PAUL GRAHAM RAVEN: someone else’s problem?

3 Sep

On Thursday September 5, foresight consultant and critic Paul Graham Raven talked to Improving Reality about why infrastructure – arguably the greatest of all human achievements – fills so many of us with a kind of dread.

We asked him where the trouble began.


One of the big challenges in discussing infrastructure is defining what infrastructure is – and I’ve found that one good way to do that is to jolt you out of that frame of reference in which”infrastructure” refers to a baffling panoply of complicated things from container ships to wind-farms.

Let’s do some time travel.

First off, I’m going to borrow from Donna Haraway and claim that human beings have always been cyborgs. All four of Haraway’s definitions of the cyborg are of interest, but the important one here is: the cyborg as a hybrid system comprising both living and inanimate material. As soon as our hunter-gatherer forebears learned how to knap flints and sling their babies across their backs in animal skins, they were cyborgs: organic creatures extending their baseline abilities by the use of prostheses, the use of tools.

(Yes, many primates and other animals use tools, but they’re part-timers; tools extend them, but don’t define them.)

Hunter-gatherer culture was nomadic, clannish, matrilinear and possibly polyandrous. I don’t buy the old saw about their “complete harmony with the landscape” or whatever. Human activity shaped the environment pretty early on, by over-hunting game to extinction, and by deploying fire. Still, having to follow their food supplies limited the time people could spend meddling with the world to make it more convenient for them. Instead, they meddled with themselves. Their only tools were what they could carry, or make to order at point of use: flint blades, wooden spears, bone needles, crude clothes of skin. These were what I call pure tools: tools that do what they do in and of themselves, independent of anything else; tools you can take and use anywhere.

Hunter-gatherers were collectives of cyborgs: working as groups, but possessing individual augmentations.

Hunter-gathering gave way gradually to agriculture, and it’s at this point that the first crude infrastructures appear. A sedentary lifestyle increased the number and diversity of pure tools you could have, because you no longer needed to carry them all. It also changed the opportunity cost of engineering your environment: if you know you’re going to be in the same spot for years to come, clearing a wide path or digging irrigation ditches stops being a waste of time and calories and becomes a long-term investment enabling easier access to food sources and water.

Infrastructures are a sort of tool: they’re a prosthesis, an extension of baseline human abilities. But they aren’t pure tools, because they’re inherently embedded in the landscape, and hence they’re not portable (even if the concept is). Or we could think of infrastructures as metatools, enabling the development and deployment of more complex (less pure) tools, and magnifying their effects and utility. An irrigation ditch, for example, changes the parameters of subsistence farming: it saves you time and effort (no more trekking to the river and back), which you can spend on tending your crops, deterring pests, working out ways to plant faster, harvest better yields, and so on.

There’s a downside, of course. Infrastructure – not agriculture itself, but the environmental alterations which made agriculture more viable – tied Homo sap communities to specific locations. You stay for the convenience, and after a while your population expands and you get accustomed to that convenience. You stop practicing the old ways of surviving without it. You’re hooked.

But it’s not just you that’s dependent on infrastructure, the way an earlier you was dependent on being able to knap flint and whittle bone. No – you’re dependent on infrastructure as a community. The prostheses upon which your life now depends are augmentations not of your own body, but of the collective body of your tribe or village.

Congratulations: you’ve just transitioned from being a collective of cyborgs to being a cyborg collective.

(We’ve been one ever since.)

It is of interest, I think, that this is also the historical point at which we believe patriarchal social structures emerged, based around the control of access to land and resources. Also, the emergence of specialisation: infrastructure freed you up from huntin’ and gatherin’ so you could learn to throw pots, make clothes, trade stuff, and so on. Takeaway point: by freeing us from toil, infrastructure trapped us in new toils, and the culture of unavoidable dependency means you can’t just walk away and start again.

Infrastructure is your life support system, your Hostile Environment Suit.

Oh, you could perhaps survive without it, but you wouldn’t recognise the experience as living. This is why I wish Randian libertarians would just piss off and “go Galt” like they always threaten to; it’d cure them of their venal philosophy pretty fucking fast.

It also exposes the Hairshirt Green delusion. Maybe those folk really would enjoy a return to perpetual nomadic graft, but they fail to realise that it’s only due to the continued development and enhancement of infrastructure that the planet can support more than a few hundred million people. So sure, maybe you can go back to living light upon the land – but first, you have to pick which other 6.9 billion human beings have to die.

Infrastructure’s a trap we sprung on ourselves long, long ago. And while it’s important to note that fact, there’s no point in lamenting it, because we can’t go back – not without literal gigadeaths. The collective body cannot survive without infrastructure, and (with a few notable exceptions, fewer every year) the individual cannot survive in the interstices where infrastructure does not reach.

Infrastructure is the technological metasystem which extracts, processes and distributes the resources that keep us alive. It is also the technological metasystem that has altered our biosphere to an unprecedented degree, to the point where – ironically enough – it may render it unable to support civilisation.

It’s broken, but we literally can’t live without it. There’s no going back.

Our only option is to fix it. The way out is through.


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