Welcome to the Simulocene

In my contribution to Cultural Anthropology’s Lexicon for the Anthropocene Yet Unseen, I suggested that, perhaps, another name for our epoch, among the many other names that have been proposed (anthropocene, capitalocene, chthulhucene, etc.), could be the simulocene – a world made from models. In Mackenzie Wark’s latest post on “general intellects” he discusses Bruno Latour’s most recent book Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime. I have not read Facing Gaia, but the dichotomy between Wark’s and Latour’s views on simulation is a familiar issue that I’ve been grappling with in my dissertation research.

As Wark describes it, Latour seeks a return to a premodern politics – turning away from the totalization and globalization of modern science. Specifically, Wark reminds us that we only know climate change and the other environmental catastrophes of our time as they are mediated through simulation. Simulation, Wark explains, merges first nature (the environmental background of modernity viewed as resource) with second nature (the built human environment) to produce a third nature, or what Wark refers to as the inhuman (the messy combination of human technologies and nonhuman agents). For Latour, this third nature is the problem, because it takes us away from a connection with a “lived world.”

This aversion to mediated forms of knowledge is quite common – Anna Tsing, for example, makes some similar statements in both Friction and The Mushroom at the End of the World. There is an almost intuitive sense that mediated knowledge is less reliable and valuable than knowledge derived from unmediated, direct encounters with the natural world. But Wark sees this not only as impossible given that we are dependent upon computer simulations for our understanding of large and complex processes like climate change, but also sees it as a reactionary move:

The decision here is whether to further develop the artifice of the sphere to include in the simulation its conditions of existence, or to think without it, and return to the territoriality of the past — and all that implies.

I agree with Wark, to this extent. We cannot simply return to a world where all knowledge is first-hand and unmediated by technology and abstract quantification. We cannot simply exit the simulocene. But there are still clearly problems with simulation – not all models are created the same, and models can be used, not necessarily to distort ecological conditions (as the climate deniers would claim), but to promote a particular approach to ecological issues that reduces decision-making to a series of financialized cost-benefit analyses. In other words, despite a kind of methodological cooptation (Wark claims “Stack-based, information-based conflict puts one simulation up against another: earth science versus financialization”), neoliberal capitalism continues to have the upper hand.  So it’s not as simple a choice as Wark makes it out to be. Rather, we have to ask, what kind of sphere is being produced, and how (if at all) can models be used to make it differently.

The site of the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model, demolished in 2011.

In what I describe as the simulocene, models are not only ways of constructing knowledge about the world. They are also relational artifacts and processes that contribute to the material production of the world. The iconic reminder of this for me is the physical model of the Chesapeake Bay that was constructed in the 1970s, but never used. The model was, very distinctly, a material artifact. It was housed on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay itself, drew water from the estuary to fun through its concrete structure, and dumped that water right back into the Bay. These are the material relations that it embodied, but its relational architecture extended far beyond the shores of Matapeake, Maryland.

The model was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers which was the original agency mandated with managing water across state boundaries – primarily for navigational and military purposes. The fact that the model was never really used and became obsolete almost as soon as it was finished was not simply a matter of physical models being superseded by computational models at the time, as Christine Keiner describes in her history of the model. It also signals a shifting institutional order wherein the Army Corps was superseded by the Environmental Protection Agency as the primary agency for water management in the US, and water quality concerns began to take precedence over navigational and water quantity issues. In other words, the physical model was made obsolete not only by technological change, but also by economic and social changes taking place at the same time.

This, along with the rest of my research, suggests that we can think of computer models not simply as tools for understanding the world, but also as the embodiments of social/institutional frameworks that extend far beyond the technology itself. I’m not trying to suggest that there is a deterministic relationship between the technology of modeling and the social institutions in which it is utilized, but there are feedbacks and broader processes at work that make the two emerge alongside one another.

However, if we are not to go back to “the territoriality of the past” without models then the question is whether they can be redeemed from the neoliberal institutional frameworks in which they are embedded. As I’ve hinted at in a prior post and will elaborate upon in future posts and articles, I think that they can be redeemed, but that the process of building and utilizing a computational model might take on a significantly different character in the process. In other words, we may not be able to exit the simulocene, but we might be able to figure out a way to use computer models to undermine neoliberal management and make a different world possible.

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