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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.

Amen.

 

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

[Yes!]

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.

[Yes!]

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.]

 

 

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.

 

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? ;)

 

In the rush for the latest gimmick, we are losing the joy of ‘things’?

After all, what is a society other than a collective agreement of the meaning of objects?

Generally of interest, but I particularly liked that little line.

 

'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:

...it 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.

*pop*

 

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.

 

The end of the codex and the death of Literature

2 min read

Interesting (and appropriately rambling) talk by Will Self, expanding on his recent thesis that a) the technology of the codex is on the way out, and thusly b) so is capital-L literature. I'm not sure I buy it completely, but his argument goes to lots of interesting places, and I recognise a lot in his description of the academy as a sort of care-home for obsolescing art-mediums such as the modernist novel.

(The audience, on the other hand, replete with writers and teachers of writing -- two categories that overlap a great deal, as Self points out -- fails to recognise his description with such venom that it's hard not to characterise their response as classic denial. That said, these are anxious times in the academy, and particularly at the arts and humanities end of it, and being lectured about the demise of your field of expertise by a man still managing to make a living producing that which you study must be a bit galling; in essence, Self does here to literary scholars what Bruce Sterling repeatedly does for technologists and futures types. The difference appears to be that literary scholars know a Cassandra when they hear one.)

Also of interest is Self's characterisation of the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, perhaps because it is both vaguely canonical and seemingly unexamined: that old tautologous chestnut about literary fiction not being a genre because it doesn't obsess over reader fulfilment and boundary-work. That may be true of literary writers, perhaps (though Barthes is giving me some side-eye for saying so), but it is to ignore the way the publishing industry deals with the category, which is almost entirely generic... and that's a curious oversight for someone who predicates their argument about literature's decline on explicitly technological dynamics. Nonetheless, well worth a watch/listen.

 

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

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

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

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

 

Behavioural obduracy

2 min read

Interesting story about throughput experiments on the tube escalators; unsurprisingly, once you think it through, it turns out that keeping half the width of each flight clear for people to run rather than stand loses way more bandwidth overall than it saves for individuals in a hurry.

Trouble is, eny fule kno that you're supposed to stand on the right and that hurrying people can scoot down the left, and no one likes change, least of all British people... so getting them to do it differently withoutchanging the design and rationale of escalators themselves is, unsurprisingly, a lot of hard work. But it's an interesting case, because the practice in question has been and is indeed still being shaped and encouraged by signage all through the rest of the underground system -- signage that's at least as old as I am, I'd guess, if not older. So we're seeing here not the challenge of developing a new protocol or ettiquette for a new technology, but the challenge of erasing a deliberately introduced and well-established individualist public practice and replacing it with a more egalitarian one, without recourse to major material intervention in the infrastructure underpinning said practice. If TfL can crack that problem, it'll be quite an achievement.