Interview by Ilana Gershon
If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?
Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative practices are performative and context-dependent.
Migration is both a social and signifying practice that link the individual to the social collectivity. In contexts of migration, the migrant body is the center of these processes of signification; it is that which is read by others—for example, immigration officers, Anglo-Americans and non-migrant relatives—and that which in the most fundamental sense mediates all action upon the world. In the book at large, I discuss how the larger constraints of the migration process—and of social and racial orders more generally—constantly prompts migrants to communicate to others— U.S. immigration officials, Peruvian government officials, elite Peruvians, people in their home towns, US employers, and wider publics—an image of who they are or are expected to be and how they wish to be seen. Such images are necessarily always partial; indeed, they deny any facile claims to legibility embedded in normative and ideal-typical representations of who is a “Peruvian,” an “immigrant,” a “non-citizen,” a “refugee,” and so on. This is where the anthropological perspective is different from the legal one and could produce interesting debates!
How have biometric technologies changed people’s experiences of traveling between Peru and the United States?
Before the implementation of biometric passports and screening systems at USCIS checkpoints, it was still relatively easy for someone from Latin America to travel on someone else’s passport. In Mobile Selves, I give the example of two brothers who used the same passport to enter the US sometime in the 1990s. One of them told me: “We look like each other…and they [that is, the immigration authorities] can’t tell the difference anyway. To the gringos all cholos look the same.” But in the biometric era, not all cholos “read” the same!
Biometric technologies transform the body’s surfaces and characteristics into digital codes to be ‘read’ by a machine. But the meaning of the biometric body is always contingent upon the social and racial contexts in which it will be read and how it is tied to identity from the perspective of the social and political institutions that control the international movement of people. But of course, as many critics of biometrics have also argued, the burden of surveillance will continue to fall disproportionately on poor, marginal, and racialized communities. That is one of the problems with biometrics.
The heavier reliance on biometric identification also puts more weight on the visa interview and less on a portfolio of supporting documents. An average visa interview at the US consulate in Lima now lasts 3-5 minutes, and this opens up for all sorts of questions about the arbitrariness and the social and racial logics by which visa decisions are made, including about the issuing officer’s assumption about some people’s worthiness of a US visa over others. I think biometric technologies have intensified many people’s experience of being subjected to a controlling racial regime.
You describe how the experience of transnational migration has changed for people because of all the possible media people can now use to connect with family members back home. Yet just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that it is socially possible for Peruvian migrants to use them. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about some of the social complications surrounding these technologies that make using these technologies a challenge both for those in Peru and those in the United States.
It is often assumed that just because communication technology exists, it will automatically make us feel more connected to our loved ones across time and space. But the expectation that you have to be reachable and connected at any point in time can be both exhausting, impractical, and also undesirable – we all know this from our daily lives! Such expectations were often difficult to meet both for labor migrants abroad as well as for family members in Peru, because of complicated work schedules, long workdays, little free time at their disposal, controlling employers or workplace surveillance, or limited options to connect in rural areas in Peru.
This is the main issue with celebratory accounts of the affordances that new media environments are supposed to offer for the enactment and experience of social relations across time and space. Yes, disenfranchised migrant mothers can use Skype or Facetime to check in on their children from afar, but this technologically mediated form of communication cannot substitute the intense multi-sensorial experience of being able to tug your own kid (not someone else’s) into bed at night or to be there for them if they wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare or if something bad happens at school.
Considering these complex social dynamics undergirded by global inequality, I disagree with scholars who diminish or even disregard the social and emotional cost of separation by proposing that polymedia environments contribute to making the absent other tangible and therefore come to constitute the other person and hence the relationship itself. For most people in my study, new technologies could alter feelings by momentarily collapsing distance and institute forms of co-presence, but at the end of the day most migrant mothers lived on in the United States mourning the prolonged separation from their children and other relatives. Along with this, the feelings of abandonment in some children towards their migrant parents extend into their adolescence and adulthood as resentments that cannot easily be undone even as a person grows up and acquires more tools to understand your parent’s actions. Feelings such as pain, loss, suffering over separation and distance, longing, sadness, and nostalgia or the more positive ones such as love, compassion, intimacy, and belonging continued to animate the lives of migrants in affective and material ways despite the changing technologies used to produce these social and intersubjective relationships through long-distance communication.
I was wondering if you could discuss the different attitudes Peruvian migrants have towards audio-cassettes and videocassettes, and how these different media ideologies shaped the genres people use to circulate images and stories circulated between Peru and the U.S.
Absolutely. Most recent migrants are constantly preoccupied with maintaining the social bonds of kinship with family and relatives left behind via long-distance communication, remitting small amounts of money from their meager entry-level U.S. salaries, and by circulating a variety of material and media objects. In this way, they seek to remain emotionally connected and relevant in the everyday lives of their families in Peru and socially visible in the communities they left behind. For example, in Chapter 3, I evoke the concept of “remote sensing” specifically to discuss the attempts of migrant parents to “feel” and “know” their children’s lives and whereabouts from afar. This communicative, sensory, and mediated practice, which employ both aural and visual technologies, regularly plays out against dominant social norms that cast “communicative” migrants abroad in a favorable light back home as caring mothers, responsible fathers, dutiful daughters, and reliable and dependable “hijos ausentes” (that is, absent sons and daughters of their rural communities of origin). But in the context of the prolonged separation caused by migration, “remote sensing”, I suggest, amplifies rather than ameliorates the social and emotional struggles of transnational families, because participants are often not able to perform according to the roles set for them by gendered and intergenerational normative frameworks. In this way, long-distance communication, as a form of social, cultural, and affective practice, is often fraught with tension, uncertainty, and power inequalities.
Some migrants in my study preferred visual means of communication and they claimed it gave them the added effect of seeing their loved ones. There was often an assumption that you can “fake it” over the phone but you cannot conceal your true feelings when video chatting (even if all forms of communication are of course performative – also face-to-face communication whether mediated by video or not). Many migrants also “produced” videos to send to their family members – either of everyday life or special occasions such as community events or fiestas. I show in the book how video production, consumption, and circulation figure centrally in migrants’ staging of their own social visibility as “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” ex-campesinos. Participants in my study were highly invested in monitoring, selecting, and negotiating the criteria for which images of migrant life abroad could be shared with those back in Peru and what, in turn, had to be made invisible and left out of circulation to avoid rumors, tensions, and accusations within transnational families or among paisanos back home. Of course sometimes particular image objects escaped intended networks of circulation and moved beyond specific audiences. In these cases, imagery served as “visual evidence” that could complicate people’s efforts of self-fashioning. I show how such revelations have implications for the production of social cohesion within transnational migrant collectivities, and how circulating images may serve as new forms of social control and surveillance. In sum, visual and oral forms of communication have significant differences but both extend and also complicate social relations and in their own way expose the inherent tensions and ambiguities of the migrant/transnational condition of Andean Peruvians.You published this book before Trump was elected, turning anti-immigration sentiment into an official government position. If you had a chance to talk to a room full of Trump supporters who were willing to listening respectfully to academics, what would you like them to know about your research?
Ha ha—fact-seeking Trump supporters? That seems like a hypothetical scenario at this point in time, but ok… I would probably feel compelled to first talk about the many contributions of immigrants—Latin Americans, in particular—to the US economy and society and to expel some of the many “alternative facts” about these populations circulated by the Trump administration’s propaganda machinery.
What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions, most of them based on long-lived racial anxieties and nativist ideologies, which do not add up to any coherent policy. Unfortunately, by not having a coherent immigration policy, the US has become a world leader in the undermining of human potential. Trump’s recent decision to end DACA is a text-book example of such complete lack of perspective.
I would give examples of the profound existential resourcefulness of most of the mobile Peruvians I came to know during my research to show Trump supporters how the drive to better oneself and the larger community is not a US invention but one that is widely shared by migrants around the world; one that cannot but make America much greater in the future than what it currently is today. Immigrants don’t take jobs, they create them. We are not parasitical on the US economy; we make this economy happen on a daily basis.
Hopefully, the Trump era will soon be reduced to a crazy minor parenthesis in modern US history, but what not only a room full of attentive Trump supporters specifically, but US whites more generally must acknowledge and work to change is how in the United States mobility is intimately tied to race and privilege (or the lack thereof). This is one of the basic points of the book that I would attempt to convey in such a situation.
Interview by Ilana Gershon
By focusing on Indian computer programmers, you are able to point out the ways in which computer programmers have racialized bodies, and how this affects their work lives. If you happened to find yourself at a dinner party seated next to a Silicon Valley recruiter, what would you want them to know about your book?
My book takes sides. It’s not just descriptive, it’s provocative. It humanizes an incredibly cartoonified subset of laborers. Literally: I discuss cartoons satirizing Indian IT workers in European publications as part of my chapter on perceptions. I’d want her to know that coders from India don’t deserve the reputation they’ve been handed down as fast, cheap, and replaceable. These attributes are a result of the way the industry produces value, primarily by divvying coding projects up into creative and grunt parts, which are then given to different kinds of workers, often divided by race. And while engineers from India occupy director and management positions across the Silicon Plateaus, Alleys, Valleys, and Highways around the globe, this racial logic remains. Upper management coders from India elevate themselves above the uncreative grunt coders from India along the lines of urbanity, caste, and elite versus regional engineering college backgrounds. These divisions also reach service workers, packers, and cleaners who have access to few of the perks that accompany tech jobs.
The focus of your work – IT workers in companies – is different than earlier anthropological work on coders, such as Chris Kelty or Gabriella Coleman’s work. What difference do you think it makes that the workers you focus on work for corporations? How do the organizational structures under which people labor affect people’s philosophies of coding?
There is much to recommend anthropological focus on hacking and free software communities, since in those arenas, alternatives to the neoliberal organization of life often emerges in unexpected ways. But, I cannot teach about global IT without recognizing its corporate structure. Last year, the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) accounted for at least 50% of all Internet traffic. One out of very two dollars spent on the Internet was spent on Amazon. Most of my students look forward to landing a job at Amazon. Like it or not, the Internet is dominated by corporations.
Within corporations, migrant programmers readily identify the contradiction between the ways that code has to move around the world and restrictions on the global movement of people. This makes them skeptical of free software movements because they simply do not go far enough. By likening code to speech, such movements unwittingly support neoconservative political ideologies that sacrifice human well- being in the name of abstract principles. Migrant programmers diagnose this gap between free software and free people, leading them to violate many principles of what is otherwise considered ‘good’ coding, such as leaving comments that explain their work to others.
You argue that one strategy that Indian IT code writers resort to is writing “inalienable” code, and thus making themselves more essential to a company in a context of temporary contracts. Could you explain a bit what it means to write inalienable code, and what effect this strategy has on the ways that these workplaces are organized?
Inalienable code is a form of resistance. Global corporations compartmentalize temporary coders from India. “Grunts” resist by writing their code in such a way that makes that code harder to hand off to another, making them harder to replace. This is “inalienable code”. My book includes specific examples, like leaving bad comments or no comments at all, so that the coder is the only one who understand this part of the project.
Interestingly, this is widely considered poor programming. When I began conceptualizing things like this that didn’t fit the “good programming” paradigm, I tried to think of these practices in very concrete terms. They were certainly a kind of foot dragging practice, which we know from studies of factory work is a daily opposition to the ownership of time by the employer. I get a kick out of labor practices developed in the 19th century being right at home in the 21st.
“Poor programming” practices were also a means of creating a kind of wealth. These practices take the idea of knowledge work, that knowledge is capital, at its word. Thinking of aberrant coding practices as creating property and stealing time allowed me to think about the kinds of wealth coding might generate. I revisited anthropologist of the Pacific Annette Weiner’s foundational argument about inalienable wealth, in which she examined kinds of wealth that are kept back from circulation. In her scholarship, she describes wealth that, in a social scene that demands gifts and return-gifts, can be held back from these types of exchange. One of her most famous examples is a greenstone (nephrite) axe, which remained powerfully tied to the history of its victories and could only be held in trust on behalf of a group.
Now apply this concept of “inalienable” wealth to coding. The way global technology companies structure employment agreements, coders do not properly own what they write. They cannot normally exert intellectual property rights over the innovations they may make. So, they instead try to create a special relationship to this wealth by taking it out of circulation—by making it the equivalent of a jade axe buried underground, valuable because it is there not because it is freely available for exchange. Of course, these practices of making code inalienable exist in the everyday alongside the exchange of coding labor for a wage, and the free exchange of solutions to programming problems that coders post to sharing sites like Stack Overflow.
You point out many complex ways in which these programmers represent India to the German public, and a particular model of technological development to government officials in the Indian government. But one of your imaginative arguments is pointing out that these Indian IT workers have a relationship to India as a state that calls forth a third perspective of how workers are part and parcel of state projects. Could you explain how currently Indian IT workers overseas understand their relationship to the Indian state?
This is a fascinating question right now, and it demonstrates how coding cultures can be open ended and change over time. By and large, most programmers share a soft libertarian attitude towards governments, including their own. The government should set in motion a limited number of laws, and then get out of the way. As IT workers were understood to represent the new face of Indian business, which was higher paying, innovative and relatively free from corruption, IT workers felt themselves to be the best representative of this new, economically muscular, India. But, the turmoil on the Indian political scene in the last few years has shifted the equation. India’s government, like the United States’ government, has become more nativist in recent years. Opinion about the current state of affairs in India varies widely among Indian IT workers overseas. Some support the ongoing efforts to redefine India a normatively Hindu and are not bothered by increasing inequality, pollution, and violence against minorities. Many are deeply troubled by these developments and have begun to feel displaced, neither comfortable at home, nor in the rightist, anti-immigrant regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere.
You argue that these IT programmers are deeply ambivalent about how neoliberal logics recommend people should organize their lives. How do they use leisure moments as moments to reclaim control over the kinds of working selves they are expected to be and as moments of experimentation?
Migrant programmers from India can recognize the failures of subjecthood under neoliberalism because as migrants, their precarious job status belies their vaunted position as knowledge workers. The protagonists of my book did all the things white collar workers are supposed to do to become successful—say, for example, getting up at 5 am to go jogging. Yet, jogging was not sustainable. They were working too many late nights for that. What happened next fascinated me. Rather than give up entirely, they walked in the local park. I name walking and related practices fragments of a politics of eros, because they inaugurated a conversation on the content of a good life. Such a conversation is otherwise evacuated under the logics of neoliberal survival. I’m not saying that walking is a perfect utopian practice; but, it is a moment when people practice inhabiting a world they want. Anyone familiar with India knows that the caste and class implications of walking in parks are complex. These moments of eros can just as easily flip into moments of asserting upper caste and upper class rights to urban public space. But, if we paint all overseas Indian IT workers with the same brush, that is, as classist, casteist, Hindu nationalists, we run the extreme danger of missing the progressive potential in their resistance to neoliberal work and its companions, such as a certain ways of exercising. Even more egregiously, we may miss the widest applicability of the conversation about the good life. How many of us can say that we are entirely satisfied by the way neoliberal logics govern our selves and our attachments? I think one of the most important tasks for anthropology is to interrogate the degree to which we, and others, are attached to these logics of hard work and self-improvement. For me, it is an ethical imperative to ask about the texture of a good life across class, caste, race, gender, and color divides.
Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment
in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.
Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.
My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:
I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).
Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.
Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.
The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as
a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].
If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.
de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.
free download of dissertation available here: https://www.academia.edu/25790317/Dajiangyou_Media_practices_of_vernacular_creativity_in_postdigital_China
My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.
Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.
Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.
In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.
Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.
Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.
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.