provides a good overview of the many ways in which the ever growing influence of various algorithms is transforming all forms of media, from motion smoothing, to “Spotify-core” music, to TikTok’s influence over length and focusing on memorable hooks. They change not only the form of the content we consume but the way we consume it. While we’ve always played around with how we read, view, or listen to art, we are now in front of something of a different magnitude. The internet originally offered an opportunity for every little niche and taste to get its place in the sun, now it is instead being dumbed down into an “algorithmed” and business-optimized mass of sameness.

The algorithmic delivery of music thus forms what, for Spotify, is a virtuous circle. But it also suggests that tech platforms don’t just deliver content, but that they shape it too, prioritizing quick hits and short tracks because those are the things that generate the most engagement. […]

Netflix is aware that people want to rush through content — not just to enjoy it, but also to then participate in the cultural conversation that’s around it. Is everyone at work talking about Succession, Fleabag, and that new true crime podcast, but you’re behind on all of them? Well, rip through them at double speed so you aren’t left out. […]

But the sheer ubiquity of the streaming platforms for how we get content now suggests that the dominance of algorithms and their place in the attention economy aren’t entirely neutral or value-free. Disney, for example, is quietly placing classic Fox films into its so-called “vault,” where it hides movies from distribution for a while to drum up hype when they are re-released. One imagines this is so they can put them back on their forthcoming streaming service, to much delight.

‎We live in The Good Place. And we’re screwing it up

I haven’t linked to an Ezra Klein podcast episode in a while, this is a good one. It’s the first episode of his “climate cluster” and he’s speaking with Kate Marvel. They cover a lot of ground, and she’s providing some excellent answers. One interesting part is that Klein doesn’t seem to believe “we” can keep global warming below 2°C through normal democratic political means, so he’s trying to figure out what’s worse; overshooting that warming (so he’s trying to better understand what that means) or falling into some form of far-reaching authoritarian government (or, one assumes, revolution and chaos).


Header image: Xavi Bou, Ornitographies.