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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.]


The arena of acceleration

5 min read

Fairly chewy here by Aaron Vantsintjan, in which he does a little comparison of accelerationsim and degrowth. Utopian visions (and the appropriate delimiting thereof) appears to be an important axis of difference... and both introduce the notion of desire into their theories of change, albeit in very different manifestations.

... it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”. However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’; the embracement of ’imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Snricek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Indeed, progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable.

Fast-foward to some concluding remarks:

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.


Through [Paul] Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point – at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

It strikes me that what both accelerationism and degrowth lack, and what Virilio was implicitly arguing in favour of, is a better theory of infrastructure, given that infrastructure is the medium of metabolism, the arena of acceleration.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I? ;)


Dispatches from the Last Mile

2 min read

Plucking out a few important and (hah!) connected points from a Jan Chipchase splurge on travelling through "Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s GBAO [Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region] and China’s western provinces":

12: The premium for buying gasoline in a remote village in the GBAO is 20% more than the nearest town. Gasoline is harder to come by, and more valuable than connectivity.

42: After the Urumqi riots in 2009 the Chinese government cut of internet connectivity to Xinjiang province for a full year. Today connectivity is so prevalent and integrated into every aspect of Xinjiang society, that cutting it off it would hurt the state’s ability to control the population more than hinder their opposition. There are many parts to the current state strategy is to limit subversion, the most visible of which is access to the means of travel. For example every gas station between Kashi and Urumqi has barbed wire barriers at its gates, and someone checking IDs.

60: The difference between 2.5G and 3G? In the words of a smartphone wielding GBAO teenager on the day 3G data was switched on her town, “I can breathe”.

Incredibly rapid habituation to networked and wireless IT among hinterland populations; technoscientific "seeing like a state" governance paradigm continues apace; controlling movement of physical materials in space easier and more effective than controlling movement of information in context of governing hinterlands. (Look out for that latter one in Brexit Britain; the weak signals have been there for a long, long time.)


OFWAT the fuck?

5 min read

I would say I'm speechless over the latest bon mots from the UK's water regulator, but as the paragraphs below demonstrate, that would be a lie.

Cathryn Ross, the chief executive of Ofwat, said: “The uncomfortable truth is that, when it comes to retail offers, water companies provide an analogue service in a digital age. Customers tell us they think they should have the freedom to choose and don’t understand why water is the only retail market in which there isn’t some form of competition.”

Oh gosh, yes -- your discomfort with this conclusion is palpable, isn't it? I'd be interested to see how that question was phrased to those customers; y'know, whether it was an open-ended "what would be good?" sort of question, or whether you delicately steered them toward the idea that they should have "freedom to choose" (which, lest we forget, is a reminder that late-late capitalism is essentially an endless Groundhog-Day repetition of the penultimate scene in the original Ghostbusters, wherein one is constantly offered the opportunity to "choose the form of the destructor").

But really, Mrs Ross, if you and your colleagues in the UK's water regulatory body can't think of a way to answer that lack of understanding in your client base, I politely suggest that you are in the wrong industry, and that you might be better suited to commodities trading, as you seem to have the requisite instincts.

If you want to explain to people why they don't have a choice of water supplier, you start with our old friend, the hydrological cycle; then you get a map of their region, labelled with the locations of reservoirs and watersheds, and the main trunk pipes of your network, and you explain, as patiently as possible, that the reason you don't get a choice of water company is because geography and physics are immutable even to the magic of capitalism, despite repeated claims to the contrary.

You explain that the hypothetical saving of £8 per household (which is a 25% increase on the per-household savings you were quoting last month, incidentally) will be generated (if indeed it is generated at all) by the same sort of frantic market churn that's ramping up the costs of their gas an electricity every damned quarter, and presumably accompanied by the same opaque and wilfully deceptive pricing tiers to be encountered in the energy market (which, lest you need reminding, is a market repeatedly found to be rigged, over-priced and utterly baffling to most consumers, and appears to have a regulatory body just as craven and capitulatory as that by which you are currently employed).

You point out that it would actually make much more sense to manage water in the UK through one united system that covers the entire country, allowing for movement of water between regions, but that such an option is ideological poison to the sharp-suited lobbyists who really make the choices that matter; you might even reiterate the fact that, since acquiring the actual physical infrastructure of the old water boards -- infrastructure for which the private watercos paid, quite literally, nothing -- the companies you're supposed to be regulating have systematically underinvested in said systems because it made more sense to keep paying dividends to their shareholders, given it turns out that turning a profit on the provision of safe and reliable water for all is extremely hard to do -- in fact, almost impossible -- unless you take shortcuts on capacity and maintenance.

But why bother, eh? People like choice; people like things to be cheaper, even when they're already way cheaper than they realistically should be. Free markets solve everything, after all -- heck, the only reason water isn't too cheap to meter is that the market just isn't free enough!

Of course, this rather elides the root of the problem that marketisation is really meant to solve, namely the fact that the south-east of England already has way too large a population for its watersheds to provide for, while large parts of the north have surplus supply -- thanks, not at all incidentally, to serious public investment back before Thatcher and friends decided to let British heavy industry decline, again based on the assumption that Markets are Magic™! It elides the fact that water marketisation will end up being one more way that the south-east and London gets to suck the marrow out of the hinterlands. It elides golf-courses; it elides the practices of soft-drinks companies and Big Agriculture; it elides the craven complicity of well-heeled consultants and experts from the Sainted Order of the Revolving Door in their enthusiasm to appease the caprice of Mammon, who is their only lord and master.

But it's all too complicated to explain to the proles, isn't it? So buy them off with some bullshit about marginal savings on household bills, file your report; tell Caesar what is pleasing unto Caesar. After all, odds are you'll be dead (or at least comfortably retired) before the true scale of the deliberate and monumental fuck-up you've just advocated will become sufficiently apparent that anyone starts asking where the bodies are buried.



Fear of a Blank Verse Planet

2 min read

I've long been an admirer of Adam Roberts, and that's as least as much for his critical writing as for his fiction output, if not perhaps a little more. I put this down (at least in part) to his stint as a 'columnist' when I was still running Futurismic as a regular webzine*, where I was first exposed to his Borgesian strategy of reviewing imaginary works; I'm sure he's not the only source of the notion I have that a review should in some manner stylistically reflect the text to which it is responding, but he's always my go-to example of someone who does it routinely, and does it well.

And here's an example, just published as part of this year's Strange Horizons funding drive. Because how else to appropriately respond to a Baen publication about anthropogenic climate change written entirely in blank verse, but in blank verse?

The fact remains this is a verse-novel;
And as such, frankly, it’s a curate’s egg:
In equal measures striking and inert.
No question it’s echt science fictional
A perfectly effective instance of
This kind of techno-thriller doomsday yarn
(Though it mutates into a stranger and
More satisfying kind of story by its end).
And Turner’s good on "door dilated" stuff
Those kinds of unobtrusive details that
Hallmark much trad SF...

The closing section is the key, though, in making clear that pastiche can and should have purpose beyond the simple joy of rummaging in the dress-up box.


BLDGBLOG vs Extrastatecraft

1 min read

Geoff Manaugh and Keller Easterling in conversation*; SPAN 2015. Infrastructural activism in a matrix of spatial multipliers; burglary as black-hat useability consultancy as the decoding of design; the science-fictional strategies that emerge from international maritime law; the FTZ as an ever-iterating species of privateer utopia.

[* Not really a conversation so much as an exchange of longer pre-scripted bits. Which is a perfectly legitimate format, to be clear. It's just not a conversation.]


Hanjin: optimisation is the enemy of resilience

3 min read

So a big shipping company went bankrupt -- why should you care? Because it's a sign of serious trouble in the global infrastructural metasystem also known as "the supply chain":

With little or no inventory of essential goods and raw materials retailers and manufacturers are subject to disruptions all along their supply chains which reach around the globe. A breakdown at any step can quickly bring activity to a halt on the factory floor or on the sales floor.

Just-in-time is very efficient financially (until, of course, it isn't). Little money is tied up in inventories or the space to warehouse them. But just-in-time is not very resilient. It used to be that businesses stockpiled goods and critical resources to ensure against disruptions. But the advent of computerized tracking combined with more efficient shipping practices worked to end the stockpiling of inventories.


The Hanjin bankruptcy also calls into the question the wisdom of allowing so much freight--7.8 percent of all trans-Pacific U.S. freight--to be handled by one carrier. And yet large size and just-in-time systems create what economists like to call economies of scale. Goods and services are provided more cheaply.

But such systems are not resilient. Resilience often requires redundancy and that spells inefficiency in today's business climate.

This problem is endemic to the majority of infrastructures, if not all of them. Optimisation is the enemy of resilience -- and, indeed, can end up being counterproductive. All complex systems end up with a certain amount of loss to noise and friction, and it is often possible to iterate much of that lossiness away by tweaking the system, adding feedback loops, that sort of thing. But there's a problem not unlike the EROEI problem in energy extraction, in that once the major problems are fixed, the minor problems that remain become ever more subtle and difficult to work on, and you eventually reach a tipping-point where you're expending as many resources on trying to squelch the noise as you expect to recover by squelching it (which takes you into Red Queen's Race territory, wherein you're running as fast as you can simply to stay in place).

This is compounded by an approach to systems management that indulges in what Haraway indentified as the God's-eye view -- it is impossible to truly understand any system to which you perceive yourself as being somehow external or superior.

But mostly it's a bottom-line thing: businesses like Hanjin compete on capacity, as pointed out above, which means that profit margins are very, very thin (a fact obscured by the sheer number of transactions), and the arbitration systems on which the market is based keep a downward pressure on price (to the extent that it is often possible to find shipping capacity available at negative prices -- capacity which the shipper will effectively compensate you for using). The Hanjin bankruptcy may mean we've reached a point where the profit margin of running a sizable shipping company has reached parity with the inescapable losses from noise in the system: they effectively cancel each other out, and the organisation runs at a net loss.

What happens when there's no money to be made in moving matter around?