Ecology and Bewilderment: Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

A kind of sci-fi horror, Jeff Vandermeer’s work is thought provoking and challenging.

Two themes that have recently grabbed my attention are those of ‘object-oriented ontology’ and ecology, both extending from my study of the sociology and politics of technology. Because technology is separate from us, as in not-human in its essence, and yet artificial intelligence is trying desperately to make these non-human objects assume human characteristics, it is important, I think, to understand why we would want to do that. Object-oriented ontology seeks to reject anthropomorphism, and instead look upon the world as a collection of objects, with no special status attaching to humans; it is not clear to me if any special status attaches to the subject. Ecology is interesting because it seems to be the opposite of the inclination of technology to unilaterally dominate, to overpower, to understand. Technology extends the human mostly-male power impulse, designed as it is to subdue the environment, to control the world, including human beings themselves. When technology fails, it is entirely bewildering – and men insist on finding the reason. When the light switch does not illuminate the room, the man goes to the fuse box. Finding no answer here, our hero reaches for a torch and finds a spare bulb. With still no resolution, the electricity company is called – and on it goes. The man seeks to resolve the problem not merely because control over the environment is in some sense ‘man’s work’; but because the thought of not finding a rational, scientific answer to why the room remains dark is quite terrifying. The ecological view of the world suggests that there are other reasons as to why the room remains dark, non-scientific reasons, and therefore in some way perhaps unknowable reasons. Continue reading

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Hayek, The Busted Flush: Economic Value, Marketisation, and Social Justice

Hayek has had some dark times, and some critics, but the last twenty years of his life or so were pretty sweet. Since he died, he’s had an awful time of it.

How do markets optimise the delivery of social services and social welfare? This question surfaces many of the challenges for the Austrian School, the philosophy that free markets and the price mechanism can do a remarkable job in managing people and their behaviour. While initially Friedrich Hayek’s theorising argued that the role of the State should be minimal, he ultimately conceded that some State regulation was required in order to maintain markets, and some other functions. For example, ‘[t]o prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs they impose.’ (The Road to Serfdom, p.38/9) The ultimate question of Hayekian liberalism is how much does the government have to interfere? What is the minimum possible function of government? Continue reading

Technology, Identity and Time in the Smarter City

Sackville Street in Dublin in the early twentieth century, a seemingly remote and foreign place to people today.

Dublin in The Rare Old Times, by Pete St. John, is a beautiful and poignant folk song about Dublin, its history and change. It’s full of pathos, remorse, and nostalgia, a story told by an old man whose identity has been overtaken by time, and made redundant. It’s also a story about technology and its impact on people and culture, and how the architecture of a city can redefine its people.

The song opens with remembrances of heroes and about the city, and the history that is embedded in the walls and structures that made up Dublin – but that is gone now. Memory, it seems, is all that is left. The narrator – Sean – remembers a girlfriend he lost, and a job that became irrelevant as technology made barrel making (coopering) an unnecessary trade. His old house was replaced – by ‘progress’, he says – a word dripping with resentment. His house was a fine house it seems, it served him well, but some external force, some outside actor decided that it would be in the interests of the city, of the society, to have it removed.

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Bewilderment: Politics, Technology and Ecology in a World that Stopped Making Sense

moon surface

The lunar surface, photographed in 1966.

Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.

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Snippet: Fuzzy, Uncertain Nature

Lotfi Zadeh, inventor of fuzzy logic, who died earlier this month at the age of 96.

I’ve long had an idea about the curved nature of things, the non-binary natural order. This is not the same as relativism versus absolutism, which is one sense a binary opposition in itself; rather, it is a straight acknowledgement that truth is never fully observable, that is it at least always subjective, and that even in the subjective moment it is mutable. What I see may not be what you see; and what I see is inconstant. Time impacts on that observation such that its character is unstable. Take pain and pleasure, for example. While on the one hand some people take a kind of satisfaction from pain, and are attracted to it, whether physical or emotional, so too others recoil from pleasure, perhaps based on guilt, or other psychological alignments. Still further, the same act – a touch – can bring immediate pleasure, while the same act, more forcefully applied, can either increase the pleasure or turn at some point to pain.  Continue reading

Hayek’s Absolutism

Hayek lived long enough to see his ideas ascendant in western politics, which was something of a gift; perhaps it was an equally valuable reward to have missed the bit when it all went pear-shaped.

In reading several articles on Friedrich Hayek recently, two words kept coming to mind: absolutism and elegance. Hayek appears to my inexpert reading to have been a highly scientific thinker, one with a good degree of faith in the scientific method. Attached to this is a consciousness of the sublime, a sense that there is a truth to be found in thought, an awareness of a tangible human goal of understanding. There is, in other words, a destination for our species. Continue reading

Property Developers and the Irish State

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Dr Hans Sluga: a thoughtful man, and not a criminal, even though his bio photo looks like he might be.

Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.

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Galadriel’s Inversion

Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel from the Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Dir. Peter Jackson, 2001)

On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.

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Time, Magic and Species-Exceptionalism

Tahiti: It’s a Magical Place

In 1962, Arthur C Clarke published ‘Profiles of the Future‘, a collection of essays about what would happen next in areas like travel and communications. In a general observation he noted that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Buried in the pithiness of the observation is an acknowledgement that time is important; it takes time to acclimatise yourself to new possibilities, new ways to manipulate nature and the world around us. This is not just restricted to the first sight of the motor car, or listening to a gramophone record: it applies to any new and in some way awesome discovery or realisation. In Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Colson repeats the phrase ‘Tahiti – it’s a Magical Place‘, recalling a memory implanted in his brain during some complicated (and poorly explained) resurrection process after he had been killed in a previous escapade. We can all picture in our minds places that have appeared magical – a beach, a forest, a tree at dawn or the sky on a particularly clear night: there is a sense of wonder and amazement as nature in all her glory wakes us from our plodding lives, and says ‘hey, look what I can do!’

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Brexit and the Language of State

The general idea was pretty clear, but the reality might not match up to the expectation. That could be political nitroglycerin.

Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.

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