The fascinating new book from Sonic Acts, The Geologic Imagination, is out now – and features my interview with Liam Young, conducted whilst we were deep at sea on a container ship last summer. Here’s a little taster:
TM: First, I’ve been impressed by the scale of everything. It’s the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, right? I keep hearing people saying that we don’t do any big engineering projects anymore; we don’t go to the Moon anymore. The truth is we do, we just don’t see it. It’s moonshot-scale engineering to solve the problem of one country selling things to another country. Secondly, I’m horrified by the obvious environmental impact. Thirdly, I find myself going, ‘I wish I had a better camera. I wish I had a better phone, as I keep running out of space on the one I’ve got. I wish I had a GoPro because they look like fun. I wish I’d brought a digital SLR. I wish I had a MacBook Air; I could’ve brought it with me, because it’s lighter’. Do you know what I mean?
LY: Yes. Our generation had no great war to fight. Our generational project was the acquisition of wealth and objects. We’ve gone about that with exactly the same fervour as soldiers went into the Great War. We’ve invented technologies. We’ve created systems. It’s all about globalised production, which is about outsourcing labour and maximising costs and beneficences. We’ve ended up creating this super-scale planetary infrastructural system, which is so big that it ceases to be visible. That’s our great work. It is amazing. What this does is really quite incredible. At the moment, the system is engineered purely for efficiency and profit. But you could imagine co-opting the same system to do other things.
TM: It could feed people, I guess.
LY: It could feed people, yes, but I think what we’ll see in the next phase, is what outsourcing production really does. An economist would argue that this system distributes wealth, and that distributed production means that someone who would otherwise be working in a little village – on a farm, on subsistence – now has a job in a factory and is making enough money to live in the city, and also sends money back home to the family in the village. To a certain extent that could be productive. They can be paid much more than they were before. Still, someone is taking a massively unfair cut of that process. You can imagine engineering the supply chain of a particular object to really redistribute wealth globally. Let’s say that I’m going to make a computer, and that computer consists of components that are produced in 50 countries around the world. All these components come together via the infrastructural network. This one computer is a world object – through this object we’re connecting all these disparate communities all over the planet, and we’re distributing wealth. If you engineer it for those ends, you don’t engineer it because labour costs in Bangladesh are way lower than in India. (China is outsourcing to Africa now. China is slowly moving up the tier, from being a manufacturing nation they become a management nation.) There must be ways to make this infrastructure work in fairer ways for everyone. It’s naïve to say we will go back to only consuming local food, and all that. It’s naïve to think we will grow crops on our roofs and manufacture locally, like these co-op movements do that are popping up in San Francisco.