Skip to main content

Most meaningful moments

2 min read

Article at the Graun lamenting the lack of 'art punks', and of an identifiable British art movement with convenient label attached; I am clearly more plugged into the art world than I thought, because all the artists I know are subversive in ways that owe a lot to punk ideals, if not neccessarily its aesthetics, and none of them get a mention. (Yes, I'm lamenting the lack of coverage of my friends in art-scene-overview journalism; this is because my friends are all objectively brilliant geniuses, and everyone should acknowledge the fact.)

Mostly linking for the sake of this passage, though:

 “Facebook has become this space where the most meaningful moments of one’s life are mixed with ‘corporate narrative’ adverts,” he says. “Personally, I don’t see the difference between them any more. They are all part of the same mush. I think it all has value. Today, with art and commerce constantly feeding off each other, it is a super exciting place to look for ideas.”

It's very hard for me to get a read on exactly how sincere and straight-faced a statement that is, given it's a snippet of an interview transcription... but even if being used as a careful artist's masque, it reveals the inescapable ubiquity of the postmodern condition, not as an abstract social-theoretical idea, but as a lived cultural experience. I don't think it is an ironic position, either, but that doesn't mean it can't still be critical; if there is such a thing as post-postmodernity or altermodernity, it is perhaps defined by its never having known that which preceded postmodernity, by its acknowledgement -- which is a different thing to acceptance -- that it's "turtles all the way down".

If postmodernity was the shattering of metanarratives, altermodernity is the making of mosaics from the broken pieces. Is it any wonder we're so cautious of being cut?


TIL: why property is power in the UK

1 min read

Well, I never knew this, and only found it out as a buried lede:

The figures from UHY Hacker Young show that after property and real estate firms, which had an effective rate of just 1.9% because as real estate investment trusts they do not face corporation tax, the pharmaceutical sector had the lowest average effective tax rate, at 13%.

And now I do know it, it's very clear why it isn't more widely known. I think I might make efforts to amend that.


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.


Policy-based evidence

2 min read

This is important:

Guidance that has been distributed to every government department will rule out any new or renewed grants awarded from May being used to “support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action."

A few years ago I was at an event where a senior figure from the Environment Agency was speaking, and they prefaced their talk with a statement to the effect that he had been informed -- directly, by actual ministers -- that his job, and that of the EA more widely, was "not to express opinions in public, but to provide the government with evidence which supports its policies". 

It would appear that a similar edict is soon to be applied to the academy, and the involvement of the noxious IEA is as reliable an indicator of ideological zeal as a well-worn Hayek citation. One presumes that, under these guidelines, privately-funded revolving-door think-tanks like the IEA will retain the full extent of their capacity to lobby anyone they please on the basis of the spurious magical thinking that passes for their own "research"; as has been repeatedly demonstrated, Caesar hears only what is pleasing to Caesar.


On economic metaphors

3 min read

From a piece at Teh Graun, entitled "We need a new language to talk about the economy":

Looking further back, Keynes was a master of the disruptive metaphor. He described the “animal spirits” of investors whose rationality he questioned, and dismissed the self-styled “wolves and tiger” of industry as pathetically “domesticated” beasts. He was even credited with livening technical debate about the efficacy of monetary policy in a liquidity trap by talking of “pushing on a piece of string”. Keynesians across the Atlantic, such as Lauchlin Currie, rationalised the deficits of Roosevelt’s New Deal as “pump priming” the economy. The image here is of an old-fashioned well, where you have to pour in a little fluid to clear air from the valve, which then allows you to pump out a far larger volume of water. It had intuitive appeal for the very many Americans who had then been raised on farms, but hydraulics remains a promising source of imagery. Where orthodox economics and the moralising that goes with it emphasises solid “stocks”, assets and liabilities of particular values – a nasty debt, a nice nest egg or indeed an empty cupboard – the real economy operates through continuous “flows” of payment and activity.

Hydraulics is one metaphor for flows, certainly, but it only holds for systems through which there is only one substance flowing. A more complex but more powerful metaphor, then, might be the metabolic processes of a living organism, which captures the complexity of multiple mutually essential flows of resources and information... which is perhaps why it was one of Marx's favourites. So not a new metaphor needed so much as a return to an older one, perhaps? (The Marxian notion of the metabolic rift informs much of Haraway's theoretical work, and is a central plank in McKenzie Wark's wonderful Molecular Red.)

The liberal left's continual search for a new economic metaphor might well be rooted in the assumption that there is a "real" economy for the metaphor to represent -- a signified behind the signifier, so to speak. The problem is that economics itself is a metaphor, a morality story, a sign that refers to itself; economic theories do not describe reality, they merely narrate it, interpolating meanings and values into the movement of material and ideas in space and time. Economics does not explain, it defines. Its laws are not immutable, like the laws of physics, but plastic like the laws of the land -- a game in which the habitual winners are awarded the rights to edit the rulebook.

Money does what it does because that's what the books about money say it must do. Endless dissections of neoliberal capitalism's Byzantine mysteries are ultimately pointless, like seagulls following a trawler; we merely reinforce its hegemony by attempting to argue with it in its own terms. The master's tools will not dismantle the master's house, and all that.

If we want an new economics, we must write it ourselves.



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.



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.