In the comments to my previous post, Sketches on Mutant Design, RS Bakker raised an important point on the technologies insulated in the core of neoliberal functionality: “I think we all need to bite the big data bullet. The machines are great at isolating patterns–they are here to stay. Critical theory has to break up the technocratic monopoly on the interpretation of those patterns.”
This is an important point to make: beyond the profit motivations of multinational corporations, military operations and the borderless surveillance state, big data plays a fundamental and necessary role in our lives. It contributes to an overall ease of life in every domain, from the bulk data-basing and analysis in healthcare to the massive logistics involved in transportation of people and goods around the globe. Big data is a media construct, and it is through its mediation that we grasp the scope of the world’s messy mesh. Knowledge of climate change itself has only been capable through the existence of big data, careful monitoring, sensor webs, and cybernetic technologies of feedback. All technics, ultimately, are xenotechnics that can help sustain the fleshy shell of the human. Big data technologies are no different.
How does one begin to tackle the issue of technocracy, of top-down planning, management, and monitoring? It would appear that the technologies that technocracy governs have always been an affair of these govermentalities; it was the complex problems of fire control that introduced the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences to feedback loops, management of bulk data from radar sensors that gave us digital technology, and the automated aerial warfare in Vietnam that paved the way for everyday technologies of consumerism. The collision of endless simulation and supply chain logistics during the Gulf War (technologies themselves that spurred by the massive private-sector investment under President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative) resulted in the flight of planners and tacticians from the military to the corporate arena. Friedrich Kittler has taken this relationship to its delirious limits, enclosing new media technologies and the cultures they germinated in a sense of secreted-away dread: “Radio is just the military radio system of the First World War minus the talkback-capability, television just the civilian twin of the radar screens of the Second; to say nothing of computer technology…”
Tackling the issue of technocracy and its relationship to everyday life means bringing to the surface all of these ancillary issues. This shouldn’t be considered, however, an argument of technological determinism, where technics contain an essence of war that it carries into civilian sphere in some vague envelope; what needs to be recognized is the potentialities embedded in technology, particularly in light of cloud computing and the internet of things. Technologies of hypercommunication generate asymmetrical platforms that are ultimately unique on their case-to-case basis – on one hand, technologies can be smoothing in terms of what communication can accomplish, while on the other it can have a centralizing effect and produce cartels of physical and digital components. Leftist theories have so often valorized the smoothing effect of information technology. For Yann Moulier Boutang, “cognitive capitalism” is a positive force; his adaptation of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley leads him to all sorts of technological-utopian proclamations. Antonio Negri (who was affiliated with Boutang at the French journal Multitudes) attempts to steer the influence of Silicon Valley back towards a Marxist analysis with his theories of “immaterial labor” that must be liberated from the codifications of Empire through acts of proto-Accelerationism. The foundation of this argument begins to melt away as soon as one juxtaposes the increasingly precarious physical labor and materialist infrastructure that such immaterial labor relies on (and this isn’t even to bring in the issue of the exertion, exhaustion, and burn-out suffered by “immaterial” laborers).
The grounds, ungrounds, and undergrounds of media infrastructures condition what is visible and what is invisible. This is a question of power relations and contested territories in a way that makes the geo- in geopolitics stand out. The earth is part of media both as a resource and transmission… It is the contested political earth that extends to being part of military “infrastructure”: the earth hides political stakes and can be formed as part of military strategy and maneuvers.
A proposition: the existence and future continuation of big data is contingent upon megastructures.
We cannot limit the problematic of technocracy and technology, and the possibilities of an emergent praxis to counter and cope with these trends, to these issues. I would like to bring into play and dialogue the fact that media technologies are an affair of geological and ecological forces, whose composition generates their own assemblages of technocracy, bureaucracy, and governmentalities. We could take this in numerous directions, from the extraction of tin, aluminum and silicon from the earth; perhaps more important than these, however, are rare earth minerals (REMs). There are 17 identified rare earth minerals, with applications found in everything from x-ray technology to LED lights to sonars to innumerable computer, cell phone, and television components. Despite their name REMs are not very rare at all; what makes them rare is the difficulty in mining and separating them from one another.
Reza Negarestani, in his infamous Cyclonopedia, described oil as a powerful inhuman agency that bends civilization to its will, exerting its force through the all-too-human picture of religious turmoil and geopolitics. In one passage he describes how “The nervous system and the chemistry of war machines smuggled through oil infuse with the western machines feasting on oil unnotices, as petroleum has already dissolved or refinedly emulsifided them in itself, as its chemical elements or its essential derivatives (Islamic ideologies, ambitions, implicit policies, socio-religious entities and formations, etc.).” One could just as easily write a Cyclonopedia from the perspective not of oil, but rare earth minerals. They are leaking into popular imagination: as China monopolizes some 97% of the world’s RME supply, the video game franchise Call of Duty has depicted an age of coming conflict situated around global demand and the difficulties this poses for international relations. Even the forces of oil that so fascinated Negarestani are too subjected the necessities of REMs, as they are the material form made to host the big data and logistics necessary for pipelines to carry out their given tasks. “Just as we are beginning to attend to the activity of materials in political life, the existence of materials has become increasingly bound up with the production of information… the pipeline was always more than a physical infrastructure.” Or more simply put, rare earth minerals are the infrastructure behind the infrastructure.
50% of REMs come from a single mine located in Baotou, a town in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Launched initially as an industrial zone with aid from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the Baotou mine is also home to a five-mile long tailing lake, where the materials left over following the extraction, chemical cleaning, and separation of REMs are dumped. Toxic waste products such as arsenic, sulfur and hydorcarbons are the commonly found substances in tailing lakes; in Baotou, these freely mingle in the open air and deep in the water table with radioactive waste, resulting in widespread crop and livestock death, accelerating cancer rates, and countless birth defects in the local population. “The lake instantly assaults your senses,” wrote one British journalist who evaded the guards barring visitors from the lake. “Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs. For hours after our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there for only one hour, but those who live in [the] villages around, breathe in the same poison every day.”
The mine at Baotou is a machinic system linked to a multitude of other machinic systems. One such system is that of Chinese neoliberalism itself, which brings together the tenets of free-market orthodoxy with the presence of a top-heavy and managerial state that artificially suppresses wages and confronts environmental issues with great reluctance. The mine itself is governed by the bureaucratic machine of the Baotou Rare Earth High Tech Zone Committee, who representatives are in constant contact, on one hand, with emissaries and technocrats from the Chinese government, and the executives and negotiators of information technology firms from around the world, on the other. Our bodies, too, also serving as inputs and outputs of dataflows when conjoined with the xenotechnics that dominate our daily lives, in touch with these machines; the computer I’m writing this on, the computer or smart phone you’re reading it through, the car you drive, the satellite relay for the GPS network you’re using, – there is a great likelihood that waste products from their construction ended up in the Baotou tailing lake.
Once the REMs are refined into a useable substance, they enter into the intermodal networks of what Brian Holmes has called the “imperial infrastructure” – “systems with strictly military origins, but which have been rapidly liberalized, so that broad sectors of civil society are integrated into the basic architecture.” In the case of Baotou, this would be the Port of Tianjin, the primary nautical gateway to Beijing that is operated by the Tianjin Port (Group) Holdings – itself one of China’s top 500 companies over the last decade. The port, in turn, is situated within the Binhai New Area, northern China’s primary free trade zone, the home to branches and factories of nearly 300 global corporations, ranging from Airbus to Motorola to Chevron to Toyota. Just as with the Baotou mine to which it is linked, it is important to emphasize the machinic dimensions of the Port of Tianjin and the Binhai New Area, which is rapidly concentrating into one of the key nodes in the neoliberal system, and becoming in its own right one of the many “global cities,” alongside London, New York City, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Like these metropolises it is a vector space of transnational flows of rhythms, intermeshing financial systems, intermodal passageway, populations and increasingly flexible labor, and is governed by complex, mediatized logistics networks (empowered by the very REMs we’re discussing). In the case of Tianjin, these logistics are handled by the Tiajin Port International Logistics Development Company, which encompasses around twenty-five miles of urban space.
From these high-tech command and control centers the flows are monitored and regulated, human and technical machines working in conjunction with shipping companies from around the globe and with juridical machines, international treaties which establish and police formalized oceanic trade routes. We should observe that this process extends beyond the ambiguities of sovereignty where containerization and transportation collide: the carbon footprint of the shipping industry has wavered between 2.8% and 2.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2007 and 2012 (though we should note that this data only applies to the 35% of all ships registered by nations that operate under the Kyoto Protocol).
At this point I would like to skip over the intermediary stage of media technology’s journey through becoming-media, and look at the point of decomposition. Twenty six-hundred miles south of Baotou is town of Guiyu, renowned for its position as the global capital of electronic waste. Formerly a rice village, it is now home to scores of workers – adults and children alike – who make a living stripping down computer components for valuable metals like copper, silver, and gold. Circuit boards are ‘cooked’ and burned, wires are stripped and discarded, and components are subjected to corrosive acid baths, the waste from which runs off into the local water supplies. Just as in Baotou, the much-touted immaterialism of information technology has generated an ongoing corrosive effect on individual’s health, social cohesion, and local ecosystems:
…the e-waste recycling activities in Guiyu have caused severe environmental pollution and serious adverse health conditions among the residents. Recent empirical studies of the town and its vicinities revealed that the air, soil, water, and river sediments in the area are severely contaminated by toxic compounds released from e-waste recycling operations… The residents of Guiyu have been found with higher incidence of e-waste induced-morbidity – including skin disorders, headaches, nausea, vertigo, chronic gastritis and gastric and duodenal ulcers… evidence reveals that e-waste recycling workers in Guiyu and the surrounding areas inadvertently carry toxic contaminants from e-waste workshops to their homes, thus increasing the exposure of children and all other family members to heavy metals and other e-waste xenobiotics.
In the 1970s Dieter Rams laid out what he considered the ten elements necessary for “good design.” From innovation to use value to “as little design as possible,” Rams’ vision was one of a functional minimalism, smooth surfaces and soft curvatures. This model of design was an invocation of the future: the object of design was to be a tool, something to be deployed in the everyday, but unlike the tools of old, these objects would be ushering in a new order based on aesthetic tonalities. It would also be clean, sustainable, the traces of its creation subtle and ephemeral: “Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly— Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”
The most immediate influence of Rams to be found today is in the design of objects by Apple. The iPod and iPhone are exemplary – they are lightweight, minimal, and against the cobbled-togetherness, the uneven fusion of the modern and the old that has defined everyday aesthetics, they appear otherworldy, sleek and futuristic. When inserted into the context of other modern design objects, they lose this capacity for intervention, instead assisting in generating an atmosphere or ambiance that transcends the object themselves. Abraham Moles, the famed engineer, psychologist and philosopher who build his career around the interweaving of aesthetics and information theory, once wrote that the task of the designer was no longer to serve as the “creators of objects, but of environments. The design task is to reconceptualize the various shells that surround the human being.” For Moles post-industrial society would be marked by high-degrees of artificiality, extending from the ability to program and reprogram the functions of the system – functions being, in his approach, far more important than objects. “It is becoming the function,” he wrote elsewhere, “of design to examine this new field of programmed sensualizations.” While this language of artificiality brings to mind the always there but always hidden role of simulation and modeling, it also marks a profound shift in spatial practices and affective response (things, we might add, are completely contingent upon by contain within themselves the forces of simulating and modeling): the transition from a molar politics of presence to a molecular politics of ambiance. Integrated design practices usher in an escalating regime of non-spaces, reserved perhaps for the denizens of the overdeveloped world.
This ambiance is suppression. Every telesurface of contemporary design, each minimalist integration of distributed media networks into the fabric of objects, is a suppression of a teaming mess of excess and complexity. Rams wrote that Apple accomplished everything he aspired to do. Yet the iPhone, small as it is, holds beneath it the entirety of a forgotten meshwork that begins in places like Baotou and its geological foundations and chemical dangers and ends in places like Guiyu with its poisoned ecosystems and toxic bodies, with the bureaucratic machines, state machines, capitalist machines, logistic networks, processions of containers, intermodal transport chains, carbon emissions, xenobiotics, so on and so forth, suspended in between. The thing suppressed in the ambiance here is the presence of signs (the crisis of capitalism, the imperatives of geopolitics, the Anthropocene). Steve Jobs once told the CEO of Nike to “get rid of the crappy stuff,” but crappy stuff is precisely what the system churns out – from the datajunk that is transmuted into capital, and the physical junk that builds and accelerates in each of capitalism’s passageways. To quote the architect Rem Koolhaas,
If space junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junkspace is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built… product of modernization is not modern architecture but junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown. … Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inventions, hypertechnical, lucidly planned by human intelligence, imagination, and infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory… Junkspace is the sum total of our current architecture: we have built more than all previous history together, but we hardly register on the same scales. Junkspace is the product of the encounter between escalator and air conditioning, conceived in an incubator of sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). … It substitutes accumulation for hierarchy, addition for composition. More and more, more is more. Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth.
A premature literary psychogeography of junkspace was the derive called cyberpunk: Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy made synonymous the acceleration of politicized technoscience with junk, right from the get-go of the work’s first paragraph (is nothing more telling, then, of Christopher Nolan’s update of Neuromancer with his film Inception, which swaps the gritty and dirty world of Gibson’s cyberspace hackers with dream who traverse the unconscious rendered in the glossy minimalism of the non-space?). Yet there is a deliberate subversive capacity whose traces that Gibson finds in the junkspace of the sprawl, forces that are only amplified in the writings of Nick Land and Sadie Plant, in the delirium of the recline spoken of by Arthur Kroker, and the passing reflections on cyberpunk, posthumanism, and technological barbarism that can be found buried in Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Techno-junk, cultural trash, digital detritus – these form’s inevitable recombination and recomposition seems to take the place today of that most worn-out of postmodern tropes, that of the abject. Acknowledging junkspace is to also acknowledge the scavengers who sift through the ruins to make new from the old. Sometimes the picture is completely depoliticized (scrap economies), and other times it is hyperpoliticized (the “recovered factory” worker’s movement that followed in the wake of Argentina’s IMF-induced bankruptcy). More often than not it hangs between these two poles, but it remains largely invisible or deliberately obscured in the glaze of ambiance – yet it is not the junkspace, but the ambiance that fails, time and time again, to ask what truly comes next, after the infinite now.
Benjamin Bratton has alluded to the ‘after-now’ through two quasi-metaphorical constructs. One is a geological age, the “post-Anthropocene,” an inevitability that follows the “integral accident” – to quote Paul Virilio – of capitalism’s birth. Just as the salvager takes a certain user function to the object that he or she is salvaging, Bratton’s post-Anthropocene “may be an anthrocidal trauma that shifts us from a design career as the authors of the Anthropocene, to the role of supporting actors…” Looking to the role of mediatized production, distribution, and consumption networks in environmental entropy, Bratton connects the Anthropocene to what he calls the “Stack,” a transnational governmentality – or global nomos – that transcends the political confines presupposed by modernity. The stack is an expression of the “geopolitics of planetary-scale computation,” a force that “distorts and deforms traditional Westphalian modes of political geography, jurisdiction, and sovereignty, and produces new territories in its image.” It is the producer of junkspace and the sustainer of ambiance, serving as the physical and digital infrastructures of neoliberalism and institutional interface of the transnational capitalist class.
Following the Stack is the “Black Stack”, the next totality (in Spectacle-form, at least) of concentrated algorithmic forces. Bratton describes it as being to the Stack what the shadow of the future is to the form of the present… the computational totality-to-come, defined at this moment by what it is not, by the empty content fields of its framework, and by its dire inevitability.” It is thus a critical question facing design practices, particularly in registers than encompass the accidents, hacks, and slippages that are intrinsic to the existing infrastructures. Bratton is deliberately vague as to the possible forms the Black Stack could take, aside from musing on its possible dystopic applications; Tiziana Terranova, by contrast, attempts to steer it in the direction of a (post)leftist political platform through her formulation of the “Red Stack”. This commons-based stack, she argues, would be composed of three defined (with the possibility of many power) layers: “virtual money”, “social networks”, and “bio-hypermedia”. These virtual monies would be the seductive crypto-currencies such as BitCoins, while the social networks would be less the circulation of memes and likes on posts than the activation or becoming-swarm of civil society forces through postmedia networks. Bio-hypermedia, meanwhile, is a radicalized form of popular app technology, precedents of which can be found in the works of the Electronic Disturbance Theater and the Institute for Applied Autonomy.
Terranova’s Red Stack holds considerable promise for an insurrectionary politics of our time, with ongoing reflections of it being found circulating in the discourses surrounding Social Network Unionism and the Global Networked Labour Union project (see here and here). Social forces such as these act as mutations in the contemporary digital infrastructure, making the Red Stack a viral construct infecting the wider host of an increasing centralized network-body. By rendering it in these particular terms, of virology and infection, allows us to see that from the position of power organizations, the space of projects such of these is the junkspace, especially in the fuzzy spaces where it can be radicalized. At the same time, by operating within the container of the wider infrastructures, it is also possible to see the overtaking of the Red Stack by the Black Stack – what can the social network union do in relation to the Anthropocene? But perhaps this is the entirely wrong question to ask. To reiterate the fundamental point made by Bakker in the opening of this essay, we can’t discard outright the relevancy – and necessity – of big data platforms. It becomes more of a question of redesign, not simply breaking down technocracy but bringing into play the whole scope of complexity existent in the issue.
Bratton makes the question of the after-now one of a present prototyping of new modes of production, sustainability and being. He writes that
To predict (and prototype) what will and will not survive the Anthropocene demands that artist/designer speculate upon irreducibly complex material interdependencies (of oil, water, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, avian influenza, rotting iron, insect biomass, plankton genomics, and so forth), as well as speculate upon the effects that the subtraction or amplification of any one of these will have on the others.