The Effacement of Consequences

Posted Feb. 15, 2023 by Paul Graham Raven

The logic of the society of the spectacle, according to Guy Debord: “What appears is good; what is good appears".

One way of thinking about infrastructure is as a machine for bringing you things from far away without your having to go and fetch them yourself.

This is, in many ways, a good thing! If you live somewhere with a reliable water distribution and treatment system, it’s like having an incredible prosthetic limb which, at the slightest twist of your wrist, stretches across space to fetch you water that you can trust not to kill you. Human beings are very reliant on non-lethal water.

But knowing that, we should ask ourselves how it was that we ended up living in such a way that there wasn’t non-lethal water easily accessible to us wherever we happened to be living. That’s a complex question, but part of the answer is that we used up a lot of the most accessible sources of non-lethal water, or made them lethal by flushing our shit or industrial byproducts into them, which meant we needed to look further away from our centers of population for something that we could drink without dying. Water infrastructures are a solution to this problem! But they (and other infrastructures) also contribute to causing this problem.

How so? Because by stretching the distance between the site of extraction of a resource and the site of its consumption, the consumer is effectively kept from seeing the consequences of that consumption. This is true of water, but also pretty much every other base resource: minerals, fuels, foodstuffs. Further effacement comes as those resources are converted into commodity products and services by a succession of firms and organisations, and then distributed through space through other infrastructural systems.

effacement of consequences

“Ah,” you might reply, “but we can see images of the places where these extractions take place!” And yes, we can. But those images are also commodified, are also distributed over a global network of infrastructural systems… and you can only seek out an image if you know it exists to be sought. How are you made aware of its existence? Infrastructure again.

Infrastructure is the medium of the media. Media are the user interface(s) of infrastructure. Your view on the consequences of your consumption is curated by a vast system in a state of advanced autopoiesis. You choose what you see, but you choose from a menu whose options are determined by profitability. David Attenborough’s voice narrating over footage of endangered species is spooled to your laptop from a server-farm whose exhaust is busily melting the glacial ice whose loss Attenborough is lamenting on your screen.

This is not your fault! But you (and I, and everyone else) are complicit all the same.