Published in TOPIA: A Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies - Issue 4, Fall 2000

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Weathering Global Futures: Ecology, Economy, and the Unruly Tropics of the "Global"

Adrian Ivakhiv

Weather Worse Than It Used To Be: Scientists

--Toronto Star (front-page headline, 8 May 1998)

A hard rain's a-gonna fall
You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

--Bob Dylan

A viewer of Canadian television in late 1998 could have justifiably blinked at the irony in seeing dozens of smiling children marching happily through sunny, globally warming, green fields under ozone-depleted skies, singing Bob Dylan's 1960s anthem "The times they are a-changin." They sang the weatherman's tune, with the words slightly altered, beneath the advertised glare of a sun called MBanx, the renamed and remodelled Bank of Montréal. As political and economic leaders gathered in Kyoto that December to discuss what to do about global climate change, the real revolution--one of banking systems and high finance--was being televised.

The hard rain Dylan promised us fell, and the times most certainly changed. As MBanx showed us, the cultural revolution of the 1960s has been readily co-opted into the self-celebratory global language of transnational consumer capitalism. Meanwhile, other kinds of signs and symbols that have arisen over the same time period--associated with the environment (whole-earth satellite images, global warming, El Niño, planetary summits at Rio and Kyoto); the economy (currency crises and looming stock market crashes, international meetings to iron out the "ground rules" and respond to the "flus" and "contagions" of the global economy); and technology (computers and the "electronic superhighway")--now provide the semiotic raw materials for the forging or "conjuring" of competing new "globalities." This article will consider one of the more potent and forceful of these "conjured globalities" (Tsing 2000:118-21)--that of a "soft" and "telematic" capitalism, a networked global economy built on high-speed informational flows, into which material ecologies and biological bodies are increasingly incorporated through their digitalization and virtualization, and through the "withering away" of the mediating layers of local, regional, and national governance.

Several strands make up the articulatory network of this particular vision of the global: ecology and economy are constructed as inherently turbulent, unruly, and "chaotic"; globalization, including that of economy and of ecology, is constructed as inevitable; differences between nature/ecology and society/economy are blurred, with both redescribed in the terms of systems science; and digitalization, virtualization, and a "liberated" high-speed capitalism are constructed as the proper and natural responses to their unruliness, providing the appropriate means of managing these chaotic systems. In what follows, I will begin by reading a series of moments in the current media production of this disorderly globality, contextualize these within recent shifts in capitalist governmentality and in the popular technocultural imagination, and envision a hypothetical future--a "social science fiction" (Bogard 1996:6-8)--in which "global economy" and "global ecology" have become integrated into a seamless web of digital data flows.

My argument proceeds in three parts. I begin by comparing media representations of recent and relatively "global" economic and ecological events: specifically, the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis, the 1997-1998 El Niño-Southern Oscillation, and (for a more Canadian window on the globality of ecological systems) the ice storm that hit much of Eastern Canada and New England in January of 1998. The globalization of economy and ecology--global flows of events flickering across television screens and computer monitors, perhaps more so than they are events occurring in non-digitalized environments--takes place within an international context characterized by vast differences of wealth and power, and the geopolitics structuring these differences (north versus south, east versus west) are evident in the strands of this technocapitalist "globality." Demonstrating that both ecology and economy are commonly constructed as volatile, unpredictable, and unruly, at the same time as their globality is presented as inevitable, 1 I next argue that the question that naturally follows from such a construction is: How are these unruly systems to be managed? Commonly conceived responses to this question range from the "hard" solution of a technocratic and panoptic global surveillance state to the "softer" path of a continued, though technologically intensified, liberalization of markets. But there is an overlap between these two "solutions," one that is evident in the development of surveillance and simulation technologies in the context of "soft" and "fast" capitalism (Thrift 1997; Agger 1989), a world in which capitalist firms and entrepreneurs compete for position within networks of increasingly overlayered and integrated high-speed informational systems.

In the final part of this article, I examine some of the technoscientific shifts accompanying these global economic and ecological developments, specifically digital modelling and information-processing technologies, and nonlinear dynamical-systems (a.k.a. chaos and complexity) theories. By rendering the "real" world into the form of digital data, these technoscientific imaginal and representational systems promise a means for managing unstable economies, ecologies, and material bodies. What is curious is that ideas of unruliness and chaos are themselves drawn into a wide variety of different articulations, ranging from the scientific and professional (chaos and complexity theory, management training) to the popular and alternative (cyberculture, New Age spirituality). In the hyperreal theatre of global culture, it seems that these ideas fill a space of iconic reassurance, a space which, in effect, supports the linking together of strands that make up the "social science fiction" of technocapitalist globality. The "chaos" of the global body politic is in this way tamed but also sent reeling into a higher orbit of fast capitalism. And as various data systems--geographic information technologies, digital surveillance and simulation systems, and other interfaces with the "real" world of nature--become integrated increasingly with the technologies of global finance and capital, I suggest that what was once "nature" is becoming reprogrammable and more and more directly responsive to the waves and currents of the global financial and economic "casino" (Strange 1986). This development, though its end point remains science-fictional, raises questions about how such a globalized and digitalized economy/ecology redistributes "risks" and "investments"--not only economic but personal, cultural, community, and ecological risks/investments.

My intent, then, is to propose a "social science fiction" of this emergent telematic-capitalist globality in order to better understand its aporia and possible alternatives. As Bogard explains, a "social science fiction" combines an analysis of the present with a futuristic genealogy of a past that has not yet occurred. It "chronicles how a fantastic machine might recount its past, a past that haunts our own technological present and, like some displaced recollection, precedes it" (1996:7, original emphasis). It aims

to describe the social or institutional "effects" of an imaginary technology, not in a causal sense, but in the way a simulacrum is woven into the current technical practices of a society, as the virtual form of their development. (1996:8)

The trends described here lead to a telematic capitalist future of digitally hypercontrolled environments insofar as the vision or simulacrum that inhabits them--one of speed, virtuality, and an infinitely malleable and digitalizable world--is effectively embodied in social and material realities. The linkage of its articulatory strands is not inevitable; it can be resisted and contested, but only with a deepened appreciation of how those strands are being linked together.

Constructing Global Turbulence: Contagions, Storms, and Other Unruly Tricksters

The Asian Crisis

In what had become a common trope representing global financial turmoil, a full-page Merrill Lynch ad that appeared in the New York Times on 20 August 1998, reflecting on the "ongoing upheaval in the emerging markets" of Asia, Russia, and Japan, advised potential clients on how to "successfully weather the global storm." Meanwhile, on the evening news, Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien was declaring to a crowd of Liberal Party supporters that "A storm is buffeting the global economy--a major storm." Expanding on the metaphor a little, a cover story in the 14 September 1998 issue of the U.S. News & World Report informed its readers that

What began 14 months ago as a faraway riffle when the bottom fell out of the Thai currency known as the baht has now swelled to something like one of those awful desert storms that blow up on the other side of an ocean, then land on American shores with names like Bonnie or Earl.

Referring to chaos theorists' so-called "butterfly effect"--physicist Edward Lorenz's image representing the extreme sensitivity of non-linear or apparently chaotic natural systems (like the weather) to their initial conditions--the article continued,

The butterfly that began flapping its wings in Thailand so many months ago has now somehow spun up gale-force winds that have blown through Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and much of the rest of Asia before reaching landfall in Russia and, just lately, the fragile economies of Latin America. 2

The article's next two sub-headings--"Contagion spreads" and "Storm warnings"--were echoed in countless other media reports on the global effects of the so-called Asian crisis. The New York Times portrayed it as a spectacular fire being watched from across a river by the world's finance ministers and bankers (who were meeting in Washington at the time). As the leaders "marveled at how high the flames were soaring, and how quickly they leapt from house to house," they discussed the "amazing global economic village they planned to build someday on the charred landscape," with "computer controlled sprinkler systems," a protective shield to stop the spread of flames, and new safety rules (Week in Review).

In this metaphorics of natural disturbances--stormy seas and tidal waves, hurricane-force winds, financial firestorms, wildfires and tinderboxes--nature itself provides a series of tropes by which the global economy is naturalized into something that can neither be predicted nor controlled--it is simply, and inevitably, there, like the weather. Another prominent set of metaphors for the looming global financial crisis at the time was one of technological accidents: market meltdown, chain reaction, slowdown, tailspin, crash. 3 The metaphorics of natural disturbances and technical accidents combine to create a scenario of humans facing unfriendly weather conditions. A lead story on CBC's nightly news program The National, under the headline "Storm warnings" (31 July 1998), informed viewers that "The Canadian economy sent out several signals today--signals of distress," as if the national economy was a Titanic sailing seas that were growing ominously stormy. (Meanwhile, another television ad at the time showed the Canadian ship of state drifting Titanic-like towards an iceberg called "Y2K.")

Perhaps slightly more threatening, because of its whiffs of a latent racism, is the language of viral outbreaks, flus, and contagions. Next to the more neutral "crisis," "Asian flu" was the most commonly used term to describe the 1998 bottoming out of the Asian "tiger" economies following international investors' pull-outs from the Asian markets. "When the contagion spread to Russia this summer," the CBC informed its viewers, "the virus sent stock markets plunging from Rio to Wall Street" (The National, 16 September 1998). And on 14 September 1998, Time stated that "not even a healthy U.S. can quarantine its factories and offices and markets from the illnesses of countries halfway around the world" (Special report). In the Globe and Mail, 8 October 1998, we read that "as the world's financial and economic crisis washes toward North America," limiting "the spread of global economic contagion" becomes increasingly difficult; while, in a lighter vein, the Toronto Star, 25 October 1998, portrays the threat as a Godzilla-like "economic monster that ate Asia."

For a while in early 1998, it seemed that the "quarantine theory" might be right: "first quarter earnings of American companies looked surprisingly robust" and investment in countries like South Korea and Thailand had begun to rebound (Time, 4 May 1998). The virus, in other words, could be contained within a region-sized "hospital ward," through a combination of a financial "bitter-pill regimen" and immunization of economies against future viral outbreaks. Not long afterwards, though, an alternative conclusion had gained credence among economic pundits: that the effects of the Asian "contagion" could take several months, perhaps years, to work their way through the global economy. In this reading, Asia's currency plunge had only just begun "to wreak havoc with trade patterns--creating a kind of economic eye in the storm, a moment when current account balances, earnings forecasts and even orders for durable goods like cars and houses look stable and healthy," but with "the rest of the cyclone" still "surely coming."

For such a stormy future, nothing less would be needed than a new "international financial fire brigade." Suddenly, it seemed that a latent fear had become public, as even prominent economists and financiers began to acknowledge that there may be a "shadow side" to the global economy, with its investment capital "sloshing around the global market," a market which "magnifies our [sic] worst instinct," and a "herd mentality" among investors, whose money is "blown around the world by the fickle winds of investor psychology" (Business viewpoint). The "global shock waves" were thereby given, at least in part, a human cause, but the scapegoat remained obscure enough that it might as well have been nature--the unruly, herd-like instincts of human nature. But worrying about human nature soon became unnecessary. The global economy bounced back, and the West's favoured conclusion about the Asian financial debacle has become that there was something wrong with the Asian states themselves--their corruption and "cronyism," for example--and little to do with the processes by which they were turned into "emerging markets," new frontiers for penetration and colonization by finance capital, complete with visions of investment bonanzas in newly discovered exotic locales.4

Mother Nature and her Nasty Kids

Aside from those hints of a psychosocial explanation for financial turbulence, coverage of global economic events has in fact taken on a remarkable resemblance to that of ecological events. One could even say that a convergence has occurred between the discursive representation of these once seemingly separate, but now tightly entangled, spheres. Despite the now-forgotten exhortations of environmentalists to "think globally, act locally," ecology is being effectively globalized, both through the international forums by which the world increasingly comes to grips with global environmental problems, and through the technological and representational means by which they are visualized and constructed. Even the weather, which was once highly localized and of primarily regional interest, has been drawn into a web of transcontinental projections: digitally produced satellite views of warm and cold fronts; prognostications of global warming, cooling, or "climate flip-flops"; and El Niño "teleconnections" spreading outwards from the South Pacific to the furthest reaches of the planet.

El Niño (and, to a lesser extent, its sibling, La Niña) is perhaps the most obvious example of an apparently natural force that appears of its own accord and proceeds to wreak havoc on economies, North American no less than others. Its connections to anthropogenic global warming notwithstanding, the portrayal of El Niño as a menacingly unruly child (the Spanish term literally means "the Child") plays well into the global economy of disaster imagery. Like the "Asian flu," this monstrous threat comes from elsewhere (the South and East), and, as such, it lends itself to the old Orientalist habit of blaming the developing world for the ecological crises wrought, in large part, by the Western model of development.5 The "El Niño Watch" features that peppered American television during this episode became a kind of globalized Neighbourhood Watch program: What are the nasty kids of your neighbourhood up to tonight?

In 1997 and 1998, the latter of which Weatherwise called a "year of epic disasters" (Le Comte 1999), El Niño took the blame for devastating floods in East Africa; hurricanes, storms, and floods which killed thousands of people in Central America; and drought, wildfires, and food shortages in Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Its death toll has been estimated at 23,000, with between $33 billion and $90 billion in damages around the world.6 One of the "epic disasters" which carried the elusive trickster's "signature" (Environment Canada 1998; Kerry et al. 1999)--according to Canadian media, the worst and most expensive natural disaster in the nation's history--the Ice Storm which hit Eastern Canada and the north-east United States in January of 1998 shows us how even the most seemingly natural disasters are always more than mere acts of nature. This "storm of the century" (Harris 1998:38) captivated millions of people, leaving about five million without electricity for hours, and some for as many as thirty-three days (Abley 1998:14).

Ascribed to a "quirky, vengeful Mother Nature" (Wilson-Smith 1998), the storm resulted in some thirty-five deaths, over $500 million lost in immediate damages, and billions more in insurance claims, reconstruction costs, and lost economic output (Harris 1998:41; Abley 1998:15). Its economic toll figured prominently in media coverage of the storm as it unfolded, with some economists arguing that its net result--which included a minor baby boom triggered by the storm's side effect of increased leisure time--would in fact boost economic activity and Gross Domestic Product.7 In the end, the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated its disaster payout at $1.14 billion, the largest such in Canadian history, but could happily add that the storm generated $2.2 billion in economic activity, most of it in the form of temporary employment to rectify the damage (Shilts 1999:24).

Yet, in the end, much of the storm's impact, especially in the densely populated Montréal area, had everything to do with Québec's over-reliance on huge generating stations located hundreds of kilometres from consumers and on a relatively small number of inadequately protected, massively high-voltage transmission lines--six in Montréal and only one on the city's south shore.8 More than any other province in Canada, Québec has made its publicly owned utility "not just a public service but a public symbol" (Abley 1998:122)--one invested with the full force of Québécois nationalism, with the province harnessing its northernmost regions (James Bay and the North Shore), against the protests of Native communities, to build its infrastructural power base. The collapse of four of five of the transmission links feeding the island of Montréal--the so-called "ring of power"--crippled much of the city, while part of the nearby Montérégie area south of Montréal was turned into a "Triangle of Darkness." "In picture after picture," Mark Abley writes in a coffee-table book of the event, "steel rods lie broken like chicken bones across a wilderness of snow: visceral proof that a network had collapsed" (1992:118). The fact that Hydro-Québec had "no contingency plan for working with municipalities, no permanent department for crisis management, not even a computer simulation on how to deal with major power facilities" (1992:124) justifiably dismayed observers, and provided the promoters of utility privatization fuel for their cause, a cause that has been gaining strength in Ontario and other provinces in recent years.

Network collapse is among the worst nightmares of advanced industrial civilization. The technological sort may be taken for granted, but at some level we recognize that they can collapse. The build-up towards Y2K reminded us all, momentarily, that technological society is built on a certain fragility (on technology's part) and faith (on ours). But natural systems are still assumed to be so much more solid and dependable. If human activities have destabilized the world's biological and ecological networks, they have also made these realms increasingly intertwined with the social and economic; as the natural and the artifactual grow ever more blurred, they also become more global and, in fact or at least in fiction (as shown in the above examples), more hazardous and unruly. Retrospective accounts of the ice storm most often comment on the sense of local community that it catalyzed (a good thing), the eerily beautiful images that it left behind (an ambivalent thing), and the belief that it was caused by a finicky and unpredictable "mother nature" ("what can you do?"). But when nature gets more and more unruly, as the discourse of climate change predicts it will, we expect our politicians and scientists to do something about it. I will argue in the next section that the discourse of networks and systems, and specifically that of chaotic and complex systems (unlike the top-heavy kind Hydro-Québec has installed across its province), has itself become part of the reassuring mantra by which society is responding to this perception of global unruliness. "Chaos" has become a cherished invocation at the very time when the technological and economic tools for taming it are being rapidly promoted and developed.9 But first I will contextualize these developments--the obscuring of boundaries between ecology and economy, and their construction as global and as unruly--within the changes transforming governmentality in advanced capitalist society.

Managing Global Turbulence

As economic events are rendered "natural," and "natural disasters" are increasingly enmeshed within political-economic and technocultural networks, the line between economy and ecology gets irretrievably blurred. Economic globalization begins to seem both natural and inevitable, and "the global" becomes an unruly, inherently (and justifiably) competitive realm, yet at same time one which is turbulent and seemingly natural. Nature itself, once seen as the paragon of stability and invulnerability, takes on the qualities that have characterized this last phase of global capital; volatile and turbulent, risky and uncertain, it becomes a source of potential instability and danger.

In this framing of global economic and ecological events both as "natural disturbances," a tension can be seen between their representation as "natural and inevitable" and their portrayal as "nature out of control"--disturbances whose unruly causes must be reined in and disciplined. In the case of global financial turmoil, these conflicting discourses suggest at least two possible responses. The first of these, and the one most favoured by ruling political-economic classes, is a continued insistence on the need for free-market solutions. Turbulence, according to this view, is to be expected as we progress towards our economically globalized destiny; its "jitters" should be stoically endured, and its kinks will be worked out--assuming, of course, that we continue to eliminate the obstacles (state regulation, unionized labour) to capital's unhampered flow.

However, as the volatile effects of the Asian crisis generated fears that it might spread to other continents, this neo-monetarist response, as we saw, was supplemented with vague calls for some kind of control over the global marketplace.10 Political-economic elites for the most part resist this alternative path, as it suggests a detour from the hands-off credo of neoliberalism; nevertheless, recurrent bouts of financial turmoil can be expected to lead to more serious discussion of various forms of global regulation. The question is, what sort of regulation? What shape can the new "architecture of global economic governance" take? Who will create it, and whose interests will it serve? These same questions could be asked of global ecological decision-making, and, once the questions are constructed in this way, two possible response-scenarios suggest themselves.

Panoptic Technocracy versus Fast Capitalism

Modernity is often described as entailing a progressive intensification of social regulation through systems of administrative rationality and panoptic forms of "governmentality" and normalization.11 For some, the new communications technologies have expanded the possibilities for surveillance and normalization, contributing to the emergence of a "Superpanopticon" (Poster 1990, 1995), a hypercontrolled society ruled by a new "virtual class" of corporate information brokers and managers.12 This superpanopticon operates through a network of integrated technologies: the monitoring and recording of office work; electronic banking and shopping; electronically accessed financial transactions, credit ratings, health records, and police files; the profiling, tracking, and "data mining" of individual Internet users; video surveillance cameras; Landsat satellites and global positioning systems (GPS); the securing of "gated communities" by electronic locks or biometric (palm- or iris-scanning) gateways; electronic tracking bracelets for convicted criminals; and so on.

Nonetheless, in the absence of an obvious and overarching global authority, the Big Brother scenario remains largely unconvincing. In the post-Bretton Woods, post-Cold War era of floating exchange rates, offshore capital markets, speculative "casino capitalism" (Strange 1986), and the time-space compression of instantaneous communications and high-speed transportation systems, the world, as we have seen, is being refigured as "a messy place which can never be known in its entirety" (Thrift 1997:36). The second scenario for managing turbulence, then, is that of smaller-scale informational "mini-panopticons" proliferating at the level of businesses and workplaces, schools, prisons, and local or state governments (Mehta and Darier 1998:108). Detailed information about individuals becomes available (for a cost), and indeed circulates widely, but there are few central collection points which can make much use of that information before it becomes outdated. Rather, its movement and transformation increases and multiplies into a disorderly "space of flows" (Castells 1989), eliciting a rush to develop technologies for tapping those flows and setting them into profitable economic eddies and currents. The shift from top-down "control" models to more flexible forms of temporal and spatial positioning is evident, for instance, in corporate management discourses.

Nigel Thrift (1997) documents a shift from more "scientific" forms of administrative management to a view of management as a form of speedy, constant adaptation and adjustment, "surfing" and "going with the flow" within a larger environment that is fast-moving, "fuzzy," and unpredictable, and in which knowledge is at best partial and differentiated. The key, in this scenario, is speed and access. Survival in the world of soft and fast informational capitalism has become a matter of "chronopolitics" (Virilio 1986), a war for position within high-volume and high-velocity, up-to-the-minute info-flows. As the war (by other means) proceeds, more and more of the complex and unruly "real world" is digitalized--transposed into digital data which can be modelled, surveilled, simulated, and processed.

Digitalizing Global Nature

The last ten or fifteen years have seen a rapid globalization of the discourse of ecological managerialism and a growth in the institutional spaces and forms of expertise and authority by which the world's ecosystems can be monitored and managed (e.g., the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, UNCED, and others). As argued by Goldman (1998), Sachs (1993), and others, the production of the idea of a "global commons," facilitated by the language and imagery of "globalism"--photographs of the Earth from space, electronic graphics, and so on--has been linked with the emergence of a technocratic class of global resource managers, who, through the quantification of a transnational map of risks, shortfalls, and disasters in the making, "constitute public spaces and resources as the new commons to be monitored, measured, regulated and administered" (Goldman 1998:35). In the process, an institution like the World Bank is transformed from a reckless modernizer to the main supporter of small-scale "extractive reserves" (1998:67); for example, the Amazon rainforest, reconfigured as the "lungs of the Earth," is being effectively seized from its dwellers, to be cared for by its First World managers and patrons. This global managerialism--an impending form of "geopower" (Ó Tuathail 1996:7) concerned with the production and management of territorial space--plays into an authoritarian strain within the environmental movement which relies on a well established rhetorical tradition centred on the Malthusian fear of an expanding human population.13 Furthermore, in Fernando Coronil's (2000:364) words, "as nature is being privatized and held in fewer hands, it is being redefined as the `natural capital' of denationalized nations ruled by the rationality of the global market" (see World Bank 1995, 1997).

Yet despite any efforts to rein environmental politics into the managerial grip of a global administrative technocracy, environmental management is increasingly taking place within an unstable arena of competing interest groups and multiple stakeholders, among them different levels of government, industries, NGOs, and citizens' groups. In a movement analogous to that found in managerial discourse, ecological science has in the last few decades moved away from notions of ecosystemic "balance," "harmony," and "stability" to an understanding of nature as messy, unpredictable, and chaotic, explicable only through the application of non-linear dynamic and chaotic systems theories, and even then far from entirely controllable.14 Yet, as calls for prediction and control intensify, global, regional, and local ecologies are submitted increasingly to a digitalization which renders them modellable and processable by geographic information systems, remote sensing and global positioning systems, computer-assisted cartography, and other tools.

Geographic information systems (GIS), for instance, collect data from a wide array of sources, including maps, photos, satellite imagery and remote sensing (meteorological and earth resources satellites), and field measurements, embedding this data into multilayered and georeferenced systems for mapping, accounting, recording, archiving, overlaying, and cross-referencing (Pickles 1995:5). Applications of GIS range widely, from commercial uses (such as geodemographics as a marketing tool) to governmental, community, recreational, and military applications; they are being rapidly integrated into agriculture and land use planning, forestry and wildlife management, geology, archaeology, and municipal planning, as well as other areas.15 A GIS-based forest inventory, for instance--the primary management tool for timber production in North America--typically combines data from a number of sources, including aerial photographs and digital satellite imagery, field measurements, administrative and regulatory boundary maps, property ownership data, maps of roads, drainage patterns, soil types and topography, and harvest histories, to model the spread of forest fires, assess threatened and endangered species habitats, calculate harvestable timber quantities, and develop and evaluate alternative harvest plans. The Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Sciences of Complexity (the leading research institute for chaos and complexity theory in the US), in a study funded by agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere, projects that

the next generation of combine harvesting machines will be able to play the role of information and data stations, tightly integrated into global agricultural and atmospheric modeling: data on soil, pest, and crop properties at a given location can be stored and used as input for simulation models that will serve both as input for agricultural planning as well as for global environmental change simulations. (Santa Fe Institute 1993:18)

The use of electronic surveillance and measurement technologies for managing nature is hardly new. Much of post-war scientific ecology (particularly during the era of "big science," from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s) has been concerned with modelling and managing ecosystems by analysing their physico-chemical properties and quantifying the flow of energy and nutrients through them. Under the patronage of such well-heeled sponsors as the US Atomic Energy Commission, large, hierarchically structured teams of ecologists studied entire ecosystems in order to develop computer models able to simulate and predict ecosystem behaviour.17 At its current vanguardist edge, the digitalization, modelling and simulation of ecosystems results in such experimental extravaganzas as Biosphere II, which Nigel Clark describes as a computer system as much as it is a theme park, its "every motion and murmur feeding into a vast software ganglion" of electronic sensors, video cameras, and computer banks (1997:88). The ultimate simulated ecosystems of the future, Clark suggests, may well be those without any obvious analogues in nature--the digital environments being produced by "artificial life" researchers (cf. Levy 1993; Hayles 1999).

Chaos, Complexity, and the Biological Casino

Systems as complex as the weather and the world economy constitute two forms of unruly nature most difficult to rein in and control. They are what mathematicians call non-linear complex systems. Trying to understand the weather is what led physicist Edward Lorenz to his discovery in 1960 of the so-called "butterfly effect,"17 a moment which has become the origin myth for the science of chaotic systems. Contrary to popular misconceptions, chaos theory is not really a validation of disorder; rather, it is an extension of scientific methodology into the behaviour of systems previously considered too complex to understand, let alone to predict or control. Chaos theory, and complexity theory more broadly, models the overall behaviour of complex non-linear dynamical systems; it shows that turbulence can be generated by relatively simple equations, and that apparently random systems can possess a hidden order--enough regularities, at least, to allow for some useful short-term predictive capability and higher-order generalizations. It has been used, with varying but limited success, to model weather systems, population growth dynamics, epidemics, arrhythmic heart palpitations, brain function, national security, international relations, organizational environments, stock market dynamics, and much more.18

Ideas of chaos and complexity have, in recent years, spread well beyond the range of their possible scientific application, attracting particular interest among management gurus and business schools, New Age believers and advocates of a scientific "new paradigm," and the rising "technointelligentsia" of "symbolic analysts" and cyberlibertarians (Hayles 1990, 1994; Terranova 1996; Thrift 1997, 1999; Weingart and Maasen 1997). Their meanings play out a series of fertile and culturally compelling oppositions--between order and disorder, reductionism and holism, cooperation and individualism, rationality and irrationality--which are taken up differently at various cultural sites, contributing to an amorphous "chaotics," or "archipelago of chaos," as Katherine Hayles (1994:7) calls this set of linked but disparate discourses. To understand the place and appeal of chaos and complexity theories within the "social science fiction" of a telematic society, let us examine a few of the divergent takes on them.

Hayles herself has been most interested in the appropriation of chaos ideas in literary fiction and in cultural, especially post-structuralist, scholarship. She reads these as a privileging of disorder, which results in a postmodern "denaturing" of language, human subjectivity, and human experience. In contrast to Hayles's reading, one of the more popular presentations of chaos theory, John Briggs and David Peat's book Turbulent Mirror (1989), promotes chaos as the basis for a new worldview of interrelatedness, wholeness, and open-ended change, which the authors link with environmental politics and the co-evolutionary holism of the Gaia hypothesis. Briggs and Peat emphasize the "order emerging out of chaos" views of French chemist Ilya Prigogine rather than the more widely held "hidden order within chaos" theories associated with Lorenz, Mandelbrot, and most American chaos/complexity theorists; in their reading, chaos theory is cast into the role of a revolutionary protagonist which would provide a resounding blow to scientific reductionism and determinism. Scientists involved in chaos and complexity studies, on the other hand, and in sharp contrast to Briggs and Peat, generally identify the theory's deterministic promise to be its central kernel. Like Gaia theory itself, the science of chaos, as Weingart and Maasen put it, "has become the fertile soil for expectations (fictitious? wrong?) and speculations (pseudoreligious?)," leaving chaos scientists disquieted by the proliferation of these speculative alternative (mis)interpretations, but at the same time seduced by their popularity and the funding possibilities that they help generate (1997:512). The conflicting messages held out by the different branches of chaos theory end up appealing to opposing interests: "Either nonlinear dynamics is seen as a way to bring complex behavior within the scope of rational analysis (e.g., physical sciences), or it is embraced because it is seen as resisting totalizing theories (e.g., literary studies)" (1997:482). This gives "chaotics" a double edge which contributes to its ambivalent symbolic potency. As Hayles (1990) and Thrift (1999:53) both argue, "chaos" and "complexity" have become the indicators of a new "structure of feeling" or "cultural dominant," but their meanings and uses are multivalent and disparate.

However, the branch of "chaotics" that is most relevant to my argument is that of the so-called cyberlibertarian technointelligentsia, for which Wired magazine's then executive editor Kevin Kelly provided a statement-of-the-art with his influential 1995 book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.19 Praised by the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune Magazine, and Industry Week (a reviewer for Fortune, quoted on the book's jacket, called it "required reading for all executives"), Kelly's rhapsodic tome documents the apparent mixing and fusion of the natural and the technological--a variant on the blurring of economy and ecology which I have described above. He argues that the distinction between the two is disappearing and a science of "lifelike systems" is emerging in its place. These "vivisystems" include organisms and ecologies, robots and corporations, economies and computer circuits (1995:3); their proliferation provides Kelly with evidence of an evolutionary emergence of greater levels of complexity, variation, and divergence. In this updated social and technological Darwinism, what is evolving is systems themselves--among them the free market, the "triumph" of which provides Kelly and his cohorts with further "evidence" of the superiority of "self-evolving" systems over centrally managed ones. Kelly seems to have little difficulty with the clear implication that, in this new networked landscape, "Them that has, gets." "the game," he writes, in a newspeak typical of the genre, has shifted "from zero-sum, where every win means someone else's loss, to positive-sum, where the economic rewards go to those able [to] play the system as a unified whole" (1995:200-1).

Playing the system, of course, includes playing the financial marketplace, and Kelly dedicates a chapter to the use of complex systems theories to predict the market (1995:420-49). In the global economy, the technology of digital manipulation has created what may be the largest (in monetary terms, at least) and busiest "vivisystem" on the planet--the twenty-four-hour electronic casino, where traders buy and sell currencies, stocks, securities, derivatives, futures, and commodities. Kelly's work is suffused with a post-countercultural optimism (he is a former editor at Whole Earth Review, original makers of the hippie-pragmatist Whole Earth catalogues), and Out of Control is intended more as a celebration of the cosmic implications of his vision than as a mere justification of free-market capitalism (though his 1998 follow-up, New Rules for the New Economy, makes up for that). Yet, in completing his transformation from a New Age hippie to a free-market ideologue, Kelly joins the ranks of those, like Reaganite and Newt Gingrich crony George Gilder, and Michael Rothschild, for whom capitalism is "not an ism at all but a naturally occuring phenomenon" (qtd. in Terranova 1996:78).

Meanwhile, as capitalism is naturalized and rendered seemingly biological, so nature and biology are capitalized, commodified, and digitalized into interoperable bits: the human genome is mapped and catalogued (through the Human Genome Project) and its biological diversity collected and stored for future applications (the Human Genome Diversity Project); the biological body itself is rendered digitally accessible over the Internet (the Visible Human Project); genetic and biological data, not to mention live body parts, are bought and traded on the open marketplace; and biotechnology prospectors search the world for genetic materials to be modified, patented, and sold.20

Conclusion: A Social Science Fiction

With more and more of the "real world" being transfigured into digital data, it can then be integrated and merged with a variety of disparate informational databases (see, e.g., Wilson 1998; Goodchild et al. 1999). Bogard defines "telematic society" as a social order which aims "to solve the problem of perceptual control at a distance through technologies for cutting the time of transmission of information to zero" (1996:9). In pursuit of this aim, telematic systems--such as the Internet, home and transport technologies, virtual reality, image databases, analogue and digital Closed Circuit television, gaming, telepresencing, genetic modelling and anatomical data systems, GIS and GPS, and so on--are linked together to create complex systems of informational storage, retrieval, manipulation, and "surveillant-simulation." Bogard argues that simulation technologies are forms of "hypersurveillant control," technologies of pre-exposure and pre-recording which make up an important part of the imaginary of surveillant control: "a fantastic dream of seeing everything capable of being seen, recording every fact capable of being recorded, and accomplishing these things, whenever and wherever possible, prior to the event itself" (1996:4-5). Applying Bogard's argument to GIS technologies, Stephen Graham (n.d.) shows how

within GISs, vast, superimposed systems of spatially-referenced data are integrated together, visualised and, increasingly, linked electronically both backwards into data capture and forwards into business and organisational decision-making.

Graham finds examples of the complex socio-technical ensembles that result from this in the UK utility industry, retailing and home teleservices, and crime control initiatives, where comprehensive simulations of the "real" world are used as "the basis for a myriad of decisions about who belongs where, how to maintain profitability, and the appropriate roll out of urban services."

I referred above to the use of GIS for resource and agricultural management. Resource managers make harvesting decisions based not only on environmental and technological factors but also on economic ones, such as market price and production, transportation, and labour costs. With the growing capacity of merging disparate informational databases and the increasing computational power of GIS and related technologies, the speed by which information is updated can, in theory, be accelerated to the speed at which these economic factors themselves change. Projecting this trend forward, it is possible to see a scenario in which geographical and resource-managerial systems have become so integrated and overlayered with other telematic systems--financial/economic, policing, genetic, and so on--as to make redundant most, if not all, human intermediaries at the level of state, regional, and local governance; community decision-making; or individual farmers and households. Rather, "decisions" about what crops to grow, which particular combination of genes they should incorporate, how they should be processed, where they should be transported at any given point in the production cycle, and where the profits and losses are to register on the flowsheets of production, sales, investment, and market exchange, are all carried out autonomically, as it were, in the "kinematic" "flowmations" of the global marketplace (cf. Luke 1998:121). In the process, the management of "natural capital," and the engineering, manipulation, and transformation of the "resources" that comprise it, becomes subject directly to the waves and currents of the financial and economic casino--the free-wheeling, high-stakes system of floating exchange rates, emerging (and submerging) commodity markets, instantaneous worldwide money transfers, and so on. The end point of this scenario is a fully telematic society in which the gap between economic movements in the global marketplace and ecological actions in the "real" world has been fully closed: no "lag time" exists because all options have been simulated and surveilled in advance; there is only the competitive play for position in relation to the different options as they unfold.

The conclusion of this "social science fiction" is fictional, but its components are not, and they raise questions about the ways in which risks and investments--of far more than a merely financial kind--are being redistributed among their participants and subjects. As capitalist stratification and inequities rearrange and re-establish themselves on a more global level, and as decision-making is delocalized and disembedded, questions about risks to livelihood, community integrity, and so on will need to be addressed. Each of the articulatory strands within this narrative--the construction of nature as unruly and "chaotic," of economy and ecology as equivalent, of globalization as inevitable, and of digitalization and virtualization as proper and appropriate responses to "natural" disturbances of all kinds--can be questioned and assessed critically, and their linkage into a single narrative can be resisted by counter-articulations. As I have argued, an "unruly" nature presents itself as a threat amenable to contradictory or competing responses; it also leaves aside the question of how and why this nature may have become unruly and unstable in the first place (or may have always been so). The spectre of global climate change alerts us to the messy entanglement of global ecology and human socio-technical networks; yet, as Bruno Latour (1993) reminds us, our everyday productive ecologies have always been hybrid interweavings of the natural and the social. Likewise, human economic activities are intertwined with nature, but they themselves are not nature; they are shaped through social decisions and practices, not (contra Kevin Kelly) through some blind correspondence between markets and natural systems.

Encompassing all of these into a science of non-linear complex systems might serve as a useful means of making sense of them; but the effects of that encompassment play all too smoothly into the general trajectory of an ever quickening technocapitalism that has become hyperreal (Baudrillard 1983) and divorced from those skeins of the world that remain non-digitalizable (cf. Helmreich 1999; Borgmann 1999). Seeing both economies and ecologies as complex and non-linear informational systems projects a certain grasp onto them: information can be monitored, measured, modelled, simulated, and transformed. What remain unthought in this digital quantification of the biosphere and the economy are the situated and embedded realities of individuals and communities making a living: complex histories of socio-ecological relations and practices, and daily struggles for livelihood, sustenance, health and safety, citizenship and identity, the household and the local "commons"--in other words, all the more qualitative and meaningful dimensions of collective life.

Both nature and economies are embodied in particular forms at a range of scales, with a multidimensional integrity that eludes informational-systemic analyses. Their increasing "globalization" is part of a series of shifts that affect various communities, landscapes, and spaces differentially: globalization is, in other words, always locally and regionally situated, with even such shifts as global climate change affecting some parts of the earth more adversely than others. Each of these popular and media articulations (globalization, digitalization, etc.) is always partial, eclipsing as much as it reveals. I have tried, in this paper, to suggest a few of those eclipses, as well as the potential interconnections among these articulations.


  • Portions of this paper have been presented at the Joint Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science and the Environmental Studies Association of Canada (Halifax, October 1998), at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada (Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, June 1999), and at the Lyman Briggs School of Michigan State University. Comments received at those meetings have been helpful in refining my thinking, as have those of an anonymous reviewer for Topia. My inspiration for viewing the weather through a cultural prism comes from the work of Jody Berland and Andrew Ross. Jody's example and encouragement have been especially inspiring, as has Sherilyn MacGregor's insightful critical prodding and general support.
  • 1. It is beyond the scope of this paper to prove that economic and ecological globalization are both popularly constructed as "inevitable." But see the growing critical literature on globalization, for example, Hirst and Thompson (1996); Veseth (1998); Kelly (1999); and Herod, Ó Tuathail, and Roberts (1998, 2000).
  • 2. While testing out a model for predicting weather systems, a model made up of a deterministic set of equations and variables for pressure, humidity, and other factors, which he ran to see how the variables unfolded over time, Lorenz made the accidental discovery that the same set of data could result in two entirely different sets of results. Or they appeared to be the same set of data--until he realized that his computer had rounded off the values of his print-out from an earlier set of data, so that the figures were infinitesimally different--rounded off to three instead of six decimal places. The "butterfly effect" refers to this discovery that such minuscule changes in the starting conditions could result, over time, in dramatically different outcomes. This story is told in the opening chapter of James Gleick's genre-spawning Chaos. Other primers in chaos and complexity theory include Lewin (1992); and Briggs and Peat (1989).
  • 3. My search focused most closely on 1998 transcripts of CBC's The National and on the Globe and Mail's online archive for the summer and fall of 1998, from which I examined articles with the terms "economy," "globalization," or "econom* AND (global OR world)."
  • 4. See Ó Tuathail (1997); Sidaway and Pryke (2000); and Tsing (2000).
  • 5. I am indebted to my colleague Deborah Barndt for this insight, and for the suggestion that El Niño represents an increasing infiltration of Spanish terminology into North American public discourse, a wave which allows, even facilitates, the continuing portrayal of the developing world as exotic and (over)populated by mysterious threats. For another treatment of the parallels between El Niño and the global economy, see Smith (1998).
  • 6. See Henderson (1999) and D'Agnese (2000).
  • 7. For example, as argued by DRI economist Robert Fairholm in an Ottawa Citizen article entitled "Retail sales hit by January's ice storm." See also the National Film Board's 1995 documentary Who's Counting on how "environmental disasters" like the Exxon Valdez oil spill actually add to GDP despite the (inestimable) destruction they cause.
  • 8. See, for example, Yakabuski (1998). About three-quarters of Québecers depend on electric heating (compared to only eighteen percent of Ontarians), much of it from generating stations in the James Bay or North Shore regions of the province.
  • 9. It is instructive to note how easy it would be to slip into a feminized anthropomorphism for both "nature" and "chaos" and how difficult to imagine a masculine nature. Even El Niño always remains more a child than a man.
  • 10. Probably the most publicized call for reining in the global economy came from global money mogul and billionaire financier George Soros, in his two widely reprinted and reviewed 1998 essays, "The capitalist threat" and "Toward a global open society." See also his Crisis of Global Capitalism. Mainstream and neoliberal economists' responses to Soros tended to mix respect with vehement denial, but in late 1998 even editorial writers at papers like the fiscally responsible and right-of-centre Globe and Mail began acknowledging a need for controls. For more on responses to Soros, see "Global Contagion," a four-part series in the New York Times.
  • 11. See Foucault (1979, 1986); Beniger (1986); and Lyon (1994).
  • 12. See Kroker and Weinstein (1994); Robins and Webster (1986); and Luke (1999).
  • 13. The late 1960s and 1970s featured a spate of such writings by Garett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Robert Heilbroner, William Ophuls, and others. For critiques, see Luke (1997, 1999); and Rutherford (1996).
  • 14. See Botkin (1990); Worster (1997); and Zimmerer (1994).
  • 15. On GIS, see Aronoff (1989); Longley and Clarke (1989); and Holland (1995). Critical analyses of GIS include Pickles's Ground Truth and Curry's Digital Places.
  • 16. On the history of ecological science, see Worster (1994) and Bocking (1997).
  • 17. See note 2 above.
  • 18. Some examples of chaos theory applied to defense: Alberts and Czerwinski (1997), Merry (1995), and Stacey (1992); to nursing: Mark (1994); to psychology: Abraham and Gilgen (1995) and Robertson and Combs (1995); and to world economy: Krugman (1996) and Anderson, Arrow, and Pines (1988). See also Kiel and Elliot (1996); Axtell and Epstein (1996); Holland (1995); and Weingart and Maasen (1997).
  • 19. Best and Kellner provide a thorough critique in "Kevin Kelly's complexity theory" (1999). For critical analyses of the politics of the vaguely counterculturalist Wired, see Winner (1995); Barbrook and Cameron (1996); and Stewart (1998). On the cyberlibertarian "technointelligentsia," see Frank (1997); Armitage (1999); Streeter (1999); Kroker and Weinstein (1994); and Terranova (1996).
  • 20. Discussing these topics in any depth would take this article too far afield. The growing critical literature on the commodification of biology includes such voices as Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Andrew Kimbrell, Dorothy Nelkin, Ruth Hubbard, Les Levidow, Lisa Cartwright, and many others.


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