Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New problems of internet governance

As Ned Rosster (2009: 37) argues in a study of e-waste industries in Southern China,

In the case of the global logistics industries, the rise of secondary resource flows accompanying the economy of electronic waste is coextensive with the production of non-governable subjects and spaces. I suggest that the relation between these entities constitutes new regional formations that hold a range of implications for biopolitical technologies of control.

Writing in the same publication, one of the editors notes

The idea of nature as an aesthetic and normative exteriority appears to offer a safe position of ethico-epistemological privilege from which to condemn various aspects of information-technological modernization. But it is perhaps only by acknowledging that the contradictory consequences of the spread of electronics cannot be easily mapped onto an antagonism of nature versus technology that the idea of network ecologies becomes comprehensible (Zehle 2009: 4).

The non-governable of nature is then produced in the contemporary world as a network effect: this would explain why ecologies and networks are employed as metaphors in systems analysis and environmental science alike. Regionality might suggest a partition of the world between the urban or nega-urban and the preserved and conserved nature park, or at least the gap between lanes on the highway where wildflowers bloom and which in New Zealand is called 'the nature strip'. But it must also evoke divisions, especially the division of labour, a network form which predates and founds digital network logic. The ecology of the poor emerges, as pointed out above, in the interstices of networks: by rail tracks, under the fences of factories, on perilous slopes where gullies carve a path of green into the city. The term 'pristine' which is almost invariably attached to the word 'wilderness' does not recognise the evolutionary genius of organic life,human or otherwise, that proliferates between paving stones and in the shit-piles of the slum. Rodents, insects, amoeba and bacteria do not usually figure in the cartography of the megacities' settlement with natural phenomena, yet they are as integral as urban foxes or the uncanny spectacle of zoo animals.

The emergence instead of 'ungovernable subjectivities' and the consequent need for a biopolitical management of material, energetic and informatic flows which Rossiter points us to, should evoke subjectivities which are no longer purely human. Some of these have been familiar to sociology since its birth: the crowd, the tribe, the family and the factory. In contemporary media formations, corporations constitute actually existing cyborgs comprising complex technical assemblages onto which are plugged, Matrix-like, the human biochips on which they feed. Increasingly, the meta-assemblage which is the megacity requires a third term, the organic life which seeps in, as aesthetic (pets, gardens) , as functional (parks, waterfronts) but also as Nigel Clark suggests as the ungoverned and unwanted weeds, pests and bugs which contaminate the ostensibly clean distinctions between parts (Clark 2000). In a network, the divisions are also media of translation between nodes, human, technical and organic. Smart objects, the internet of things is one response to this problematic explosion of unexpected subjectivities: indeed, a biopolitical recognition that our devices have indeed evolved a life of their own.

Problems with Bennett's Vibrant Matter

In the actor-network perspective adopted and updated by Jane Bennett, electricity grid failures in megacities – she discusses the Northeastern blackout affecting the Boston-New York and Great Lakes conurbations in August 2003 – can be traced to the chaotic behaviour of electrical flows in complex grids. Like Virilio (2007), she sees the very existence of the power grid as the intimation of its collapse (Bennett 2010: 27), and argues that the energy trading corporation on whose lines the disaster began, FirstEnergy, was not responsible for what happened, suggesting that humans should not be regarded as privileged by their capacity for action apart from 'the order of material nature'. Instead, comparing her attitude to that of FirstEnergy's board, Bennett argues that 'Autonomy and strong responsibility seem to me to be empirically false, and thus their invocation seems tinged with injustice . . . individuals [are] simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects' (Bennet 2010: 28). While undoubtedly naïve claims of causality, and any claim to individualism, are unhelpful in the context of electric power outages, or indeed any network situation, it is equally naïve to omit the interconnection of this network with another, the deregulated energy market of the USA in the 2000s.

It is illuminating to compare the 2003 blackout with another case of megacity outage in the USA. The now shamed Enron corporation had used campaign funds to pressure California legislators to deregulate the state's energy market. Before deregulation, there had been only one serious rolling blackout: from the deregulation of December 200 to its re-regulation in June 2001, there were 38 (Public Citizen 2002). In August that year, Enron share price began to tumble, resulting in its filing for bankruptcy in November. There is no clear connection between the collapses of California's energy market and that of Enron. It is true however that ascribing the collapse of both to human greed, is inadequate. Equally, however, Bennett is correct in saying that the electrical network, the medium through which these crises occurred, provided the affordances necessary to drive them into collapse. The collapse, however, was driven by changing network goals. Missing in Bennett's analysis is the interaction between two systems, the public utility and the market. It is this interaction which created the new network behaviours which caused the crises (Healy and Palepu 2003; see also Fox 2003, Eichenwald 2005)). FirstEnergy, like Enron close to the Bush administration (CEO, H. Peter Burg had a seat on Bush's energy transition team), had quite a record. It owns GPU, the New Jersey generating company which ran Three Mile Island, and in February 2002 had its own Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio shut down at the brink of another nuclear disaster. The investigation into the blackout found FirstEnergy at the heart of the four causes (a term they find suitably problematic) of the disaster: FE's systemic failure to address problems in its network, specifically of voltage levels; its inadequate situational awareness; its failure to manage trees under its powerlines; and persuading its public oversight body not to inspect its systems and practices . While it is difficult to demonstrate that FirstEnergy was shifting power in and out of the region affected by the blackout, as Enron had done in California, the combination of software bugs and a flashover caused by overheating powerlines sparking against untrimmed trees do demonstrate the argument that when share price is the only value, energy companies abandon safe, clean and reliable supply (Bratton 2002).

This is not an example of emergent properties in a chaotic network: it clearly arises when one value – .the provision of light – conflicts with another – the extraction of profit, in the Californian instance not from retail sale but from speculative trading in real-time energy futures, in the North eastern from taking immediate profit even at the expense of the long-term profitability or even feasibility of the operation. These outcomes of clashes betwen service and profiot are even more visible in the developing world. Thus in Lagos under auspices of the World Bank and IMF during the Babangida régime in the 1980s, the national electricity provider was privatised at knock-down prices, enriching the elite while discouraging investment in the service. The absence of public utilities leads to widespread tapping into private electrical lines, resulting in widespread blackouts and frequent fires (Packer 2006: 6-7). According to Francisco Bolaji Abosede, Lagos Commissioner for Town Planning and Urbanisation, 'By 2015 Lagos will be the third largest city in the world but it has less infrastructure than any of the world’s other largest cities' (IRIN 2006). The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), recently renamed the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), is accused of long-standing corruption. The World Bank has however provided 100 million dollars to aid in its privatisation, despite vigorous opposition from power unions and others. NEPA was also signatory to a contract with Enron which locked it into a guaranteed purchasing agreement that had become unsustainable by 2005. Unions implied that Enron's successor, AES, was not supplying the agreed amounts of power, and the whole contract was embroiled in a legal battle alongside the political batte over splitting NEPA into eleven smaller companies prior to privatisation and deregulation (Hall 2006: 12). As Bennett suggests, such intricate networks are subject to chaotic storms and sudden, violent collapse; but such emergent behaviours cannot be understood apart from the political economy of capital, and the specific ideologies of neo-liberalism that power them

There's a permanent risk that ANT retains Latour's patrician aloofness towards political engagement The full argument is in a piece submitted to the NEP volume of Theory Culture and Society

Thursday, December 9, 2010


How much more is there to add? The US State Department says Wikileaks is 'putting lives at risk', but I don't recall Assange invading Iraq or placing a standing army in Afghanistan. Columnists calling for his asassination are acting illegally and might be incarcerated in a different society. Like anti-abortionists committing murder, the lack of a sense of irony permits all sorts of horrors. Meanwhile the US prepares to host World Press Freedom Day while pressuring eBay and Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks and the credit card monopolists and their only competitor (established on the principle that monopolies would always permit exactly this kind of abuse) PayPal (now property of eBay) to stop handling donations.

The sad thing is that this isn't going to stop anything. Quite apart from the denial of service attacks on mastercard etc, the hacker community is preparimg for distributed serving. Far less easy to stop. But also far less obviously reliable. Now anyone hosting a bunch of files can potentially get in and alter a name or a date or a place. The capacity for massive and this time really destructive (dis)information is huge. OIf they manage to lock up the wind, they will release the whirlwind. It is not only shameful, it is stupid.