The Cyberflâneur #19: Benjamin Bratton

This week Benjamin Bratton – the renowned theorist of media, design, and much else in between – is doing his cyberflâneur duty inside our virtual stacks. Benjamin is Professor of Visual Arts and Director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Program Director of The New Normal programme at Strelka Institute of Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow, and the author of Stack (2016).

This book develops a novel theory of geopolitics based on “planetary-scale computation” while drawing on political philosophy, architectural design and the study of software. For Benjamin’s bio and Twitter.

Not only has Benjamin chosen very interesting pieces, including a book on how we should make sense of the Anthropocene and one – very timely -on what powers international organisations should have in emergencies, but he also laced them with substantial and provocative commentary.

~ Evgeny Morozov

A recent talk by Benjamin Bratton

Benjamin’s Selections

I.

The Petrified Anthropocene + Allegories of the Anthropocene

I hope that in the near future, whatever the Humanities becomes will look back in bewilderment upon how its early 21st century version tried to make sense of the “Anthropocene.” What should be approached as a fundamental challenge to mimetic thought, is instead considered as, essentially, a matter of proper representation. Attached to this is often a breezy dismissal of the natural sciences, which are cast as hopelessly conservative and inarticulate.

For the sake of argument, imagine an Anthropologist announcing that Geological Sciences are inadequate because they are obsessed with motionless rocks and should be attentive to the dynamic fluidity of planetary systems, living and non-living. For metaphorical flourish, they might contrast the ephemeral vitality of the sky with the dumb intransigence of layered mineral crusts.

Their colleague from the Geology department might rub their eyes before replying that the whole point and basic insight of her discipline is that “the past” can be deduced in these sedimentary layers not because Earth is inert but because it is not. It just looks that way.

By taking ice core samples and indexing variations of CO2 across million year spans, Geologists measuring the effects of climate change actually are measuring the sky by measuring the Earth. The frozen sky buried in the ground attests not to the petrification of the planet (sky included) but to its seething, convulsing metabolic simmer.

The open challenge to the Humanities is to comprehend the implications of the fact that some of that simmer assembled into primates capable of doing that sampling and, hopefully, deducing its existential significance.


II.

Fully Automated Luxury Barbarism + The Palace of the Future Is Nearly Complete

The kernel idea behind “fully automated luxury communism” has not really developed as of yet, and by the time it does the notion may seem too obvious to require a name. In the meantime, those who lean toward a more social determinist view of how the world works, and who realize that “FALC” may undermine the credentials of their positions, have found an easy target in the clumsy evangelism of various pundits. Of the points of distinction between the pundits’ pitch and what I see as “interesting” in the FALC premise, the most important regard Horizontalism and Ecology.


There are rich debates going back generations on the relative ideal merits of vertical/ central systems versus horizontal/ decentralized systems (dynamics between vertical/ decentralized and horizontal/ central get less attention). Aaron Bastani’s story includes the promise of horizontalized platforms to socialize capital. This is possible, but the critics are right to say the evidence isn’t promising as of yet. Instead we see the centripetal concentration of capital sucked in from the roving apps: a horizontal system begets a centralized outcome. The means and ends are inverse, so we have to allow that vertical centralized systems can and do have horizontalizing and decentralizing outcomes as well. While the former’s focus on means-as-ends corresponds with the ‘performative’ view of the political, but the issue is deeper than that.


The second problem is more important but less with FALC as such than with its populist versions, namely that infinity pools and caviar for 9 billion humans is not only a pretty disappointing concept of “luxury” but that, quite obviously, the material ecological costs of this promise are, as of now, impossible to meet. They don’t have to be, however. It is possible to not only meet them but do so as part of a comprehensive and viable program of ecological remediation. It’s a matter of what molecules get to go where and why and for whom, and this can’t be an afterthought to the main story. We may agree that scarcity is, on a planetary level, unnecessary and even evil, but whatever “FALC” is, it must direct its attention to a program for which the efficiencies of pervasive automation result in radical decarbonization, and not only the provision of luxury but its redefinition as well.


III.

Emergency Powers of International Organizations

Will international/ global governance mechanisms address the climate crisis by declaring it a state of exception over which they have emergency jurisdiction, or will the climate crisis transform the very architecture of global governance in its image, bending it to its indifferent will?

If the political sovereign has been understood as the one able to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional norms, then we may well ask why haven’t they done so already in face the ecological crisis? It may be because no sovereign exists who is capable of making such a declaration stick. The atmospheric chemical waves are as indifferent to these edicts as they were to King Canute standing on the beach gesticulating. Or, perhaps, the declarations have already been made, but we don’t recognize them. They could be made indirectly, not on behalf of rational eco-governance but on behalf of everything else. Perhaps that’s what the global populist turn is: the suspension of norms for its own sake.

In other words, just as the sovereign declares the state of exception, the emergency also produces new sovereigns to suit. And so, if that emergent sovereign only vaguely resembles the Federalist globalism we have at hand, what else does it entail?

Among the most divisive/ decisive issues of 2020’s will be how –not if– national/ transnational militaries are deployed as preemptive/ reactive force in ecological protection, damage prevention and effects mitigation. The various Green New Deals imply a shift in the biopolitics of governance from the medium of human opinions to the management of ecosystems directly (including industrial ones). But, the biggest line item in any federal budget is the military. What of it? Is it likely, or even possible, that the sovereignty of whatever emerges from the climate crisis does so through deliberative consensus? How would it do so without literally enforcing itself? Next fire season, will troops be sent to protect the Amazon? If not, let’s list the reasons and make sure they are still good ones.


IV.

Automation and the Future of Work

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how platform delivery systems are keeping the stressed social fabric of Shanghai intact. In response to Coronavirus, stores are closed, streets are empty, but a city of 18 million shut-in persists in a private encapsulation, shopping on their phones and eating what the person + food factory at the end of the app brings to the door. With the automated order relays, waves of sysadmins and couriers are keeping the world moving when the government cannot. In doing so, the chains of automation have become an emergency public sphere. Sometimes automation isn’t the fragile layer on top of the sturdy city but rather the inverse.

That said, while “automation” is a central critical concern for the future of not only economics, but indeed of how the Earth is artificially transformed in general, many debates may be too narrowly focused on how specific forms of contemporary automation may or may not affect specific forms of contemporary “work.”

Automation, as a principle, is not just about “replacement” but rather the rearrangement of extended relays that extend far beyond any assembly line, and which include humans, machines, minerals, and methods in its scope (the term “automation” isn’t coined until 1946 but what the word refers to is obviously much older). We could define automation more broadly as the embedding of action and decision into technical systems, such that either can be repeated without additional deliberation. In this sense, what appears to be “autonomous” is so only because it has been set in motion by something else on which its action and decision depend. Automation may be the opposite of autonomy.

The ultimate political economic outcomes of pervasive algorithmic automation are undetermined, have yet to be decided and, in turn, automated. The focus on “replacement” narratives in which machines appear where humans disappear, or vice versa, may derive from a misrecognition of how actual societies are always amalgamated assemblages of both. Behind the machine is always a human, and behind the human always a machine, each acting for and deciding for the other in uneven patterns.

What is at stake for the ecological economics of those amalgamations is how the value generated by the relay feeds back into whole, for each participant, replaceable or not. In this regard, to suggest as one article does that “automation is Capitalism’s spontaneous folk theory” grants the latter far too much ontological authority.


More by Benjamin Bratton – from our Stacks


More About our Cyberflâneur Series

To learn more about how this particularly eclectic edition of our syllabi works, head over here. Note that if you subscribe to any of our weekly syllabi, we’ll keep you posted on our latest cyberflâneurs too. Our subscribers also get a monthly Highlights From the Cyberflâneur edition.

You can also take a look at the previous editions of the Cyberflâneur:

  • #12 Zephyr Teachout – Professor of Law at Fordham University
  • #13 Quinn Slobodian – Historian and author of Globalists
  • #14 Katrina Forrester – Political Theorist and Intellectual Historian at Harvard University
  • #15 Kaiser Kuo – Writer, Musician, Podcaster
  • #16 Atossa Araxia Abrahamian – Senior Editor at the Nation, Author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen
  • #17 Li Andersson – Finland’s Minister of Education and the Chairperson of the Left Alliance party
  • #18 István Rév – Professor of History and Political Science at CEU, Director of the Open Society Archives

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