Workshop 1 - Nigel Thrift, ‘The Transformation of Contemporary Capitalism’

Nigel Thrift (Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick) opened his paper by asking a question: What if there were several ontologies constituting the world? He likened the contemporary social reality to ‘LIFEWORLD INC.’ and proceeded in arguing that there is a new kind of naturalism appearing in the world – although culture is the same, natures differ, thus multiplying ontologies.

Thrift emphasized the notion of the impossibility of knowing, corresponding to the debate about the plurality of ontologies in the world. He then referred to novel technologies as that constructing one new world of experiments – new information age. Argument followed that the latest way of segregating information produces a new ontology.

Nigel Thrift referred to the work of Tim Ingold, who argues that the wandering line of traditional ontology was displaced by the Euclidean line which goes from point to point. However, he departed from the traditional phenomenology of Ingold's analysis by arguing that the kind of world in which this line holds sway is not being rebuilt, and we are only rediscovering the wandering line through the Euclidean field of numbers.

He described the contemporary social reality as the 'security-entertainment complex' and pointed to the capitalist economy which supports this new infrastructure. Thrift emphasized the problematic of finding the appropriate kinds of methodologies to approach this world. With no data as such but new means of probing and instigating new behaviours he suggested inventing an 'art of experiment' as a solution.

Thrift then explored the notion of a general modification of the event, explaining how the economy has always been experimental but in its modern form has become an open language, making possible new configurations rather than fixed structures. The experimental event has become part of economisation (Callon).

Thrift argued that this represents a shift in ontology to one of movement and modularisation – the world as surface in continual motion. He described five features of this:

  1. network over tree – not dislocation but an intuitive plane of motion, such as the internet (conceal the innards, delete dead ends, elide the difference between content types)
  2. new interfaces, such as those based on gesture (e.g. Sixth Sense)
  3. awareness – the world is becoming tagged – (though pervasive computing is still only an emerging ambition)
  4. the inhabitable map (from spreadsheets to maps) – the imperial audience and subjects all in one – measuring out territory on the move, temporarily held but on a permanent basis, with constant feedback.
  5. cognition as a new kind of joint experience between persons and things. As if writing itself starts to write.

He explained this new security-entertainment complex in terms of permanent and pervasive war and an entertainment era where the interaction of security and entertainment varies across cultures and nations. Thrift also offered two reasons for its economical/ideological success:

  1. the tracking of activity, such that data does not cut up space but suffuses it
  2. the engineering of stress – mixing better calculation with a better understanding of emotional aggregation (‘evaluated unhibitedness’)

Thrift then pointed to the problematic of the ubiquity of data, posing a challenge to social science which needs better tools and theories to make meaningful sense of it (indeed, he provocatively suggested that ‘knowing capitalism’ might not need the social sciences. Citing Alan Read’s notion of ‘showciology’, he proposed an experimental turn in the social sciences, oriented around the development of ‘cultural probes’ (William Gaver), designed to interrupt and restart the process of association

Finally, Thrift asked: What to do with the new world? He emphasized the existence of new knowledges that await cultivation and suggested that we should:

  • recast phenomenology in various ways, such as through experimental art procedures
  • explore the reconfiguration of spaces through architecture
  • write the world differently, through a new radical cartography