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  • Mark 8:55 pm on June 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , dystopia, fairfax, four futures,   

    The revenge practices of plutocrats 

    What do we think of when we imagine elites exercising their power? There are many ways we can approach such a question, with varying degrees of abstraction. But reading The Divide: American Injustice In The Age Of The Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi, has left me preoccupied by how they practice revenge. It’s easy to imagine our contemporary plutocrats having an impulse towards revenge, as we trundle ever more inexorably towards what appears to be a dark neo-feudal future. The structural constraints upon vengeance are weakening, reflecting the declining accountability of plutocrats, accompanied by a diminishing sense that such figures are part of the social order and bound by the same rules as those within it:

    Such considerations can easily fuel a dystopian imagination, powerfully expressed in Peter Frase’s idea of exterminism. His concern is with the growing tendency of the rich to regard themselves as persecuted and seek to withdraw themselves from wider society. As he writes on loc 1471 of Four Futures:

    But the construction of enclaves is not limited to the poorest places. Across the world, the rich are demonstrating their desire to escape from the rest of us. A 2013 article in Forbes magazine reports on the mania, among the rich, for evermore-elaborate home security. 11 An executive for one security company boasts that his Los Angeles house has security “similar to that of the White House.” Others market infrared sensors, facial recognition technologies, and defensive systems that spray noxious smoke or pepper spray. All this for people who, although rich, are largely anonymous and hardly prominent targets for would-be attackers.

    Paranoid though they may seem, large numbers of the economic elite appear to regard themselves as a set-upon minority, at war with the rest of society. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of such sentiments, plutocrats talking openly about “secession.” In one widely disseminated speech, Balaji Srinivasan, the cofounder of a San Francisco genetics company, told an audience of start-up entrepreneurs that “we need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.” 12 For now, that reflects hubris and ignorance of the myriad ways someone like him is supported by the workers who make his life possible. But it demonstrates the impulse to wall off the rich from what are deemed to be surplus populations.

    His suggestion is that such defensiveness might over time become offence. Not in the generic sense in which the accumulated privilege of the plutocrats necessarily entails a relationship of offence to wider society. But in the much darker sense of deliberately seeking to eliminate surplus populations. In a speculative but thought-provoking account, he draws together a diverse range of trends which collectively point towards the increasing willingness of elites to sanction intensifying violence against ever greater portions of their populations.

    How seriously should we take this? I’m not sure. But I realise my interest in the revenge practices of elites is motivated by a concern to elucidate where our present conjuncture could one day lead. There’s a disturbing story in The Divide which the author summarises on pg 248:

    The Fairfax fiasco is a tale of harassment on a grand scale, in which the cream of America’s corporate culture followed executives, burgled information from private bank accounts, researched the Canadians’ sexual preferences for blackmail purposes, broke into hotel rooms and left threatening messages, prank-called a cancer-stricken woman in the middle of the night, and even harassed the pastor of the staid Anglican church where the Canadian CEO worshipped on Sundays. They worked tirelessly to instigate phony criminal investigations in multiple countries, tried relentlessly to scare away investors and convince ratings agencies to denounce the firm, and in general spread so many lies and false rumors to so many people using so many different false names that they needed a spreadsheet to keep track of their aliases.

    What’s so grim about this tale is the personal animus which seems to be at work here. As well as their initial financial motivations, they really want to destroy the life of the Fairfax chief for rather indiscernible reasons. The reporting isn’t complete by any means but it’s a fascinating and disturbing account of one of the most extreme examples of revenge by defensive elitists I’ve come across. I’d like to find and study more examples of this to better understand that characteristic defensiveness which I’m beginning to try and theorise, as well as where it might lead us in future.

    • Martha Bell 9:08 pm on June 19, 2017 Permalink

      Hi Mark,

      I think you should do more research into this – and start your own spreadsheet now – but you must get a forensic intelligence analyst on board because much of the connection between these elites and their abilities to operate comes from the ability to use state banks and unregulated finance instruments. Entitlement has detached itself from land and moved into the floating world of finance.

    • Mark 1:17 pm on July 3, 2017 Permalink

      Oops sorry I missed this before going on holiday!

    • Mark 1:17 pm on July 3, 2017 Permalink

      You mean there might be deliberately vindictive practices that could only be revealed through forensic analysis?

  • Mark 3:50 pm on May 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , dystopia, , ,   

    The fortress city scenario  

    A disturbing scenario from John Urry’s What is the Future? From loc 2996-3045:

    The final scenario involves the development of the Fortress City. Rich societies break away from the poorer into fortified enclaves. Those able to live in gated and armed encampments would do so, with much privatizing of what were, in many societies, public or collective functions (Davis 2000; Graham 2011; Leichenko, Thomas, Baines 2010: 142). Outside the enclaves would be ‘wild zones’ which the powerful would pass through as fast as possible. Systems of long-range mobility would only be available for the super-rich. Bauman maintains that one key technique of power is: ‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement’ –to have the power to avoid being trapped by others, to escape into ‘sheer inaccessibility’ (2000: 11). There are many examples of such elites exiting from where obligations would be extracted. The elite, we can suggest, are increasingly ‘absentee landlords’ with potential for exit mobility, if and when the ‘going gets tough’ (Bauman 2000: 13; Urry 2014a).

    This future involves ‘fortressed’ walled cities and an extensive ‘security-ization’ of populations, similar in some ways to cities in the medieval period which provided protection against raiders, invaders and diseases. Those outside the enclaves would be unable or unwilling to travel far. Long-distance travel would be risky and probably only undertaken if people or machines were armed. The rich would mainly travel in the air in armed helicopters or light aircraft, a pattern already prefigured in contemporary Sao Paulo, as noted above (Budd 2013; Cwerner 2009). Futurists Gallopin, Hammond, Raskin and Swart thus argued: ‘the elite retreat to protected enclaves, mostly in historically rich nations, but in favoured enclaves in poor nations, as well …Pollution is also exported outside the enclaves, contributing to the extreme environmental deterioration induced by the unsustainable practices of the desperately poor and by the extraction of resources for the wealthy’ (1997: 34). 

    Such an energy-and knowledge-starved city would entail falling standards of living, a greater focus upon the ‘products’ of the increasingly privatized security industry, probable re-localization of mobility patterns, towns and cities built for visitors deteriorating into ghost towns, and an increasing frequency of resource-related ‘new wars’ (Kaldor, Karl, Said 2007). These would involve private mercenaries as well as statist military forces; de-professionalized armies (sometimes made up of ‘boys’); the use of cheap weapons bought through the market/ internet; an asymmetry of military force with no fixed ‘fronts’ or treaties and peace processes; the military targeting of civilians through, inter alia, suicide bombing and drone attacks; the role of warlords combining entrepreneurial and military skills; and the tendency for such wars to last interminable periods of time. Lives in the Fortress City would be conducted with the continuous spectre of warfare, the militarization of young men and the raping of women and girls as constant threats to a decent life. 

    This is a ‘neo-Mediaevalist’ vision of cities of the future. As in the Middle Ages, there would be little democracy, limited state power to govern legitimately, many non-state bodies with a mix of military and ideological powers, much illegal movement of peoples across borders, various empires, many new wars and intense conflict over scarce resources. City lives would be as in Hobbes’ Leviathan: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Lovelock points to the ‘peaking’ of oil, gas and water, as well as ‘western life’ more generally. Shortages will make economic production and social lives more local than appeared likely during the increasingly mobile twentieth century (see Chapter 3 above).

  • Mark 12:17 pm on July 17, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , dystopia, , ,   

    social engineers have never had so many options at their disposal 

    From To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. For a talk about dystopias I’m doing next month, I’m trying to consider the implications of this technology at the level of social ontology. What does it mean to see sinister possibilities inherent in ‘innovations’ like this? Is there anything we can say in the abstract about how likely these possibilities are to be realised? It strikes me that this is necessary, at least if we are to avoid an empiricist attitude of ‘wait and see’ on the one hand or the systematic suppression of technological change on the other.

    Or consider a prototype teapot built by British designer- cum- activist Chris Adams . The teapot comes with a small orb that can either glow green (making tea is okay) or red (perhaps you should wait). What determines the coloring? Well, the orb, with the help of some easily available open- source hardware and software, is connected to a site called Can I Turn It On? ( http://www.caniturniton.com ), which, every minute or so, queries Britain’s national grid for aggregate power- usage statistics. If the frequency figure returned by the site is higher than the baseline of 50 hertz, the orb glows green; if lower, red. The goal here is to provide additional information for responsible teapot use. But it’s easy to imagine how such logic can be extended much, much further, BinCam style. Why, for example, not reward people with virtual, Facebook- compatible points for not using the teapot in the times of high electricity usage? Or why not punish those who disregard the teapot’s warnings about high usage by publicizing their irresponsibility among their Facebook friends? Social engineers have never had so many options at their disposal.

  • Mark 5:49 pm on April 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: catastrophe, , dystopia, , machine age, robotics,   

    The place of sociology in the Second Machine Age 

    We’ve recently seen an emerging discourse of the ‘second machine age’ considering the potential implications of advances in robots and computational technologies for employment. In a recent London Review of Books essay, John Lanchester offers an insightful overview of this issue:

    What if that’s where we are, and – to use the shorthand phrase relished by economists and futurists – ‘robots are going to eat all the jobs’? A thorough, considered and disconcerting study of that possibility was undertaken by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, in a paper from 2013 called ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’​4 They came up with some new mathematical and statistical techniques to calculate the likely impact of technological change on a sweeping range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers and floor sanders. It ranks them, from 1 (you’ll be fine) to 702 (best start shining up the CV). In case you’re wondering, here are the top five occupations:

    1. Recreational Therapists
    2. First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers and Repairers
    3. Emergency Management Directors
    4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
    5. Audiologists

    And here are the bottom five:

    698. Insurance Underwriters
    699. Mathematical Technicians
    700. Sewers, Hand
    701. Title Examiners, Abstractors and Searchers
    702. Telemarketers

    The theme is clear: human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand, routine tasks are not. Some of the judgments seem odd: is it really the case that choreographers come in at 13, ahead of physicians and surgeons at 15, and a long way ahead of, say, anthropologists and archaeologists at 39, not to mention writers at 123 and editors at 140? Nonetheless, the paper’s methodology is sober and it makes clear just how far-ranging the impact of technological change is in white as well as blue-collar work.


    Leaving aside any specific problems we can identify with the methodology here, it nonetheless raises important questions about the future of capitalism. What makes Lanchester’s article so commendable is his insistence that this tendency is not inexorable and he calls for what might be described as a repoliticisation of an issue that has been (self-interestedly?) rendered as narrowly technical. The hyper-capitalist dystopia of vast unemployment predicated upon robotics is something which has haunted popular culture, coming to be represented in everything from 2000AD to the more recent films of Neill Blomkamp:

    What Lanchester suggests is that we need to move beyond dsytopic imagery in order to flesh out our heretofore entirely speculative understanding of what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades. We also need to recover the latent promise that robotics and computation might prove emancipatory, creating new possibilities for human flourishing in a world liberated from mental and physical drudgery:

    A great deal of modern economic discourse takes it as axiomatic that economic forces are the only ones that matter. This idea has bled into politics too, at least in the Western world: economic forces have been awarded the status of inexorable truths. The idea that a wave of economic change is so disruptive to the social order that a society might rebel against it – that has, it seems, disappeared from the realms of the possible. But the disappearance of 47 per cent of jobs in two decades (as per Frey and Osborne) must be right on the edge of what a society can bear, not so much because of that 47 per cent, as because of the timeframe. Jobs do go away; it’s happened many times. For jobs to go away with that speed, however, is a new thing, and the search for historical precedents, for examples from which we can learn, won’t take us far. How would this speed of job disappearance, combined with extensive deflation, play out? The truth is nobody knows. In the absence of any template or precedent, the idea that the economic process will just roll ahead like a juggernaut, unopposed by any social or political counter-forces, is a stretch. The robots will only eat all the jobs if we decide to let them.

    It’s also worth noting what isn’t being said about this robotified future. The scenario we’re given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.


    This all raises the question of the place of sociology in a second machine age. It seems to me that we are strongly positioned to make a unique contribution to our understanding of possible futures (e.g. what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades) as well as, alongside other social sciences, fleshing out our knowledge about the conjunction of factors which might lead to each such possible future. This will involve going beyond the traditional repertories of scholarship and communication. It might benefit from the embrace of design fiction:

    Design fiction is a term first coined by Julian Bleecker and popularized by SF author Bruce Sterling, who describes it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” and that it “attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.”

    Design fiction isn’t science fiction, it’s not just a telling of stories in the future or trying to make predictions of the future, instead it is a way of trying to envision and interrogate possible futures based on research data, current trends, and/or technologies. Originally, primarily used by product designers as a cheap alternative to prototyping new products, it has found traction as a critical tool allowing us to see through the fog of hype and digital evangelism. 


    There’s an example of the form such a future-orientated sociology might take in a recent event with Deborah Lupton and John Urry at the Hawke Research Institute in Australia. In Catastrophic Futures they addressed the question of what kind of future we can expect by 2050, as well as some of the methodological and political questions posed for sociology by such an investigation. There’s a podcast available here and it’s really worth a listen. It also suggests a need for sociological thinkers to help ‘join the dots’: linking together what we know across a range of fields into broader synthetic accounts that accurately convey conceptually opaque aspects of our present situation and highlight potential trajectories. John Urry’s recent book Offshoring is a good example of what this might look like:

    It seems obvious to me that sociology could make an important contribution to the repoliticisation that John Lanchester calls for but it’s not obvious to me that it will. Not least of all because the audit driven logic of the university mitigates against forms of sociological inquiry which by their nature would both transcend specialisation and include a speculative component that resists codification in ‘internationally excellent’ journal articles.

    But if the worst does happen, if we see a catastrophic slide into hyper-capitalist dystopia driven by these technological advances, what place would there be for sociology then? It occurs to me that much of sociology could probably thrive quite well in a world where, as Lanchester puts it, “human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand”: the obvious risk is that it would be an instrumentalised sociology, robbed of any critical impulse, with sociologists reduced to technicians of human capital attendant upon the social relation of those still in employment and directed towards the problems caused by those condemned to perpetual unemployment. There might be a place for corporate ethnography but not for critique, for bounded theorising but not for expansive theory. Contrary to John Urry and Deborah Lupton in the aforementioned podcast, I think we should begin to talk about dsytopias while we still can.

  • Mark 8:46 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , dystopia,   

    The Sociology of Civilizational Collapse 

    How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

    • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
    • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
    • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
    • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
    • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.


    Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

    I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

    That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

    I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

    There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

    I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

    In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

    the massive

    Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

    1. Antibiotic resistant infections
    2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
    3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
    4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
    5. The Surveillance state dystopia

    However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

    Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

    • Benjamin Geer 9:29 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      Sociology seems to be focused mainly on short-term phenomena, but civilisational collapse is a slow process. Similarly, sociology has had trouble dealing with history.

    • Mark 9:56 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I know many historical sociologists who would object to that statement! But I agree though.. I’m less sure about the ‘short-term’ thing – surely theories of modernity are long-term?

    • Benjamin Geer 10:30 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      Most of my own research has been historical sociology, and I’ve always felt it’s very marginal within the field of sociology. Sociologists and historians generally don’t seem to know or care much about each other’s work. Is there a theorist of modernity who actually displays a deep knowledge of history, particularly non-European history?

      An example: although Weber was basically a historical sociologist and devoted considerable effort to explaining the history of religion, contemporary sociology seems to have lost interest in this question. Here I explored some possible reasons for this change:


      If there really is a sociology of civilizational collapse, I’d love to know about it.

    • Mark 5:21 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I agree but I think the reasons for that are intellectual s much anything else – the concern for diagnosing the grand sweep of history, elucidating epochal shifts, licensing a lazy detachment from historical detail. Though I’m talking about Beck, Bauman et al here more than anyone else.

    • Kelly Nielsen 6:39 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I wonder if Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s new book gets at what you’re thinking about here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/science/naomi-oreskes-imagines-the-future-history-of-climate-change.html?_r=0

    • Mark 8:52 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      it looks excellent – thanks!

    • Benjamin Geer 6:27 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink

      While theory should rise above details, the problem is that sociologists who make novel, ambitious claims about history, without doing the historical research necessary to back up those claims, are likely to reach wrong conclusions. Ulrich Beck’s claims about ‘risk society’ — the idea that in the past couple of generations, people have acquired new attitudes towards systemic risk — seem to be an example of this. Historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz found that that the attitudes Beck considers recent were actually widespread in the 18th century. I think sociologists who want to theorise about long-term phenomena should do historical research themselves. In other words, they should be historical sociologists.

    • Mark 7:38 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink

      I find that very convincing!

    • Yannick Rumpala 9:44 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      Science fiction is in fact very diverse and you can find there a large range of representations of collapse.

    • Mark 9:59 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      I’m not saying there aren’t!

    • Mark 10:01 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      But any recommendations are appreciated – I am saying that representations of collapsed societies are much more common than representations of the *process* of collapse. I have no idea if this is just a feature of what I happen to have come across.

    • Yannick Rumpala 10:30 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak and Depression or Bust by Mack Reynolds are for example interseting variations. But you are right.

    • Mark 3:41 pm on December 13, 2014 Permalink

      cheers, will look them up now!

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