Month: June 2013

A Hazy Story of Disciplined Citizens in a Technological Society

The PSI is at 170 today*.

Do you know what that means? What is a PSI? What does the number 170 imply? According to Wikipedia:

“The Pollutant Standards Index, or PSI, provides a uniform system of measuring pollution levels for the major air pollutants. It is based on a scale devised by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to provide a way for broadcasts and newspapers to report air quality on a daily basis.

The PSI is reported as a number on a scale of 0 to 500 and is the air quality indicator. These index figures enable the public to determine whether the air pollution levels in a particular location are good, unhealthy, hazardous or worse. The PSI is used in a number of countries including the United States and Singapore. However, since 1999, the United States EPA has replaced the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) with the Air Quality Index (AQI) to incorporate new PM2.5 and ozone standards.”

I’m not sure how many people have actually tried to find out how the PSI is calculated. But by now, everyone knows that 170 is not good. How do they know this? Among other things, the National Environment Agency website provides updates every few hours and these are reported across various news outlets and other sources trying not to look like news outlets. Why does the number matter? If you look at the NEA website, there are guidelines provided for the public based on the readings:

 PSI values and descriptors

These descriptors group the readings such that each range of readings cumulatively means a new level of danger is reached, an additional segment of the population is deemed vulnerable, and more precautions need to be taken. For example:

PSI values and descriptors

But the NEA is not the only source of information related to the haze that Singapore is now experiencing, its dangers and how to cope with it. This infographic by the Singapore General Hospital educates the public about how the haze is harmful:

how does haze hurt the body

And numerous posts circulating on social media sites suggest ways to counter the effects of the haze, such as wearing a mask and staying hydrated. The PSI is chanted like a mantra, and in typical efficient Singaporean fashion, schools and many offices heed the warnings. Less lucky are those who for various reasons are compelled to be outdoors. The haze is dangerous, but apparently not yet so dangerous that the economy comes to a standstill.

In his book, Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age,Toby Miller uses two broad examples – food and weather – to show how the media, state and corporations have been complicit in turning what could be sites of citizen information and engagement into trivialised consumer moments that keep people in a state of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Thus the Food Network, for example, turns food preparation into a visual spectacle that covers the number of labour hours that go into it, the inequalities and injustices that are built into it, and the vehicle that it has become for turning people into the sorts of consumerist citizens that most effectively support the neoliberal project. Miller suggests ways in which the Food Network might break out of this negative social role, by addressing issues such as genetically modified products, the effect of industrial models of food production on the Global South, the impact of fast food on national health, both physical as well as psychological, human rights violations of American food corporations in third world countries and even non-food issues such capital punishment using food as a link. In short, food can and should be politicised in order to activate cultural citizenship at its higher levels. Or rather, it is already being politicised, but in a way that is kept hidden from citizens. Miller advocates making the politicisation visible and reorienting it towards more responsible referents.

The Weather Channel is similarly explained as a site for hidden political projects that must be revealed and reframed for the purpose of informing and engaging citizens. Here Miller describes how weather updates are used to discipline citizens: “The time discipline inscribed by weather organizes key social institutions and their personnel around risk, in keeping with cultural citizenship. The message reads – get to work on time by allowing for nature, so that the sale of your labor power is not interrupted; dress your children appropriately, so that they can turn up and obey the dictates of school as preparation for work; plan your renovation to allow for climatic variations and safety costs.” Yet there are larger issues that citizens deserve to be activated to consider, such as the link between daily and local weather patterns on the one hand, and global warming and climate change on the other. Miller argues that the Weather Channel is perfectly placed to raise the level of weather presentations by turning them into real sources of information at higher levels that allow citizens to make connections and take action.

Miller is perhaps optimistic in his assumption that the conditions are in place for citizens to make politically constructive use of this higher level information once they are given access to it. He may have been talking about a society with a longer history of democracy, but if we accept Chantal Mouffe’s argument about the closing of political space effected by the spread of liberal democracy, then there is little difference now across countries with varying political histories.

The PSI functions as a mechanism that turns the haze – something we cannot control at an individual level – into a set of descriptors and measures that we can calibrate a response to. It disciplines us into internalizing not only a sense of pervasive danger that we are helpless against, but also a sense of individual responsibility to care for the self. Both these disciplinary effects have consequences for our ability to imagine alternatives, and for our comprehension of the scale and the dimensions of the problem. Thus a minister responded to criticisms on his Facebook page in the following manner:

“Many have commented about the haze situation, some have said – why keep talking. Why can’t you do more? Some like Mr William Sin uses expletives (against the PAP). I suppose for some people like Mr Sin, every occasion is an opportunity to make a political attack – doesn’t seem to matter whether there is rationality in the comments.
I will ask Mr Sin – what more do you think we can and should do ? Look at the map, see where we are. Every country is sovereign and we can’t intervene in the actions in other countries. The burning is taking place in Indonesia. What do you think Singapore can do about that? Singapore has raised it with Indonesian Ministers, and over several years, we have offered technical assistance, expressed our deep distress at what is happening, and have also raised the issue internationally. The problem recurs, nevertheless. The reality of international law, international relations must be recognised. That is what we have been saying – in every field, our size and geography means that we are often price takers, not price makers – whether it is economics, geo politics, or the environment. But despite that we have done well, much better than bigger countries with more resources – because we have managed to deal with most situations by anticipating them. But the haze situation is quite outside our control. If Mr Sin or anyone else thinks we can do more about the haze that is caused by burning in Indonesia, perhaps they can tell us – but I suppose, for some, the temptation to direct expletives and use this occassion to attack the Govt and the PAP is too great. I thank those who have noted the reality of the situation, and the limitations within which we operate.”

It is a very informative post that clearly lays out the bind that the Singapore government sees itself in. By turning the question “what do we do about the haze” back on the questioner, it positions him as being an irresponsible citizen, because he asks the question in the first place, because he asks it in a dispreferred form, and because he not only does not provide a solution, but does not seem to understand – or indeed trust – that there is no solution to be had. This questioner has not internalized the discipline of helplessness in the face of risk that extends beyond Singapore, and has not disciplined himself into equating limitations with reality.

When Jacques Ellul wrote about the technological society in 1964, he argued that such a society was one in which the human was subsumed by the technological, such that the logic of technology came to exert a force of its own with a totalising effect:

ellul quote

Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jacquesell347020.html

Since then, many attempts have been made to support this argument as well as deny it. In the case of the former, the most recent example is Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here: the Folly of Technological Solutionism, in which he argues that much of modern technology evolves to satisfy its own paradigm, and not to solve pre-existing problems. The result, according to Morozov, is that many problems that actually need attention never get it. Attempts to deny this position usually aim at proving that some form of agency within a technological paradigm is still possible. In fact, there are those who argue that it is the technological paradigm that makes new forms of agency possible. Frankenfeld, for example, argues that there is a role for laypeople to play in a “new social contract of complexity”.

What all this seems to point to is that still, there is no space for imagining an alternative. It is all very well for Morozov to excoriate the technologists, for Miller to scold the media, and for the Singapore government to say “citizen, save thyself”. The sense of helplessness has been well and truly internalized on a global scale. InThe Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Weiner argued passionately that the problems of the world had reached such a stage that the uniquely human potential for innovation was urgently needed, rather than the waste of that potential by using humans for work that machines could do. The conditions necessary for drawing out this human potential are nowhere in existence today. With our education, we know enough to understand the global scale of our problems. We also know enough to stop questioning when we are told that the purpose of this understanding is to see that there is no solution. It is perhaps a political solution that is needed, but we – both state and citizens – are ill-equipped to imagine it. All we can do is check the PSI, and post about it on Facebook. Technological citizens par excellence.

*Note: The reading WAS 170 at the time of writing. The number is immaterial for the argument.

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