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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

Synthetic space(s)

3 min read

While I will probably always be gutted that someone else has beaten me to writing a history of EVE, I can at least take comfort in the fact that the person who's done it appears to get it -- the game itself is of little interest, it's the utopian economic space-for-action which the game provides that matters:

I met these two guys from the University of Ghent who created a computer model that shows what happens to economic prices in certain parts of EVE, depending on whether or not there are battles going on nearby.

In these areas where a lot of ships are being destroyed, you would expect to see the price of materials skyrocket, because everyone’s trying to build new ships and new fleets. But what they found was that, in areas where a lot of ships are being destroyed, the prices go through the floor, because everyone in that region of space starts liquidating everything. There’s an invading alliance coming, and they’re trying to get their stuff out the door as fast as possible, to make sure their stuff doesn’t get taken or conquered. They said this is similar to what you see in the real world. In pre-war Germany, the price of gold dropped through the floor because everyone was trying to liquidate their belongings and get out of the country. …

EVE is the most real place that we’ve ever created on the Internet. And that is borne out in these war stories. And it’s borne out because these people who—you find this over and over again—who don’t view this as fictional. They don’t view it as a game. They view it as a very real part of their lives, and a very real part of their accomplishments as people.

[...]

Something that I found formed very early on in EVE was the understanding among certain leaders was that people will follow you, even if they don’t believe in what you believe in, simply because you’re giving them something to believe in. You’re giving them a reason to play this game. You’re giving them a narrative to unite behind, and that’s fun. It’s far more fun to crusade against the evil empire than it is to show up and shoot lasers at spaceships.

Now mulling over the possibilities of studying the role of infrastructure in virtual economies... anyone want to picth in on a grant application?

 

Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays

Interesting piece, arguing for more attention being paid to the maintainance of existing systems than the production of new ones. Particularly liked this bit:

... focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce.

A thousand times, yes! Though I'd be remiss in not mentioning having been annoyed by this bit:

... especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.

What a shame it would be if scholarship matured to the point where an entire series of books might be trashed by someone who likely hasn't read any of them.

 

Shelfie 16 April 2016

One loan, three accessions.

 
 

Most meaningful moments

2 min read

Article at the Graun lamenting the lack of 'art punks', and of an identifiable British art movement with convenient label attached; I am clearly more plugged into the art world than I thought, because all the artists I know are subversive in ways that owe a lot to punk ideals, if not neccessarily its aesthetics, and none of them get a mention. (Yes, I'm lamenting the lack of coverage of my friends in art-scene-overview journalism; this is because my friends are all objectively brilliant geniuses, and everyone should acknowledge the fact.)

Mostly linking for the sake of this passage, though:

 “Facebook has become this space where the most meaningful moments of one’s life are mixed with ‘corporate narrative’ adverts,” he says. “Personally, I don’t see the difference between them any more. They are all part of the same mush. I think it all has value. Today, with art and commerce constantly feeding off each other, it is a super exciting place to look for ideas.”

It's very hard for me to get a read on exactly how sincere and straight-faced a statement that is, given it's a snippet of an interview transcription... but even if being used as a careful artist's masque, it reveals the inescapable ubiquity of the postmodern condition, not as an abstract social-theoretical idea, but as a lived cultural experience. I don't think it is an ironic position, either, but that doesn't mean it can't still be critical; if there is such a thing as post-postmodernity or altermodernity, it is perhaps defined by its never having known that which preceded postmodernity, by its acknowledgement -- which is a different thing to acceptance -- that it's "turtles all the way down".

If postmodernity was the shattering of metanarratives, altermodernity is the making of mosaics from the broken pieces. Is it any wonder we're so cautious of being cut?

 

Science and democracy: a peculiarly British disease? | Science | The Guardian

Not peculiarly British at all, no -- though it does seem to be at something of an apogee in the nation right now. But this:

But what is going on when someone is introduced as an “evangelist” for their own technology, but then turned to as an arbiter of what the interviewer calls “stark scientific facts” about this same technology, in order to correct criticisms that are dismissed merely as “peoples’ prejudices”?

That's about as good an example of Latour's "Janus-faced" science as you could ever ask for.

 

Dymaxion: Infrastructural Games and Societal Play

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation.  Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift.  This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis.  When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change.  For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers.  They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system.  Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways.  Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects.  Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

 

TIL: why property is power in the UK

1 min read

Well, I never knew this, and only found it out as a buried lede:

The figures from UHY Hacker Young show that after property and real estate firms, which had an effective rate of just 1.9% because as real estate investment trusts they do not face corporation tax, the pharmaceutical sector had the lowest average effective tax rate, at 13%.

And now I do know it, it's very clear why it isn't more widely known. I think I might make efforts to amend that.

 

Innovation dynamics in the metasystemic stack

2 min read

Joi Ito expresses some misgivings (far milder than my own) about "the Bitcoin community", and along the way provides this gem of a case-study:

One of the key benefits of the Internet was that the open protocols allowed innovation and competition at EVERY layer with each layer properly sandwiched between standards developed by the community. This drove costs down and innovation up. By the time we got around to building the mobile web, we lost sight (or control) of our principles and let the mobile operators build the network. That's why on the fixed-line Internet you don't worry about data costs, but when you travel over a national border, a "normal" Internet experience on mobile will probably cost more than your rent. Mobile Internet "feels" like the Internet, but it's an ugly and distorted copy of it with monopoly-like systems at many layers. This is exactly what happens when we let the application layer drag the architecture along in a kludgy and unprincipled way.

Historically, the application layer of a network system pretty much always drags the architectural layer, because the application (or interface) layer is governed by commercial incentives to innovate; those commercial incentives may result in improved functionality, but they are just as likely (if not depressingly more so) result in the appearance of improved functionality (which is a very different thing, and sometimes the exact opposite).

This isn't to say that the architectural (or infrastructural) layer has no influence in the other direction, of course, but infrastructure is by necessity a very slow game: big-ticket projects on the largest of geographical scales. The interface layer is inevitably more nimble, more able to iterate quickly; when the interface layer in question is pretty much pure software (as in the example of the blockchain), that is even more the case, because the opportunity cost of iteration and testing is so low, and the potential rewards so ridiculously high. (However, the infrastructural layer is far from innocent, as the battles over Net Neutrality indicated very clearly.)

As Ito indicates, and historical evidence supports, open protocols and shared standards between sociotechnical systems lower costs and open up the field for innovation to *all* players in the stack, not just to the interface developers.

That alone should tell you exactly why Silicon Valley dropped the Open Web.

 

Policy-based evidence

2 min read

This is important:

Guidance that has been distributed to every government department will rule out any new or renewed grants awarded from May being used to “support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action."

A few years ago I was at an event where a senior figure from the Environment Agency was speaking, and they prefaced their talk with a statement to the effect that he had been informed -- directly, by actual ministers -- that his job, and that of the EA more widely, was "not to express opinions in public, but to provide the government with evidence which supports its policies". 

It would appear that a similar edict is soon to be applied to the academy, and the involvement of the noxious IEA is as reliable an indicator of ideological zeal as a well-worn Hayek citation. One presumes that, under these guidelines, privately-funded revolving-door think-tanks like the IEA will retain the full extent of their capacity to lobby anyone they please on the basis of the spurious magical thinking that passes for their own "research"; as has been repeatedly demonstrated, Caesar hears only what is pleasing to Caesar.