Medusa haidresser


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The conference I gave at the SPRU Freeman Friday Seminars at the University of Sussex (stirring quite a bit of controversy)

In the last few years, our societies have been confronted to a new kind of problems. Our planet – once so vast and unexplored – seems to have shrunk around us constraining our actions with its multiple ecological and economical fragilities. Welcome to the Anthropocene! After centuries spent in trying to rule the world, we suddenly realize how tiny is our kingdom and, as the air fill with CO2, how suffocating is its atmosphere. What’s worse, we find ourselves utterly unprepared to deal with the situation we have created. The more we strive to force the knots we tied, the more they seem to tighten around us. The knots that hold us cannot be slashed, but (and it’s our only hope) they might be untied. The fabric of our natural and social interdependencies is complex, but not impenetrable. And this is where social sciences may help, by hijacking one of the strongest forces of modernization (the proliferation of digital inscriptions) and turning it into a source of understanding. Turning inscriptions into traces, and following them as threads through the maze of collective life, we can try to unfold the complexity of our small world and learn to live with it.

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  • Crash! In the opening scene of Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2001) the Earth is hit and destroyed by and a giant extraterrestrial planet. This terrible (yet beautiful) image is a perfect metaphor of the state in which we have been living in the last few decades. After a century in which humans (at least western humans) though they had they environment finally under control (and their destiny with it), the acknowledgement of the multiple fragilities of our planet plunged us in the distress. As in Melancholia, we fell paralyzed by the vision of a planet precipitating on us. This planet, however, is the Earth itself or, to use its mythological name, Gaia.
  • In the Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother of all, the primal Goddess who gave birth to the Universe, the Titans, the Giants and all the Gods. But Gaia is also a modern myth. In the ’70 the British scientist James Lovelock named after her the hypothesis according to which the biosphere of our planet should be considered not as a series of separated systems, but as one living organism (Lovelock, 1972, Lovelock and Margulis, 1974).
  • The ‘Gaia hypothesis’ raised great debate and the idea the biosphere can be described a living being remains highly controversial. What is most interesting in Lovelock’s intuition, however, is not the living character of our planet, but its unity.
  • The Gaia hypothesis follows a series of famous photographs of the Earth taken from the space (notably the ‘Earthrise’ shot in 1968 by Apollo 8 mission and the ‘Blue Marble’ shot in 1972 by Apollo 17). For the first time, the whole planet was captured in a single picture. And seen as a whole, the planet looked shockingly small.
  • In the very same year, the burst of a series of ecological crisis confirmed that our environment is not unbounded and its resources not infinite, as the Club of Rome report on the Limits to Growth announced in 1972.
  • For the greatest part of history, human settlements have been enclaves in the larger natural environment.
  • The Earth used to be big. So big that it could take whatever we throw at it, serving as a stable homeostatic system in which we could discharge the unwanted consequence of our actions. Not any more.
  • The impact of human actions, which used to be negligible to the great cycles of the planet, has grown so large that the Geological Society is now considering the possibility to declare a new geological era: the Anthropocene, the age of humans (to be more precise, the age in which humans become the most important force shaping the destiny of our planet).
  • In 2009, 28 international scientists identified nine global environmental systems risking to be irreversibly disrupted by human action. In 2015, according to the same authors, we have already have trespassed four of these ‘planetary boundaries’ (climate change; loss of biosphere integrity; land­system change; biogeochemical cycles). Through the exact determination of these boundaries and the quantification of their current state remains controversial, the message is clear: as the protagonist of the Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) we have crashed into the limits of our world.
  • As our relationship with Gaia turns from a scientific hypothesis to a tragic evidence of our incapacity to live in a confined space, it is ironic to note that the name of Gaia was suggested to Lovelock by William Golding, laureate of literature Nobel Prize and author of The Lord of the Flies (1954).
  • Golding’s book, is the dystopian story of a group of English boys who shipwreck on an inhabited island and dramatically fail to organize a peaceful society. Golding’s novel is a metaphor of the difficulty of collective life and a pessimist answer to the myth of the bon sauvage. According to this myth, human nature is innately good but is corrupted by modern society. According to Golding’s book, all societies are intrinsically flawed because of the complexity of social interaction. Despite the innocence of the protagonists (all in their childhood or preadolescence) and their best intentions, the coexistence on the island degrades gradually but irremediably into a state of brutal violence. Even when individual behaviors and aspirations are legitimate, their mutual intersections are so complex that tragic outcomes are impossible to avoid. Especially when men are forced to cohabit in a confined space.
  • The Lord of the Flies is a gloomy version of the theory of emergence. First enounced by George Henry Lewes, this theory states that complex systems exhibit global properties that cannot be directly deduced from the features of their local components. Life, for example, is said to emerge from the reactions among chemical components, intelligence from the connections among neurons and societies from the relations among individuals. In all these cases, emergent phenomena seem irreducible to the interactions that generate them.
  • “The whole is more than the sum of the parts”, as it is often claimed.
  • The optimist version of this idea is most famously illustrated by the metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ used by Adam Smith (1776) to describe the self-regulating behavior of the capitalist market. According to Smith, the self-interest of individuals is sublimated by the exchange system to the achievement of the common good. The social system, or at least the economic systems, is formed by the visible but lesser hands of the individuals, but informed by the invisible but greater hand of the market. Besides the many hands of the local actors (or rather above them), the global hand of the market nurtures and organizes collective existence.
  • As economists have long acknowledged, however, markets can fail dramatically in the presence of externalities – costs or benefits that do not concern the protagonists of the exchanges and are therefore unaccounted in prices or other regulation mechanisms.
  • Externalities can be positive (when they existence benefit the system) or negative (when they risk to risk to disrupt it). For a long time, the expansion of industrial societies has been sustained by our ability to internalize benefits we did not deserved and to externalized costs that we are unwilling to pay.
  • In particular, we have been extraordinarily deft in exploiting fossil fuels that we did not create (Gras, 2007) and dumping their collateral damages on the environment and on other societies (Mitchell, 2009).
  • Our success, however, is self-defeating. Our expansion has been so successful that we have rapidly consumed all the available space. We dug so deep, flied so high, marched so far, that nothing remains outside the boundaries of our societies. Not because our power is bondless (as we long believed), but because our boundaries eventually attained the boundaries of our planet. And since there is no outside any longer, the trick of internalizing the benefits and externalizing the costs has become impossible. Since there is no more exterior, there are no more externalities either. “Do not throw anything away, there is no away” proclaimed an advertisement in 2008 (ironically by Shell). Or, to say it with other words, there is nothing on hearth that we can still inadvertently neglect or purposely ignore.
  • Never before has collective life has been so difficult to compose. Not because social existence has ever been easy, but because we have never been so multitudinous and mutually dependent. The extensions of technical infrastructures, the interconnectivity of markets, the standardization of communication channels, everything seems to bring us closer and bind us tighter. And it is not just the humans: the development of sciences and technologies has bound us to the smallest amino acids in our blood and the highest layers of the atmosphere, the krill floating in the Antarctic sea and oil trapped in the deepest geological strata. There is little we can buy, vote or do, without interfering with the economies and ecologies on the other side of the planet. We reached out for the space just to turn and realize that we are stuck on a blue ping-pong ball. Billions of us. Gaia is another name for the whole of complex theory, the largest and most heterogeneous whole we have ever composed.
  • And this is where emergence turns sour. For, the more numerous and heterogeneous we are to interact, the more unpredictable and uncontrollable becomes the results of our interactions. As Golding’s boys, we discover that the limits of our collective existence are not the frontiers that separate the interior of our civilization from the exterior of its environment (we dismantled those frontiers long time ago). What bounds our actions is the network of interconnections and reciprocal influences that binds each of us to all sort of other actions (human or non-human) all over the world. The whole, it turns out, is worse than the sum of the parts. The symbol of our social life is the “lord of the flies” appearing at the end of Golding’s book: a severed pig’s head surrounded by a cloud of flies.
  • Interestingly, the logo of the 15 Conference of Parties to the United Nation Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen may be read as a stylized version of such dreadful image. And not unsuitably so. The Copenhagen Conference marks a crucial moment in the international negotiations on global warming.
  • Up to that conference the international community believed that climate change could be handled with the same direct approach that solved the previous atmospheric crisis – the ozone hole – that is to say, by negotiating a unique and binding threshold for gas emissions. This approach inspired the Kyoto protocol on green-house gases (GHGs) emissions in 1997 and was supposed to shape its successor in Copenhagen in 2009. But climate is a much more complex system and GHGs, particularly CO2, are so intimately connected to our lifestyles that reducing their emissions demands a radical transformation of our collective existence. And that is why, the Copenhagen Conference, while obtaining other important advancements, dramatically failed to deliver the expected agreement on emissions thresholds.
  • Complex problems do not have simple causes and do not admit simple solutions. That is why the threshold approach failed in Copenhagen (and, incidentally, why we cannot hope that some clever geoengineering solution will fix the problem). Gaia is so a sensitive and interconnected that all local solution reverberate unpredictably elsewhere.
  • That is the curse of emergence: that we cannot pull a single thread of our collective existence without affecting its whole fabric (as in the classic chaos theory slogan “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas”).
  • Gaia, it seems, is not a motherly goddess, but a Gorgon whose face is a tangle of snakes that twists and knots in ways impossible to unravel. Gaia is a mirror that reflects the monstrous complexity in which our collective life has grown. A Medusa so intricate that we feel petrified at her look. Our planet precipitates on us and when we try to deviate its arc (as in all good science fiction movies), we discover that its course is the unpredictable imbroglio of billions of interacting trajectories. Hence, the despair – the melancholia – that invested our collective existence.
  • Yet, the complexity of collective existence is not a good reason to stall. Dealing with Gaia demands more patience than determination. To pull ourselves from the can of worms in which we have turned our collective existence, we have to learn to unfold emergence and deploy its tortuous chains of actions and reactions. Not as Alexander slashing the knot of Gordium, but as Penelope tirelessly untying her own canvas.
  • Our situation does not have simple causes and do not admit simple solutions, but this is no excuse not to search for causes and solutions, by patiently unraveling the imbroglios of our social existence. Our collective troubles may be emergent, but they are neither spontaneous nor blameless. The fact that global crisis cannot be straightforwardly imputed to local actions does not discharge individuals from their specific responsibilities. Collective phenomena do not just happen: they are constructed by the painstaking work of social actors – and of some more than others. We are all responsible for the ecological crisis, but we are not equally responsible (as recognized by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development). Some countries, some corporations, even some individuals are guiltier than others and we need to learn to identify and denunciate them. Fixing our problems begins from indentifying from where and from whom they originate.
  • But how to stare into the millions eyes of Gaia without being paralyzed? How to unfold the complexity of collective emergence without ironing it out?
  • If there is one hope at the bottom of the Pandora’s box we set open, one good fly in Gaia’s swarm, this may be the recent development of digital technologies.
  • To be sure, such development is to the greatest extent also part of the problem. Not only, electronic networks add to the ecological crisis by consuming large amounts of energy and chemicals, but they are also one of the main drivers of the growing intricacy of our collective life. Through digital vessels, information circulates around the world, making our lives more and more interdependent.
  • In 1952 Donald Glaser invented the bubble chamber, a container (often spherical) filled with a superheated liquid and subject to a magnetic field. When electrically charge particles traverse the chamber, they create an ionisation track around which the liquid vaporizes forming microscopic bubbles. Awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1960, the bubble chamber allowed physicists to trace the trajectories of subatomic particles and follow their interactions.
  • For their capacity to track the actions that traverse them, digital networks constitute the bubble chamber of collective life. As they spread to a growing number of sectors and mediate a growing number of natural and social phenomena, digital networks increase the complexity of collective existence, but also its traceability.
  • Since their foundation, the social sciences have tended to separate the analysis of global trends from the observation of local interactions. To a large extent, this divide derives from the difficulty to collect data on the whole chain of collective existence and from the difficulty to reverse aggregation in social analysis.
  • Separating macro-structures from micro-interactions is a clever solution to such methodological difficulties, but it has the major drawback of making impossible to examine their connection. The so-called ‘micro-macro link’ (which is another name for ‘emergence’) has always been a major blind spot of social sciences. The advent of digital traces and digital computation may help to overcome the binary distinction between micro and macro, and uncurl the medusa of collective emergence.
  • Adaptation is delayed, because it is turned to the future. Unlike the quarrels on the existence of global warming and its link with human activities, the debate on adaptation does not concern how we have messed the climate (in the past) or what we can do to fix it (in the present). It concerns what we will do when the effects of climate change will eventually hit us. And, though we know that such effects will be massive, we don’t know exactly what they will look like. Not only because climate is an amazingly complex (in fact quasi-chaotic) system, but because its change is due to the interference of social systems whose evolutions are even more unpredictable. As scenarios replace predictions, different actors choose the futures that they like the best or fear the most. Controversies, therefore, concern not only how should we prepare for the future, but also what future should we prepare for.
  • Adaptation is dispersed, because it concerns the localization of the effects of global warming. Unlike the discussion on the mitigation of climate change, the debate on adaptation does not concern global tendencies but local effects. Unlike the causes of climate change (the greenhouse gases that mix and spread in the atmosphere), its effects are highly localized. Adaptation is not concerned about the transformation of the global climate system, but about such transformation will trickle down to local microclimates. And even if we are still largely incapable to down scale our models, we know that global warming will strike differently in various parts of the world, unsettling different natural and social sectors and often in opposite directions. Though it derives from an international tragedy of the commons (mitigation can only be multilateral), adaptation can only be tackled at a national or even local level.
  • Adaptation is vague, because it concerns the transformation of pre-existing sectors. By definition adaptation concerns the re-organization of non-climatic systems. It is the adaption of agricultural practices, of infrastructures, of rural and urban settlements, of industrial installations. Adaptation discussions, therefore are always mixed with the pre-existing socio-technical debates. Unlike the quarrels on the existence and the mitigation of climate change, adaptation does not create a new arena, but displace existing socio-technical debates. When a rich country help a poorer one to set up a new water distribution system, is this climate adaptation, or development aid, or humanitarian intervention?
  • Adaptation is opportunistic, because it mobilizes an increasing amount of human and financial resources. If IPCC projections are right, the efforts to deal with climate will consume a greater proportion of our social and economic resources in the near to long term future. Social and institutional actors know this all too well and use climate adaptation as leverage to advance other interests and other interests as leverage to advance climate adaptation. They hide adaptation under other policies and other policies under adaptation. They strive to increase their present resources as much possible while reducing their future margins of action as little as possible.
  • The main aim of this course is to teach you how to avoid jumping from the frying pan of positivism to the fire of relativism.
    Or, as the say in Thailand, escape a tiger, meet a crocodile.
  • Medusa haidresser

    1. 1. Medusa at the Hairdresser Tommaso Venturini
    2. 2. Part I: Three Spheres
    3. 3. Crash! Melancholia, Lars von Trier, 2001
    4. 4. The Gaia Hypothesis Lovelock, J. (1972). Gaia as seen through the Atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment, 6, 579–580. Gaia. 8838: Tellus. Roman relief, 13-9 BC. Ara Pacis. Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen
    5. 5. The Gaia Hypothesis Lovelock, J. (1972). Gaia as seen through the Atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment, 6, 579–580. Gaia. 8838: Tellus. Roman relief, 13-9 BC. Ara Pacis. Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen
    6. 6. Earth as a whole ‘Earthrise’ (1968, Apollo 8 mission) ‘Blue Marble’ (1972, Apollo 17 mission)
    7. 7. And in the same year ‘Blue Marble’ (1972, Apollo 17 mission) Club of Rome, 1972 The Limits to Growth
    8. 8. The End of Nature Latour, B. (1999). Politiques de la nature (Politics of Nature) 1.17085?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20150312#/landscape
    9. 9. The great acceleration
    10. 10. The Gaia Hypothesis Lovelock, J. (1972). Gaia as seen through the Atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment, 6, 579–580. Gaia. 8838: Tellus. Roman relief, 13-9 BC. Ara Pacis. Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen
    11. 11. Anthropocene
    12. 12. Planetary boundaries Rockström et al., Nature 2009 A safe operating space for humanity The Trueman Show
    13. 13. The Gaia Hypothesis Lovelock, J. (1972). Gaia as seen through the Atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment, 6, 579–580. Gaia. 8838: Tellus. Roman relief, 13-9 BC. Ara Pacis. Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen
    14. 14. The Lord of the Flies William Golding, 1954
    15. 15. Emergence “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference (p. 412) George Henry Lewes, 1875 Problems of Life and Mind
    16. 16. The Gaia Hypothesis Lovelock, J. (1972). Gaia as seen through the Atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment, 6, 579–580. Gaia. 8838: Tellus. Roman relief, 13-9 BC. Ara Pacis. Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen
    17. 17. The boostraping of economy (the invisible hand) By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (book IV chapter 2 paragraph 9) Adam Smith, (1776). The Wealth of Nations
    18. 18. Externalities (or the market failures)
    19. 19. Externalities ex. pollinators & polluters
    20. 20. Externalities ex. fossil fuels Gras, A. (2007). Le choix du feu. Paris: Fayard
    21. 21. The end of externalities “Ecological crises are translated most often by the disappearance of everything external to the human world, every reserve for human action, every discharge by means of which one could, up to now, in the delicious euphemism invented by the economists, externalize actions. Bruno Latour, (2004). Politics of Nature This paradox has been noted often: the concern for the environment begins at the moment when there is no more environment, no zone of reality in which we could casually rid ourselves of the consequences of human political, industrial, and economic life” (p. 58)
    22. 22. Complexity
    23. 23. Emergence AKA the Lord of the Flies
    24. 24. The Danish Lord of the Flies
    25. 25. The failure of COP15 in Copenhagen gen/ The Danish Lord of the Flies
    26. 26. Wicked problems cannot be solved by simplification deo_on_ the_Montreal_Protocol.ogv/ IPCC AR5 WG3 SPM Fig. 1 Kyoto Protocol, 1997
    27. 27. The failure of COP15 in Copenhagen Hilborn, R. C. (2004). Sea gulls, butterflies, and grasshoppers: A brief history of the butterfly effect in nonlinear dynamics. American Journal of Physics, 72(4), 425. The butterfly effect
    28. 28. Petrified by Medusa
    29. 29. Untying not slashing
    30. 30. The failure of COP15 in Copenhagen “common but differentiated responsibility” principle Which butterfly?
    31. 31. How to dress Medusa’s hair?
    32. 32. How to dress Medusa’s hair?
    33. 33. Digital technologies are part of the problem digital-cloud-is-using-more-energy-than-you-think/ NSA Utah Data Center AKA the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center
    34. 34. The Bubble Chamber Donald A. Glaser, 1952
    35. 35. Extensive data Paul Butler, 2010 Visualizing Friendships
    36. 36. Intensive data AOL user 711391 search history
    37. 37. The quali/quantitative divide poor data on large population extensive data intensive data rich data on small population
    38. 38. The micro/macro divide Merian & Jonston 1718 Folio Ants, Clony, Nest, Insects Thomas Hobbes, 1651 The Leviathan
    39. 39. La fabrique de la loi
    40. 40. On datascape navigation Latour, Bruno, Pablo Jensen, Tommaso Venturini, Sébastian Grauwin and Dominique Boullier, 2012. “‘The Whole Is Always Smaller than Its Parts’: A Digital Test of Gabriel Tardes’ Monads.” The British Journal of Sociology 63(4), pp. 590–615 Venturini, Tommaso, Pablo Jensen, and Bruno Latour (forthcoming), “Fill in the Gap. A New Alliance for Social and Natural Sciences.” Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulations.
    41. 41. A first set of disagreements concerns our image of the future: - how bad will be climate change; - how fast will it unfold; - where and who will it strike first. Climate adaptation is delayed covers-with-landscapes-issues-and-personal-narratives
    42. 42. A second set of disagreements concerns the priorities of adaptation: - which regions will be more vulnerable - which sectors will be more affected; - which arrangements will make our societies more flexible or resistant. Climate adaptation is dispersed covers-with-landscapes-issues-and-personal-narratives
    43. 43. Climate adaptation is diffused covers-with-landscapes-issues-and-personal-narratives A third set of disagreements concerns the boundaries of adaptation: - how will global warming will interfere with natural and social equilibria; - whether adaptation generates additional actions or merely re-labelling; - whether previous problems and opportunities are taken into account.
    44. 44. Climate adaptation is opportunistic covers-with-landscapes-issues-and-personal-narratives A fourth set of disagreements concerns therefore the wealth of adaptation: - who will provide resources for adaptation and who will use them; - through which channels will these resources flow; - who will decide how to employ them and who will assess the results.
    45. 45. And as a result…
    46. 46. A classic workflow
    47. 47. But things got slightly more complicated
    48. 48. Sprints
    49. 49. Sprints (Paris)
    50. 50. Sprints (Oxford)
    51. 51. Sprints (Milan)
    52. 52.
    53. 53. Venturini, T. et al. 2014 Climaps by EMAPS in 2 Pages (A Summary For Policymakers and Busy People in General). SSRNDecember 2, 2014. Venturini, T., Ricci, D., Mauri, M., Kimbell, L., & Meunier, A. (2015). Designing Controversies and their Publics. Design Issues, 31(3). Venturini, T., Baya-laffite, N., Cointet, J., Gray, I., Zabban, V., & Pryck, K. De. (2014). Three Maps and Three Misunderstandings : A Digital Mapping of Climate Diplomacy. Big Data and Society, 1(1). Venturini, T. (2010) Diving in Magma: how to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understanding of Science, 19(3), pp. 258-273 Venturini, T. (2012) Building on Faults: how to represent controversies with digital methods. Public Understanding of Science, 21(7), pp. 796-812