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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.


'Innovation' must die / that infrastructure might live

3 min read

Via Deb Chachra, an excellent essay by Andrew Russell on the overlooked issue of the age: maintaining the infrastructural metasystem we've got (as opposed to fantasising about the infrastructure we'd build if physics and socioeconomics didn't matter).

I commend the whole piece to you, assuming you're even vaguely interested in my own field of research; it speaks the great policy-unspeakable of infrastructure, namely the fragility of the legacy systems upon which the cutting edge is always-already functionally dependent, and the thinning and effacement of the (often low-paid, low-rights) labour that keeps it running.

I'm going to pick out one of its subthemes for closer inspection, however, as it echoes an argument which has been emerging from my own research: that somewhere along the line, we came to the damaging conclusion that 'innovation' is best defined as 'something that technology entrepreneurs (might) do (provided they're appropriately incentivised)'. Take it away, Russell: is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. In his book, Shock of the Old (2007), the historian David Edgerton examines technology-in-use. He finds that common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. When we take this broader perspective, we can tell different stories with drastically different geographical, chronological, and sociological emphases. The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired? Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.

Innovation is people doing things. Seriously, that's it. Sure, they may end up doing those things in ways that are enabled by technologies and infrastructures, and some of those technologies and infrastructures may indeed have emerged first and foremost from entrepreneurial activity rather than collective sociopolitical action (though, uh, probably not as many as you'd like to think?)... but people innovate all the time in places where infrastructures and/or the appropriate interfaces through which to explot them are absent or beyond their reach. Superflux are relentless in their advocacy of jugaad, and with good reason: it's how the majority of human challenges have been solved, and likely always will be. No MBA required.

But back to Russell for a final sharp poke at the semantic bubble of 'innovation':

... emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.



On the seductive obduracy of infrastructure fictions

7 min read

If there's one good thing to come out of the current race-for-the-gutter in Western political discourse, it's that we're starting to talk about rhetoric and narrative with a sense of urgency. Better late than never, eh?

Here's a bit from a Graun piece on Trump, Brexit et al:

The fourth force at work is related to our understanding of how persuasive language works. Over the course of the 20th century, empirical advances were made in the way words are used to sell to goods and services. They were then systematically applied to political messaging, and the impressionistic rhetoric of promotion increasingly came to replace the rhetoric of traditional step-by-step political argument. The effect has been to give political language some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing, but to strip it of explanatory and argumentative power.

"The impressionistic rhetoric of promotion"; make a note of that phrase. Note also that advertising and marketing -- those colourful Mad Men! -- were industries that emerged very directly from the propaganda machineries of the second world war, on both sides. (It wasn't just Nazi rocket scientists who found new gigs on the other side of the Atlantic.)

The political aspect is ugly enough, but there's an extent to which that particular nastiness is at least a known quality, even if it's only responded to with a sort of nihilistic mistrust rather than vigorous critique: to say that politicians purvey bullshit is such a truism that even the cynical tend to act as if embarrassed that you saw fit to raise the point at all. Of course politics is performed like marketing now; what did you expect?

However, the corrolary of that observation -- that marketing is performed like politics -- is a somewhat harder sell (if you'll excuse the deliberate pun). But it's no less true for that: as I've argued elsewhere, political narratives and the narratives of advertising both fall under the metacategory of narratives of futurity:

... “futures” are speculative depictions of possibilities yet to be realised, as are “designs” [...] in this, they belong to a broader category of works that includes product prototypes, political manifestos, investment portfolio growth forecasts, nation-state (or corporate) budget plans, technology brand ad spots, science fiction stories, science fiction movies, computerised predictive system-models, New Year’s resolutions, and many other narrative forms. While they may differ wildly as regards their medium, their reach, and their telos, all of these forms involve speculative and subjective depictions of possibilities yet to be realised; as such, labelling this metacategory as “narratives of futurity” avoids further diluting the (already vague) label “futures”, while simultaneously positioning “futures” among a spectrum of other narrative forms which use similar techniques and strategies to a variety of ends.

To avoid further self-citation, that paper goes on to outline some basic components of the rhetorics of futurity: the techniques through which narratives of futurity are shaped in order to achieve certain effects. These can be observed in political narratives and in advertising... but they can be (and should be!) observed in the popular technoscientific discourse, whether in the form of formal "futures scenarios", or the less formal pronouncements of Silicon Valley's heroic CEO class.

So it's of great relief to me that people are starting to do so. Here's a bit on the fintech industry's revival of the "cashless society" dream, for example:

This is the utopia presented by the growing digital payments industry, which wishes to turn the perpetual mirage of cashless society into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, a key trick to promoting your interests is to speak of them as obvious inevitabilities that are already under way. It makes others feel silly for not recognising the apparently obvious change.

To create a trend you should also present it as something that other people demand. A sentence like "All over the world, people are switching to digital payments" is not there to describe what other people want. It's there to tell you what you should want by making you feel out of sync with them.

To make a "future" happen, in other words, one should aim to convince one's audience that a) it already is happening, and that b) they're missing out.

(Those who share my misfortune in having read a number of novels by arch-libertarian fantasist Terry Goodkind may recognise this as a variation on the 'Wizard's First Rule' -- a topic which I keep meaning to rant about at greater length.)

But how to give the as-yet-unrealised a sheen of plausibility? Here's another (different) piece at the Graun on technological mythmaking:

... most technological myths mislead us via something so obvious as to be almost unexamined: the presence of human forms at their heart, locked in combat or embrace. The exquisite statue, the bronze warrior, the indestructible cyborg – the drama and pathos of each plays out on a resolutely individual scale. This is how myths work. They make us care by telling us a story about exemplary particularities.

It’s a framing epitomized not only by poems and movies, but also by the narratives of perkily soundtracked adverts. You sit down and switch your laptop on; you slip into your oh-so-smart car; you reach for your phone. “What do you want to do today?” asks the waiting software. “What do you want to know, or buy, or consume?” The second person singular is everywhere. You are empowered, you are enhanced, your mind and body extended in scope and power. Technology is judged by how fast it allows you to dash in pursuit of desire.

(Don't even get me started on the total absence of desire from the popular models of "innovation" or "technological transitions", or whatever we're calling it this week.)

A successful narrative of futurity can be astonishingly obdurate. When I gave my "Infrastructure Fiction" talk to Improving Reality 2013, I was lucky enough to have been gifted a perfect example by no less generous a man than Elon Musk, in the form of his 'transportation alpha concept', Hyperloop. Three years on, and despite countless engineers and architects and planners pointing out the insoluble flaws in the idea, the Hyperloop zombie shambles on... and the damned thing is even raking in investment from people who, if they don't know better themselves, should surely at least be employing some people who do know better.

But why is that a problem? Am I not just pooh-poohing a brilliant visionary who's trying to make a difference to the way we run the world, and those trying to make his dreams a reality?

We just can’t sustain economic growth without improving our infrastructure. Any government that takes the Hyperloop hype that “this is happening now” at face value risks wasting precious resources on an idea that may never become reality – all the while, not spending those resources on technologies, like high-speed rail, that exist and deliver real benefits.

Leaving aside the shibboleth of economic growth for another time, that's the problem right there: narratives of futurity occlude the reality of the lived present. Marketing and adverts seduce; futurity is the plane onto which desire is projected. Meanwhile, the success and acclaim of narrators like Musk add cachet and appeal to their stories; after all, the guy founded Amazon, right? Well, you wouldn't want to miss out on his next great success, now would you?

I think it telling that neither of the groups trying to develop Hyperloop are funded by Musk, who presumably has the sense to get someone to run a CBA before he starts spending money: he critiqued his own story, in other words, and revealed it to be wanting.

But don't for a moment imagine that he and others like him aren't aware of the seductive power of narratives of futurity. They are, in truth, the only thing that Silicon Valley has ever sold.



Frank Cottrell Boyce:

Innovation doesn’t come from the profit motive.

Innovation comes from those who are happy to embark on a course of action without quite knowing where it will lead, without doing a feasibility study, without fear of failure or too much hope of reward. The engine of innovation is reckless generosity...

This. A thousand times, this.



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.


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.


Leading with an apology: some thoughts on innovation in communications

5 min read

Something I'm finding interesting about the New Newsletter Movement (which isn't really a movement, but is surely a definite phenomena in a certain slice of the internets) is the normalisation of the Extended But Friendly Unsubscribe Disclaimer, wherein profuse preemptive apologies are made for the possible cluttering of inboxes, and the ease of avoiding such is highlighted. It's not surprising -- on the contrary, it serves to highlight that the move to newsletters was driven at least in part by a sense that there are an excess of push-notification demands on people's attention, and that we all know they're no fun any more (even if we're still occasionally unwilling to say so).

Email is a fairly pushy medium too, of course (which is why it's such a popular topic for those work/life balance articles), but it seems to me to have two main merits in the context of the current communications retrenchment: firstly, there are a lot more third-party tools and techniques for managing email as multiple flows and categories of comms (including, crucially, easy blocking and blacklisting); secondly, no one can envisage being able to give up email forever, so the inbox is both a comfortable and secure place in which to set up one's ultimate data redoubt. Hence newsletters: they're a one-to-many subscriber-based push medium, much like socnets, but -- crucially -- the interface through which both the sender and the receiver mediate and adjust their experience of communicating via newsletters, namely the inbox, does not belong to the company providing the transmission service. 

Sure, that interface may well belong to someone other than the end-user -- most likely G**gle or another webmail provider -- but the point is that the route between sender and receiver has a whole bunch of waypoints, seams between one system or platform and another where one or another of the communicants can step in and control their experience. With FarceBork or Twitter, that communicative channel -- the interface apps, the core protocol and its design principles -- is all in-house, all the time, a perfect vertical: it works this way, that's the only way it works, take it or leave it. (Note that it takes either network effects or addicition mechanisms, or possibly both, to build the sort of product where you can be so totalitarian about functionality; note further that network effects are easier to achieve in closed and/or monopoly networks.) So the newsletter is a point of compromise: a one-to-many-push model which retains plenty of control at both the author and reader ends. 

And so we have a situation where one of the most common features of the use of a particular opt-in medium is a disclaimer about how easy it is to avoid further messages from the same source. I find this of some considerable interest -- not least because rather than being a technical innovation, it's actually a reversion to older technologies which have been rearticulated through a new set of social protocols and values.

That said, it's a little odd that we've jumped all the way back to email, skipping over the supposedly-failed utopia that was the Open Web (or whatever we're now calling it in hindsight): y'know, blogs, aggregators, pingbacks, RSS, all that jazz. I do hear some lamenting for the Open Web, but it tends to be couched in a way that suggests there's no going back, and that the socnets pushed all that out of the way for good. And while that may be true in commercial terms, it's not at all true in technical terms; I can't speak to the change in running overheads, especially for anyone running anything more than the website equivalent of a lemonade stand, but all that infrastructure is still there, still just as useable as it was when we got bored of it. Hosting is cheaper and more stable than it was a decade ago; protocols like RSS and pingbacks and webmentions only stop being useful when no one uses them.

So why didn't we go back to blogging? After all, the genres of writing in newsletters are very similar to those which were commonplace on blogs, it's a one-to-many-pull medium (so no accidental inbox invasions), and the pertinent protocols are just sat there, waiting to be written into software and used again.

But it's a lot more effort to run even a small blog than to run a newsletter (you effectively outsource all the work besides the writing to your newsletter provider, for whom it's less a matter of work and more a matter of maintaining automated capacity), and you still have to go "somewhere else" (whether directly to the site, or to an RSS aggregator) to catch up with the news from others. Newsletters are just easier, in other words -- sufficiently easy that the inherent deficiencies of the medium don't seem too much of a chore to manage, for sender or receiver.

Whether that remains the case for newsletter authors with very large audiences, I have no idea -- and how long it will remain the case is just as open a question, as is the question of where we'll move our discourse to next. However, it's pretty clear that the newsletter phenomenon thumbs its nose at the standard models of innovation, wherein we transition to new technologies on the basis of their novelty and/or technological advantages. This is good news, because it means that we're perfectly capable of rearticulating the technological base of the things we do in response to changing social meanings and values -- and perhaps it even suggests that those meanings and values are more influential than the supposed determinism of the technological stack itself.

We can but hope, I guess.



"Innovation" is neither an act or an actor.