Charles Mudede

Let this be the final word on the matter. Amazon's spheres are not actually futuristic in the same sense as the Space Needle. The latter, in fact, is looking at us, in the present (the Needle's tomorrow people). But it's hard for us to recognize the orientation of its gaze because we see it as not falling on us, but almost wholly in its own time, the Cold War. We did not end up colonizing the stars. And the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought all of the Space Age's dreams down with it. What was once a symbol of the next frontier beyond the clouds is now just a campy restaurant and a third-rate tourist attraction.

The Spheres, on the other hand, are a work of nostalgia. Like Walter Benjamin's angelus novus, they have their back to us and face the past. But whereas the winds of progress blow Benjamin's fabulous bird into a future that's behind it, The Spheres are not going anywhere. But what are they looking back at? The period when science was in the full service of capitalism. The Spheres, as Amazon said at the opening a few weeks ago, are looking back to the Kew Gardens, which represented a stable unification between the business interests of Empire and a branch of knowledge production that actually developed outside of the market, that had its roots in institutions that were indeed hostile to moneymaking, the enlightenment. Cultural historian Lucile H. Brockway described the business of the Kew Gardens as "economic botany."

In the introduction of her 1979 book Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens, Brockway writes:

Through its research, its dissemination of scientific information, and its practical activities, which included plant smuggling, Kew Gardens played a major part in the development of several highly profitable and strategically important plant-based industries in the tropical colonies.

If one can say one thing about the 19th century, it is that scientific progress became a religion. You only have to go to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in Bombay to see one of the fullest expressions of this belief. Once called the Victoria Station, and completed in the final years of the Victorian period (1888), CSMT did not celebrate Christianity in its decor and moldings, but the idea of scientific progress in India, the jewel in the crown. But this idea of progress was not neutral. It was one attached to two agendas: improving the systems of industrial production, and increasing market share. Kew Gardens was mostly concerned about the latter. The goal of this institution was to determine the prime conditions for profitable plants and match these conditions with regions within the Empire. This way, a lucrative crop in a country tied with, say, the Dutch, could be transported (smuggled) to a country inside of the Empire with a similar climate. This process transformed whole continents. Entirely new landscapes were created not for the betterment of humanity, but to capture and increase the market share on addictive commodities like cocoa, coffee, tobacco, and tea.

This is the economic world that The Spheres are looking at. But what exactly are their backs turned to?
What do they not want to see or contemplate? A science that's no longer under the strict command of the market. Indeed, more often than not, the science of our times challenges its profit-driven program. In the 19th century, this use-value-less knowledge was surplus science. It was extra or unusable knowledge from commercial or industrial activities. An example of this is Darwin's "long argument," which was not only supported by the discovery in 1859 of a Stone-Age hand-axe in a French open-pit mine for gravel used by concrete industry, but his close association with the economic botany of Kew Gardens. Both confirmed his arboreal theory of the origin of life. Another example is our current theory of time. It's based on a theory, the second law of thermodynamics, extracted and isolated from industrial research that, in the first half of the 19th century, was committed to the improvement of steam engines. And so we have Darwinist deep time on one end, and the Carnotian heat death of the universe at the other.

The hypotheses of life's origins and everything's death constituted a knowledge that could not be immediately or obviously tied to an idea of progress. The bogus science of the rational management that emerged from the Taylorist moment—the early 20th century (this is the kind of science we still find today in Amazon's fulfillment centers and cashier-less stores)—however, could. By the middle of the 20th century, surplus science was absorbed and funded by the state, which, be it in the US or the USSR, saw it as important for its survival in a geopolitical struggle that expanded from, and internationalized the 19th century conflict between workers and bosses. This state surplus is your Space Needle.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, surplus science had reached a point where many (if not most) of its discoveries were not only useless but also challenging the very existence of capitalism—climate science, open software, nutrition, and so on. The thing that Trump has made clear to all is the war on this science, which more and more threatens business interests, and exposes the alliance of science and the market during the industrial development of Europe and United States as having been transitory, and points toward the socialist management of food production, health institutions, living conditions, and transportation systems. These are your spheres. They are longing for the days when the market-science alliance was super-tight.