Marginalia 22: complexity, infrastructure, obsolescence

This week I have some stories to share about the simplicity of complexity, the fragility of simplicity, and how the very best infrastructure is invisible. Some of this stuff has been sitting around in my “marginalia” file waiting for the right context. Some of it I read this week.

Sabu Kohso writes a letter to The New Inquiry:

For most of us across the world, with the expectation of a worsening pandemic, ongoing oppression, and other disasters, future prospects are dark, yet strangely exhilarating for their unknown character. We are immersed in mixed feelings – between the apocalypse of the world’s end and the aspiration for a possible planetary revolution. Overlapping them lies another layer of emotion: a deep sorrow for the loss of invincible nature, and a burning rage against those who are responsible for the degeneration of the world.

What's that? You heard that crypto-currencies like Bitcoin will be part of that revolution? LOL – Cryptocurrency is an abject disaster. Not only are “proof of work” crypto-currencies contributing to the climate crisis, not only are these “currencies” used almost exclusively as stores of wealth instead of mediums of exchange (unless you're in the ransomware business), but these “decentralised” “currencies” are held and controlled by a tiny number of very powerful people. These twin aspects of shitcoins are to be expected, because that's how the more conventional economy works too. If you or the policy maker you're trying to convince need some conventional economic research to believe the fairly mundane observation that a more equal world would be easier to decarbonise, Yannick Oswald has you covered.

Cryptocurrency isn't the future, but it is Futurism. Futurism brough us Fascism, and its sibling, Ayn Rand's faux-philosophy of Objectivism. Ironically former US Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was one of Rand's chief acolytes, and now the very people who claim to be opposed to “fiat currencies” and central banks like the one he led for 19 years are following basically the same simplistic and mean-spirited lifestyle championed by Rand. They've looked at something complex, and tried to replace it with something that is simple yet complicated.

Jet travel is futurist too. That's why airports die, and thousands of empty “investment properties” and unhoused people can be found within the same cities. Barcelona has a solution:

This week [July 2020], the city’s housing department wrote to 14 companies that collectively own 194 empty apartments, warning that if they haven’t found a tenant within the next month, the city could take possession of these properties, with compensation at half their market value. These units would then be rented out by the city as public housing to lower-income tenants, while the companies in question could also face possible fines of between €90,000 and €900,000 ($103,000 and $1,003,000), according to Spanish news outlets.

The Barcelona city government doesn't actually want to take possession of these apartments, they just want them to be available to people at a reasonable price or indeed at all. Their policy simply changes the price signals in the property market, because the city government recognises that houses are for living in, not for speculating on. This sort of halfway-house of collective power against capitalist waste isn't exactly Red Vienna, but also it's 2020, not 1920. Better to house people now under a less-oppressive arrangement than maintain your purity and leave people to live out on the streets. Which is why I really like the new laptop company Framework, who just opened pre-orders for fairly high-end laptops designed to be repairable, upgradable, and customisable. Somewhat “back to the future”, but refreshing in a world where it's increasingly impossible to have the machines we use repaired, let alone repair or upgrade them ourselves.

My favourite news story so far this year was definitely Ben Collins' deep dive into cultural burning practices in the Kimberley, in a beautifully produced story by the ABC. Collins interviewed a number of Karajarri rangers working the Indigenous Protected Area, including Bayo, who shared what he and his community have learned since reclaiming title over the area and resuming preventative cool burns to avoid the sort of enormous summer conflagarations we saw in 2019/20. Bayo's big revelation is that contrary to the popular refrain from many settler land holders and conservative pundits, comparing evidence of historic burning practices to what is happening now, we're burning too much. But also too little. Because it's the interaction of both time and space that matters. Traditional Karajarri land burns weren't “preventative” as such. The Karajarri used to be on the move every few days. Burning a little bit here to clear a campsite or flush out some game, then moving on a few kilometres and doing the same again. I'm certainly not doing it justice so go read and experience it yourself. But the key point here is that Karajarri land cultural burns and other land management can be thought of as living infrastructure. They built a landscape that was filled with animals and plants, reasonably unlikely to succumb to massive hot burns, and contained diversity of landscapes and habitats – as part of their everyday lives. This is management without rigid control.

Mark Matienzo wrote a really thoughtful piece on a different kind of (potential) infrastructure that is nevertheless also, mostly, designed to be a combination of deliberate creation and uh, perhaps we could say “extra curricular activities”? Anyway, Matienzo's description of the promise, threat and complications of the Sourcery application/platform is worth a read for anyone interested in technology, labour, or archives.

Another piece from late last year on labour and the related field of libraries is Lynne Stahl's really excellent meditation, Librarian, read thyself published in The Rambling. Vocational Awe under conditions of COVID-19 and twenty-first century capitalism is a combustible and exhausting mix:

During this time, I’ve been monitoring my impulses—many of which cry out to help, go the extra mile, get something done sooner or better than needed. I imagine many academics, librarians and otherwise, have been grappling with similar impulses throughout the pandemic. They’re signs of passion and shared ethos, but I now also recognize them as narcissism (a need to prove to myself that my work truly matters) and anxiety under capitalism (a need to prove to my employer that my work truly matters to their survival).

Students and faculty need me, but more than that I need them to need me so that I can document my neededness to justify my continued employment through impending austerity.

Sam Byers (though not on the topic of libraries at all) writes of a similar malaise in ‘We will have to choose our apocalypse’: the cost of freedom after the pandemic:

We are encouraged to challenge power, punch up, resist. And yet at the same time we are exhorted to grow and glow, strive, achieve, become. The result is an excruciating double bind. Only through a more robust sense of self, we believe, can we muster the rebellious energy by which the unjust world around us might be changed. And yet, deep down, we know the truth: that our unjust world depends for its survival on the very project of selfhood in which we’re all so desperately over-invested.

Caroline Busta, in Document Journal, explains that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I confess I didn't expect to find counter-culture on Instagram (on which I don't have an account), but this is a pretty interesting piece regardless, and explores some of the same terrain as Byers and Stahl. Busta writes of the difficulty of expressing ones rejection of the dominant power, when that power is so good at feeding off the very act of expression:

The power of today is firmly situated in minimalism, restraint, and ease—it’s only power under threat that turns to physical displays of strength. Actual power is controlling the means by which lesser power can be displayed—i.e., congrats on the 500K likes on your polling numbers, @jack still owns all your tweets. Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.

So what does today’s counter-hegemonic culture look like? It’s not particularly interested in being seen—at least not in person. It gets no thrill out of wearing leather and a mohawk and walking past main-street shops, which are empty now anyway. But it does demonstrate a hunger for freedom—freedom from the attention economy, from atomization, and the extractive logic of mainstream communication.

Or as Sam Byers puts it:

...liberation is not about what we gain, but what we are willing to abandon. Far from the freedom to “be ourselves”, true freedom in this sense would mean an end to ever needing to be ourselves again. This is why, when faced with even the possibility of a better, more just, more liberated world, we claim to long for it, only to reactively stifle its emergence. It’s because we know that real freedom would entail nothing less than the erasure of all the boundaries and signifiers by which we have defined and comforted ourselves; that it would, in effect, destroy us.

Sumana Harihareswara outlines an effort – !!Con – to break out of some of these logics even whilst leaning into them. In Toward a !!Con Aesthetic, Harihareswara writes:

I hope here I’ve sketched the contours of a particular pro-subjectivity, pro-joy, anti-hierarchical, anti-dismissiveness approach to in-person tech talks and conferences that I see in the !!Con aesthetic. To the extent that mainstream programming culture stifles vulnerability and maintains an elitist hierarchy, !!Con is countercultural. If mainstream programming constitutes a public, then !!Con is a counterpublic — a “discursive arena” where we “formulate oppositional interpretations of our identities, interests, and needs”.

Which brings us, in a way, to Fermenting Culture, an interview with David Zilber from Noma restaurant's Fermentation Lab, with Emergence Magazine. Zilber talks about fermentation with reverence and enthusiasm, but also about how fermentation really pushes against the needs of modern restaurants. Fermentation is wild, and barely controllable. It resists standardisation. This is a really great interview – you can listen to the audio as I did, or read the transcript. There's a lot there, but I especially liked this suggestion:

I think it would be worth it if, instead of being taught civics class in high school, people spent six months in the wilderness learning how to keep themselves alive. I think that’s more important to someone’s long-term well-being, both mental and physical, than a course on what American president was doing what in 1792.

What other foundations of liberal democracy could we replace with something more ...counter cultural? Lynne Stahl has some ideas:

Libraries will never be irrelevant in a country whose richest one percent owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. They’re integral indeed to a society built by slave labor on stolen lands, where inequality is structural and pervasive, even constitutive. This framing confronts us with a curious and disquieting reality: that libraries are intrinsically reactive institutions whose essence at once inheres in their ability to meet needs and relies upon the continuation of unmet needs. In this sense, the obsolescence of libraries is a wonderful goal, because it would indicate that many of the public’s needs were fulfilled.

I confess that I – a fellow librarian – have had the same thought more than once.

I'll leave the final word today to Sabu Kohso, who I think nicely connects everything we've explored here:

What do radiation and the pandemic reveal? They paradoxically tell us something essential by way of what they destroy. They speak to us in the negative. In the philosophical sense, catastrophe is a message or an education – a lesson about its own origin as an event that takes place in the boundary between what humans do consciously and their unconscious effects on the planetary body. Radiation teaches us the indispensability of the rapport between people and land, by giving a fatal blow to it. The pandemic demonstrates the necessity of physical interaction among bodies, by making it hazardous. Their ultimate message is that we have nothing if not for these two relationalities.