28 December 2017

Preliminary/Residual Thoughts on Descaling

(1) When even the most specialized of academic specialists cannot hope to keep up with the deluge of publication in their narrow specialty, the result is a new and distinctive kind of social volatility borne of something like information overpopulation. Research findings would then resist synthesis into social action, operating only in fragments scattered far and wide throughout the social system. Many collective advances would remain mere potentialities whose likelihood of manifesting plummets as the system continues to grow in scale. No matter the gross quantity of raw information such gains in scale might beget, the basic unit of social agency (the individual human being) stays pretty much the same. Ditto the system gain from pooling such units into networks (e.g. research teams, political action committees, musical ensembles) which show diminishing returns at scales proportionate to today's information overload. Even the effect of introducing better information into the system is mitigated by diffusion given such vast scale as the current global village (not to mention its Virtual shadow-world) has attained. The tortu(r)ously slow burn of incremental progress seems pleasurable in comparison to the fracturing and anomie which the present situation promises to engender.

(2) The above assumes that an increase in the gross quantity of overall knowledge production begets a corresponding and proportionate increase in the (smaller) gross quantity of competent and constructive knowledge production; this as opposed to merely spreading ever thinner a fixed quantity of collective intellectual potential. This is a very large assumption which may not be warranted; but if not, then we are left with an older, simpler problem: the haystacks grow while the needles and the metal detectors pretty much stay the same. As for the sentient pieces of throbbing flesh wielding the latter device, one can only hope that their dignity is not too closely cherished.

(3) Perhaps then there is something to be said for periodically turning one's back on the great data diffusion and carving out a little extra time to cherrypick the choicest nuggets from the twilight of pre-computerized thought, e.g. in the same vein as Debord but with a dash more childlike curiosity and a tad less puerile obstinacy. Whatever strictly perspectival shortcomings individual thinkers of the recent past might now be understood to have had, at least the economy of ideas within which they were subsumed was of a more just and optimal scale. Even the choicest of today's intellectual nourishment is grown in depleted soil, meanwhile, and thus perspective has become a problem of abundance rather than one of scarcity. If this is not quite a fatal blow to progress, it just as surely has not been adequately accounted for by progressives who merely consider the ostensible quality of information but not the system-level prospects for making any use of it whatsoever. In any event, it promises to be a very long time indeed before ideas are again permitted to circulate in an optimally-scaled intellectual environment; optimally-scaled, that is, not merely for progress but also for dignity.

(4) A recent 30 second junket on Google produces one intriguing and one utterly demoralizing revelation: (a) the term/concept "descaling" has found at least cursory usage in the heavy economics literature; (b) in absence of companion terms to narrow the field, any such Google search is badly confounded by the far more pressing and widely discussed issue of how to clean a coffeemaker.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

The Real Split in the International: Theses on the
Situationist International and Its Time, 1972
Thesis 15
trans. John McHale

"Whether it be chemical pollution of the air we breathe
or the adulteration of foodstuffs, the irreversible build-up
of radioactivity through the industrial use of nuclear energy
or the deterioration of water, from underground deposits to
the oceans, the town-planning blight whose sprawl is
supplanting the former entities of town and country or the
'population explosion', the increase in the number of suicides
and the incidence of mental illness or the level of
'noise pollution' -- everywhere, fragmentary knowledge
concerning the (more or less urgent and more or less fatal,
as the case may be) impossibility of going any further, tends
to form as specialised scientific solutions which remain purely
and simply juxtaposed, a portrait of general degradation and
overall impotence. This woeful summary of the map of the
territory of alienation, just prior to its engulfment, is
naturally carried out in the same way that the territory itself
has been constructed: out of separate sectors."
[italics in original]

Scale is not the explicit topic of the above, but is it not
equal parts effect and cause here? Is the most glaring
challenge posed by the "terrain of alienation" not its sheer
vastness? It is precisely this vastness which enables breathers
of relatively clean air on one side of town to implicitly
tolerate unthinkable polution on the other side of town, or,
failing that, to put on a surgical mask in lieu of calling
their representative. Scale breeds abstraction. That is the
basic problem all descaling movements seek to confront, be
they left- or right-leaning, educated or naive, economic or
social. I doubt very much that there is any possibility of
practical implementation for any such movement as things now
stand. That being as it may, and anathema as what I'm about
to say may be to true-believer Debordians, I think that many
insights in this passage can be appropriated rather directly
to the specific disciplines and subdisciplines the rest of us
might find ourselves preoccupied with. There will always be a
roll for traditional academic specialism, if not simply as a
productive foil to or control for the alternative; my point
is simply that the specialist orientation can barely function
according to its own internal logic given the present scale,

hence it would make sense to account for this fact as best we
can under the circumstances.