Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#1 Richard Wright 1 jan 1994


Andrew Ross, Strange Weather Culture: Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, Verso (New Left Books), London 1991

Strange Weather is/was the latest attempt to open up the debate on technology and popular culture for cultural scholarship. This project from a group of North American writers tries to look again at all those quirky rad-chic sub-cultures predicated on new technology that you tried to avoid being associated with when they first came around.

From New Agers, hackers and cyberpunks, Ross tries to salvage what was socially progressive about them and to use this to reconstruct cultural sociological strategies that might have an appeal outside of the university seminar room.

Ross considers what happens when slogans like Think Global, Act Local and Everything has to go somewhere replace Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains, and concludes that the field in which the aims of left libertarians and the popular sub-cultures have most in common is in the politics of ecology, especially social ecology. In fact Ross refers to his theoretical approach as social meteorology, a way of tactically predicting future trends that will unite leftist social, cultural, economic and political interests on a variety of fronts.

Like most people, Ross is bored with technologically-informed critiques that are polarised between the optimism of a democratic Utopia and the despair of the re-imposition of centralised controls. The book spends much time trying to redress an imbalance in the received judgements about various technologically-inspired movements of the past and present. Opinions that are now generally considered to be naive and out moded are re-presented and shown to contain much in the way of genuine usefulness in the context of their time and place. Likewise, techno-fashions that are now accorded plenty of street-cred are revealed as being based at least partly on reactionary social reflexes.

Ross points out firstly that the traditional conflict between the `two cultures' of sciences and humanities is actually more a question of political rivalry, given that both camps base their world views on a logic of continual development and progress, of one kind or another. The crisis point is reached at the level of ecological issues, where their common assumption of unlimited exploitation of natural and rational resources breaks down. Ross finds that an ecologically motivated opposition is a way of avoiding the exploitations of both technological determinism and self-centred Humanism, and of grounding its dynamics in people's everyday lives. Enter a range of alternative discourses to challenge the authority of the `two cultures', which Ross proceeds to question in order to discover what is really radical about them and what is merely a wish to emulate their peers.

First into the ring are the New Agers, eager to oppose the `materialist' attitudes of big science with their `natural' approach. But in order to more successfully oppose the established scientific community, they find themselves increasingly obliged to adopt the language of inductive reasoning of their enemies in order to have their `pseudo-scientific' claims taken seriously. A less disciplined thinker would be content to allow these different cultures and beliefs to occupy an equal place in the postmodern constellation of pluralities, but scientific practice forces the issue to the pragmatic level of who has access to knowledge and the means by which contemporary life is technologically structured. This gives Ross a chance to attack naive cultural relativism, for science is an area where cultural differences are always unequal due to the responsibility for each group to provide better accounts of the world (as Donna Haraway describes) and to be answerable to the people whose lives they will effect. Most troubling, the New Agers' `holistic' critique of science is based on the individual pursuit of `natural' go-it-alone alternatives and therefore eschews the wider social critique of areas such as the American health care system that might result in the more fundamental restructuring that Ross would prefer.

Similar in vein is the chapter on the development of the science fiction genre and its relation to the `technocracy' movements of the 1930s. Ross is motivated by a desire to correct a comment made by cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling in referring to the naive technophilia and wrong-headed outlook of early science fiction editors like Hugo Gernsback, who went to the length of setting up a panel of experts to decide whether the stories of his writers reached the required level of scientific accuracy. At the same time as this there was a growing feeling amongst American intellectuals that science could provide a viable programme of social change as an alternative to either Fascism or Communism. Most typical was the Committee on Technocracy formed in 1932. The committee produced various economic surveys that concluded that the current Capitalist economy was hopelessly inefficient and wasteful and that the only way to avoid massive unemployment and social hardship was a logical scientific approach to building a `post-scarcity future'. But what eventually happened to all these high-minded individuals? Unfortunately, the mass of `ordinary' people could never understand what they were going on about, and the only people that did listen were the managers of large corporations who began to hire them in the Fifties to help them to make their businesses more efficient industrial competitors. Finally, the regulations of this new scientific management stifled the inventor-genius individual that was the mythological underpinning of Gernsback. Simply stated, Ross's argument is that, like the New Agers, because the Technocracy movement possessed no theory of explicitly social transformation and the assumption of power (any politics is irrational), their high ideals were easily reduced to technical methods for improving the profitability of the Fordist industrial system that they were originally opposed to. Ross suggests that it is the role of intellectuals like himself to help to turn popular movements like these into more potent political forces by providing them with a full programme of social transformation.

After sections on cyberpunk, hacking and futurology science that make similar points, the last chapter takes us back to the starting theme of meteorology, particularly the effect of the new 24-hour TV Weather Channel in forming a US national identity based on a shared discourse about their weather conditions. In the first place, weather becomes another player in the struggle for economic success, business are `competing' with nature to turn resources into profit, and are keen to take advantage of `global resource management'. This has the effect of climatology acting to `naturalise' conditions that are actually man-made -- your livelihood has failed because the weather was against you, not because you turned your whole farm over to producing cash crops. The book ends with the image of the lone member of the Association of American Weather Observers -- the volunteer service that provides data for the National Weather Service -- and their embryonic status as a new `global citizen'.

The most successful aspect of the book is the detective work of the cultural scholar in building up a historical picture of some of the main developments in technoculture throughout the century. But Ross's approach that first demands a more specific critique of the objects of technological discourse and then `socialises' those findings into a political argument does not adequately address the nature of the relations between the two. In emphasising the necessity of political activity in technoculture, too much faith is put in the ability of groups to realistically predict and control outcomes towards any end they desire. This implies a too deterministic logic that was one of the problems that got us here in the first place. There are `limits to growth' here as well, as in the advancement of corporate capitalism itself where the difficulty is in taking account of every possible eventuality in the chaos (theory) of the global marketplace. The principle way in which science and technology can now be seen to enter any discourse is as a form of media and it is how this partly autonomous creature works which needs closer attention. It is only because things like this have changed the fundamental practice of scientific knowledge that allows different groups to contest some theories and adopt others. It is a study of these changes which will give us a clearer idea of just what we mean when we argue for popular `technoliteracy'.

The cause of a common division among critics is either to ask whether a particular piece of technological restructuring is desirable or not, or whether all such things are technologically inevitable and out of our hands and that the real battle is to find an appropriate response when they eventually fall into our lives. The Anglo-American response is most commonly the first, preferring to believe that every technological implementation is the result of conscious (authoritarian) deliberation. Where Ross's future work could fill the gap is in showing the limited range in the social meteorology of tracing the first cause and responsibility for every effect, and in increasing the number of `fronts' that must include a respect for the unforeseen objective nature of scientific and technological advance and a readiness to make, as Ross admits, a historical opportunity out of a historical necessity.