Comment on Stefan Laser’s lecture “Stand-in. A Political Economy of Energy Reserves”

Comment by Estrid Sørensen, Mace Ojala & Ruth Dorothea Eggel

In their analysis of capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Marx & Engels 1848) identified the “reserve army of labour” as one of its key components. Capitalism is malfunctioning if society does not maintain a certain pool of unemployed people from whom companies can recruit personnel whenever needed; this is the market contribution the unemployed provide. Heidegger extended this readiness to nature by applying advanced industrial technology (1954/1977). In his lecture, Stefan Laser suggested the notion of stand-in to understand not only workers and nature, but also natural and technical reserves that sustain capitalism. This includes oversized digital infrastructures, abundant production, and excess energy delivery. But it also embraces production, energy and digital facilities that are not yet built, half-built or never to be completed. In other words, stand-ins are components in planning and creating futures; they make up an awaiting potential – a virtuality – that is needed for capitalist futures.

For the RUSTlab’s inquiry into Best Futures this term, Stefan Laser’s lecture on the 9th of November drew attention to the intricate relationship between anticipation, uncertainty, and the creation of abundance in the context of economic practices concerned with creating possible futures. Stand-ins are about futures in the making. They even create an abundance of futures. The futures themselves are stand-ins that may or may not take shape, something to speculate about and something to exploit. Stefan’s exploration of the stand-in as a conceptual figure to think with provides a lens through which he examined different facets of contemporary global digital technologies and their production – particularly in relation to energy and material resources in and for capitalism. In this understanding, stand-ins are a strategy for future-proofing capitalism. They are as such instrumental in managing (and creating) uncertainties, fostering anticipation, and predicting and enabling future economic growth.

Stefan’s lecture drew on two of his fields of research as examples of stand-ins: global production networks of semiconductors that may or may not be used in the future, as well as digital platforms managing renewable resources of the body.

Global semiconductor production

In response to chip shortages that started parallel to COVID-19 and intensified during the ongoing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, investors and companies responded with strategies of exploring new possible production sites along with novel storage and distribution networks to prevent further shortages. The uncertainty of possible futures is sought to be managed by anticipation and predictions and by testing and experimenting with possible futures. One way of doing this is to increase the currently limited number of countries in which chips are produced. Various possibilities for production sites are explored in parallel as capitalism plays a brutal game of “de-risking” itself. Stefan offered an instructive illustration of governments’ hopeful optimism of hosting big tech: an Indian road sign indicating the route to a Foxconn plant, which, however pulled out after the sign was placed – the factory was never built. Big tech’s withdrawals often happen because companies need to create stand-in production sites and stand-in agreements with governments that might – if convenient – be actualised in the future, or else discarded and abandoned, or better yet kept at reserve. This becomes necessary in the logic of exponential economic growth and the need to create and exploit abundance, regardless of limited planetary resources. Stand-ins are thus an element used to predict, anticipate, design, and destroy plural futures and responses to possible geopolitical and economic developments. The figure of the stand-in can point to different processes of future-proofing: Apart from multiple production sites (including those not currently and not ever in use) that can be called in flexibly when, for whatever reason, it is felt needed to scale up or to change location, the holding of stock is an additional way of securing production, while making non-committal suggestions to communities, regions and entire countries. Drawing on Kornai’s (2013) concept of a surplus economy, Stefan stated that there is no difference between necessary and excessive: Stand-ins are a necessary element (only) to ensure the potential for excessive growth.

Digital platforms managing bodily resources

One resource of concern in global production networks is energy. Society and economy depend on energy, and digital systems rely on continuous energy flows. Companies try to transition to renewable energy, but a system of on-demand energy, where energy is produced only when needed just-in-time (JIT), contradicts the stand-in requirements of capitalist digital systems for a constant energy stream that ensures data centres are always on, users to have continuous access to all applications and companies to be able of making profit 24/7 (cf. Hu, 2015).

To substantiate the different implications of different types of energy, Stefan presented auto- ethnographic insight into the Strava cycling app and its affordances for and management of bodily energy. Like other movements of living beings, cycling is a non-fossil-fuelled energy system that relies on body metabolism to keep going. To fuel it, we eat and drink water. Through suggestions based on the users’ data, digital apps promise to help cyclists to reserve and unleash energy. The graphs used to display this data encourage continuous data inputs to manage and optimise energy flows without gaps. In contrast to humans’ organic and renewable energy metabolisms, digital platforms need a reliable, constant energy flow. Digital systems seek to prevent gaps and only allow for a minimal margin of downtime. Cyclist app platforms predict usage and energy needs through digital twins, which Stefan described as a very particular stand-in: these substitutes for the users are machine learning models that calculate possible ways of responding; they seek to have an abundance of solutions for whatever scenario and need the user may experience on the bike.

A best future?

Throughout these two sites, the figure of the stand-in helps to analyse the workings of a surplus economy that strives for growth, which creates the need for reserve infrastructures. Stand-ins show how the uncertainty of the future is co-constituted together with anticipation, leading to strategies creating multiple options for different possible futures. Stand-ins can be material assemblages awaiting completion, sites not yet built, and sites never to be fully built. The energy transition to renewable energies produces new stand-ins, new reserves, and new distribution needs. Stand-ins are an awaiting – a virtual – potential that is needed for capitalistic abundance. Stefan’s lecture delivered a critical provocation to the topic of this term’s RUSTlab lectures of “best futures” – in plural; the conclusion seems to be that the answer to the old question of whether the economy exists for humans’ needs or humans exist for the needs of the economy found a tragic answer. Following his critique of stand-in capitalist culture, we should remain aware and sceptical if an abundance of futures is what we should desire or if one singular, collective and constraining future would be more planetarily sustainable.


Heidegger, Martin (1954/1977). The Question Concerning Technology. New York: Harper & Row.

Hu, Tung-Hui (2015). A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kornai, Janos (2013). Dynamism, Rivalry, and the Surplus Economy. Two Essays on the Nature of Capitalism. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1848). Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. London: Hirschfeld.