Good Content (2017)

2017

(None of the following words are my own)

A list of content I like from 2017:

  • “My Working Will be the Work:” Maintenance Art and Technologies of Change (The New Inquiry)

    One important aspect of this “turn” to maintenance histories is that the un-and-underpaid labor of women and marginalized people, who are disproportionately relegated to maintenance work, has again become an important site for articulating the history of technology. A similar turn was initiated by scholars, like historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan and others, in the 1980s.

    These artworks show us how the larger technological world as the public sphere, which Ukeles and Rosler contrast with a degraded private sphere, is itself intimately dependant on the invisible labor and technological systems of the home and the invisible labors of maintenance.

    These caches of unseen power, levers that can move an economy in their numbers, are also technological levers that rely on tools and systems that have been degraded and devalued because of their connection to maintenance labor.

    Ukeles and Rosler remind us the invisible labor of women and marginalized people ensures that those permitted in the public sphere, white able-bodied men, are properly clothed and housed and supported and separated from waste so that they can innovate in comfort. By surfacing this labor and critiquing the ways it has been made invisible, Ukeles and Rosler prefigure scholarly critiques about the labor of women and marginalized people and the hidden histories of maintenance technology that support a public culture of innovation.

    Obsession with innovation over preservation is an obsession with those who are allowed to innovate and an indifference to those who are made to maintain.

  • Ixalan through Indigenous Eyes (Planeswalker for Diversity)

    The spirit of colonialism is alive and well in the other themes and story elements of Ixalan. Ixalan art director Cynthia Sheppard described the elevator pitch for the plane as “Vampire conquistadors” in the 2017 Pax West world-building panel, and it shows. She talked about how dinosaurs and cities of gold came about because they wanted to build off the idea of a Lost World. But the issue with lost world narratives is that they’re built off a tradition of ignoring the sovereignty of indigenous peoples.

    Now Ixalan’s natives have done a great job at avoiding these outwardly racist aspects, but the threads of these ideas are still present in its mechanics and flavor with all its talks of exploring, discovery, and claiming.

    Lost Cities of Gold themselves have a particularly troublesome history. The exaggerated stories of golden cities were used as justification for the violent conquest, genocide, slavery, and the various crimes of humanity that surround it. And the echoes of these atrocities, and others like it, are still felt today.

    Sometimes making actual monsters out of the perpetrators of a very human horror distances ourselves from the truth of the situation. It’s a lot easier to think of these people as unrepentant monsters than actual humans who were capable of terrible things.

  • Beyond the Final Frontier: Star Trek, the Borg and the Post-colonial

    Western knowledge of the Orient says a great deal more about the west than it could ever hope to say about the east. The same is true of depictions of aliens in science fiction. Aliens, as sites of otherness, are projections of our selves and expressions of the tensions concerning the question of what is self and what is other. Aliens are more than simply innocent creations of our imagination.

    The central thematic of Star Trek is the exploration of uncharted territory; it is the frontier which the United Federation of Planets is committed to mapping. Beyond the frontier "there be aliens".

    The Federation, with its mission "to seek out new life and new civilisations", has parallels with the European exploration and colonising missions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Space, uncharted and unknown, does not exist until the Federation charts, maps, names and ultimately controls it. Once colonised, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and is assimilated into the social structure that is the United Federation of Planets.

    Episodes involving the Borg function as a post-colonial space within which the writers review the foundation narratives and the limits of their own perspectives. The colonising and assimilation functions of the Federation and the colonising and assimilating functions of the Borg are inverse reflections of one another.

    The Borg are experienced as Other to the Federation, as the native is experienced as Other to the coloniser.

    The otherness of the Borg shifts subtly in the episode 'I-Borg' where the comparison between the Enterprise’s mission and that of the Borg reveals their similarity. An injured Borg, designated "three of five", is held by the crew of the Enterprise. As they study the mechanics of the Borg implants, "three of five" asks why they are examining him. Engineer Geordie LaForge responds: "Because you are different to us. Part of what we do is learn more about Other species". The Borg recognizes the sentiments of this and notes: "We assimilate Other species. Then we know everything about them. Is that not easier?" There is a clear and explicit acknowledgment that the Borg and the Federation share the same goal - the knowledge of the other.

    Commander Chakotay, second-in-command of Voyager notes: "The Borg have assimilated thousands of species. By enabling them to assimilate 8472 we [the Federation] would be guilty of colonization". The Borg are no longer beyond communication, no longer wholly Other. As Janeway comments, the Borg "are no different to us - they are just trying to survive".

    Perhaps even more interestingly, the Borg colonize from within, by injecting microscopic nanoprobes into the body of their prey.

    Separated from the collective, this Borg no longer relates to himself as a "we" but begins to develop a sense of individuality, a sense of being an "I". Hugh (the name Geordie gives to the individuated Borg) is no longer entirely other; his status is far more ambiguous. Though Hugh has not become a human, he has ceased being a Borg and now occupies a hybrid space between Borg and human, between collective consciousness and individuality. Hugh’s hybridity fractures the colonial relationship. The rigid barriers of self and other collapse and new possibilities emerge. The relationship between the Enterprise and the Borg is now changed and the plan to destroy the Borg is abandoned.

    Seven recognizes the similarity between the Federation’s actions and those of the Borg - "Then you are no different from the Borg" she says, understanding that Voyager’s attempts to make her human are no different from Borg assimilation. The other has been unmasked and revealed to be the self.

  • Namaste Inc. (The New Inquiry)

    And, curiously enough, Western imaginings have breathed new life into namaste: The word now greets a global market as a slogan of health, fitness, and hospitality ideals born with the 1960s New Age movement and revived with current trends. Whether embodied in a product or service, namaste acts to conjure a sense of welcome extended to potential, almost invariably Western, consumers’ minds, evoking embedded values of another culture and thus conferring a degree of authenticity to the product or service in question.

    Yet, as fate would have it, a recent bid for control over these alienated, Western-friendly forms has come from an unlikely source: India’s own Ministry of Tourism.

    Their pride must also serve to show foreign guests a degree of authenticity that is sufficiently welcoming. What Indians are meant to take away from the Ministry’s campaign is this: Welcome foreign guests with namaste and maybe put vermilion on their foreheads. But don’t be too aggressive or try to show how much you covet their dollars, pounds, and euros.

    In a globalized context, however, the warm and hospitable images of India promoted by the Ministry clashes with images reflected back at Indians by Westerners as the latter appropriate traditions in fervent bids for contact with cultural authenticity.

    Authenticity depends, rather, on the power of cultural narratives to shape current perceptions. When the West appropriates namaste and the impression of the warm, welcoming country the word conjures — an impression that, more importantly, India’s Ministry of Tourism so aggressively markets — it becomes the first word in an emergent narrative of subservience. Marketing palatable, welcoming authenticity means forcing Indians to constantly seek to prove their own: Either you are not Indian enough (you need to learn to welcome tourists with namaste) or you are too Indian (you need to take a crash course in order to eliminate your accent). By promoting India almost exclusively to white tourists, Indians have lost ownership of the images of their culture and their country. Indians might try to regain control of them. Yet control always lies with power. Conflicts over authenticity will therefore remain unequal in such an asymmetrical, globalized context.

  • Agnes Martin Finds the Light That Gets Lost (The Paris Review)

    After all, why paint the sky when the sky itself is a stand-in, when you can paint the feeling you get when you look at the world and realize there’s so much beauty in it that you haven’t yet seen? Her paintings evoke subtle feelings, feelings that seem trite—like Faraway Love and Friendship and Gratitude. But they are real, they are felt. They are even, astonishingly, earnestly, the titles of her paintings.

    Unlike many of her other paintings, which are pastels, whites and grays or sometimes black, it is blue. Not the blue of the sky, or the hazy blue of the mountains, which is bright and achy with cyan undertones, but a rich, lapis-lazuli blue, a marbled blue with a tone of violet in it. This is a material blue, a touchable blue. It fills the whole square and even spills over in places: her brush has strayed over the outline. But it isn’t evenly painted—the watercolor collects in places, forming wavelike, swirling shapes, and the white of the paper shines through where the paint is most thinly applied. Inside the square, also, a gift: a grid, done in black ink, and inside each square, again a gift, a white dot of gouache.

    In it, Martin has captured the longing I feel when I think of the blues of distances I cannot close, and in putting it somewhere where I can see it, has closed the distance. Somewhere in there, too: a little joy, tempering all that wanting.

  • Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear (BuzzFeed)

    Consider: Who pursues their goals with monomaniacal focus, oblivious to the possibility of negative consequences? Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? This hypothetical strawberry-picking AI does what every tech startup wishes it could do — grows at an exponential rate and destroys its competitors until it’s achieved an absolute monopoly. The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification: a benevolent genie that solves all the world’s problems, or a mathematician that spends all its time proving theorems so abstract that humans can’t even understand them. But when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.

    Back in 1996, John Perry Barlow published a manifesto saying that the government had no jurisdiction over cyberspace, and in the intervening two decades that notion has served as an axiom to people working in technology. Which leads to another similarity between these civilization-destroying AIs and Silicon Valley tech companies: the lack of external controls. If you suggest to an AI prognosticator that humans would never grant an AI so much autonomy, the response will be that you fundamentally misunderstand the situation, that the idea of an ‘off’ button doesn’t even apply. It’s assumed that the AI’s approach will be “the question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me,” i.e., the mantra of Ayn Randian libertarianism that is so popular in Silicon Valley.