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


The End of Big Data

2 min read

Jim Bridle turns his hand to writing science fiction, and does a good enough job of it that I wonder why I still bother. Snip:

While I was out cold in my bunk last night, eyes in the sky were dowsing for covert data farms: telltale transmissions near the dew point. You can do a lot with fans, water mist, recirculation and chillers, but thermodynamics is pretty unforgiving. The energy of computation has to come out somewhere, and the combination of heat and rare earth traces is, ultimately, undeniable: a forensics of the machine. Between RITTER’s infrared and the EUROSUR air contaminants grid, we can usually triangulate any processor over 25 kW. A few months ago it took the ground crew almost a week to locate some Estonian ex-Salesforce analysts whose lock-up in Tallinn was cold as stone. Turns out they were piping their server exhaust a kilometer outside of town, but we got there in the end. This morning the sensors picked up suspicious heat sources in Poland and Slovenia. Could be generators, could be thermal dumps. I’ll get to them once my initial sweep is done.

Go read. I nearly cheered out loud at the ending.


What fresh hell / what's in a name

1 min read

Varieties, cultivars, brands:

Perhaps most important, Byrne says, is the ability to organize marketing campaigns that convince consumers to buy the variety, and stores to stock it. Nobody did that for previous varieties, because anyone could plant them.

"If anyone can plant [a new variety], why could I put half a million dollars into a marketing campaign, out of my pocket, when everyone else can ride the coattails of that campaign?" says Byrne.

This is the future of the apple section in your supermarket, he says. Apple-growing clubs will compete for shelf space. Traditional "open" varieties, because they lack marketing muscle, will have trouble competing and may disappear. "It is going to be a world of managed brands, just like the soup aisle or the potato chip aisle or any other aisle," he says.

This is another one for the files, too; the proxy for natural is "authentic", and as the piece above illustrates, "authenticity" is a fiction of brand-management. (Cf: Debbie Chachra on authenticity.)



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.


Amazon moves to secure the base of the infrastructural stack

2 min read

He who owns the pipe controls the flow:

Ocean freight is cheap right now. As of January 2016, Flexport’s ocean freight customers were paying less than $1300 to ship a 40-foot container from Shenzhen to Los Angeles. More than 10,000 parcels can fit in a single container, so the price for the ocean freight leg could be as low as $0.14 per parcel. Here’s another way to think about that figure: Right now it costs under $10 to ship a flat screen television across the Pacific.

This can only be good news, surely? After all, ocean freight is super-low on carbon emissions, and cheaper shipping means cheaper stuff for everyone!


With ocean freight itself so low, a considerable portion of logistics costs come through labor costs—particularly compliance and coordination of cargo handoffs between different players in the chain. It’s here that automation, something no traditional freight forwarding company can do even one percent as well as Amazon can, becomes the key competitive advantage over legacy freight forwarders. By using software to eliminate additional transaction costs associated with government filings, status updates, pricing, booking and more, Amazon will be able to cut their costs significantly. At the same time, fulfilling products directly from China to consumers in the U.S. will cut handling costs at U.S. warehouses.

Which is a really elaborate and euphemistic way of saying "this'll let them wander through the payroll like combine harvester". Cheaper stuff, then, but even fewer folk with an income that'll let them buy it.

If we’ve learned anything from Amazon’s strategic playbook over the last two decades, we can expect that it will price freight as close to marginal costs as it can get.

And the only way to achieve that goal is to establish an effective organisational monopoly over the core routes of the network across which those transactions flow.

Credit where it's due: the heroes of the Valley make the rail barons look like provincial waterhead gangsters. But then again, if the rail barons had understood network theory... well, we'd probably be living in something like the world of The Difference Engine.


State of the Blockchain 2016

I'm not a major blockchain fan, not because it doesn't work, but because ultra-libertarian hackers can't solve a nest of institutions like finance with plug-and-play crypto solutionism. Bitcoin plummeted from the mathematical noosphere into an all-too-human snake-pit of fraud, trolling, censorship, palace intrigue and Chinese nationalist fire-walling.

The Bitcoin veteran here may not be entirely, mathematically accurate in his glum analysis of what went on with Bitcoin in real life. He may well be lying, special-pleading, backstabbing his many enemies and also deceiving himself. However, that behavior is not "part of the problem." The human element actually is the Bitcoin problem.

-- Bruce Sterling


Silicon Valley tech firms exacerbating income inequality, World Bank warns | Technology | The Guardian

The economics of the internet favor natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms. Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits – circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.”

“Regulatory puzzles are posed by firms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google ... These firms confound conventional competition law because they do not act as traditional monopolies. The risk is that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them,” it continued.

It's not just the economics of the internet, but the economics of networks in general which favour natural monopolies; indeed, a network without an organisational monopoly is a broken network (cf. privatised UK railway system). All infrastructures are networks, and infrastructure considered collectively is a network of networks, a metasystem. The only way to harness the full utility of any network is to allow it an organisational monopoly. The only way to constrain an organisational monopoly is collective ownership. Farcebork et al are monopoly interface protocols, not themselves networks; they merely organise and instrumentalise the physical connectivity of the infrastructures upon which they depend. Protocols are best regulated by the careful maintenance of system standards in the infrastructural layer-- another process which requires an effective organisational monopoly.

Renationalise. Now.


constraint no. 2: legacies of the past | crap futures

There is a problematic time-slip between the existence of laws and insurance and the real-life behaviour of humans. Laws and insurance are for the most part reactive: insurance policies, for example, are based on amassed data that informs the broker of risk levels, and this system therefore needs history to work. So when you try to insert a new product or concept - a self-driving car or delivery drone - into everyday life, the insurance system pushes back. Insurance companies don’t want to gamble on an unknown future; they want to look at the future through historical data, which is by nature a conservative lens.

Laws, insurance, and historical infrastructure often work together to curb radical change. This partly explains why many of the now technologically realisable dreams of the past, from jetpacks to flying cars, are unlikely to become an everyday reality in that imagined form - more likely they will adapt and conform to existing systems and rules.

Path-dependency; obduracy; infrastructural inertia. This is precisely what my PhD is all about.


Grey morning


Magical thinking: the history of science, sorcery and the spiritual

... we might want to say that magic typically emerges and flourishes where there is a certain frustration about the refusal of many kinds of public organised religion to solve practical questions. Where public religious practice tends to the contemplative, focusing receptively or adoringly on a depth of reality quite out of human control, magic is entrepreneurial, a private enterprise of trial and error promising high returns for a high degree of risk (spiritual and pragmatic). It is almost universally regarded as politically dangerous for this reason.

Magic appeals to the authority of demonstrable results rather than established hierarchies, even if these results remain promised rather than realised. It is not just a debating point to suggest that certain aspects of modern economic theory work remarkably like ancient and Renaissance magic, appealing to uncertainly charted forces in nature and confidently predicting results that are not always prompt in appearing. If we are baffled by the intellectual respectability of magic in earlier days, it may be illuminating to think about our own willingness to be fascinated (in the Old English sense of bewitched) by ambitious and risk-laden systems based on deeply hidden processes.