Response to Nick Srnicek at the Incredible Machines Conference
March 11, 2014
Note: The following is the substance of my response to Nick Srnicek’s presentation at the Incredible Machines Conference in Vancouver, organized by Mohammed Salemy. A video recording of the session with Nick’s original presentation and my response can be found here. A transcription of Nick’s talk is here. A video of Alexander Galloway’s presentation, which is referred to below, can be found here. For further information, and the rest of the conference materials, please see the Incredible Machines website.
Hello. Thank you to Mo for having me, and the speakers today for their thoughtful presentations. I am an artist based in New York who works primarily in sculpture and other media, with a strong interest in philosophy. In the last year I organized and edited a book called Dark Trajectories with contributions from Reza Negarestani, Ben Woodard, and others which was released by [NAME] publications, and includes the first published version of the #Accelerate Manifesto by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Today I will mostly be addressing Nick Srnicek’s presentation.
First, I want to state that I am largely in agreement with Nick regarding the necessity of planning. I do not believe that we can propose an alternative to capitalism without a developed alternative to its methods, and that any truly modern solution to the problems of the present must be willing to engage with the complexity of present economic conditions in a robust and technologically informed manner. There is no retreat from the Promethean condition; we cannot reconstitute the ashes from the fire. To attempt to go back is only a ramified manner of going forward, and to move forward without the full armament of our present knowledge and technical capabilities is folly. As Nick has outlined, we face challenges whose scope and complexity represent immediate existential threats.
For these reasons, I also believe that the heuristic efficacy of models is needed. Contra Alexander Galloway’s presentation last night, we cannot afford to base our decisions on a fully attenuated detail to the immanence of the present. This is a recipe for myopia and inaction. It is the mistake of Gods and Utopians to believe that we can achieve the fullness of the present in the present. We move forward as we always have, fallible and imperfect human beings, not gods, but armed with the clever tools which are the heritage of our sapience. Models, as Nick says, are not ‘true’, but this is their virtue as much as their weakness, which allows us to recognize where they are inadequate and develop better models. Compression is the necessary evil of those who wish to act.
Now, I’d like to turn to some concerns with Nick’s work, and offer, as a friendly critique, two qualifiers I have regarding the details of his paper, in the hope that he will develop his thought further:
1. The question of value. How do we have knowledge of what the value of resources is in the cybernetic system which Nick advocates? Here I am thinking of Friedrich Hayek, and his competing epistemologies. Hayek developed a cognitive epistemology, which outlines the fallibility of human knowledge, and which is in contrast to his epistemology of the marketplace, which uses the tool of pricing to coordinate human action across the social system, in an elegant but minimal system that operates upon the deficits of Hayekian cognitive limits. But, if the limits of human knowledge, in terms of allocating resources in a sufficiently complex social system, are incapable of producing the necessary knowledge, would technology be capable of playing the same role as pricing in coordinating action? How will that technology know how to value the goods it is coordinating, since, in many of Nick’s examples, pricing operates as the fundamental quantity for their measure?
2. Affect and subjectification. This seems to me the aesthetic question of how we represent the alternative – the neoliberal regime is, in part, popular due to its anti-statist ideology – freedom from the state is a simple to understand notion of liberty (which can be seen in the focus on inflation and minimal intervention in the DSGE model Nick outlines). A new politics must not only produce a new technical model for operating economies, but must also be coupled with a new ideals — perhaps the most developed statement in this regards comes from the manifesto in terms of ‘freedom from work.’ This, of course, inverts neoliberal ideology, but also goes against the grain of a Weberian culture which is deeply ingrained in the Western mindset. Here then, I see a challenge, not just for Nick, but the audience as well, in regards to how we might revolutionize our cultural ideals, and develop a new commons around different affective values.