2. Firmative Speculation

As a critical practice, speculation methodically thinks in the vicinity of the unknown.[1] Whereas the empiricist conception of the unknown translates it into risk, affirmative speculation progresses and lives by attending to what it does not know. Empiricist knowledge defines its unknown as something external to itself that eventually might be reached, grasped, and known. Thus it tames its own internal unknown, turning uncertainty into (external, calculable, knowable) risk. In contrast, affirmative speculation puts uncertainty at the very heart of (living) knowledge, defining it as unknowable and incalculable, yet as something that knowledge must never cease to think about and to acknowledge. The one undoes the other.

To think affirmative speculation, we begin with its opposite: the mode of firmative speculation that produces potentialities and then exploits and thus forecloses them. The recursive formula—produces, exploits, forecloses—underpins a constellation of firmative practices. But what does it mean to “firm” the future? Often this securing takes the form of “expert knowledge” that states, corporations, and supranational institutions present as facilitators of the public good. A firmative speculation calculates, communicates the calculation, socializes us into that interpretive rationality, and then globalizes instruments, techniques, protocols, and policies. Moving across multileveled domains of speculative activity, we focus on these four functions: calculation, communication, socialization, and globalization.

Speculation Calculates

To firm the future, one has to be able to posit specific “states” to come and ascertain causalities linking these states to recognizable goals. These are the preliminaries necessary for firmative speculation. As reasonable foresight came to be defended by contract law in Europe—and life insurance, once seen as usurious gambling on the life not yet lived, was legalized in England with the Gambling Act of 1774—financial speculation became a legitimate activity. By the close of the nineteenth century, speculative activities were regarded as necessary for a healthy economy. As the number of speculators swelled, the threat of heavy losses was spread out among many: speculation emerged as a form of insurance, a stabilizing force in uncertain markets. Farmers could spread their risks of bad harvests over the year, and traders the uncertainty of far-flung markets, by borrowing against future profits. Scholars note that these forms of legitimate speculation were predicated on a liberal subject of calculative rationality and behavioral predictability: a responsible subject bound by duties of social reproduction, a moral and rational agent whose speculative actions could be anticipated and relied on and who, therefore, warranted legal protection.[2] The point is that the progressive legalization of speculative activity in Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made speculating on the future a reasonable enterprise for the layperson. At the same time, risk instruments, from mortgages to credit default swaps, became increasingly complex, and risk diversification transformed into a full-time occupation. The economist Frank Knight would therefore make the case for a domain of specialized activities in which trained entrepreneurs would replace greenhorn clerks. People would learn to value professionals for their creativity, their innovative capacities, and, importantly, their expertise. They would begin to entrust these experts with the buying and selling of their personal futures.

This expertise lay in a statistical theory of risk. The history of probability had as much to do with amassing data as it had to do with observation, calculation, and inference. Michel Foucault evokes the dusty rooms of data, as modern bureaucracies cataloged, aggregated, and estimated their populations so as to govern them. As historians of probability maintain, the political arithmetic of states in the eighteenth century, manifest in increasingly complex actuarial tabulation, would create the conditions of possibility for legitimizing probabilistic thought; by the nineteenth century, mathematical probability became the arbiter of financial speculative practices, from annuities to lotteries. The early probability theorists of the eighteenth century (Jakob Bernoulli, Edmund Halley, and Abraham De Moivre, among others) found the patterns they needed from the demographers. They found regularities in mortality rates: death became what one could bank on, the human consistency that would enable statistical frameworks leading up to the taming of chance.[3] A posteriori probability practice aggregated and averaged past singular instances (empirical observations), mapped general trends (regression equations) via the estimation of their defining parameters, and then projected future events from these estimated patterns. Thus the actual “states” were surmised from hindsight, drawing on time-series data—the observation of the same event over time. This was distinguished from a priori probability calculations, where those states were inductively derived from mathematical laws only. Importantly, in the emerging mathematical theory of risk, the a posteriori calculus was increasingly subject to the a priori. The roll of the die was no longer not knowable; rather, the “law of large numbers” suggested that repeated rolling of the die would yield a stable average value (3.5 for all unbiased, six-sided dice). The expected value could be predicted; there was a mathematical theorem for it, assuming that there was no aberration such as the die striking the corner of the table. Such black swan events, outcomes of unforeseen interactions between a system and its environment, were the hallmarks of true uncertainty. Hit by the wings of the mythical black swan—the improbable state that you might be struck by lightning while rolling a die—one could question the stability of the environment that made probabilistic thinking reasoned judgment. Scholars note this was a point of disagreement in early probability theory. Bernoulli famously modeled a priori randomness as an urn filled with black and white balls standing for the diseases that bring about human death; the urn was the abstraction of the human body, a “tinderbox” for disease. One could estimate which disease (abstracted as a specific color in the exercise) was the deadliest, if one averaged the draws over a period of time. But this implied several unchanging parameters, argued the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, that were impossible to imagine with the “habits” of nature.[4] The number of black and white balls, the ratio between them, and the condition of the urn could hardly be stabilized, given innumerable diseases, the changing equilibrium between diseases, and the mutability of the human body. Bernoulli’s answer was to insist that “nature follows the simplest paths,” and therefore mathematical equations could stabilize the future trends for mortal risks; in fact these equations could be extended to other walks of civic life.[5]

Those arguments shape the present beyond financial matters. One is attuned to probabilistic thinking on a daily basis: Will there be rainfall today? Has the flu outbreak in different parts of the world spiked? Will the price of foodgrains rise over summer? Think of the most common figural form, the most ubiquitous of all risk media—the graph. A crawling, continuous line running between the coordinate axes, it traces a trajectory through a scattering of dots; wherever they cluster together, the line runs through them to mark the average pattern. The idea is to “fit” a general trend line that minimizes the variations of the actual empirical observations along it. Most observations or dots fall outside this line, their overall spread underscoring the tenuousness of predictions read off from this graph. The important point here is that risk media forms must simplify and contain the empirical field in order to authorize our visualization of the future. A familiar graph (see figure 1), representing the science of global warming, for instance, depicts the mean of global temperatures annually from 1850 to 2000 with a wide range of fluctuations. A clear long-term pattern or trend emerges: temperatures rise over a century and a half. A mathematical equation estimated from time-series data “fits” a line over the dispersed points to capture the trend; the nonexpert versed in these risk media can thereby predict future temperatures based on the trend. But the actual “value,” the actual future temperature, will most likely be different from the prediction: hence the distinction between the “average normal” and the “actual” temperature levels for any given day. This too is anticipated, as regression analysis provides standard deviations from the trend, and this possible divergence is articulated as the habitual confidence interval: for example, “we can say with 95 percent certainty that it will rain today.”

Figure 1

Figure 1. Annual global mean temperatures, 1850–2000. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Reproduced with permission from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When the lack of confidence is small, the possibility of error can be dismissed—depending, of course, on the stakes. The higher the stakes, the lower the acceptable range of errors. Fukushima has shaken confidence in probabilistic projections as the best protocol for thinking about nuclear safety. Analysts note the absence of a separate tsunami-safety cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi plant built in 1967 in the Tohoku region; at that point the probability of a 3.1 meter tsunami was estimated from an earthquake survey of 1965 after the 9.5 Chilean earthquake in 1960.[6] The question that concerns us here is one of calculating probabilities. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and its university collaborators downplayed data from paleotsunami research that forecast possible massive tsunamis in the region. But this should not come as a surprise. There are very few instances where corporate interests do not trump public interest; probabilistic thinking as a legitimate objective calculus is readily put to cynical use in such situations. The debates around climate change—the struggles over correct data, degree of complexity, estimates and levels of certitude—reveal deeply invested contestations of future projections. Government agencies challenge scientists; scientists refute each other’s findings; corporations obfuscate studies; think tanks and journalists politicize alternative interpretations and scenarios. What is clear is that TEPCO is no anomaly. By 2002 the company had calculated a 5.7-meter average for the surface-wave magnitude of likely tsunamis in the Tohoku area, and it gambled on this estimate for the next decade.[7] But contemporary seismological research was already moving away from measuring surface-wave magnitudes to studying long period waves and measuring the “seismic moment.” A further problem lay in the projection that a megaquake in the Tohoku area was at least a thousand years away; seismological agencies focused their attention on the Tokai district, and not the Tohoku region, as the most vulnerable site. Here the logic of aggregation proved to be the obstacle: when a situation is highly unique and with too small a probability to be classified within a group of instances similar to one another, it often falls outside likely scenarios and estimates. Leaving aside the possibility of negligence, there was already low concern about seismic activity in the Tohoku region.

Ultimately, TEPCO failed to update tsunami countermeasures because of a series of breakdowns in the a posteriori probability modeling. The remote possibility of a tsunami, an environmental adversary to the complex technological system that is the nuclear power plant, simply did not compute as a credible threat. Inadequate data, general estimates, overlooked errors, and a natural event of unforeseen proportions in concert with multiple technological failures made for a catastrophe. The complex interactions between multiple dimensions—human (misjudgment, miscommunication), technological (multiple power outages leading to the failure of the reactors’ cooling system), and environmental (the giant tsunami)—produced new and utterly stupefying situations. It took some time for the reflexive realization that such an event could not have been predicted from past data alone. Such blind spots arise not only in cases of multileveled technological systems in dynamic environments but also across domains of expertise where experts underscore what Leibniz already knew: the urn cannot be stable, and the logic of one system (diseases) is not analogous to another (dice games). There is no transcendent logic of mathematical transcription, but there is the immanent logic of things: goods, air, water, pathogens, allergens, data bits, and everything else that circulates interact to produce complex outcomes that cannot be understood by the same laws. If in the nineteenth century the belief in a transcendent divine foresight of our collective futures had given way to a belief in the potency of statistical predictions, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the authority of probabilistic bets on the future appears increasingly infirm.

It is not that the infirmity was never a part of the calculus. Even Frank Knight, while making the case for reasonable business speculation as critical to the healthy circulation of capital, insisted on the internal limits to human comprehension. Humans are like animals after all, Knight argued, for despite our capacity for calculative rationality, we remain at the mercy of “intricate physico-chemical complexes that make up organic systems.”[8] These organic forces, Knight explained, provide an explanation for market volatility, always subject to the dynamism of its physical, chemical, and biological environments. The solution for Knight lay in “professional speculators,” coteries of specialized experts who, while not intrinsically superior in judgment or foresight, could pool and spread losses on behalf of industrialists. These professionals are now recognizable in hedge fund managers, insurance agents, or financial analysts who advise customers to diversify their portfolios for any weather. Risk has been spread: bundled, cut up, parceled—“tranched”—and rerouted through sophisticated financial instruments, until no one could tell good from bad risks. Old familiar instruments such as mortgages, already an abstraction of the probable value of property, are further abstracted into complicated derivatives. New information technologies facilitate the collection, storage, and analysis of colossal data sets; they allow for formulas that reduce variations to remote, almost untenable, possibilities; they enable the transcription of markets into everyday data streams available for lay investors—now visualized in shiny numerical ribbons, in holograms and tables, in interactive models. This is the phantasmagoric playground for speculative living in the present. One comes upon tickers not just at stock exchanges but also at home as news broadcasts stream financial data below the talking heads and footage (CNBC was the first to institute these electronic tickers in 1989). Cultures of speculation burgeon in a technological unconscious as connectivities improve and bandwidths materialize science-fiction fantasies of propinquity and speed.[9]  The drone of industrial production fades to invisible elsewheres made immaterial in the virtualized market as world picture. Concrete risk recedes before spectacular abstraction.

Firmative speculation produces probable states as calculable alternatives wrapped in investment contracts (futures, options, swaps) and choices for individual portfolios. Such packaging forecloses alternative possibilities in the interests of a precise rate of return. This kind of speculative blocking operates across all markets, not just in the financial world. In the context of the thriving market for biologicals (plants, animals, and human tissues), a ready example of such foreclosures is the case of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). A tree indigenous to the South Asian subcontinent, all parts of the plant (bark, twig, gum, oil) are put to common use, and therefore its potential value—fungicidal (for medicinal and cosmetic use), gustatory (as cuisine), and antidesertification properties (for ecological use)—is seen to be a traditional commons. In 2005 the European Patent Office revoked its granting of a patent to W. R. Grace, a company that sought to use all of neem’s fungicidal properties as pesticide. Such patenting foreclosed all other possible values (for example, medicinal use for oral hygiene, leprosy, intestinal worms, scabies, piles, urinary disorders), with the company claiming their laboratory enhancements to the plant extracts added value to the fungicide. Here monetization firms one pathway of use, foreclosing multiple potentialities. Furthermore, in such scenarios the industrial capture of capacities threatens the prized resource via its overuse and depletion. Arguing against the enclosing of common resources, Vandana Shiva, the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology in New Delhi, Magda Aelvoet, the president of the Green Party in the European Parliament, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) lodged a case against the patent office, highlighting the rampant biopiracy that transferred biological wealth (plants and knowledge) from the commons in the Global South to a few corporations in the Global North. Seeking to develop the particular use of a resource that promises maximum future remuneration, firmative speculation forecloses other uses. Here speculation makes an entire world (a point we develop below), metastasizing existing geopolitical distributions of financial, technological, and legal power into the future. Such global distributions of inequity fueled by speculative monetization are hardly surprising, argue Marxist geographers, since speculative finance is geographically expansive in its reach.[10] Surplus capital in search of new avenues invests in large-scale housing, recreational, and infrastructural projects all over the world, spurring land acquisition, legal and coercive, on an unprecedented scale; the coming profits from these projects (the theme park, the new resort, the luxury condo) are then sold as securities. Investors, financiers, and construction companies play the futures market in the unfolding story of massive dispossession of those who made their living from farms, forests, or waterways.

Further, the legal quagmire of the neem case underscores the question of intention—the intention to accumulate against the common in acts of “slow violence” that degrade and denude the lives of others.[11] This emphasis illuminates the historical entanglement of speculation with moral culpability. The establishment of the irresponsibility of the “intent to gamble” had once been the very grounds of separating gambling from insurance, the immoral from the moral, the self-serving from the socially responsible forms of speculation. These distinctions were necessary to demarcate the reasonable from the wild speculative practices. Practices based on reasonable foresight, on rational calculation, found legal sanction. From patenting (enclosing common resources) to financial tranching (redistributing risks for profit that accumulates among a few, the proverbial 1 percent), firmative speculation’s exploitative powers seem blessed by contract law and market institutions. There is deliberate irresponsibility, not simple ignorance—that is, intentional channeling of risk to those without legal recourse—not incomprehension of what happens elsewhere. Returning to large-scale technological failures, one recalls the infamous toxic event at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Preceding the gas leak that led to an estimated 8,000 deaths and the poisoning of over 500,000 people, in 1981 a plant operator at that same Union Carbide plant had died from a leak. The following year, four workers had been exposed to the deadly methyl isocynate (MIC) gas and a safety audit had identified sixty biohazards (with thirty of them considered to be major problems). In an act of deliberate negligence, Union Carbide had turned a blind eye to these chronic problems until the mass catastrophe in December 1984. After nearly three decades, the inadequate legal compensations, lack of a proper clean up of the plant, or the expatriation of the CEO Warren Anderson, all seem surreal in their resolute apathy—an “eerie science fiction nightmare,” as Pico Iyer once put it.[12] It is impossible to tabulate the possible states of somatic decay over generations of Bhopal survivors, so the rhetoric goes, and therefore impossible to compensate them. This is an old story, but it is one that returns with new vengeance as middle classes all over the planet begin to feel the brunt of inequitable risk distribution. It returns with not quite the terminal corporeality of Bhopal survivors but with the compounded precarity of lost jobs, homes, and future security.[13] It is worth noting that this precarious encounter with uncertainty leaves open very few options, forcing one down dead-end paths of unskilled jobs, low income, and lifelong disaffection. This is not an embrace of uncertainty of the kind we privilege in affirmative speculation, for precarity rests on foreclosures of possibilities, not their proliferation.

The point here is to underscore the affective life that speculation, based on abstract, impersonal calculations, induces today.[14] Not that affect was not a part of speculative cultures until now; indeed, the fear of true uncertainty (the inherent unknown) partially managed by the firming of knowable futures has been part and parcel of speculative living. Hence scholars attend to the risk socialities constitutive of everyday life: the experiential dimensions that include both risk-averse behaviors as well as high-risk activities such as recreational drug intake, extreme sports, or compulsive day trading.[15] But what does it mean to feel one is at 86 percent danger of breast cancer? That stocks will triple in value tomorrow? How are “we” made to experience statistical abstractions as fear or euphoria? Here contemporary risk media play a critical role, channeling and intensifying perceptions, encouraging consumers to turn fear into preparedness: buy the pension plans for luxurious retirements, the vitamins for healthier, longer lives, or the newest technological devices to calculate energy expended and calories consumed. The signals are clear. Even the poor sign promissory notes for future investments. This quotidian speculative living has motivated scholars to look beyond the calculus (risk assessment and its sciences) and its instruments (risk management and its institutions) to risk perceptions. They speak of the different perceptual registers—cognitive, affective, and sensory—and of risk ecologies, all of which generate either escalating panic or the numbness of generalized anxiety. Such affects supplement and reorient reasonable foresight. At the heart of the seasoned wager, we encounter its undoing, as another logic, another matrix, muddies the objective calculus.

Speculation Communicates

Making futures perceptually concrete has a long media history, one that has intensified at this techno-animated moment. Global communications infrastructures transmit media projections of futures on an unprecedented scale, immersing us in speculative environments. This immersivity is taken to new extremes by digital technologies. We are well aware of the established media forms that direct, prime, and habituate us to futures, inducing a certain literacy in the semiotics of speculation. The trained eye, hand, or ear does not even notice the complexity of charts with diagrammatic language (arrows, curves, labels), the finesse of digitally layered cartographic projections, the techno-prowess of holographic tables or graphs in audiovisual media, or the circuit intricacies of interactive personal devices (figure 2). More importantly, these visualizations invite users to effortlessly navigate the future spatialized in them with an ease that makes their logic invisible and their oversights irrelevant.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The Future of Solar. Designed by JESS3, http://jess3.com. Reproduced with permission of GE.

Maps, such as the projection of urban domestic water consumption in 2030 (figure 3), presume we can think three dimensionally, separating the present states from the darker layer of future water consumption. This data visualization, marking the five highest water-consuming regions, won the challenge for visualizing the water footprint challenge hosted by the Circle of Blue (an international water crisis reporting network) in 2011. The map exhibits the classic temporal fold of statistical thinking: future state(s) stabilized as the most likely one(s), folded over a snapshot of the present. Aesthetic concerns win out over clarity and spatial perspective, and the most attractive graphic notations frequently relegate information on variations (standard deviations, parameters of the study, disclaimers) to fine print not quickly accessible to the nonexpert eye. Markers of estimated states in statistical charts often completely obscure actual instances (statistical true values), an aesthetic containment of visual clutter that shores up a clear general prediction. Arrows, circles, and labels become legible graphic codes whose syntax produces predictions of probable states; they appear as objective assessments, a coded scientific translation one does not question. In these highly rhetorical forms, science becomes social persuasion, maximizing media technologies to present arguments that appear as objective truth.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Urban Water Needs: Can We Keep Up? Increase in Domestic Water Use by 2030. Matthew Laws and Hal Watts, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

With new immersive digital technologies, the speculative calculus becomes even more palpable. Multimodal mediascapes—billboards enclosing urban pathways, the screen cultures of casinos, or data projections as architectural space—envelop us in ways that are overwhelming yet quotidian. Then there was the digital Cloud, proposed as a new kind of observation deck and information hub that would have projected images, weather information, game results, and spectator statistics over London during the 2012 Olympics (figure 4). The four-hundred-feet-high mesh towers were to be topped with solar-powered bubbles, making the structure appear as something straight out of science fiction. Every footstep in the ascent to the Cloud would contribute to energy harvesting to keep the London Olympic flame alive; hence the Cloud engineers and architects gambled on crowd participation for its success. The world that would come to watch the Olympics, they surmised, would generate the Cloud—a speculative globality.

Figure 4

Figure 4. The Cloud. www.raisethecloud.org, 2012. Reproduced with permission.

Such speculative environments highlight the central role information plays in firmative speculation: the digital Cloud not only turns statistical abstraction into sensorial experience, but what’s more, it self-consciously projects data streaming as the future world-making perspective (much like cartographic perspectives were to the early modern period). Media publics come to know the world, and to live it, statistically. The conceit of the Cloud is the uncertainty of its actualization—which data stream will enmesh me in its sublime beams?—but that contingency is bound or delimited by the context of a tourist park. The actual context of these digital data realizations, then, is already in the works, a foreclosure that exerts a regulative force on the effect of this Cloud. Despite possibilities that a socially heterogeneous, anonymous crowd will experience the futuristic spectacle, this is selective infotainment pitched at a digitally literate public who enjoy reading, touching, and moving around combinations of numbers, images, and words in urban postindustrial contexts. The planned spectacle presupposes mass attractions to designer data, even as it habituates the crowd to these modes of speculative communication: a performative loop, spectacularly embodied in the digital gizmos of the day.

The digital Cloud proposal reveals there is more at stake than cold, clear reason. A firmative speculation that renders probability palpable relies on sensory and affective responses for the formation of consensus on selective solutions for a better collective future. The new technological substrates manifest in multimodal media—interactive diagrams glowing at one’s fingertips or huge, glossy advertising dwarfing pedestrians on the street—render information ever more affective. Heightening sensations (sheer excitations of the nervous system, argue affect theorists, not yet bundled into affects), these media pull us into their orbit, activating a sensory flux that dissolves subject-object boundaries. As users dissolve into the sensory object, these speculative media channel the subsequent affects along the well-defined, culturally instituted vectors we characterize as emotions (joy, fear, shame). The technological substrate and aesthetic organization work in tandem, first releasing and then containing the affective field of speculation. Affects become distinct emotions when they are yoked to symbolic forms expressing a few select options—the new BMW model, the updated home security system, the nest egg tripled—as the most coveted future. A tight causality guides unruly sensation toward reasonable goals. In snapshots, such as diagrams or maps, the present and future are compressed into one visual surface, while in narrative forms meticulous editorial cuts impose a linear causality moving inexorably toward the featured solution. Home security advertising (Brink, Broadside, ADT) on television, for example, often relies on initial neurological responses (a shiver at the creak in the night, at an intrusive form in the doorway) that then congeal into fear when yoked to a threatening symbol (classically a masked figure); finally, that fear is cathartically managed by the arrival of reassuring home security professionals. The danger of such intrusion is projected as imminent: in the present or the always coming, always virtual, future. The only way to foreclose the worst-case scenario is to rely on expert technologies and infrastructures. Your gut tells you this is the most reasonable, the best option, and you consent: you invest in a better future.

All firmative speculation depends on effective materialization in media to communicate specific goals; both aesthetic organization and technological skills attach, yoke, or bind collective desires so that select options appear as reasonable foresight. The point becomes clearer when one realizes that data forms visualizing objective future states share common ground with media forms like advertisements advancing specific options for profit. As overt speculative media, advertisements are in the business of selling options by projecting them as the most natural, and therein the best, solutions for the future; they gamble on psychic, social, and financial investments in actual goods that will add value to the present state of things. “You,” the prospective customer, may be persuaded to secure your health or your home against future loss or to maximize your latent potentials with a little help from a new commodity customizable to personal preference. These speculative media frequently project probable scenarios that are not yet socially, financially, or politically accessible—your future is already here, only not within your reach. A firmative speculation reproduces the present: for instance, “revolutionary” age-defying creams, with their promise of halting one potential futurity (cellular degeneration), often sell the most culturally conventional scenarios as the best options. If you apply this cream, you will have the ideal (most normative) date night! Far from inciting acts that change the present, they settle the present more firmly in its current states. That is, more often than not there is nothing different in the ideal date scenario visualized in a Nivea or Oil of Olay advertisement; the telos is remarkably predictable but presented in a glossy scenario toward which one can aspire. “We,” the desiring machines, will feel much better about ourselves with firm bodies and firmer skin. Such speculative media, producing probable states in the near future, are creative in the sensory perceptual fields that they generate; but they also thwart creativity by firmly locking consumers into a singular choice moving toward a defined pathway. This is achieved by compressing the present (the target “you” the advertisement addresses) and the future (the “you” in the culturally recognizable future), folding them within one surface or a narrative form. Hence these speculative media foreclose multiple futures for the reasonable choice of one—the best one sanctioned by innovative entrepreneurs.

These are obvious foreclosures of speculative futures; these aphoristic texts aim for perfect communication, for signal sans noise. They simulate pleasures or fears to come, productive in their creative playfulness, even as they guide our inclinations, preferences, and habits. The corporate model of maximizing capital (financial but also social, cultural, or political) is now the blueprint for consensus building across public domains. States and supranational institutions involved in governance deploy similarly well-crafted media strategies to sell their goals to the “public” in whose interest they supposedly act. The U.S. government routinely provokes fear or excitement for its preventive and proactive measures, prevailing on the public to make informed choices. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, runs an antismoking campaign that has been strongly criticized for its deliberate sensationalization of probable states related to long-term smoking (figure 5). Here, the “laws of fear,” Cass Sunstein’s aphorism for behavioral patterns emergent in worst-case scenarios, shape public sentiment: whatever your smoking habits, your future is something like the image of a wasting cancer patient with a hole in his throat.[16]

Figure 5

Figure 5. FDA anti-smoking campaign, 2011.

On other occasions, corporate-government ventures depend on the magic of advertising to rationalize their use of public monies and to invite future investment.[17] A poster for a nuclear research laboratory evokes electricity as the vital spark, the life potential over which man now has dominion (figure 6). Laser inertial fusion energy (LIFE) is projected as the energy resource of the future and made culturally palatable by its invocation of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the iconic Sistine Chapel painting of God’s hand touching or birthing man. This iconicity mobilizes a theological mythos in order to suppress references to a present where nuclear energy is a hotly contested issue across national and international contexts, and it frames the pursuit of this energy as a collective good. Speculative media such as these are best understood as complex assemblages that articulate shared mythologies, expertise, public policy, legislation, news, and entertainment to naturalize a specific future as the common future.

Figure 6

Figure 6. Igniting Our Energy Future. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

The sharing of best practices in strategic speculation tells us it is indeed time to think of different domains of expertise—financial, technological, or biological—together. One point of intersection for these domains is in the mobilization of security in public life. Since security, as a territorializing regulatory mode, is indissoluble from militarization, there is now a steady militarization of public life all over the world. The U.S. government, for one, proposes a “vital systems preparedness” for all possible emergencies (hurricanes to viral outbreaks) as a security measure. Performing worst-case scenarios such as bioterror smallpox outbreaks—in actual improvisatory acts—has become the new normal for government security professionals.[18] These scenes illuminate the speculative cultures of fear necessary for living oriented toward the next emergency, cultures that help secure vast public funding for emergency preparedness. Firmative risk media orienting the public toward these worst-case scenarios make the case that the last (and only) line of defense is always the military working in states of exception. A specious argument, one may say, in the context of actual disaster scenarios (Hurricane Sandy, most recently) where contingencies gave rise to mutual aid—common organization and coordination—as a durable bottom-up bulwark against precarity.

Ultimately, the success of these speculative media, their production and subsequent foreclosure of multiple possibilities, depends on public assessments typically measured by opinion polls. Institutions rely heavily on feedback. While bandwagon imitations of successful advertising proliferate across media platforms, offensive advertising gets pulled hurriedly in response to public outcries. These anxious fallouts are part of a saturated mediascape where both information overload and scarcity pose protracted problems. When the public feels hoodwinked by experts, when they suspect cover-ups, information scarcity generates an escalation of “risk feelings.”[19] The theorists of risk communication argue that ineffective communication, more than an actual increase in hazards, leads to heightened risk perception. As the critics of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis note, the excess of analysis, partially to compensate for the Japanese government and TEPCO’s reticence, created a global echo chamber in which credible information could no longer be differentiated from mere opinion. Of course in Ulrich Beck’s classic risk society thesis, it is the distrust of the expert who withholds information that fuels the generalized sense of all-pervasive risk. The changing ratios between informational silence and overload, the two enemies of the perfect signal, alter the balance of “logic, reason, and scientific deliberation” and “instinct and intuition” in risk judgments.[20]

In the context of social media and the explosion of collaborative knowledge production (for example, Fukushima Diary, iWitness Pollution Map, eBird Gulf Spill Bird Tracker), one would imagine the situation has changed somewhat. And yet new regulations of information continue to arrive everyday. A recent controversy over information control erupted when the government advisory board for the National Institutes of Health asked scientists in the Netherlands and the United States not to publish the results of the biomedical research on the H5N1 strain of the flu in the journals Science and Nature. The conclusions, the panel insisted, could be published but not the mutation data that could “enable replication of the experiments.”[21] One might put this down to prevailing biosecurity measures that now govern scientific research on pathogens, but this suppression shares the stage with more cynical and deliberate deceptions. Big pharma routinely attempts to shut down reports of eviscerating clinical trials or pernicious drug side effects. In the fourth largest pharmaceutical settlement in U.S. history, Eli Lilly (previously sued for the suicidal side effects of Prozac) admitted to the criminal misdemeanor of their off-label promotion of Zyprexa, a top-selling drug for schizophrenia that increased risks for diabetes.[22] When several journalists leaked Eli Lilly’s documents on Zyprexa from the ongoing lawsuit by posting links on a public wiki (http://zyprexa.pbwiki.com), Eli Lilly asked the presiding judge to order the documents off Internet sites. The company was successful in acquiring a temporary restraining order from a U.S. district court in January 2004 against the downloading of their online documentation on Zyprexa, but that order was subsequently removed when the Electronic Frontier Foundation appealed for the right to free speech of citizen journalists.[23] Speculative communication is not a one-way street: its wagers on future potentialities run up against questions of law, transparency, and public trust.

Information wars, whose corporate interests are not so explicit, erupt between governments and international organizations; the stellar example for our times is the infamous climate change controversy. The attempt to silence expert projections of climate futures from various think tanks in favor of industrial interests led sixteen national academies of science to issue a joint statement on May 18, 2001, underscoring the dangers of censorship through discreditation: “The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognise IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified.”[24] The issue is no longer aesthetics or technological prowess, but a firm control of communications infrastructures—foreclosures of what can be said, what can be imagined, what can be projected. And yet information continues to leak. The IPCC data visualizations continue to circulate as speculative media projecting a common meteorological future.

Polar bears clinging precariously to icebergs, an iconic image projecting a human future that is already here for the nonhuman other, vivify the complex IPCC projections of climate change (see figures 7 and 8). Meanwhile postapocalyptic scenes of imminent industrial wastelands regularly arrive in the cinema, from Stalker (1979) to Waterworld (1995) to Children of Men (2006). These image constellations—photographs, cinematic fragments, memes, and twitter feeds—create a data deluge that transports science into the popular domain. New socialities become possible: new collectives (human, animal, and microbial) but also new divisions (the high-risk and the low-risk); new disciplines (training, drills) but also new gambles (extreme sports, derivatives trading); new scales of interacting agents (cells, machine-human frontiers) but also new temporalities (the nano durée, deep time). If communication institutes a social relation between people, what new socialities emerge with the dawning of the speculative age?

Figure 7

Figure 7. Polar bears on ice, 2009. Photograph by Jessica K. Robertson, USGS.

Figure 8

Figure 8. Projections of surface temperatures. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Speculation Socializes

Future choices need a gentle nudge. According to theorists of “choice architecture,” informed decision making is a matter of social engineering, organizing the social environment to materialize one course of action in the future above all others.[25] If the healthiest foods were featured at eye level in the grocery store, consumers would be more likely to purchase those foods. If stickers detailing the increase in planetary temperatures were posted on every car, consumers would likely prefer greener cars. Most probably. The benign liberalism of choice architecture aims at regulating social behaviors that, it would seem, are never entirely unpredictable. Behavioral economists, marketing experts, and public relations managers compile diverse behavioral schema for social and personal decisions: how the public reacts to worst-case scenarios, how fear cascades work, or how “the habitual” and “the attentive” (in Thaler and Sunstein’s account) interact to motivate choices, preferences, and predilections. There is a radical pragmatism in predicting economic behaviors, in this gentle nudge to “opt” correctly; importantly, it addresses the uncertainties of incomplete markets. But economic behaviors can be estimated, allowing for schematics that enable precautionary measures. Such premediated risk assessment would ultimately cost the public less, it is claimed. If we had spent more on air security, for example, we could have minimized the cost of 9/11; if we had attended to financial choice architectures, we could have mitigated the 2008 market crash. The new normal is ever ahead, ever the best collective buy, the calculative rationality of the state sanctioned by a flamboyant display of expertise. It is firmative speculation, once again, this time-regulating microscale of habits: the buying of food, the balancing of checkbooks, the selection of hair care products.

The biopolitical project of normalization has been addressed by Michel Foucault: the political arithmetic of demographic data, the techniques for normalizing social behaviors, the sequestered spaces of discipline (clinics, prisons, reform schools), and so forth. However, there is something different about the present pitch for a new normal, for it is not only the social norm (arriving from past data) that is important but also the systematic regulation of probable variance in the future. “Irrational behaviors” can be anticipated, and they can be foreclosed by the reasonable foresight of choice architects. Risk analysis, in particular, rehearses various methods for managing perceptions of coming harm, including psychometric techniques for measuring future actions and reactions. Vast taxonomies of hazards (from bicycling to radiation exposure), tabulated responses, and numerical averages systemize the oddest of behaviors, the strangest of feelings; the signal potentials of risk media are carefully measured for their capacity to control public acceptance. Proponents of choice architecture, to be sure, ultimately seek legal instruments for governing irrationality, thereby integrating microscale practices (buying a vehicle with the best mileage) with macroscale practices (reducing greenhouse emissions). In this way speculation normalizes the coming social, preempting aberrant behaviors. It is a social that segregates along low-risk and high-risk axes.

In the imagination of the coming social, scapegoats emerge to contain collective fears and anxieties.[26] These are also speculative projections, spectral aberrations that threaten to scuttle the collective future. We know them well; they live among us, as part of an everyday landscape of risk. They occupy space, sensations, affects, and thought. They are traces of other hordes that should be detained, quarantined, or prohibited from inhabiting public space. And sometimes they are, as we know from the history of secret prisons, stripped of rights and redress. The scapegoat accesses occulted locations, where the disposable, the new abnormal, gather. Even when the state does not wield the power of political emergency, the public now remains ever alert to probable crimes and misdemeanors. This too is choice architecture of a different kind, performed in the name of public safety.

Cultural mnemonics—the terrorist, the traitor, the infected—metastasize the present, projecting existing social hierarchies into the future. There are the clean, and then there are the abject, those who spread secrets, leaks, pathogens. There are all the normal, good subjects of neoliberal governance, and then there is the singular, unruly deviant: one irresponsible bank, one rogue state, one maverick corporation, or one hidden compound. At the same time, they still live in our midst, secured but not eliminated. After all, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes, the postmodern world is characterized by “societies of control” where the regulation of present and potential threats, rather than their elimination, is the key to viable futures.[27] Regulation secures a universal future for everyone; no need to dwell on infinite possibilities, potentially beneficial but also potentially dangerous.

The risk media perpetuate and normalize the fear necessary for good citizens to agree to this universal future. The threat is everywhere, always coming, always unpredictable. What are the chances that cutting down a palm tree will release an infected bat that drops a piece of chewed banana into a pigsty, that a pig will eat the dropped banana before it is sold for slaughter, that a chef will rub the pig’s infected mouth with his bare hands, and then, without washing, shake hands and pose in a picture with an American woman, who will later mingle in a casino in Macao, sleep with a former lover in Chicago, and come home to infect her son in Minneapolis? That improbable trajectory, uncovered as the outbreak origin for a new deadly flu, is rendered both probable and statistically likely by the fast-paced closing sequence of Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011). The horror of a “world-without-us” appears as a network no one can escape.[28] The fear pervades every action: the places you visit, the handshakes or kisses, the objects you touch (credit cards, folders, cocktail glasses), and the coughs you hear.

Through risk media, speculative narratives and anticipatory rhetorics urge widespread consent to macroscale imperatives, from earthquake preparedness to TSA screenings. Certainly, state institutions rely heavily on popular culture to make their case to the public. But where Contagion aspires to realism, linking microbiological advances (engineering viral prototypes for research), public health organizations (the CDC, the WHO), and human social behaviors (travel, sex, eating), state institutions often lean toward speculative fiction.

For example, in 2011 the CDC started asking citizens to prepare for emergencies by considering the possibility of “zombie apocalypse”: “There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.”[29] The CDC has since released a number of brochures, posters, online resources, and even a graphic novel about zombie pandemics (figure 9). The campaign is tongue in cheek, of course, playing on the enduring cultural fascination with zombie fictions as well as satirical works such as Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide (2003). But it also rehearses the logic of risk media in general, the way in which disaster scenarios—even the most outlandish—render visible the precarity of everyday life and establish normative rituals of behavior and preparedness, occupying the imagination firmly, surely, and completely. Such rituals—now planetary in scope, allegorized by the fictions of zombie apocalypse—propel us toward deepening anomie, always living in terror of the human or nonhuman intruder.

Figure 9

Figure 9. Zombie preparedness ad. CDC, 2011.

For the apparatus of securitization and preparation, the target is not this body or that population but a form of “life itself,” our very biological existence, without which there would no longer be any human societies. Looking at smallpox inoculation campaigns of the eighteenth century, for example, Foucault has distinguished between normation, the normative disciplining of the abnormal subject, and normalization, the quantified control of pathogens within bodies and populations.[30] This is the logic of inoculation: the pathogen is not eradicated, but its levels in the body are maintained at a minimum. The imagination of biosecurity projects a new normal to every disease, calculating internal borders within populations that separate one social aggregate (high-risk “cases” such as the elderly) from another (low-risk, healthy individuals). The latter productive subjects are central to the biological destiny of society, that is to say, social reproduction. We see this logic expressed in contemporary global HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns that explicitly target youth (teenagers in South Africa, for instance), on whose productive potential nations depend.

Foucault maintains that modern states, calculating the most cost-effective futures, are in the business of “making live” and “letting die.”[31] Where disciplinary regimes relegated the other (the patient, the hysteric, the child, the homosexual, the criminal) to the clinic, the asylum, or the penal colony, the apparatus of security targets the other who lives among us, whose future actions are the object of biopolitical interventions. In this way, “life” is maintained, facilitating the circulation of bodies, goods, and capital—but it is also controlled, that is, regulated, mobilized, facilitated, and reconfigured (not limited, restricted, or channelized). If we look at present forms of security, the story continues: fighting fire with fire, the blaze is tempered, not put out. In response to the intrusion of terror into private life, travelers must give up their privacy in airport security screenings; to prevent further escalations of cyber warfare, the Department of Defense contracts hacker armies (disingenuously named white knights); to anticipate the next deadly virus, we must produce new zoonoses in labs. It is clear that unexpected emergencies, something radically new and unforeseen, will continue to arrive. So it is equally imperative to prepare for the worst, to immunize before the crisis.[32]

There is fear but also, quixotically, melancholia. For in the cold light of calculative rationality, it is no longer possible to cognitively grasp what has been lost. Everyday life worlds are rendered isomorphic, hierarchically organized by risk capital such that affective relations are minimized. Dependencies, vulnerabilities, unproductive behaviors are frowned upon. Such disenchantment proposes a loss of feeling, as the sociologist Max Weber once argued, at once incalculable and beyond recall.[33] The risk society inevitably becomes a melancholic society.

At another level, the state actively reorganizes life worlds. The neighborhood is combed for the terrorist who lives next door, the high school for unproductive illegal immigrants. New apparatuses of “speculative security” proliferate, to track, observe, calculate, and predict the presence of the other within the socius.[34] On other occasions emergency powers are evoked to imprison probable terrorists nesting in sleeper cells. For example, the Lackawanna Six—Yemeni Americans from Lackawanna, New York, whom the FBI targeted as members of a sleeper cell—were preemptively arrested under suspicion of possible terrorist activities to come in the future.[35] As Peter Ahearn, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo, said: “If we don’t know for sure they’re going to do something, or not, we need to make sure that we prevent anything they may be planning, whether or not we know or don’t know about it.”[36] Thus has preemption replaced deterrence as the operative doctrine of national security.[37] In 2003 the Lackawanna Six eventually pled guilty to aiding a terrorist organization (they had attended an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001), for which they received prison sentences of seven to ten years each. None of them were ever officially charged with planning or participating in any actual terror plot. According to the logic of speculative security, imaginary dangers to the body politic must be thwarted in advance.

Those with economic wherewithal, of course, invest in private security. And the have-nots continue to occupy the shadows of an unsecured future: the somatic precarity of “slow violence,” against which they have no redress. The Ukrainian workers who helped clean up after the Chernobyl disaster make headlines today because of their heightened risk of leukemia; the sinking islands of the Maldives and the potential loss of homes and livelihood also become documentary curiosities, spectacles of a global warming that continues to accelerate without sufficient opposition. In the name of progress, industrial development, and economic growth—onward and onward—some sacrifices must be made: a distribution of risk, a “letting die” for some, a consent to disposability, so that the rest of society might live and thrive. Of course, beneath the smooth surfaces of the global as a totality of interests, there are many glowing fissures: toxic waste dumps, misguided debt obligations, industrial disrepair, secret prisons. But the practices of firmative speculation work to stabilize such uneven terrain as one world, standardizing protocols, procedures, and laws: a global civil society where liberal sovereign subjects “voice” their demands, and where rights and privileges are always on the way for those in the “waiting room of history.”[38] One world, securing itself against risks by displacing them elsewhere, hedging, preempting, or simply leaving them for the future.[39]

The iconic shimmering Blue Marble—shot on December 7, 1972, by the crew of Apollo 17, the last and most successful NASA moon mission—was the first complete view of the “fragile planet,” as NASA named it (figure 10). This image preceded the full flush of contemporary globalization, with all its political, economic, and environmental effects.[40] In 2012 NASA presented a “new blue marble,” a composite of several swaths of the Earth’s surface (figure 11). The Americas are directly under our gaze. What does it predict about planetary occupation? What prophecy does this image bring? If 1972 marked the endgame of empire, what infirm glory takes a bow today?

Figure 10

Figure 10. Blue Marble. NASA, 1972.

Figure 11

Figure 11. Blue Marble. NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Norman Kuring, 2012.

Speculation Globalizes

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance.

—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

There is perhaps no figure more representative of the firmative than Adam Smith’s “man of speculation.” Troubled by financial risk, the man of speculation acts on his interests (his “frivolous disaster”), even as his moral humanism embeds him within the greater world. He occupies an emerging “world picture,” we might argue following Martin Heidegger, where a sensed connection externalizes an object—the “business of the world” as the premiere object of (financial) speculative thinking.[41] Heidegger suggests that the world as dwelling returns as “lived experience” (erleben, etymologically linked to leben or “life”) to the perceiving subject, both as a world-without-us that stands over and against us and as a legible object to be mastered by expertise and good judgment. The man of speculation feels the world but is able to redirect those feelings in the service of self-interest; misfortunes are therefore banished to elsewheres. The global feeling of possible danger exemplifies the distributive logic of speculative practices that pool and spread financial risks across unevenly situated markets. But this is an ancient tale: the earliest forms of speculation, realized in maritime insurance, were modes of financial speculation where whatever happened elsewhere (en route, at a distant port, or in a remote market) could happen here. Hence one traded in securities, annuities, and insurance; one bought options, hedged bets. With the rise of modern empires, the buying and selling of financial futures became the first modern speculative practice. Money flowed not only as virtual wealth that linked distant markets but also as the representation of wealth; the global materialized in linkages within a system but also as the representative totality of human economic interests. Adam Smith’s melancholia regarding the inescapable return to the self held firm in the age of great modern empires, which brought one-fourth of the world’s population within a single economic system by 1900.

The real change today is that there is no escaping global connection, the lived experience of the global, anymore; the crash of 2008 has made that starkly clear. Once one needed the cartographic resplendence of maps, globes, calendars, and clocks as our world pictures, and perhaps we still do. But now data streams of world markets, quotidian, even unconscious, make the “global” ordinary, a dwelling one experiences every day, as evinced by Meanwhile in Nigeria, Julieta Aranda’s installation for the Speculative Futures exhibit at Bloomberg Global Headquarters in 2011. For this piece, Aranda organized and tabulated all the e-mail spam she received from Nigeria (or claiming to be from Nigeria) that involved financial scams into an enormous ledger. Be it lottery winnings or plane crashes, the messages situate Nigeria as the speculative epicenter, a localized cartographic projection; the financial circuitry may materialize the “globe” as order and delivery, but those networks are haunted by the center-peripheries of the globe as world system. Nigeria, still far-flung, still needy, still financially unstable; Nigeria, still remote, still not systematic; Nigeria, a land of incalculable possibilities. The second side of the installation (the opposite side of the ledger) features a giant balloon, air squeezed from both ends marking the uneven relations between New York and Kano as financial hubs. Planned as a public transit terminal in the Bloomberg office, the piece articulated artistic futurology against Bloomberg’s financial data projections. Uncanny Nigeria, rising up to greet the world of arbitrage, the spectral supplement to unrestrained, productive, financial speculation on Wall Street. But then we have grown accustomed to such unhomely encounters: the new ghost towns in China (an estimated sixty-four million empty apartments) are deserted, eerie traces of housing bubbles; likewise, surplus health in the postindustrial West accrues from clinical trials among faraway populations who may never benefit from the medicines.[42] These “locations,” reminiscent of colonial outposts, proliferate in the cartographies of predatory speculation. The “global” is no longer simply the totalizing horizon of possible action (the next scam, the next property, the next wellness product) but a heterogeneous accumulation of unplanned and unprecedented effects. Emergences, in fact, that cannot be fully anticipated, since they remain recalcitrant to the speculative science that masters the globe. An uncanny global, often a forbidding world-without-us, bites back.

To turn threats back into opportunities, a managerial speculative science arises once more in an effort to objectify risks, localize them in corners, and build solutions that secure against them. New management, new representations of another globe: a world risk society. Private enterprise thrives on such speculative science, producing dangers, articulating them in scalable models. Risk Management Solutions (RMS), for example, is a London-based firm that sells insurance against all manner of risks, from cyclones, fires, and earthquakes to terrorist attacks, biohazards, and infectious diseases. Seeking to provide “an efficient, secure, and scalable platform” for catastrophic risk modeling, RMS “leads the market and sets the standard for quantifying risk. Our science educates people on the physical and financial implications of natural catastrophes, terrorism, and the risks associated with changes in life expectancy.”[43] These are global forecasts that are at the structural limit of risk assessments, since there is only a 1 percent chance that these catastrophes might happen. But emergency preparedness is a lucrative venture, part and parcel of the “one percent doctrine” that argues that damages from these low probability threats will be irreparable.[44] The risk media immediately provide world pictures of catastrophes, intensifying lived experience of “global events.” The RMS website assembles a series of objects in its section on terror insurance and terrorism modeling: there is the familiar magazine cover (the red-bordered industrial design of Time) featuring gas-masked or hooded figures, maps of affected areas, models of worst-case scenarios, and graphs and charts for quantifying risks. These objects draw heavily on popular culture, extant journalistic coverage, and well-traversed blogs. Under terror insurance, there is a model of a possible truck bomb explosion in Manhattan’s financial district and a simple visualization of terror networks (cells and vectors) visible in the diagrammatic form of scientific media.

The Lego-like model mobilizes an interactive aesthetics that invites the user to play with this worst-case scenario. The telos of the game is already specified, plotting a well-trodden path into the future extrapolated from past trauma (it is Manhattan’s financial district, after all). Most importantly, the main page (under the “models” tab) objectifies the “global” as a map with some regions marked in blue (the others, like Africa or the Middle East, in light grey). One soon realizes one can click on the blue for a quick statistical look at individuated nations, checking for their landmass, population size, life expectancy, and economic exposure (in billions of U.S. dollars); each statistic is also ranked in numerical form or as “high” or “low,” the language of emergency systems. Highly congested landmasses rate low in degree of manageable risk, in life expectancy; one pays more for travel to these parts of the world in individually tailored risk packages. RMS is a paradigmatic instance of contemporary “preparedness prospecting,” as a Nightline program titled “Doomsday Preppers” named it.[45] Privatized profits abound: corporations like SwissRe or CelsiusPro sell weather derivatives to secure us against future climate change, while private prospectors build luxury shelters in the desert available for $50,000 against all hazards (storms, terrorism, plagues, nuclear attacks) complete with movie theaters and hospitals. The Terra Vivos facilities, a private network of underground shelters replete with dental care and an intricately evaluative membership selection process, is “life assurance” par excellence.[46]

The RMS website reveals a new securitized world system, albeit by a private firm, a managerial globalization that standardizes protocols, procedures, regulations, and agreements. It recalls the many collusions between corporations and national or supranational institutions that are in the business of globalizing speculation, foreclosing futures, and turning a quick profit. An enormous amount of U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent on rehearsing large-scale, international worst-case scenario modeling for potential bioterror threats. The Black ICE exercise, for instance, stress tested international coordination capacities for managing bioterrorism: How prepared would the world be if six terrorists from South Asia, self-infected with Variola major (smallpox) traveled across Central Asia on an airplane while at their most contagious?[47] Such ventures rely on data collected, tabulated, and assessed by global think tanks such as the RAND Corporation (especially, the National Security Research Division) or global watchdogs such as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). These acts of firmative speculation are enormously productive in building infrastructures: they subcontract security, urge the manufacture and stockpiling of vaccines, and train personnel based in the densely populated nodes of global networks. In their public capacity, they produce affects, orientations, and everyday habits.

Speculation, then, enables the circulation of goods, information, germs, fluids, media, technologies, or foods but also constrains that circulation. The constraints in agreements and protocols seek to arrest robust markets (for example, media piracy) or vital circulations (for example, bodies, viruses). The agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is one of the most contentious among these, inciting worldwide mobilization against the WTO’s perceived collusion with powerful multinationals.[48] Signed in 1994, the agreement allowed the “developing countries” of the Global South, the new centers of media piracy, a period of adjustment to come up with national laws and enforcement mechanisms. TRIPS sought to control copyright infringements of not only “literary, artistic, and scientific works” but also of patents (for processing biological potentials) and trade secrets (for industrial design). Broad in its scope, the TRIPS agreement protected pharmaceutical companies producing and marketing antiretroviral drugs, granting them twenty-year patents to “recoup” the expenditure on research and drug development. One knows what this meant to the HIV/AIDS-infected in the Global South. In 1996 the combination therapies cost a U.S. patient $10,000 to $15,000 a year, and only a privileged few in industrializing nations could afford and have access to these drugs. So in 2001, Cipla Limited, an Indian company, started producing generic versions, and companies based in Brazil, Thailand, and South Africa followed suit; one Indian company, Ranbaxy, produced one of the cheapest generics, costing $295 per year.[49] Even though TRIPS granted a five-year grace period to these nations to develop local laws and enforcement of the patent regimes, it was clear that global regulation of “illicit” markets had exacerbated the precarity of the infected who could not afford brand drugs. Moreover, several of the drug companies producing generics were forced to comply with TRIPS in the end. Hence TRIPS was widely contested in the Global South, galvanizing calls for amendments to the original pact. This historical instance provides the sharpest image of the global as a space of uneven distributions, where managerial standards for all benefit the few and where nation-states are commandeered as local enforcers of global protocols. Prevailing divides, the Global North and South, return to haunt the management of collective futures. Even progressive advocates of juridical reform such as Lawrence Lessig participate in such distributions of market agency: they distinguish creative remediations (cut-and-mix, appropriation, sampling, and so on) as practices that add value to the original from “piracy plain and simple,” which adds no value and consists simply of poaching, stealing, copying, and making fakes.[50] Two kinds of piracy, good (in the Global North) and bad (in the Global South) emerge, controlled creativity for a controlled media commons. These constraining “agreements” are often vigorously resisted, fissuring the smooth surfaces of a managerial globalization where a firmative speculation turns both threats and potentials into profitable enterprise.

The obverse of this situation arises from abandoned regulations, often “soft” agreements regarding carbon-emission levels or waste storage that lack juridical heft. Though the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first marshaled waste agreements in May 1992 at the inaugural Basel Convention (on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal), local activist groups and transnational watchdog organizations (such as Greenpeace) provide a staggering list of surreptitious toxic waste dumping all over the world. When waste assumes astronomical proportions and must be stored, disposed, or destroyed, a search begins for those remote corners of the planet where dumping will not be strongly contested. That search ends most often in the poorest habitations on the planet. These residues are seen only in occasional breaking news: Britain prepares to take back 1,400 tons of toxic waste exported to Brazil; the Camorra turns Naples into a profitable garbage dump; Greenpeace alerts Bangladesh about PCB contamination in ship-breaking yards.[51]

The risk media document such infractions, often more attentive to planetary (planets, animals, soils) and molecular (cells, genes, organs) violations than to global distributions of harm. When an artistic collaboration in the documentary Waste Land (2010) inserted Vik Muniz, one of the recyclers at Rio de Janeiro’s infamous Jardim Gramacho dump, into an iconic image reminiscent of the French Revolution (Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, 1793), the exuberant appropriation of “high art” signaled local aspirations to become worldly (figure 12).[52]

Figure 12

Figure 12. Waste Land. Directed by Lucy Walker, João Jardim, and Karen Harley, 2010.

The portrait would enter the world art circuit, the recesses of the global haunting the metropolitan centers where the exhibit traveled. Since the paintings were made of recycled materials from the waste site, the London gallery goers would, in a sense, be made to breathe the toxins from Jardim Gramacho. The global as proximate feeling, as lived experience, could not be objectified as distant suffering. And yet other forces hope to wipe the stain clean from a global imaginary, celebrating Rio as jubilant host of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 20 Summit), the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Summer Olympics. We could multiply such examples from numerous documentary exposés that all share a project: to bring the unseen and the unsettled—those troubling elsewheres obscured in managerial globalization pushing universal futures—into our perceptual field. Artists such as Trevor Paglen and Yasmine Kabir render those forgotten corners and secret spaces (prisons, camps, waste dumps) expressive, intensifying the costs of managerial global speculative security.[53] These speculative media combat the prevalent rhetorical strategies that project one world of risk: the world is here, and the prioritized task should be to secure life against all threats.

But setting artworks in opposition to commercial “mainstream media” formulates too easy an equation. As catalysts for speculative globalizing, artworks also participate in abstractions, in totalizing world pictures. Collective futures are on splendid display in exhibits, galleries, and installation spaces all over the world. The most notorious among these is the flamboyant anatomist Gunter von Hagens’s Body Worlds. Multiple controversies—legal, theological, medical—have dogged the exhibit that first showed in Tokyo in 1995. As Angelina Whalley, von Hagens’s partner and business manager, noted in her tabulation of the exhibit’s varied reception, the controversies only led to more curious onlookers flocking to the exhibit in Europe, Asia, and North America.[54] Its admirers exalted the scientific innovation that halted the decomposition of the body after death, exclaimed over reactive polymers, speculated on the possibilities of human futures without disease, and marveled at the chutzpah of the man who captured the intimate dwelling of life itself. On the other side, von Hagens’s detractors bemoaned this turn of medicine into edutainment, expressing concern over the ownership of body parts and the possibility that the bodies were of executed Chinese political prisoners.[55] Even while he insisted that the displays were consensual, von Hagens was repeatedly asked whether or not he owned the biomaterial that had been plastinated: after all, the process had removed 70 percent of body fluids and inserted polymers that substantially mutated the “original.” In this postbiological context, what exactly was the ontological status of the plastinate? Was it at all human? These questions place us in the quicksand of “tissue economies,” those biological distributions of the individuated human body into blood, ovaries, or frozen organs of the other—of remote bare life, always elsewhere but proximate, occupying us.[56] The necromancy of Body Worlds returns us to unknown sectors recalcitrant to full disclosures.

On what secrets do we base our speculative pleasures, our tranquilities? What urgent touch of the other accompanies these celebrations of a new human universal future?


  1. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1979), 30.
  2. Pat O’Malley, “Moral Uncertainties: Contract Law and Distinctions between Speculation, Gambling, Insurance,” in Risk and Morality, eds. Richard V. Ericson and Aaron Doyle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 231.
  3. Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  4. Lorraine Daston, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 237–38.
  5. Quoted in Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers, eds., The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1137.
  6. The original design basis tsunami height was 3.1 m for Daiichi based on assessment of the 1960 Chile tsunami. See World Nuclear Association, “The Fukushima Accident” (updated April 2013), http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident-2011/#.UW4kABwfpKE; and Johannis Nöggerath, Robert J. Geller, and Viacheslav K. Gusiakov, “Fukushima: The Myth of Safety, the Reality of Geoscience,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67, no. 5 (September 19, 2011): 37–46.
  7. As an editorial in the Japan Times reports: “In 2008, Tepco estimated that a 15.7-meter tsunami could hit the plant on the basis of a 2002 report from the education ministry’s earthquake panel, but it took no specific preventative measures. Gambling that such a tsunami would not occur, it did not revise its 2002 estimate that at maximum a 5.7-meter tsunami could possibly strike (“Tepco’s Self-Justifying Report,” June 29, 2012).
  8. Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (Kissimmee, FL: Signalman Publishing, 2009), 103.
  9. Nigel Thrift, Knowing Capitalism (London: Sage, 2005).
  10. David Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register 40 (2004): 63–87.
  11. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  12. Pico Iyer, “India’s Night of Death: Bhopal,” Time, December 17, 1984.
  13. For a synthetic overview of autonomist Marxism and the activist discourse on precarity, with a particular focus on affect, see Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, “In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture, and Society 25, nos. 7–8 (December 2008): 1–30.
  14. On aspirational affect as a means to negotiate the crises of the present and hope for the future, see Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
  15. Randy Martin, The Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); and Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  16. See Cass Sunstein’s Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  17. For example, the experimental program to achieve fusion and energy gain, known as the National Ignition Campaign, is a partnership between Lawrence Livermore, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and General Atomics, along with collaborators such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom, and Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique in France.
  18. Andrew Lakoff, “The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 3 (2008): 399–428; Claudia Aradau and Rens van Munster, Politics of Catastrophe: Genealogies of the Unknown (New York: Routledge, 2011); and Peter Adey and Ben Anderson, “Anticipating Emergencies: Technologies of Preparedness and the Matter of Security,” Security Dialogue 43 (2012): 99–117.
  19. Paul Slovic, Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception (New York: Routledge, 2010).
  20. Paul Slovic and Ellen Peters make the distinction in “Risk Perception and Affect,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, no 6 (December 2006): 322–25.
  21. Denise Grady and William J. Broad, “Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts,” New York Times, December 20, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/health/fearing-terrorism-us-asks-journals-to-censor-articles-on-virus.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.
  22. Elizabeth Lopatto, Jef Feeley, and Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Eli Lilly ‘Ghostwrote’ Articles to Market Zyprexa, Files Show,” Bloomberg, June 12, 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aVvfe.v1k_VY.
  23. Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Eli Lilly Zyprexa Litigation,” https://www.eff.org/cases/eli-lilly-zyprexa-litigation.
  24. Royal Society, “The Science of Climate Change,” May 18, 2001, http://royalsociety.org/policy/publications/2001/science-climate-change.
  25. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
  26. See Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1992); René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); and Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, revised ed. (New York: Routledge, 2001).
  27. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations, 1972–1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
  28. See Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol.1 (Alresford, UK: Zer0 Books, 2011); and Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  29. Ali S. Khan, “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Public Health Matters Blog, May 16, 2011, http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2011/05/preparedness-101-zombie-apocalypse.
  30. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  31. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76, trans. David Macy (New York: Picador, 2003).
  32. Roberto Esposito, Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  33. Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).
  34. Marieke de Goede, Speculative Security: The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
  35. See Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007); and Dina Temple-Raston, The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in an Age of Terror (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).
  36. Ahearn quoted in Mathew Purdy and Lowell Bergman, “Unclear Danger: Inside the Lackawanna Terror Case,” New York Times, October 12, 2003, A1, A35–37. See also James Meek, “People the Law Forgot (Part Two),” Guardian, December 2, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/dec/03/guantanamo.usa2.
  37. Brian Massumi, “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption,” Theory and Event 10, no. 2 (2007).
  38. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8–10.
  39. See Randy Martin, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Kim Fortun, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006); and Louise Amoore, “Data Derivatives: On the Emergence of a Security Risk Calculus for Our Times,” Theory, Culture, and Society 28, no. 6 (2011): 24–43.
  40. See Ursula K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Robert Poole, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); and Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
  41. Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland, 1977).
  42. See “China: 64 million empty apartments,” Asia News, September 15, 2010, http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Crisis-in-China:-64-million-empty-apartments-19459.html, and Joseph Dumit, Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
  43. See the RMS website, “Models,” http://www.rms.com/models.
  44. Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine.
  45. “‘Doomsday Preppers’ Turn Profits,” Nightline video, February 6, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/doomsday-preppers-turn-profits-15527188.
  46. See the Terra Vivos website, http://terravivos.com.
  47. Henry A. Crumpton, “Black ICE (Bioterrorism International Coordination Exercise),” Briefing for Diplomatic Corps, U.S. Department of State, January 17, 2007, http://2001-2009.state.gov/s/ct/rls/rm/07/79413.htm.
  48. For text of the trade agreement and related TRIPS material, see the WTO website, http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/TRIPS_e/trips_e.htm.
  49. Médecins Sans Frontières, “A Matter of Life and Death: The Role of Patents in Access to Essential Medicines” (Geneva: Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, Médecins Sans Frontières, 2001).
  50. Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (New York: Penguin Press, 2004). For an important critique of Lessig, see Kavita Philip, “What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property,” Postcolonial Studies 8, no. 2 (2005): 199–218.
  51. “UK ‘To Take Back Waste That Caused a Stink,’” Sky News, July 19, 2009, http://news.sky.com/story/709966/uk-to-take-back-waste-that-caused-a-stink; “Naples Garbage Is Mafia Gold,” Reuters, January 9, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/01/09/us-italy-waste-mafia-idUSL0830577220080109; Young Power in Social Action, “Ship Breaking in Bangladesh,” http://www.shipbreakingbd.info/Shipbreaking around the world.html. The documentary, Shipbreakers (dir. Michael Kot, 2004), looks into the manual dismantling of decommissioned seafaring vessels in Alang, India. It is estimated that one worker dies every day in this poor shantytown from accidents during cutting and welding, along with a high incidence of cancer.
  52. Lucy Walker, João Jardim, and Karen Harley, dirs., Waste Land (Almega Projects, 2010).
  53. See Trevor Paglen, Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes (New York: Aperture, 2010) and Yasmine Kabir, The Last Rites (2008), a 17-minute documentary on the Chittagong ship-breaking yards.
  54. Gunther von Hagens, Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, ed. Angelina Whalley, trans. Francis Kelly (Heidelberg, Germany: Arts and Sciences, 2007).
  55. An article in The Guardian, for instance, reported at least two of the 647 corpses stored with the anatomist at his center in China had bullet holes in their skulls; so there was much speculation about the possibility that these were political prisoners. This was in the wake of an exposé in Der Spiegel. See Luke Harding, “Von Hagens forced to return controversial corpses to China,” The Guardian, January 23, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/jan/23/arts.china
  56. Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell, Tissue Economies: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1995, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).