Webb Keane on his new book, Ethical Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Imagine that you happen to be in a long line at the airport, and find yourself chatting with another academic, say a media scholar who studies Cuban television before and after the revolution.  How would you describe the ways your book might be useful to her?

Of course no one standing in line at the airport is talking to the people around them because they’re all absorbed in their personal devices.  But anyway, there are two ways to approach your question: first, as being about revolution, and second, as being about television.  Let’s take revolution first, and then turn to television (leaving aside the old question of whether the revolution will be televised).

Revolutions, like religious revivals and social reform movements, exemplify the fact that ethical life isn’t just about being in the flow of things or cultivating virtuous habits and embodied sensibilities.  People also have a fundamental capacity to stand apart from that flow, in highly self-conscious ways.  They can take what I call the third person stance toward ethical life.   Although this kind of stance is often associated with religious moralities, avowedly atheist revolutions show that one can cultivate a god’s eye view without God.   This is why the book devotes a chapter to the Vietnamese revolution.   Obviously all sorts of factors go into any given revolutionary movement, but Vietnamese history casts light on the distinctively ethical underpinnings of political commitment.   After all, why should urban literati like Ho Chi Minh (or, I could say to your Cuban media scholar, people from privileged backgrounds like Fidel or Che) have cared about socially distant peasants enough to deviate from their own comfortable pathways in life?   I argue that to understand Ho’s revolutionary project and its wide appeal in its early years, we have to grasp its sources in what are properly ethical concerns about harm and justice.   People like Ho could crystallize those ethical concerns as a principled and readily communicated political critique thanks to the availability of a third person perspective on their society.  From the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxist social theory and historical narratives, along with elements of Confucian and Catholic social thought, provided Vietnamese revolutionaries with a position from which the view their own world from the outside.   But that “god’s eye” position alone couldn’t make a revolution.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries understood the importance of what we call ordinary ethics, that is, the way that values like respect, dignity, social recognition, and equality are embedded in everyday habits and activities.   In light of the enormous economic , political, infrastructural, and military challenges the Vietnamese communists faced, it’s remarkable how much emphasis they placed on changing seemingly trivial norms of speech and other aspects of face-to-face interaction.  In this respect, they were trying (with greater or lesser success) to bring the third person stance to bear on the habitual and unself-conscious flow of first person experience and second person address.

As for television, like any medium, it is a vehicle for the circulation of objectifications—images, expressions, and narratives that retain some formal integrity beyond their original context.  These objectifications have historical consequences for ethical life.  They contribute to ethical self-consciousness of individuals, and the consolidation–and dissolution–of public norms more widely.   So one question to ask about television is how its impact differs from face-to-face interaction and other media like newspapers, radio, cell phones, the internet, and so forth.  What difference does it make that a given medium has the speed it does, or geographical reach, social scale, visual versus aural or tactile sensoria, one-way versus dialogic format, centralized control versus open access, the techniques of intimacy and alienation, and so forth?  These questions open up a huge set of empirical problems that extend well beyond the scope of my book.  But here are some of the distinctively ethical questions we might ask.  Your own work with teenagers has focused on one of them: is it okay to break up with someone by text message?   If not, why?  What ethical difference does it make whether your social actions are carried out in one medium or another?  If this is a question about the second person address of interaction, we can also move our attention outwards into more public and sociological scales.   Do certain media facilitate the third person stance or enhance first person subjectivity?  What difference does it make that a message is conveyed in verbally explicit form or implied by sonic or visual means?  Is it more ethically dubious to be swayed by the sound of someone’s voice than by the logic of their arguments or the authority of their institutional position?  Do certain media forms reinforce the monologic voice whereas others enable dialogism?  Television and social media notoriously escape the confines of context: what weight do we give to semiotic form and producers’ intentions when a supposedly neutral image enters a context where it’s deemed pornographic, racist, or blasphemous?  These aren’t just academic questions; they also worry teachers, parents, lovers, artists, political activists, censors, lawyers, and propagandists.  We know, for instance, that the easy transmission of sermons via cassette tapes played a critical role in fostering a new kind of public space in the run-up to the Iranian revolution.  And of course all sorts of claims have been made for the transformative effects of social media on the Arab Spring—not all of which have stood up well over time.  Is the form of a medium effective independent of its content?   Muslim preachers in Indonesia seem to think so when they hire mass media consultants from American Christian televangelists.

One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances.  Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world.  In your hands, affordances can belong to “anything at all that people can experience” because they “possess an indefinite number of combinations of properties.” (30)  Yet anchoring affordances in materiality provides a significant theoretical purchase – it has typically afforded a way to conceptualize limitations and resistances.  When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters.   In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible?

I expand on the notion of affordances by including people’s experiences of such things as emotions, cognitive biases, linguistic form, patterns of interaction, and social institutions.  But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.  Although this may push the concept of affordance further than its more familiar uses, I think it’s consistent with them.

I’ve been seeking to develop a realist approach to anthropology that nonetheless retains the insights of the constructivist traditions in social thought and does not succumb to determinism.  The attraction of affordance lies in this.  It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible.  But it does not do so by claiming that the things of this world necessitate anything in particular (nor, for that matter, does the analysis depend on us claiming to have the “correct” depiction of that world).  One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair.  A wooden chair affords sitting, but only if you’re of a certain size, shape, and flexibility.  So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.  Moreover, the existence of chair doesn’t mean that you will sit.  You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.  That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort.   As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view.

Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly.  But here’s a more relevant example in the book.  Humans cannot learn to speak a full-fledged language without first developing some cognitive capacity to infer other people’s intentions and otherwise work with what some psychologists call “Theory of Mind.”  You can’t even use first and second person pronouns unless you have a rudimentary grasp of the perspective on “I” that is momentarily granted by saying “you.”  This affords all sorts of things, including shame, prayer, novels, torture, games, and witchcraft.  It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions.   To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities.  Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.  I think there’s more ethnographically specific insight to be gained this way than by treating each cultural world as autonomous, the creation of its own heroic Promethean powers to create reality.  But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism.

In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change.  Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment.  What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well? 

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects.  The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.  But I think it’s too soon for us to see clearly how this came about and what will follow.  We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery.  As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth.  But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century.  These include the great wave of popular evangelical Christianity, England’s political and economic competition with France and its ideological interest in distinguishing its moral superiority to a newly independent (and slave-owning) America, the emergence of working class identities that put pressure on the value of manual labor, and more.  These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.  So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible.  But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together.  Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality.  Explicit ethical concepts help crystallize people’s intuitions and allow them to circulate in new ways (which takes us back to the issue of media raised in your first question) but they can’t tell the whole story alone.

Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.   I can’t help thinking however that we are currently in a stage of capitalism when the market is viewed as the ideal spontaneous order precisely because self-awareness is irrelevant to its functioning, when algorithms are viewed as idealized ordering mechanisms, but only because, in a sense, they are seen as circumventing explicitness.  What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function?

In this context, explicitness means being able to put an ethical stance into so many words: “the voting law is unjust” or “the Dean can be trusted to say what she means.”  You do this by drawing on the ethical vocabulary that’s available in a given social location and historical moment.  (By the way, this means that particular ways of being ethical are necessarily historical: As old ethical categories disappear and new ones come into existence so to do ways of being, or not being, ethical, and new ways for people to affirm or deny one another’s ways of being ethical.  Try as I may, it’s simply not possible for me to be a virtuous Athenian or a Confucian sage today.  An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named.)  What some philosophers have called “morality systems” try to stabilize ethics by codifying it.  But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification.  It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories.   It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.  For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes.   We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things.  It’s a recurrent issue:  some ancient Chinese philosophers also worried that any purposeful striving to be ethical would be nullified by that very effort.  Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.   The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were.   But this can be only part of the story.  On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone.  That’s part of my argument against utilitarianism, which insist one only look at things from the objective position of the third person stance.   It’s only from the first person stance that one can really care about ethics in a fully embodied and inhabitable way.  But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.  People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only.  We are always in motion among them.   This motility isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism?  We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners.  Does this make it a-ethical?  Not necessarily.  After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there.  I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification.  We may feel it’s based on false premises or has harmful consequences, but I think we should recognize that it makes ethical claims of a sort.  They’re just not necessarily ones I would accept.  However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.  Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways.  Any form of social organization that denies this and tries to treat them as wholly independent units is empirically mistaken and, let’s say, ethically compromised.

You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy.  That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.  Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be.   What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight?

If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously.  That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.  But communication isn’t a simple matter of transmission, getting a self-contained message from one head to another head.  For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth.  Moreover, mediation isn’t just an empty vehicle.  It is always embodied in semiotic forms (words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth).  Semiotic forms are never entirely purpose-built—as Derrida remarked long ago, “the engineer is a myth.”  As a result, they bring with them their contingent histories, they face causal constraints and give rise to unintended consequences well beyond anyone’s communicative purposes, and they possess affordances that can point their users in unexpected new directions.

It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence.  So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.  And far too much of it is based on interviews.   So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously.   Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication.  In addition, it means attending to materiality, to both the qualities of media and the causal networks they’re involved in.   If you were researching the internet, for instance, you might ask both about the body’s relationship to movement viewed on a flat screen and about the infrastructure that makes that relationship possible (cyber-utopians never seem to talk about how we pay the monthly smart phone bills or the environmental costs of powering Google’s servers).   So rather than suggest new research topics, we might look at the research we are already embarked on from new angles, asking what are the constraints on people’s projects, the distinctively ethical affordances and unintended consequences to which their semiotic media can give rise?

I would pay particular attention to the interplay between what gets made explicit and what remains unsaid, either because it’s too obvious to say, too ordinary to notice, or is simply impossible to put into words.   In looking at social change, for instance, what’s the relationship between those who are articulate and passionate, on one hand, and those who are silent and indifferent, on the other?  Are the voices we hear most clearly always where the action’s at?  When they are, is this because of what they say, who’s saying it, or how they say it?  In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early 1970s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture.  (As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events).  What’s interesting is how these women, some of whom had been influenced by reading Maoism and Frankfurt School Marxism and by practical experiences in the Civil Rights movement, discovered the affordances of ordinary conversation.  Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.  The result was what I call “historical objects,” values and concepts (sexual harassment, glass ceiling, control of one’s own body) and that can be pointed to, debated, circulated widely through the media, and institutionalized—or suppressed—in explicit norms and laws.  One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before.   But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way.   To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation

As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.  There’s a lot of ethnographic interest in these topics already but I would suggest that we need to pay special attention to the motility among first, second, and third person stances.  To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable.   But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy– all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings.   Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover – did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover?

Before entering academic life, I was an artist (I’ve never taken a college course in anthropology—maybe that’s why I’ve never grown tired of the subject).   That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago.  When I was finishing my second book, Christian Moderns, I decided I didn’t want to have a cover that would try to illustrate the book, both because that seemed too literal-minded, and because illustration covers often encourage certain readings of the book at the expense of others.   As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well.  So for Ethical Life I thought I’d use another work by a friend.  However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work.  But someone suggested I use my own painting.  The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme.  Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages.   At any rate, you’re welcome to read into the cover what you will!

Bodoh-Creed’s When Pfizer Met McDreamy

My dissertation is an examination of the role that medicine and media play in educating the American public. The research as a whole looks at four lines of media evidence including medical fictional and non-fictional television, pharmaceutical advertising, and internet health searches (also called cyberchondria). My page 99 sits squarely in the historical review of medical television, looking at the portrayal of physicians and medicine from shows in the 1960s like Ben Casey to the current spate of shows on the air now like the long running Grey’s Anatomy and House M.D.  Page 99 discussed the role of graphic medicine and realism that, while not unique to ER, was popularized by the show and it also demonstrates how physician writers cannibalize medical experiences of their own and those of colleagues around them.

[ER] thrived on intensity for the audience. The pacing was fast and the camera shots unique. In an Emmy Award winning episode of ER in the first season, titled “Love’s Labor Lost” a pregnant woman is featured having complications in the emergency room and an ER doc having to perform a caesarian section in haste. Of course chaos ensues and it is a very graphic, fast episode that was based on a real experience of a physician friend of one of the writers. (99)

Within my dissertation research, I want to stress the importance of the amount of access that I was able to obtain within medical television industry personnel. I spoke to actors, directors, executive producers, writers, physician writers and consultants, nurse advisors and consultants, product placement coordinators who organized medical equipment for set, special effects creators, and they all gave me some incredible insight into their world and also the changes in medical television over the last 50 years. The information from these key informants show the ways that physicians and nurses create the authentic medicine that is seen on screen.  They strive for accuracy as much as possible, knowing that audiences are paying attention to the jargon, the procedures, and the medical lessons of early detection, treatments, and life saving medications.

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, “When Pfizer Met McDreamy: A Classic American Love Story Between Medicine and the Media.” PhD diss, University of California, Riverside, 2013.

Dissertation available here: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6mx5b84b

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, Adjunct Faculty, California State University, Los Angeles, Department of Anthropology. Jbodohc2@calstatela.edu

 

 

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit’s Positive Thinking Without a Smile

Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies. In a heading on page 99, I named this tension “from introspection to instruction” to describe coaches’ and trainees’ negotiations with the neoliberal and therapeutic notion of cultivating reflexivity and following the specific instructions of a professional authority. Scholars such as Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose, James Faubion and others have extensively theorized how healers and experts of the soul exercise their power through the cultivation of their patients’ reflexivity. One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri (direct speech) that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination.

Dugri refers to utterances spoken in a blunt manner, as a form of criticism aimed at one’s interlocutor which symbolizes intimacy, authenticity, care, and courage. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. The logic behind dugri is that only someone who truly cares about their interlocutors will put him/herself at risk by expressing an unpopular critical view (Katriel 1986). Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.

The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. In my dissertation I show how Israeli coaches and their trainees negotiate these two discourses – the global and local – as well as these two types of caring, in their effort to balance between focusing on the trainee’s abilities to be reflexive and centering around the coach’s expression of his/her authenticity as well as expert knowledge and power.

Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Recently I had a chance to view the new Netflix documentary about the famous American life coach Anthony Robbins titled: “I am not your Guru” (which I highly recommend: https://www.netflix.com/watch/80102204?trackId=14277281&tctx=0%2C0%2C6f297f89-3322-4f91-b3ba-1ec0cb44108c-50113145). Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder – is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style?

 

Reference:

Katriel, Tamar

1986    Talking Straight: Dugri Speech in Israeli Sabra Culture: Cambridge University Press.

 

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. 2015. Positive Thinking without a Smile: Self and Care in Israeli Life Coaching. Phd dissertation, University of Haifa.

 

Ben Peters on his new book, How Not to Network a Nation

How Not to Network a Nation

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for Ben Peters

If you found yourself at a picnic with linguistic anthropologists, and one of them was sensible enough to bring tasty corn and seemed very interested when you mentioned briefly that you had written about the history of thwarted Soviet attempts to develop the internet, how would you explain your book?

Hey ling anth friends, please pass the corn!

(Between messy bites) I think my interest in the Soviet internet story owes a sideways debt to the fact I’m from deep corn country, USA. Coming from a small college town in the Midwest licenses one not only to know their corn (delicious!) but to appreciate life removed from the urban centers of global action. This appreciation once struck me as a 20-year-old service volunteer living in a small city called Balakovo along the Volga river in the post-industrial rust belt of Russia. There I realized not all “middle of nowheres” are similar (Ian Frazier’s delightful and meditative masterpieces The Great Plains  and Travels in Siberia make this point). In addition to the earnest people, the agricultural base, and scenic landscape I was used to back in Iowa, Balakovo, a former secret Soviet city, had decaying military-industrial factories for the cosmonaut industries, an enormous hydroelectric dam, a line of nuclear reactors looming on the horizon, and much else. Where did this outsized industrial infrastructure come from?  I remember wondering on the edge of an enormous dammed reservoir: who first thought it a good idea to plan so much electrical power in out-of-the-way Balakovo, and why?

(Holding up half-eaten corn cob) I have since recognized that the big ag corn industry in the US—and perhaps even all advanced modernity in its debt to large institutions—participates in the basic question behind the Soviet internet book: why do some institutions organize our lives and others not?  Why, in particular, wasn’t there a Soviet internet? Given its failure was neither inevitable nor natural, what was the story of the Soviet scientists and leaders that planned to network the nation with computers anyway? Who were these cyberneticists?   What did they want when they started to imagine  networking the planned economy with computers in an ambitious project called the All-State Automated System ( or OGAS for short)? And why, despite thirty years of attempts at the height of the cold war tech race, did this outsized informational network infrastructure for the Soviet people not take root?

(Hint: my answers are not censorship cultures, technological backwardness, or inefficient hierarchical states.)

Throughout the book, you explain that while many cyberneticists modeled their national network projects after the human mind, the projects were quite different, in part because how they understood this metaphor varied so much. Could you explain some of the differences?

(Sets corn cob down in order to focus.) Sure thing. There are many brain-computer metaphors—and none of them are right. I think the twentieth-century pedestaled the wrong image of the ideal computing processor: the ideal computing processor is not the human brain. (Moreover this towering intellectual hubris—or what brains think about themselves—builds naturally on a troubling early modern vaulting of western individualism.) Cybernetics, after World War II, enabled strong neural-computer network analogies to be at work in Warren McCulloch’s influence on Paul Baran’s distributed network design at RAND, in Stafford Beer’s influence on Allende’s Cybersyn network in Chile, and in (as I detail in the book) Viktor Glushkov’s influence on the OGAS Project in the Soviet Union. Each had different consequences in different places: to put it in a nutshell, the ARPANET designers imagined their nation as a single distributed brain of users, while the OGAS Project designers (not entirely unlike Beer in Chile) imagined their network as a nervous system for layering onto their nation as an economic industrial body of workers, with the state as the brain. To suggest that the first American computer network was modeled after an imagination of a national brain and the Soviet networks were after a national body not only rehearses the mid-century emerging information and industrial cold war economic differences—but it also obscures the on-the-ground story of both. I suspect linguist anthropologists have much to teach me here in particular: I think the biggest difference lies not in the metaphors but in the distance between all those brain-computer metaphors and the embodied practices of building and institutionalizing computer networks. No national network projects resemble the human mind in practice.

Economists and economic cybernetics play a much larger role in the book that I imagined when I first started reading. It left me wondering: what kind of dilemmas do economists have to solve when they don’t presume that the market is the best way to distribute goods and determine value?

They stump up against some of the hardest dilemmas I know. In all semiotic-material discourse (of which the economy is of course just one mode), every evaluation is also an executable fabrication that itself acts on other evaluations. And among the resulting chains of operations, in which there are many dilemmas, the ones that matter most in this book do not fall along the cold war economic liberal language of private markets versus public states. (Hannah Arendt, for example, nudges my conclusion to deconstruct and begin rebuilding network discourse beyond the tired cold war triumphalism around markets, liberty, and commerce.) As you note, I spend a couple chapters developing how economic relations did not work as planned in the Soviet context: continuous and partial reform among battling schools of thought, nonlinear command and control dynamics, informal power networks, vertical bargaining, and other sources of organizational dissonance. I dub all this, borrowing from McCulloch and David Stark’s language, “heterarchy.” In a heterarchy, every node is subject to competing regimes of evaluation and the resulting logics by which value is determined cannot be described or mapped onto simple two-dimensional models (markets, hierarchies, and so on). Perhaps our behavior can be mapped onto a higher order in n-dimensional spaces, suggests McCulloch, or perhaps not at all. How we determine value is a complex measure of how modern humans interact, and indeed how any actor responds to contradictory demands (do I write, prepare for class, go for a walk, or have another piece of corn?) reveals more than our negotiated compromises to that contradiction.

Back to the Soviet case: it is no surprising revelation that the on-the-ground practical relations for determining and planning values in the Soviet planned economy did not function as they promised to on paper. Still, this mundane fact had consequences in at least two directions: it frustrated the rationalizing impulses of technocratic economic reform attempts such as the OGAS Project. It also ensured that economic bureaucracies could actively resist reforms because they were free to pursue their institutional self-interest in the status quo. The Soviet network story is thus an uneasy mix of technological genius and futuristic foresight leavened with mutinous ministries and institutional infighting. Or, to restate the book hook, while the US ARPANET took shape thanks to state funding and collaborative research environments, the Soviet contemporary projects broke against the rock of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions and bureaucrats. The first global computer networks took shape thanks to cooperative capitalists, not competitive socialists.

As your story unfolds about why the Soviets never developed a national computer network, another deep irony emerges – that a system built around centralization consistently over time ended up undercutting any possibility of a centralized computer network.   You suggest that this is a story about the tensions between belief and practice, between a system that was touted as a centralized and well-regulated bureaucracy and in practice a complicated mixture of differently structured hierarchies. Could you discuss the tensions between Soviet centralization and Soviet bureaucratic fiefdoms that lie behind your history of non-events?

That’s a beautiful question central to the project—one that I’d like to tweak in two ways as a way of responding.

First, commonplace understanding of the Soviet state as centralized and well-regulated is empirically wrong. Let’s think instead of the Soviet state as trying to turn a complex field of decentralized fiefdoms into a single field of decentralized fiefdoms. Even the Politburo rarely endorsed totalizing centralization, and certainly none of the Soviet network projects in the book call for fully centralized networks. With the exception of one short-lived radial network proposal, all of the proposed Soviet network projects between 1959 and 1989 interestingly resemble decentralized pyramids (just like the official economic plan at the time).

These network still recognized a central command in Moscow while also permitting real-time remote access between any two authorized nodes on the national network. This is a key corrective (especially in light of the romance of flat organizational networks in the west): in both principle and practice, the Soviet Union was not too top-down or rigidly hierarchical.  And in administrative practice, it was too messy and pernicious.

Second, the book is a negative history of real events, not a hypothetical history of non-events (although it does color the vision of a futuristic electronic socialism that never was). The reason I think this re-characterization matters is because I am openly interested in helping normalize the study of failed projects among scholars of human relations, complex institutions, media studies, and their adjunct interests.

Or as the book puts it,

contingent histories also help focus public debate better than do popular histories of technology that parade about hackers, geniuses, and geeks marching to the Whiggish beats of technological progress. In negative histories failures, even epic breakdowns, are normal. Astonishing genius, imaginative foresight, and peerless technical wizardry are not enough to change the world. This is one of the lessons of the OGAS experience. Its story places the conventional concepts of technological successes and failures on the wobbly foundations of the accidents of history. The historical record is a cemetery overgrown in short-lived technological futures: stepping of its beaten paths leads us to slow down and take stock before we rush to crown the next generation of technologists as agents of change. (197)

Perhaps the hard moral of the story is this: no one sensitive to the suffering all around us cannot want to reform the world for the better. Yet, in the multivariable calculus of social reform, the only thing more certain than our desire to change the world (and media and language are among those ways) is to admit that there is no guarantee that any given effort ever will.

This is a beautifully written book about bureaucracy, one in which you even manage to make a bureaucratic meeting, and the fact that two people happened to be absent, suspenseful. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your writing strategies for making compelling some topics that at first glance might seem like good insomniac aids. How do you make bureaucracy and its genres compelling?

(Setting down now finished corn cob.) Thanks! That means a lot. Writing is one of my favorite demons. Bureaucracy, because it (like computing programming) is made out of writing that is meant to be executed but never really read, often deadens its observers to the real fertility and force of the written word. Perhaps students and scholars of mind-numbingly dull technical systems should indulge in great stylists in English and other languages as temporary antidotes against the occupational hazard that is prose pollution. Outside of my own awe for language (which I take up more directly in my brand new edited volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, which Princeton published last week on the 40th anniversary of Raymond Williams’ Keywords), I don’t have any sure-fire strategies, although the normal ones will probably do: I recommend reading voraciously and strategically, slavishly imitating and scrupulously doubting the masters, writing for the smart and interested eighth grader, and then rewriting with an ear tuned to the cadence of language. Of course I rarely manage to pull all that off, but it’s a good thing to try and a better thing to have sympathetic readers to share it with.

Thanks for the picnic!

Benjamin Peters is the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet  (MIT 2016) and editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton 2016). He is assistant professor of  Communication at the University of Tulsa and an affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Work site: petersbenjamin.wordpress.com. Tweet at him @bjpeters.