12/12/2019 Optimal Futures: New and Old Economies in a World of Data


This seminar grew out of an interest in forms of data-powered capitalism. What kinds of expertise emerge at the interface of data and materials? What kinds of data-powered work cultures, consumption experiences, and production practices are in the making? How do data-oriented economies reconfigure everyday life? Organizer Canay Özden-Schilling kicked off the event remarking how scholarship often loses sight of the specifics of such configurations amidst generic gestures towards neoliberalism. Much interest has been shown in the social imaginaries of economists, but not so much in the other, unsuspected experts of everyday economies, who fuse together the worlds of bits and atoms. The first session dove into this territory by bringing together two ethnographers of water.

Andrea Ballestero (Rice University) drew in her presentation on her recently published and much-acclaimed book, A Future History of Water. In the spirit of the seminar’s interest in specific materialities, she firmly anchored her presentation in the reality of aquifers—in the material questions haunting the people who think of aquifers as assets or who want to transform them into assets. Of particular interest to Ballestero was the image of the plume—the technical space that is a migrant movement within movement. Inviting us to think with plumes in their unruliness, Ballestero suggested that plumes’ liveliness transgresses 17th century understandings of life; they require distinct accountability, scale, and temporality that do not put survivalist forms of life at center. She diagnosed among her interlocutors an aspiration to cultivate new descriptive economies, engaging in description as worldmaking. Antina von Schnitzler’s (New School) presentation also spoke to the political logistics as summoned by descriptive, numerical action. Von Schnitzler drew on her first book on South Africa’s move towards a post-apartheid era, when governance shifted to everyday devices that were presumed to instill a sense of responsible citizenship among the citizenry. Von Schnitzler suggested that water meters were semiotic instruments for data to do subjectivating work, through mundane actions such as showing updates on real time water use and counting down to cutoff. This subjectivating work coexisted with residents’ objections that perhaps water should not be a paid-for service to begin with. The meter pulled the residents into its politics, by compelling them to check metrological accuracy and develop claims for recognition and care from the state. Michael Degani’s (JHU) commentary on the panel particularly focused on the creation and context of this liberal subject at the center of a data-infused everyday economic life.

Andrea Ballestero (Rice University) delivering her lecture

In the second session, Miriam Posner (UCLA) took us on a worldwide journey across global supply chains. The giants of this system—manufacturers and distributors—often are criticized for admitting to have little knowledge of the critical components of these chains, Posner remarked. However, their ignorance is probably not feigned, Posner added; it is a built-in feature of how the system is supposed to work in that it, perhaps counterintuitively, enables speed and efficiency. In that vein, networks of supply mirror neutral pathways, rivers, or canals, more so than chains. Reporting on her own ethnographic experience of learning how to use SAP, the most widely used supply chain optimization software, Posner showed that the system is deliberately siloed and even the specialists are only capable of mastering delimited parts of it. Conditions of assembly, in other words, remain mysterious by design. Caitlin Zaloom (NYU) followed Posner by reporting on another high-profile data phenomenon in contemporary capitalism: the algorithms of education loan in an age of massive student debt in the US. Zaloom focused specifically on the FAFSA form, which determines access to student loans, as a moral technology. FAFSA has implicit assumptions built into it that favor applicants who live their family lives in a certain way—most often in a nuclear household structure with access to easy financial transparency and coordination between parents. Reporting from extensive interviews with students and families, Zaloom contextualized the FAFSA form in a sea of social reasons beyond the applicants’ immediate control. Her concluding remark, that data capitalism collapses procedure and accuracy, spoke to the concerns raised throughout the seminar and prompted a discussion of “future as fiction” in the question and answer period. What we choose to know and not to know are functions of contemporary capitalism’s engineering design.

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