Electric Potentials: An Interview with Gökçe Günel

The November 2015 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the Openings and Retrospectives collection “Anthropology Electric,” edited by Dominic Boyer. What follows is an interview contributing editor Andrés García Molina conducted with Gökçe Günel, who is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, about the collection and its connections to her own work.

Gökçe Günel received her PhD in anthropology from Cornell University in 2012. Her book manuscript, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Green Business in Abu Dhabi, under contract with Duke University Press, focuses on the construction of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the United Arab Emirates.

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Gökçe Günel conducted research on renewable energy and clean technology in Abu Dhabi in 2010–2011. Photo: Arda Doğan.

Andrés García Molina: As a matter of introduction, could you describe the projects you are working on and how they relate to the general topic of an “anthropology electric?”

Gökçe Günel: Broadly speaking, my research explores how researchers, professionals, and policymakers conceptualize and construct emergent infrastructures of energy generation and climate change mitigation. Focusing on the individual as well as the institutional levels, I chart the imaginaries that guide the production of knowledge, technology, and governance on renewable energy and clean technology, while analyzing the multiple paradoxes that spring from their implementation.

In his contribution to the collection, Akhil Gupta suggests that we have “to reimagine electricity use in the future that does not simply seek to extend the patterns of the present” (564), pointing out how “what is at stake here are different ideas about the future” (566). By working with researchers, professionals, and policymakers who create new energy infrastructures, I document and examine this process of reimagination, interrogate if and how it extends the patterns of the present, and map the ways in which the future of energy becomes contested.

Currently, I’m revising my book manuscript, which investigates the construction of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in oil-­rich Abu Dhabi as the era of abundant oil supplies slowly comes to an end. The book centers on Masdar, a multifaceted renewable energy and clean technology company sponsored by the Abu Dhabi government. Drawing on seventeen months of multi-sited fieldwork at Masdar, as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the book demonstrates that Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy and clean technology projects, such as Masdar City, fuel an aspiration to make ecological problems manageable, such that business models and design solutions will contain and resolve climate change without surrendering hopes for increased productivity and technological complexity.

Masdar (meaning “source” in Arabic) is most widely known for Masdar City, a futuristic eco-city that was designed by the London­-based architecture office Foster + Partners to rely entirely on renewable energies. According to initial plans, Masdar City would house fifty thousand residents and forty thousand commuters on a 600-­hectare area, a project that would cost $22 billion. Masdar Institute, the energy­-focused research center that was set up and is supervised by MIT’s Technology and Development Program, started offering graduate degrees inside the eco-city in September 2010. While the eco-city was central to Masdar’s development, Masdar also invested in renewable energy through its other operations—Masdar Power, Masdar Carbon, and Masdar Capital—in an attempt to ensure Abu Dhabi will remain a significant player in the energy industry, well after its oil reserves run dry.

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A computer rendering of the Masdar City master plan, which was circulated in the media between 2007 and 2010. Image by Foster + Partners.

In examining how oil economies prepare for oil­-less futures, I track five projects undertaken by Masdar: (1) the construction of an eco­-city, (2) the establishment of a research institute, (3) the creation of a new energy currency, (4) the implementation of a driverless personal rapid transit network, and (5) the production of carbon capture and storage (CCS) policy. Such projects reveal unresolved tensions that result in a growing accommodation of contradictions within the renewable energy and clean technology sector—for instance, a car­-free eco-city surrounded by a parking lot of SUVs. Through close ethnographic investigation, my research analyzes how emergent technology, knowledge, and governance of renewable energy reorganize sociotechnical relations in an oil­-rich landscape.

AGM: What inspired you to work on these projects? How did you first get involved?

GG: I went to the United Arab Emirates for preliminary fieldwork in 2008, knowing very little about my research objectives. I was drawn to the planned city projects mushrooming in the region, but after the economic crisis, many of these projects were postponed or cancelled. Masdar City was an exception in that it survived the economic crisis. In addition to offering interesting insights about urban design, the site proposed new ways of thinking about energy and climate futures. For instance, the designers suggested that they borrowed from old Arab cities in thinking about Masdar City, pointing to the walled city of Shibam as an example. They added that the city would be “smart,” or that it would have “a hidden brain,” which would know when a resident enters her building and would start cooling her apartment accordingly. To gain access to the project, I contacted faculty members at Masdar Institute— the energy­-focused research center that was set up inside Masdar City by MIT’s Technology and Development Program—and got permission to conduct fieldwork in July 2009. Six months later, I started my research at MIT.

During the time that I started research, there was very little engagement in anthropology with renewable energy and clean technology. Historically, energy has been a significant analytic in anthropology, especially if you think about scholars like Leslie White, who wrote in the 1940s and explored how a social group’s energy use defines its standing in an evolutionary cycle. Later, as Tanja Winther and Harold Wilhite note in their article, anthropological accounts focused very much on fossil fuels and their role in global politics. I imagined that conducting research in the United Arab Emirates would allow me to work with this literature, helping me understand how climate change becomes reinterpreted, circulated, and utilized by oil­-rich nations and underlining the influence these nations exert on the global sociopolitical order, while at the same time letting me develop a critique of the sustainability discourse, which was so prevalent.

There was also very little ethnographic research on the Arab Gulf, a condition that continues to be the case today. I was drawn to conducting fieldwork in Abu Dhabi and chronicling the emergent interest in science and technology in the region. Since the early 2000s, Abu Dhabi has been investing in high-­profile development projects in the fields of tourism, urban transformation, and technology transfer. These projects are meant to transform Abu Dhabi’s brand image and induce a perception shift, perhaps attracting foreign investment. The investment in renewable energy and clean technology, which is part of this transition, was expected to shift the emirate’s image from oil producer to technology developer, rendering the emirate, as one of my interlocutors put it, “more elite.” My book is the first full-length ethnography of contemporary Abu Dhabi, and it frames the Arab Gulf as a region that generates novel practices of technology, knowledge, and governance.

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The Masdar Institute campus includes dormitories, a knowledge center, laboratories and a sports facility. Photo by Gökçe Günel.

AGM: What has your fieldwork consisted of? And what is your advice to students working on themes related to infrastructure and distributed networks, objects of study that are difficult to apprehend in discrete terms?

GG: My fieldwork started at MIT, because I wanted to understand how the Technology and Development Program (TDP) set up a renewable energy and clean technology-focused research institute in Abu Dhabi. The TDP is a very small unit with a rich history. Since the 1970s, they have been building infrastructure around the world, but their involvement in higher education is relatively new. Yet they were committed to the Masdar Institute project. In June 2010, the director of TDP accepted a position as the president of Masdar Institute to help form a solid institutional foundation there. When I moved to Abu Dhabi in the summer of 2010, the director of TDP, who had by then become a close collaborator, introduced me to the important actors in the project and helped me build a strong network there. MIT was both the first research site for my project, and a gateway.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I had trouble obtaining the clearance that was necessary for me to reside inside Masdar City. I collaborated with faculty on an energy currency experiment at Masdar Institute, I worked with Masdar Carbon to help them with a policy proposal on carbon capture and storage, and I was asked to present at Masdar Institute’s graduate programs at Turkish universities in Ankara and Istanbul. Even though I had no formal attachment to Masdar, I had two cubicles in different parts of the company. I could conduct research on site, but could not live there.

As a result, I shared an apartment with a close friend in Dubai and carpooled to the Masdar City site every weekday, along with different people who worked at Masdar’s various departments. The trip back and forth was around two hundred kilometers and took about two hours. Given the conversations that the enclosed space of the car and the relatively long trip facilitated, the people who gave me rides from Dubai to Masdar became my closest friends and research collaborators in the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps it is fair to say that much of my ethnographic research on the production of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures took place inside SUVs, driving on the Dubai-­Abu Dhabi highway.

While I was in the field and when I returned, I made lists of emerging artifacts in my research site, revised those lists, thought about the relationships of those artifacts to one another, and finally decided what to track. Following artifacts—say, a carbon capture and storage policy proposal—as they took new forms and entered into new types of associations was a helpful way of conducting research on distributed networks. For instance, in order to track this particular proposal, which had been composed in a Masdar office in Abu Dhabi, I traveled to the UNFCCC office in Bonn, Germany, and to climate summits in Durban, South Africa and Doha, Qatar. In this way, I was able to understand the ways in which the proposal was perceived, negotiated, and contested, not only among my interlocutors at Masdar, but also among activists, civil society representatives, politicians, and scientists in a more global setting.

One empirical and analytical challenge I faced was that almost none of the projects that I studied were completed—at least, not in the way they were planned. In examining a project in which many elements are cancelled, postponed, and transformed, perhaps the first mode of analysis that comes to mind is the work of investigating how and why grand projects fail. But I attempted to take a different approach, focusing on potential as a rejoinder to analytics of success and failure, and seeking to analyze the potential that half­-finished projects invoke in the people who are building or using them. In the book, I try to understand how potential is negotiated, realized, limited, or changed. How do people feel potential, and feel that they can, in fact, act upon it? How do the transforming futures of the projects I examine change the ways in which my interlocutors understand energy and climate change debates? I show that the potential of renewable energy and clean technology becomes embedded and condensed around particular half-­finished or half­-working networks of things, highlighting the materiality of such imaginaries.

AGM: The need to address the ongoing environmental crisis has been linked by several contemporary thinkers (e.g. Marilyn Strathern, Isabelle Stengers, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro) to changes in scholarly emphasis that have yielded transformations in thought. One example concerns the ontological turn in social sciences. Attention to electricity could also be conceived as part of the same problematic. How do you envision a focus on electricity —and more generally, on energy—as part of anthropology's engagement with environmental concerns?

GG: Climate change mitigation is directly linked to energy, and involves imagining how humans can shape social, political, and economic relations in a way that allows them to conserve resources. Many have written that climate change is not a natural problem, but a human problem. Anthropologists need to engage with energy infrastructures to analyze how humans in various contexts relate to these systems which, as recent discussions of the Anthropocene show, have a massive impact on the Earth.

My own research demonstrates that Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy and clean technology projects, such as Masdar City, attempt to generate what I call technical adjustments, responses to the specter of climate change and energy scarcity that focus on extending current social, political, and economic relations through technological modifications, rather than analyzing existing human conduct. Technical adjustments serve as methods for concentrating on modifications that bring forth promissory capital, enabling a multiplicity of actions and nonactions to be taken in the face of global environmental collapse. While producing innovative and, at times, fun artifacts, technical adjustments obfuscate and efface the realization that humans cannot continue to consume as they do.

Humans, especially in the West, encounter examples of such adjustments on an everyday basis, when making use of biodegradable plastic bags, energy­-efficient light bulbs, or electric cars. Rather than questioning the plastic bag as a category, the temptation is to produce and consume a slightly less destructive version. Thus technical adjustments emerge as ethnographic objects, which find various expressions in different contexts and which demonstrate how global concerns regarding climate change and energy scarcity are changing our lives at very mundane levels. Yet perhaps this era will propel humans to challenge the categories that they rely on and reproduce: rethinking ideals of economic growth, paying attention to the alternative futures rendered invisible by the drive for increased productivity and technological complexity, and cultivating a new mode of being in the world.

AGM: There is a common conception that electricity—and infrastructure, more generally—is invisible: that is, taken for granted and unheeded until there are moments of breakdown. Canay Özden­-Schilling, for example, mentions the perception of consumer indifference when it comes to matters of electricity. What do you make of this apparent inattention?

GG: Perhaps this lack of attention is specific to late capitalism in the global North, which is the site for Özden­-Schilling’s research, where such indifference can be considered a sign of privilege. In his article, Akhil Gupta reminds us how despite being connected to the grid, the poor cannot necessarily rely on infrastructures of electricity in the way that Özden-­Schilling’s interlocutors assume, given that the poor need to spend a significant proportion of their income on this good. Therefore, in thinking about the invisibility/visibility of infrastructures such as electricity, it is useful to keep the contextual nature of this condition in mind, interrogating if and how this unawareness of technical systems is linked to relative affluence.

At the same time, indifference is a product of the types of energy systems that we have relied upon and reproduced. It is possible to design and engineer networks that encourage their users to become aware of the limitations of the systems that they employ (not only through visual means, but also by relying on other senses). So this is, in many ways, a question of design, which involves deliberately revealing the seams that hold these networks together and drawing attention to the ways in which infrastructures create meanings for their users. Such an approach allows users to become more conscious of their consumption habits, enables them to engage with the materialities of infrastructure in more consequential ways, and reveals the multiple assumptions that technical systems embody and exert.

Third, it is useful to remember that hard infrastructures—power plants, pipelines, oil reservoirs and offshore platforms—and soft legal and political infrastructures—carbon markets, liability protocols, contractual obligations, and political frameworks—cannot be thought of separately and should be examined by taking their interlaced and interdependent natures into account. If the goal is to shed light on consumer indifference, then it is not only infrastructures of technology that need to be examined, but also infrastructures of knowledge and governance.

AGM: Taking your fieldwork as a point of departure, can you elaborate on how yourinterlocutors stood in terms of the arguments for the prosecution and defense in the article by Mike Anusas and Tim Ingold? More generally, how do you conceive of these polarities and the continuum they might imply?

GG: My interlocutors would probably remain focused on the material qualities of the energy systems that are available to consumers, paying specific attention to their varying capacities and social lives. In doing so, they would shift scales between everyday worries and planetary conditions, as they think about the minute parts of a technical system along with abstract concerns like the future of humanity. Such shifts in scale function as containers and scaffolding for justifying day-­to-­day decisions and collective responsibilities.

To give an example, a decentralized system where the inhabitants of a building have the capability to manage their own consumption needs is argued to be very different from a centralized grid where electricity flows between large, inaccessible power stations and the plugs and sockets on a consumer’s walls, as Anusas and Ingold describe. In electricity’s defense, my interlocutors would suggest that “remoteness, conduction, insulation, and sensorial subtlety are not properties of electricity as such, but only of the way in which it has been engineered” (548). In fact, some of my interlocutors actively looked for ways out of these properties, attempting to find methods to make consumers engage with everyday habits of energy use.

To push it further, Masdar City could perhaps be considered as a means to come to electricity’s defense, specifically by forming a decentralized and self­-supporting energy network that does not rely on the power generation and transmission facilities of Abu Dhabi. The project showcased how decentralized energy supply could allow the city to operate as a technologically complex vessel with the capacity to function anywhere, regardless of context. In the meantime, inhabitants of Masdar City would be issued a balance of energy credits called ergos, an energy budget that would represent the right to consume a physical quantity of electricity every month. In other words, there would be a cap­-and-­trade system within the city, forcing inhabitants to be more calculating in regards to their electricity consumption.

During the period that I conducted my fieldwork, many of these plans were revised, postponed, and cancelled, but the imaginary of decentralized energy infrastructures—as clear solutions to planetary problems of energy scarcity and climate change—persists among many of my research collaborators.

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Some weeks after the Masdar Institute campus opened on the Masdar City site, faculty, staff and students posed for a group photograph. Photo by Gökçe Günel.

AGM: Electricity, as Tanja Winther and Harold Wilhite state, “infiltrates virtually all of the traditional subjects of anthropology” (570). Each of the contributions to the collection examines these stakes with different areas of focus. The collection is not meant to be exhaustive; questions of labor and race, for example, do not appear explicitly. Attempting, then, to take this collection as a generative resource, which other areas that are equally “infiltrated” by electricity would you call our attention to?

GG: Justice is a crucial concept that we need to rethink in debates about climate change and energy scarcity, in general, and electricity, in particular. This is especially true, given that the climate change and energy conversation is dominated by technological solutions that mask social inequalities. What are the political imaginaries that these technological solutions propagate?

Masdar City was positioned as a prototype that would house various technical adjustments in battling energy scarcity and climate change. But the adjustments proposed seemed to dismiss or exacerbate the race and class divides that characterize the United Arab Emirates. In the imagined future of adjustments, Abu Dhabi remained a liberal space for Western white businessmen and a space of invasiveness for South Asian workers. During an interview, consultants who designed driverless electric pod cars for Masdar City explained to me that the Abu Dhabi authorities enjoyed the pod cars, specifically because they took the driver out of the picture. In some ways, they celebrated the pod cars because they would disbar low-wage immigrants from having access to the city, even as workers. Criticism of the segregated nature of the Masdar project also became more public when the architecture critic of the New York Times called the imagined city a playground for the rich.

Some of my interlocutors criticized these imaginaries, suggesting that the manual labor that enabled the construction and maintenance of projects was often glossed over, framed as a disposable tool, or excluded from conceptions of possible energy and climate futures. But these interlocutors also remained committed to the projects, because they believed they could serve what they called “an abstract common good” by generating new conceptions of cities, transportation, money, and so forth.

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Masdar Institute, a graduate­level research center that focuses on renewable energy and clean technology, was designed by Foster + Partners. Photo by Gökçe Günel.

AGM: Tanja Winther and Harold Wilhite end their piece with a call to “paying close attention to instances of electrification and how these impact the social construction of needs (and value) and the mediation of social relations” (576). How have you approached this problematic in your own work?

GG: This question is at the crux of my work, as I try to understand how innovative actors shape the field of clean technology in Abu Dhabi despite the multiple shortcomings of their visions, and as I examine the occasions when projects fail, succeed, or become reformulated in response to everyday hindrances. Many of the projects that I study will never be realized in the way they were planned, but by analyzing the ways in which they are imagined, partially built, and left incomplete, I am able to reflect on the types of social and political relations that these possible futures inhere and promote.

The title of my book, Spaceship in the Desert, is a phrase that some of my interlocutors used in referring to Masdar City. Since the 1960s, imagined or real environments from space have inspired the making of ecologically sensitive architecture, pointing to how the adoption of space technologies comprises a singular means for being in harmony with the ecosystem. In this context, the metaphor of the spaceship demonstrates the inevitable boundaries of human activities, deprecates the space beyond human habitability, and produces the outside as a vacuum that should not be inhabited except in this manner. In the meantime, it provides a safe interior space to its residents. Thanks to its strict boundaries, it comprises an alternative environment of peace and rationality, standing in opposition to the destructive and irrational crises of the Earth.

In prioritizing enclosures over collective survival, the spaceship also advances the principles of selection, endorsing what German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls an “exclusivity dressed up as universalism” (2014, 249). Despite saving only a very small number of those who suffer a metaphorical shipwreck, the spaceship insists on addressing planetary questions of survival in the unknown, the sustenance of the species beyond ecological catastrophe, and the preservation of an existing civilization. In the end, individuals that can afford a seat inside the spaceship remain disconnected from those outside materially, conceptually, and climatically. By occupying buildings inspired by cabin ecology, they behave like astronauts on a mission to outer space, always exploring new resource frontiers.

References

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2014. Globes: Spheres II. Translated by Wieland Hoban. South Pasadena, Calif.: Semiotext(e).