Stink Tank

Why this series of posts? Sure the virus is fascinating; sure it demands a personal response that might be a matter of life and death. But why these particular posts, focusing as they do on simulations and models and projections?

I scoured old posts and pages looking for an explanation of the name of this website. I found found allusions but no clear statements. Had I imagined writing what was in my head at the time without ever actually writing it? Then I remembered another place to look: Writing to an Imaginary Audience, a long text I cobbled together four years ago, before launching the website. Here, riffing on Heidegger, is the closest I came to a definition:

I’m no philosopher, so I can’t offer a comprehensive and nuanced treatment of the philosophical idea of facticity. In brief, people are ineluctably thrown into a world that’s already framed and structured, already imbued with mood and meaning – this is facticity. There is freedom and possibility in human existence, but the possibilities always unfold within – are both enhanced and constrained by – the facticity of the world into which existence is thrown. My proposed shift from facticity to ficticities is twofold. First, the world humans occupy isn’t solely a matter of matter; it’s also constructed, invented, crafted in complicity with the imagination, populated by mowed and weeded lawns, automobiles and traffic lights, financiers and schoolteachers, TV programs and fast-food restaurants. In short, we’re thrown into a world where nature is fashioned by fiction – ficticity. Second, the nature-fiction hybridity of human existence isn’t a unitary one. Crows worldwide speak the same language, form the same sorts of flocks, build their nests the same way, mob their predators using the same tactics and so on. Humans do not all speak the same language, and that can be alienating to the odd bird immersed in a language he doesn’t understand. Sociocultural ecologies vary widely across space and time. Ficticity is plural – ficticities.

Around the time I was writing this text my wife Anne told me about the newly zoned landfill abutting her parents’ backyard, along with the backyards of many of their neighbors. Anne and I formed a kind of pro-bono consultancy, estimating the likely adverse impact of the landfill on property values. Local and national data on real estate prices and trends, empirical studies conducted elsewhere, amount of tonnage being dumped into the landfill, likelihood of expansion — there were a lot of variables to consider.

The Dump – or the Landfill, as its proponents euphemistically refer to it – is surely a physical place gradually being filled with material garbage. But it’s also a product of local history and politics and economics, of precedent and zoning and money, of packaging and consumption and waste, of loading and transport and dumping. Tweak any one of the multitude of manmade parameters that shape the ficticity that the Dump presently occupies and the physical Dump itself is altered, perhaps dramatically. It might even go out of existence altogether.

The more Anne and I got involved, the more frustratingly intractable the situation proved to be. We summarized our findings in a White Paper, replete with tables and references and real-time simulations, and presented it to the Neighborhood Association and to the Board of County Commissioners. The Commissioners seemed far less responsive to the citizenry than to the Regional Authority, a public-private corporation responsible for managing the landfill, collecting revenues, and kicking back a percentage of the proceeds to the County. I imagined staging a series of mock hearings, or Show Trials, in which the Regional Authority would present their case to the County Commissioners:

The Regional Authority wants the citizenry to regard the Landfill as facticity. The Dump Show Trial, aka the Public Hearing, treats the Dump as a ficticity, and a farcical one at that, the supposed facts of the situation being revealed as arbitrary, political, cooked up. Why must the citizens prove that the Dump stinks, rather than the Dump having to prove that it doesn’t stink? Why doesn’t the FAA regulation against bird hazards [vultures circle the dump on the flight path leading to and from the local airport] get enforced by the FAA itself? Why do the elected governmental representatives get to sit onstage at the Public Hearings, deliberating and speechifying while their constituents, relegated to the gallery, are permitted to speak for no more than three minutes each? Why not divert the sewage to a reservoir in a less densely populated area where the stench isn’t so offensive? Why not treat the sewage and use it as farm fertilizer? Why should the annual kickback from the Regional Authority to the county be used to pay governmental bureaucrats’ salaries rather than compensating the neighbors for impaired quality of life, health hazards, and reduced property values? Why should the elected representatives be able to decide about the Dump when the citizenry could make their own decision directly? And so on.

In the Show Trials, the county politicians would give due consideration to each of these public concerns before invariably deciding in favor of Dump expansion. Taken in the aggregate, the parameters of concern outline a ficticity of Dumpworld, an artificial ecosystem that opens up certain possibilities while constraining others. The show makes it clear that Dumpworld is erected on a staged fiction that is both arbitrary and, given the financial and political forces shaping its contours, virtually inevitable. No reason it can’t be done some other way; no way it will.

In the Ficticities consultancy, the parameters of Dumpworld would undergo a transformation, from setups for farcical scenes to nodes in a hypothetical N-dimensional decision space that generates a multiplicity of simulated ficticities, of alternate realities. Striated by different potentialities and constraints, these alternate Dumpworlds affect not only the dump but the entire ecosystem in which the dump operates. So: a Dumpworld that prohibits sewage experiences less total tonnage being dumped per day, which extends the lifetime of the dump before reaching capacity. No sewage also decreases stink, improves quality of life, and increases property values within a several-mile radius of the site. It becomes necessary to implement alternative ways of routing and storing the sewage, entailing a new set of possibilities and constraints, of benefits and costs.

The alt-ficticities simulator would be systematic, rational, empirical, probabilistic, open-ended – everything, in short, that the Dump Show Trials would not be. The problem, of course, is that the Show Trials more accurately model the actually-existing Dumpworld on the ground: farcical, arbitrary, paranoiac, predetermined, irresistible, decadent. No reason the ficticity consultancy couldn’t happen; no way it ever will – a fictional consultancy serving an imaginary clientele. More like a think tank – a stink tank.

It’s good to remind myself of the broader ecological context in which these posts have been taking shape — a series of speculative iterations generated by an imaginary coronavirus stink tank.

 

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