Design Fiction & Diegetic Prototypes in Trendy Radicalism = Synchronicity? Blind spots in startup culture correspond to new "liberal identitarian" politics

I was looking at a few different topics, seemingly unrelated, but somehow they got a bit mixed together and perhaps this is relevant to others out there. In a nutshell it seems like there is an epidemic of magical thinking in American activist world in terms of a very particular implementation of identity politics, and perhaps this whole thing is better understood as a design fiction by way of diegetic prototypes.

I see some overlap between the blind spots of activists and the blind spots in Internet startup culture. Both cultures (both newcomers and veterans) suffer from a pattern of seeing something new and cool as a political answer, when all too frequently it is not. Startup world suffers from magical thinking, and activist world suffers from astroturfing (pseudo grassroots) and distracting false solutions packaged with new semiotics [e.g. the illusion of totally 'safe spaces' in a militarized country is definitely a design fiction].

Salty science fiction writer Bruce Sterling popularized the idea of 'design fiction' to characterize the symbolic operation of the presentation of something new that doesn't exist. Could this be used to control radical politics?

For example Google Glass was introduced through a 'design fiction' video of people wandering around in augmented reality. See Bruce Sterling on design fictions:

It’s the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. That’s the best definition we’ve come up with. The important word there is diegetic. It means you’re thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those rather than entire worlds or political trends or geopolitical strategies. It’s not a kind of fiction. It’s a kind of design. It tells worlds rather than stories.

Slate: Can you give an example?

Sterling: I think the most effective design fictions to date have been videos. They’re not science-fiction films; they don’t have any Avatar-style heroics. They’re mostly vignettes of people interacting with objects and services. There’s some element of intellectual sex appeal that makes people forward them to other people.

Slate: What is it that makes design fictions work so well?

Sterling: Talking about a future gadget isn’t like talking about a future government or women’s rights in the future or other hot-button problems. Plus people are interested in things like that.

Slate: Can you have a design fiction within a sci-fi film?

Sterling: Absolutely. All these props have to be designed in one way or another. They’re dramatic, but they don’t really have much evidence of serious design thinking behind them. They’re not cheap to manufacture, they’re not easy to maintain. … That really slows sci-fi [creators] down. [Design fiction] is not a thing which is going to replace Hollywood. I don’t think that’s its purpose.

Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?

Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”

Slate: Why is design fiction important?

Sterling: It’s really a new set of tools that, I think they’re giving futurism a second wind in some ways. Instead of talking about grand, overarching things like futurism in the 1960s—we need a new consciousness—it suits the tenor of our own period. What kind of business model would that work in? That’s the question people of our time can engage in. I’m not saying design fiction’s going to resolve our economic problems. On the other hand, if you’re an unemployed designer, it’s one of the coolest things you can do now.


[Somewhat related, in 2014 he gave 40 minute closing remarks that addressed some blind spots with the SXSW crowd here, good if you have time.]

This one from April 2013 is the more important: Bruce Sterling NEXT13 - Fantasy prototypes and real disruption. If you substitute his references to the startup audience members with newcomer activists vulnerable to astroturfing, perhaps you'll see the parallel I noticed:

He points out that the startup workers are in a kind of alliance with wealthy mostly baby boomer financier class who underwrite the startups, and in fact they are not actually working towards a cool networked egalitarian planet.

I think to some extent that the well-resourced new generation of NGOs (many set up since 2010) operates in a similar way, with the charmed/trendy activist set acting in alliance with discreet financiers. The new politics (which could be labeled "liberal identitarian" as CryptoCuttlefish puts it in the Twitter thread that inspired this post) is a kind of design fiction or diegetic prototype. Behind the design fiction of pseudo-emancipatory politics is a large network of discreet but relevant links of power and money.

It has become more noticed in recent months that the trend of the moment, "intersectional identity politics" (or last year, "anti-oppression politics") has major shortcomings. At least as far back as 2012 radical activists noticed a system of tokenism and unassailable identities were displacing class analysis in the scene. That is, figureheads who seemed to have the correct identity properties would be deemed as automatically authoritative and beyond critique. Alongside that "white [male] anarchists" became the catch-all label to effectively render radical people of color invisible; to hear some tell it, anarchist POC never do direct actions in Oakland, which is not true at all.

It seems quite possible that this new intersectional identity politics system is actually a design fiction. It is a method to create the appearance of a new theoretical direction, but it does not seem to actually generate concrete strategies. Intersectional analysis can certainly identify shared concerns (for example, American Indians and people of color are more likely to experience pollution and environmental racism, an important pattern) but it does not actually seem to generate new strategies from within itself.

We should consider the possibility that intersectional identity politics is the fantasy prototype of a new politics, but not an actual toolkit for solving problems. Instead, based on identities, the appeal to authority is baked in as a weakness that powerful classes (and the low profile foundation network players) can exploit. For example, Al Sharpton with a background and 'correct intersectional identity' as a black civil rights leader acts as a figurehead that consolidates opposition, acts as a lightning rod to funnel it off, away from institutions like the DOJ (where he previously worked as an informant).

We could also look at how Gloria Steinem still has authority in the feminist scene, even though it is well known she was a CIA plant [watch this video!] whose informing helped get leftists wiped out during the Cold War. To go further we could get into how individualized "diversity" programming from business schools is a very cagey way to divide workers from one another by setting identity categories above the shared class interests of workers vs management. Just look at the absence of unions from business school-sponsored 'diversity' conferences. Clearly this type of thing has not been lost on intelligence agencies and high level business & managerial strategists.

If in fact you hit the political circuit and make your way around, it doesn't take long to find people that seem to have all the 'identity' attributes that would seem to be 'prerequisites' for radical perspectives, but are actually quite reactionary people who don't want to rock various boats. These are frequently the very same people who will shut down others for attempting to advance radical agendas, using whatever identity politics tactics to shut down the would-be radicals. Then like clockwork, they make appeals to authority based on identity when anyone pushes back. It is almost a trained reflex, with just a tiny bit of trolling you can get a demonstration.

On countless occasions you can clearly see the contrast between radicals and non-radicals who share the same general identities but have diametrically opposed hopes and beliefs. The new trends is for the less radical people to use these "intersectional" claims to put a foundation of authority under their political ideas, undermine their opponents, and chase off everyone who's not on their program. "Check your privilege" is not a bad idea to keep in mind, but it's not a political program.

Another diversion in this mix is pop-culture politics, the obsessive focus on the mass popular culture plane as a site of resistance and maneuver. See Too poor for pop culture by Baltimore resident D. Watkins, Feb 2014, and Where’s Ja? Pop Culture Criticism Is Politically Pointless | Orchestrated Pulse by RobtheIdealist Jan 2015, to get right into it.

In conclusion I am not trying to suggest that intersectional identity politics or anti-oppression politics, and the people operating in that matrix, are all useless trojan horses for the Man, but at the same time they should not be considered above critique and the huge flaws in play trigger important real-world consequences. We should be vigilant when it seems like prototyped fictions are put forth as authoritative, functioning political programs, when in fact they so often fall short, and not be afraid to suggest more radical visions instead.


More, much deeper, sources: Hat tips to @RancidTarzie @olaasm @cuttlefish_btc and @robtheidealist, several smart cats who have all kicked around some related, critical ideas on this front.

See the very insightful large review which inspired me to finally write something on this: April 2012: Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation.

I. Identity-Based Organizing
II. Institutional Struggles Over the Meaning of Anti-Oppression Politics
a. On the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC), Again
b. Politicians and Police Who Are “Just Like Us”
c. Anticapitalism and the Material Reproduction of “Race” and “Gender”
d. The Racialization of Rape and the Erasure of Sexual Violence
III. The Limits of Contemporary Anti-Oppression Theory and Practice
a. Identity is not Solidarity
b. Protecting Vulnerable Communities of Color and “Our” Women and Children: The Endangered Species Theory of Minority Populations and Patriarchal White Conservationism
c. On Nonprofit Certified “White Allies” and Privilege Theory
IV. Occupy Oakland as Example
a. Occupy Oakland, “Outside Agitators,” and “White Occupy”
b. The Erasure of People of Color From Occupy Oakland
V. Conclusion: Recuperating Decolonization and National Liberation Struggles; or, Revolution is Radically Unsafe

Also May 2014: Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex | Indigenous Action Media is quite relevant here.

Adolph Reed Jr. is also very insightful, see: Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why | (Feb 2013) and Platypus “To unite the many”: An interview with Adolph L. Reed, Jr. April 2015.

There are levels to this shit: @RobtheIdealist has challenged intersectionality as lacking in generating any strategy, along with calling out other trendy surfaces that absorb so much attention. See all of the following! The Left’s Self-Destructive Obsession with Shame (Aug 2014), Cultural Appropriation is Dead (Nov 2014), Political Ambitionz az a Rioter (Aug 2014), Feminism Ain’t For Black Folks: Why My Mama Had It Right All Along (Mar 2014), My Skinfolk Ain’t All Kinfolk: The Left’s Problem with Identity Politics (Mar 2014), Challenging Feminism, Intersectionality, and Black Academics: An Interview w/ Dr. Tommy Curry (Podcast Mar 2014), #PrayForVenezuela and the Dangers of Hashtag Humanitarianism (Feb 2014), Privilege Is Not Enough, Oppression is Omnidirectional (Jan 2014), Are You Tired of the Social Justice Outrage Machine? (Jan 2014), Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse (Oct 2013), Otherwise Liberalism (Jan 2015 re lack of strategy), Jon Stewart, Opiate of the Masses (Feb 2015), Mass Incarceration is Not the New Jim Crow (April 2014). Way to get into all those damn levels Rob!

The Problem with “Privilege” (Aug 2013) by Andrea Smith gets right into how privilege discourse is hopelessly jumbled up. Among many other salient points: "The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege".

Audio: Rob Redding discusses w Dr. Tommy Curry says talking about white privilege is not profound it is just for profit - YouTube - August 2013. I don't agree with that entirely but it's a topic that has to be looked at.

The website Wrong Kind of Green charts many different levels of NGO problems with the ally-industrial complex and other trendy players that are very relevant today. More specifically see: Non-Profit Industrial Complex | Wrong Kind of Green

Jesse Jackson marketing takeover explored in The Original Rainbow Coalition: An Example of Universal Identity Politics | Tikkun Magazine

@OLAASM (originally Occupy LA AntiSocialMedia) suspects that a writer who uses tactics similar to those above (frequently erasing POC as "white anarchists") and has career & family experience in the international intelligence NGO sphere: Stranger Danger: The Infiltration of Dissident Communities by Freedom House’s Sarah Kendzior. In comments the last few days CryptoCuttlefish points out some links with Gamergate / harassment / appeal to authority intersections.

Somewhat related: There is a larger question of "agency" analysis in the international sphere as well: The Agency | 100 Flamingos. Also this is kind of fascinating: Who Was Ernst Henri? | a.nolen context of old school WWI-WWII era 'controlled Communists' of the intelligence/parlor scene with several cameos by Aleister Crowley.

The Rancid Honeytrap written by @RancidTarzie [private timeline] is often tuned into other aspects of the trendy 'celebrity left' storyline. I don't always agree but there are some ideas that can help us all get a grip when the scenesters get carried away.

Including this thought provoking thread, a chunk here:


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