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Narratology of fine art

1 min read

Later [portraits] were painted for posterity, offering the evidence of the once living to future generations. Whilst still being painted, they were imagined in the past tense, and the painter, painting, addressed his sitter in the third person -- either singular or plural. He, She, They, as I observed them. This is why so many of them look old, even when they are not.

-- John Berger, from Portraits, 2015

(Compare with advertising, which is a present- or future-tense narrative form; "this is why so many of them look new, even when they are not".)


The press release is the foremost tool of disruption

4 min read

I'd never heard of Audrey Watters before today; after reading this brilliant dissection of ed-tech futures, I hope to hear a great deal more from her in future.

Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy [of education-sector disruption through technology], these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But “truthy,” to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.

Fantasy. Fortune-telling. Or as capitalism prefers to call it “market research.”

Cf. a favourite riff from a few years ago: "investor story-time".

But there's more good stuff:

It’s both convenient and troubling then these forward-looking reports act as though they have no history of their own; they purposefully minimize or erase their own past. Each year – and I think this is what irks me most – the NMC fails to looks back at what it had predicted just the year before. It never revisits older predictions. It never mentions that they even exist. Gartner too removes technologies from the Hype Cycle each year with no explanation for what happened, no explanation as to why trends suddenly appear and disappear and reappear. These reports only look forward, with no history to ground their direction in.


“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release. I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task. This is particularly true if you make your prediction vague – like “within our lifetime” – or set your target date just far enough in the future – “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

This is the core trick of the huckstery end of futurology (which is, regrettably, the thicker, more visible and well-funded end); it is also, and not at all incidentally, the core trick of marketing and politics. "What I tell you three times is true."

And here's the glorious rabble-rousing closer:

... I don’t believe that there’s anything inevitable about the future. I don’t believe that Moore’s Law – that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years and therefore computers are always exponentially smaller and faster – is actually a law. I don’t believe that robots will take, let alone need take, all our jobs. I don’t believe that YouTube has been rendered school irrevocably out-of-date. I don’t believe that technologies are changing so quickly that we should hand over our institutions to entrepreneurs, privatize our public sphere for techno-plutocrats.

I don’t believe that we should cheer Elon Musk’s plans to abandon this planet and colonize Mars – he’s predicted he’ll do so by 2026. I believe we stay and we fight. I believe we need to recognize this as an ego-driven escapist evangelism.

I believe we need to recognize that predicting the future is a form of evangelism as well. Sure gets couched in terms of science, it is underwritten by global capitalism. But it’s a story – a story that then takes on these mythic proportions, insisting that it is unassailable, unverifiable, but true.

The best way to invent the future is to issue a press release. The best way to resist this future is to recognize that, once you poke at the methodology and the ideology that underpins it, a press release is all that it is.



The Fortune at the Edge of the Network [Venkatesh Rao, annotated]

Fresh Venkatesh Rao newsletter instalment that does a pretty good job of teasing out the implications of taking a tektological look at infrastructure through the lens of network theory... so good a job, in fact, that I'm going to grab and notate the whole thing, because he's managed to capsule a bunch of points I've been struggling to phrase clearly.


1/ “The last mile” is a phrase used by engineers to talk about the last (“leaf”) like segments of large networks with approximate center-to-edge topologies.

2/ In all sorts of network logistics (transport, telegraph, telephone etc), historically the "last mile" has been the bane of infrastructure. It’s where the messiest practical issues live.

3/  Right-of-way/eminent domain issues are politically/legally more complex (10 miles of cable laying in the countryside is easier than 1 block in a major city)

4/ Physical issues are more complex as well (water pipes, package deliveries, and fiber optics have different needs but often share pathways for geometry reasons).

[The above covers the basics, though it's far from basic -- see Keller Easterling's Organisation Space.]

5/ Last-mile regimes need not look like “paths” at all: waterways, spectrum rights, line-of-sight (view obstruction in real estate, glide paths for airplane landing approaches, building shadows) 

6/ In the future, drone landing/takeoff logistics, Pokemon Go type AR-conflict rights, bikes vs self-driving cars, will present novel, subtle last-mile issues.

7/ Generally though, the bottleneck is increasingly moving from literal last mile to literal last inch. Phone-to-ear, UPS-truck parking spot to porch, NFC/bluetooth, cafe power outlets.

[In my own taxonomy, this means the bottleneck has moved to the interface layer.]

8/ In raw flow volume terms, the last mile probably accounts for the bulk of actual miles traveled by anything on a network due to sheer number of endpoints.

[Note this is the exact opposite of the way in which money tends to be allocated to network development and maintenance.]

9/ The last mile is the typically the last to go hi-tech. Containerization still stops and turns into break-bulk at city limits. Fiber optics still turns into local-loop copper (DSL) in many places.

10/ As the red !!! show in the cartoon, issues get more tricky in last-block to last-inch land. It's still physically and legally complex, but that isn't the hardest part anymore.

11/ Two forces make the last block especially hard: increased demand and inequality. The case of physical packages illustrates this well.

12/ Increased demand is obvious: postal systems/FedEx etc weren't built with this much small-package flow in mind. Neither were front porches or mailboxes.

13/ Inequality is less obvious: in an unequal society there is more incentive for low-level theft and pilfering, easiest at the last block.

[Less obvious to those of us used to taking a systems perspective, perhaps; the incentive factor demonstrates just how obvious it is to those who live at the ragged edges of networks.]

14/ Anecdotally, theft from porches etc. has risen: more temptation, more people in an economic condition where they can be tempted. But careful how you interpret this. 

15/ As Anatole France sardonically observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

16/ Concierge services for accepting packages are now increasingly a necessity in bigger cities in middle class apartment buildings. More people are getting personal packages delivered at workplaces.

[Note that this may be a convenience issue as much as a security issue, at least in the UK context... I'd happily take the risk on the occasional pilfered package if it meant I never had to arrange another red-card redelivery, but YMMV, obvs.]

17/ You also increasingly have both large, low-value packages (e.g. cat litter) that are awkward for small locker-based systems or stairwells, and small jewelry-level value packages (iPhones)

18/ Buildings change slowly, especially in old cities with civic gridlock. It will take a decades for new buildings to reflect last-block needs. Follow the writing of Kim-Mai Cutler for this action in San Francisco.

[So now we shift from (relatively) simple material logistics and on to service and data logistics...]

19/ Similar issues occur in other networks. Consider net metering models for solar power, charging needs of electric vehicles, shopping cart services, 1-hour delivery, meal-kit businesses, etc.

20/ There are now fights over charging in charging stations, homeowners are setting up informal charging services on lawns. Blue Apron customers pile up ice packs.

21/ Even more subtleties at the informational level: Airbnb etc. require more sophisticated security for the last block: key transfers, digital locks etc. Your wallet needs RFID scanner protection.

22/ And as more and more value in flow (VIF) is in the last block at any given time, incentives for conflict and crime increase.

23/ "Stealing" cable or electricity required some sophistication, "stealing" wifi was much easier…for a while. The opportunity space will increase at all levels of difficulty.

[Ubiquity of infrastructures plus proliferation of multi-system interfaces divided by privatisation/unbundling/splintering of 'utilities'... when markets encounter habituation, ugliness happens.]

24/ The Dyn DDoS attack relied heavily on IoT devices, particularly insecure surveillance cameras. The “attack surface” as security people call it, will only increase.

[Every new interface device is potentially an interface to any other networked interface. Chips with everything, as the headlines used to go.]

25/ ATM card fraud now uses very sophisticated last-inch tech: molded plastic fake keypads, fake stripe readers on top of real ones, tiny cameras. I recently had an ATM card compromised that way.

26/ The last block/inch is also has a non-criminal economy developing: from unlocking smart-contract rental cars to power outlets in cafes that charge for a charge.

[Criminal economies are a signal of opportunity; this is just as true at the edge of the network as it is at the centre.]

27/ A lot is low-value/high volume so online micropayments arguments ("just make it free"/"not worth financializing") apply. But not all.

[Note that in this case it can be obfuscatory to focus overmuch on the material technology involved; what's interesting about these cases is how the technology gets folded into a service offer. Ownership and control over the interface layer is the opportunity recognised by criminal an non-criminal economic actors alike.]

28/ Frederik Pohl once said “the job of the sci-fi writer is to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam." Traffic jams are usually at the leaves of infrastructure trees.

[Smart guy, Pohl. Good writer, too.]

29/ Literal traffic jams happen most near/in city downtowns.  As s/w eats any network-provisioned service, traffic jams moves further down into capillaries.

[s/w = software, I think?]

30/ I like the holographic principle as a metaphor for for thinking about the effects of s/w-eats-a-network: more of the valuable information within a  volume of space can live on its surface. 

[OK, so this is where Rao's metaphor and one of my own come so close together that they almost bump noses: the infrastructural metasystem is also the metamedium, the medium of all media; hence all media is infrastructurally mediated; hence the metasystem is the veil upon which the Spectacle is projected. Logic of the Spectacle, cf. Debord: "that which is good appears, and that which appears is good"; extended by McKenzie Wark via William Gibson, "that which is secret is better [...] the secret is to the spectacle as art once was to culture. The secret is not the truth of the spectacle, it is the aesthetic form of the spectacle." So when "s/w-eats-a-network", what's really happening is that software is wrapping the deep function of the network up in a glossy package which takes Clarke's Third Law as its primary design principle.]

31/ For a network, the “volume” is the part behind the endpoints, which usually converges on one or more back-end centers. The “surface” is the set of all endpoints.

[This metaphor is really, really useful to me.]

32/ As a result, there is a LOT of economic value in the last block to last inch zone. C. K. Prahlad’s famous fortune at the bottom of the pyramid idea generalizes to “edge of any network.”

33/ In future, if current progress in brain implants continues, there may be an even bigger fortune in the “negative 1 inch” that goes into your head (disclosure: company mentioned in that article, Kernel, is a client).

[That's a pretty big 'if', IMO. But Rao knows his wider audience well, I suspect.]

34/ A general topological theory why this happens is that a more informationally powerful technology induces a higher-resolution network structure.

35/ World-eating new technologies extend the resolution of basic infrastructure networks: tens of miles for trains/planes, miles for cars, blocks for electricity, inches for wireless


36/ A network core can be defined as the low-resolution backbone where economics allows aggregation leverage, and low transaction costs for huge financial flows.

37/ This is anything you can call a “cloud” in some sense: a datacenter, a large dam, a power plant, a major interstate highway, a rail depot. I wrote about this idea in my Aeon essay American Cloud

[Personal aside: Rao's American Cloud essay was part of the inspiration for m'colleague Adam Rakunas's second novel, Like A Boss.]

38/ At the edge otoh technology stops being organized by economics, and starts being organized by social norms at its resolution limit set by transaction costs: the price of an in-app purchase for example.

39/ So sociologically, the last mile/block/inch is where the market stops and what I call an economics of pricelessness, based on values and norms, starts to kick in.


40/ When large-scale disruption happens due to a major technology like s/w, social-norms space gets systematically pushed back by market space.

[Cf. Uber, Airbnb etc etc.]

41/ The ultimate reason is physics: this is tendency towards "plenty of room at the bottom" (Feynman). As the market occupies that room, sociology (and in the future, psychology) yields to economics

42/ The transient is ugly because while you're shifting regimes, you’re converting social capital into financial capital, hurting social-capital-rich types (think priests) and enriching platform builders (think unicorn CEOs).

43/ The urban manifestation of these dynamics is gentrification: technology extending the power of markets into our community lives at increasing resolution.

44/ But if you think this process is almost over, think again. It's just beginning. You could say iOS and Android represent gentrified and slum-like digital neighborhoods in the last inch.

[There's a side-spur argument to be made about FOSS and open systems in general, here; as Rao is suggesting, FOSS can't remove these tendencies from networks, but can make it easier for people to have some control over their interfaces.]

45/ You know the old saying, "your freedom of action ends where my nose begins”? This is about to get pretty literal. There is a power struggle right by your nose/ear.

46/ But it isn’t between free individuals and an enslaving techno-capitalist cloud. You never were that free an inch from your face. You were merely the captive of non-economic forces.

47/ At worst the struggle is between the tyranny of markets and the tyranny of unchosen neighbors. The tyranny of money and the tyranny of taboos.

[Scylla and Charybdis, eat your heart out.]

48/ At best though, what we have here is technology liberating you from the tyranny of neighbors. And which view is true for you is more within your control than you think.

49/ If you see technology as potential for increased agency, you can learn to rule the last mile like a gritty cyberpunk novel protagonist, even if you don’t own a billionaire platform.

50/ If you see technology as increasing agency only for privileged others, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will end up on the losing side of this process.

51/ You will also be on the losing side if you don’t recognize that tyranny of neighbors (“hell is other people”) is a factor, a dynamic the dystopian show Black Mirror explores well.

52/ In the Black Mirror future, technology does not contend with the power of communities. It becomes allied with it to suppress individual freedom even more.

[As the title of the series makes clear: it is merely reflecting society back at itself. Brooker repeatedly makes the point that he's not writing about technology, but that technology has become a handy way to enable plot points that would have been impossible just a decade ago (though the same phenomenon has killed off older plots, e.g. the missed phonecall). The (largely good-natured) joshing that BM has become "what if phones, but too much?" misses the point; BM's not about the phones, it's about the too much, and that's not a function of the phones.]

53/ If you think this is unlikely in the real world, think again, entire countries like France seem to be exploring that direction of evolution.  

[UK, also.]

54/ This is not to absolve infrastructure titans and CEOs of big platform companies from all responsibility, or to abandon everybody to their own devices (heh!)

[No, but their position effectively denies us the possibility of taking that responsibility for ourselves; networks perform optimally as organisational monopolies, and as such are fundamentally incompatible with private ownership.]

55/ My buddy Tristan Harris has good thoughts on ethics in design for technology builders. I don’t always agree with the details of his thinking, but he’s right that with last-inch power comes great responsibility.

56/ If you’ve already decided “infrastructure creep” is bad, you’ll use dystopian metaphors like “tentacles of capitalism” or “eye of Sauron” or “the participatory panopticon” (for Black Mirror version).

57/ I personally tend to think of technology as ideology agnostic: this would happen even if we had a different ideology than neoliberal clickbaitism driving it. 

[We part ways a bit here: I'm with Kranzberg regarding the agnosticism or neutrality of technology, not least because technology is people and practices as well as material things, and people and practices are never ideologically neutral. However, I agree that a lot of the functions Rao is talking about here are endemic characteristics of networks in general, and would as such tend to occur even under different regulatory or socioeconomic regimes... but would they occur to the same extent, or at the same rate? I'm not sure, but I think it's a good question.]

58/ My preferred metaphor is the fingers/eyes of technology itself, considered as a whole (what Kevin Kelly calls the ‘technium’). 

[Ugh, Kevin Kelly. Swap all of this guff out for Haraway's cyborg metaphor, which does all the same work without trying to pretend that people and the technologies they use in their daily lives are analytically separable in any useful or believable way.]

59/ The “eyes” (or senses more generally) are getting incredibly precision in what they can see. I think of last-inch/click-tracking level “seeing” as “retina logistics” by analogy with Mac displays.

60/ The “fingers” of technology are getting increasingly delicate and precise as well. If the last-mile actuation capacity of the cloud was a sledgehammer, we’re at needlepoint now. Did your phone ding when this email arrived?

61/ This is scary to a majority, exhilarating to a minority, and as is the case for all big technology shifts, an existential crisis to those who don’t break smart.

62/ And consistent with the general political/ideological position I generally adopt in breaking smart writings, overall, increasing sensing/actuation resolution of infrastructure is a good thing.

63/ The more fine-grained the presence of technology in our lives, the more generative potential there is for humans to level-up to new, more powerful modes of being.

[Generative potential is a double-edged sword.]

64/ Whether powerful technology existing an inch from your face is good or bad depends on how good you are at using it from that locus.

[True enough. Cropping off the last few points, which are mostly marketing, but the last one's worth saving for the first sentance in particualr:]

70/ There is a nonzero-sum fortune to be created at the edge of the network...

[Yes... yes, there is. But it's slipping away, moment by moment.]



Paul Mason: The battle over Uber and driverless cars is really a debate about the future of humanity

Look past the maximalist headline, and Mason's making some of the most rational points about automation in the private transportation sector I've seen made so far, and about automation/algorithms in general:

... we should begin by recognising that, as machines plus artificial intelligence begin to replace human beings, the entire social, political and moral dilemma for humanity becomes a question of systems.

Driverless cars need a city-wide public transport system to work properly. The OECD has estimated that, when combined with an efficient, automated transport system, driverless cars could reduce the number of vehicles needed in a city by 90%. Conversely, when modelled as only taxis plus private vehicles, the advent of driverless cars produces an unmanageable overload of journeys.

To take full advantage of the space freed up needs active management, says the OECD. But we have no intellectual models for “active management” of automobile travel, which – since its inception – has been associated with personal freedom.

A sensible debate would address two big issues: how we prepare, plan and regulate for the eradication of most driving work; and what an integrated smart transport network should look like in version 1.0. Beyond that it is difficult to plan, because how society reacts to the sudden orderliness, cheapness and swiftness of commuter journeys has to be balanced against the fact that few people will have the kind of jobs they have now.

If we start from what the smart transport network should look like, we have basic technical models now. The main technical dilemma will be: how much small vehicle travel is optimal, compared with the massive investment in underground rail, bus and tram capacity. One would expect the right wing of society to favour as much shared and autonomous car travel as possible to the extent of eradicating mass transport; and the left vice-versa.

But it can’t just be an issue of technical systems design. For example, one of the advantages of Uber is that all drivers can be traced and identified. In a smart transport system, all journeys can be traced and identified. You might want such data to be viewable, say, by police investigating murder – but would you want them to be viewable by HMRC, or your boss?

As Ella Saitta puts it, systems literacy is the educational crisis of the 21st Century.


Grayson Perry: the watch, the tie, the tattoo? It's a man thing …

Spurious function is the frilly decoration of the male aesthetic.


In which I find Amitav Ghosh's missing monocle, and return it to him that he might see more clearly

5 min read

Poor old Amitav Ghosh is wondering where all the fiction about climate change might be... when in fact it's right under his nose, and he simply chooses to disregard it as being insufficiently deserving of the label "literature".

Right in the first paragraph, he answers his question and immediately discards the answer:

... it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

If for "literary imagination" we substitute "bourgeois imagination", that last sentence is no surprise at all -- because this is about genre, which is a proxy for class.

And when Ghosh surveys the few examples of supposedly literary fiction that have dealt with climate change, look what happens:

When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

Now, I'll concede that most of them have preferred generic labels other than science fiction for their works at one time or another, but it's very hard to make the case that Atwood, Vonnegut and Lessing haven't written works that slip very easily into the sf folksonomy, while McCarthy has written a very successful dystopia. So that's half of Ghosh's successes demonstrably working in the speculative fiction tradition... but they can't be speculative fiction, because they're too good for that trash. They've won awards and stuff -- awards that aren't rocket-shaped. Ipso facto, no?

To his credit, Ghosh gets pretty close to the technical distinction in narrative strategy that demarks the dichotomy he's observing, via one of Moretti's more interesting theory-nuggets:

This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers”. According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control – to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence”. It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative”.

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background ... while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

I offer that the absence of Moretti's fillers -- often but not always replaced with anti-fillers designed to re-enchant the novelistic universe, and make of the universe a character in its own right -- is a way to describe one of the more fundamental strategies of speculative fictions, where it is preferable to have a world with more surprises, more adventures, and more than the occasional deus ex machina). Moretti's fillers are basically the opposite of worldbuilding; they remove complexity, rather than adding it.

And here we see the true root of the problem, the reason no one who identifies as a writer of "serious" "literary" fiction can handle climate change in their work -- look at Ghosh's language, here, and tell me he doesn't feel the class pressure of genre (my bold):

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

It's clearly not that "the novel" as a form can't handle climate change: science fiction novels routinely invert the obstacles set out in Ghosh's piece in order to do their work. It's that to upset those particular obstacles is to break the rules of Literature Club, to go slumming it with the plebes of genre fiction: literary fiction can't write about climate change, or about any other topic that requires an understanding of the storyworld as a dynamic and complex system, because -- as a self-consciously bourgeois genre in its own right -- it cannot commit the sin of portraying a world where the bourgeoise certainties no longer pertain, wherein hazard and adventure and unexpected events are revealed to be not merely routine, but to be the New Normal.

Take it from a squatter in the generic out-houses, Amitav old son: there's only one way you'll ever get literary fiction that deals with climate change -- and that's by acknowledging, however grudgingly, that not only was science fiction capable of being literature all along, but that science fiction began by asking the question whose suppression is the truest trope of the literary: what if the world were more important than the actions of individuals?


The difference between information and knowledge: a riposte to Helen Milner on libraries

7 min read

It's been nearly a decade since I was employed in the public library sector, and I thought I'd become immune to reacting with blind fury to every mealy-mouthed consultant that proposes "reinventing" the library for "the digital age"... but apparently not. Here's the latest facile salvo in a war of attrition that's been ongoing for about fifteen years, if not longer, from a "digital inclusion charity", no less. A snippet for flavour:

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture.” Helen Milner, Tinder (No, not that Tinder... brilliant bit of misbranding, wot?)

There are two points I'd like to make in response to Milner's transparent shilling for more funding to be diverted in the direction of her own operation.

The first is to peel away the euphemism of "community hubs" and show what that tends to mean in practice. What it has meant for at least a decade is that in addition to the core functions which libraries were intended to provide -- of which more later -- they have long served as spaces of refuge for the homeless, and for those with mental illness; when governments speak of "care in the community", libraries are one of the places it happens. The same goes for troubled and truant adolescents, lonely older people, and the other groups left on the margins by neoliberal socioeconomic dogma. Library staff, especially the frontline staff, have two jobs, if not three: they are library staff, and they are de facto care workers and PCSOs as well (while lacking any of the training or legal protections given to actual care workers and PCSOs, such as it is). And of course "library staffing" also covers the running of the more visible and celebrated "community hub" functions. If you think for a moment library staff spend their days sat on their hands waiting to shush people, then you've clearly not visited one in a long, long time. They're busy, bustling places, and the lending of books is -- tragically, and often quite literally -- the very least of what they do.

And for fifteen years or more, they've also been acting as de facto free-to-air internet cafes, often under the patronising banner of "The People's Network". To be clear, I fully support the provision of internet facilities in libraries, and I support even more fully the provision of free internet access for those unable to access it elsewhere -- not least because the Daniel Blakes of this world need that access in order to avoid being sanctioned for failing to apply for work in the approved manner, which is to say online.

The error was to assume that internet provision for libraries and internet access for more general use could be delivered together. It certainly saved some beancounter somewhere a lot of ugly red marks on a balance ledger, but locating the People's Network in public libraries actively damaged the core functions of libraries -- predominantly by consuming vast amounts of staff time, through dealing with administrivia and managing the resulting queues of people, but also through eating into floor space and operational budget... and also, truth be told, by eating into the image of libraries as places of relative peace and quiet.

Now, my second point: let us recall what a library really is -- or what it was, at any rate. Milner's position seems to be something along the lines of "libraries store information; the internet stores information; but the internet is newer and better and faster and cheaper, and should therefore supplant libraries because [markets]."

This is a dangerous comparison, and this is why: libraries are not merely stores of information, they are curated stores of structured knowledge with the ultimate in natural-language query interfaces, namely human beings trained to understand how to answer the most complicated and random questions imaginable. (And believe you me, people ask some profoundly complicated and random questions of library staff... and those staff take pride in being able to answer them.)

The internet is not a library, because -- considered as a whole -- it is not curated or structured; indeed, these are the considered to be the internet's great selling point (and with some justification). The internet, as people have started to notice, isn't very good at supplying knowledge; there's knowledge out there, but one needs to know where to look for it, how to judge its veracity, which sources can be trusted on which topics. Knowledge is structured information; the internet is just information. 

But before you decry the curation and gatekeepering of knowledge represented by the archaic structures of libraries, recall that the internet has its librarians, too. The bodies now curating and structuring knowledge on our behalf have names like Google, Bing, Microsoft, Facebook. They are not trained to understand people at all; they are trained to provide what the customer wants, even when the customer doesn't know what they want. They are algorithms, larded all through with the implicit biases of their creators. They structure information, but they do not structure knowledge; algorithms can't do knowledge. Knowledge is a cognitive function of sentient beings; it requires not only the sorting and ordering of information, but the parsing and evaluation of information. And no amount of repeating the words "artificial intelligence" or "expert systems" will ever change that fact. Information -- or data, if you prefer -- can only become knowledge through human activity. All an algorithm can do is sort information into vaguely related piles, and let you sift through it yourself.

And that's why we should fear those who would see librarianship disappear, to be replaced by rows of gleaming terminals -- fear them, and fight them to the last. Because whether knowingly or not, they seek overturn a practice that has underpinned civilisation itself for thousands of years, and replace it with a digital teddy-picker.

Think of the inside of a library, for a moment: picture the orderly shelves, the labels on the spines, the ranks of books sorted by subject and topic, the staff waiting to not just give you a book, but give you the book which will best answer the question you've brought.

By comparison, the internet is a warehouse with a huge undifferentiated pile of books in no particular order, staffed by little robots who can find you any book which has the words of your question somewhere in its text, but who always present you with the book that was closest to the top of the pile, on the assumption that it's being on top of the pile means it gets used the most, and must therefore be the most relevant, because otherwise why would people keep asking for it?

That's why we live in a world of Putins, Trumps and Brexits. And that's why if you decide that we need to provide more free internet access for "the people" -- which, to be clear, I think would be a good thing to do -- you either need to separate that provision from library services to some extent, or alternatively provide the funding not only for the terminals and the network connection, but for _more_ trained frontline query staff than ever before, able to teach questioners how to evaluate the information that the algorithms provide -- able to teach people how to build their own knowledge, in other words.

And when you phrase it like that, it becomes pretty clear why the state would be happy to see the library system disappear. "Libraries gave us power," as the Manics once sang -- the power to empower ourselves, to acquire knowledge without being patronised, flattered, or dripfed falsities by partisan media and multinational corporations with expensive agendas to advance.

We mustn't let them take that power away. It was too hard won for that.


Thee formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly.

2 min read

... talk of “evidence-based policy”, which we’re all supposed to be wildly enthusiastic about at the moment, makes my blood run cold, because at the back of it is the assumption that it is possible to gather reliable evidence from human society in real time. That’s a *really* big ask, and no amount of big data or surveillance is going to get around the formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly. In many cases, having more data makes the problem worse. So there’s always going to be this tension between politics, which is an historically contingent activity, and science, which as much as possible treats the world and everything in it as if it were a linear, symmetrical system. So, then, look at this the other way: can we ever actually *separate* science and politics? No. There’s no way citizens can be expected to simply hand money over to some scientific priesthood and expect *no* return for their investment. But the bitter truth is that any experimental activity is a hugely wasteful, and demanding rigid outcomes and takeaways is a sure-fire way to deaden and demoralise your science base.

Simon Ings


Move slow and fix things

3 min read

There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.

Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.

But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.

Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.

Bonus snippet:

Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.


Play as counterpoint to the infrastructural mediation of industrial spacetime

3 min read

Yeah, it's another Will Self talk, this time from Nesta's 2016 FutureFest -- he's pretty on-point with a lot of my interests these days, which makes me think I should probably make the effort to read more of his fiction*.


‎So this talk is ostensibly about fun and play, but Self being Self, it wanders off (see what I did there?) into psychogeography and other places. What really interested me in particular was his positioning of play as a counter to the constrictions of technologically mediated life: he talks of (and I paraphrase from memory and scribble notes, here) the way in which smartphones have 'fused industrial time and space into our cerebellums', with the result that we are rarely (if ever) in that state of unplacedness and unproductivity which the d‎érive was designed to discover. Now, this is scarcely an original observation on Self's part (Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy is in some respects entirely about what one character refers to as the 'eversion of cyberspace'), but the positioning of play and the derive against it is interesting to me because it opens the door on a way to experience infrastructure while receiving minimal or no support from it. The industrial conception of time was reified by the spread of the railways, and with them, the telegraph; meanwhile, the GPS network has seen a similar thing happen to the industrial conception of space, which, like its temporal cousin, is all about ownership and apportionment -- maps don't create or describe territories, but capture them, divide them up (all the better to be conquered).

Like Self, I don't se much likelihood of these systems rolling back any time soon, absent the sort of socioeconomic collapse in which the lack of GPS would be the last thing on anyone's mind. However, play and playful approaches to industrial spacetime -- per Debord and company, but perhaps minus their death-wish nihilism -- might nonetheless still offer escape from the invisible matrix, even if only temporarily.

(I also like his idea of walking to and from airports, though I suspect it wouldn't be viable for every journey, even assuming one had the free days required; I sure wouldn't want to try walking from Boston Logan to Harvard Square, f'rex.)


[* -- I remember during the late 90s a friend loaned me a copy of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, right around the time that said friend and others were getting into the cocaine glamour of superclubbing...oh, the irony. I mostly took away from the book the timely (and subsequently justified) warning that cocaine's worst side-effect was the way in which it turned ordinary people into monumentally self-deluded and paranoiac arseholes, but perhaps the affect of the writing -- which is as seedy and unsettling as the descent into fuckedupness it describes -- put me off reading him again.]