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

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

Move slow and fix things

3 min read

There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.

Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.

But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.

Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.

Bonus snippet:

Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.

Play as counterpoint to the infrastructural mediation of industrial spacetime

3 min read

Yeah, it's another Will Self talk, this time from Nesta's 2016 FutureFest -- he's pretty on-point with a lot of my interests these days, which makes me think I should probably make the effort to read more of his fiction*.

 

‎So this talk is ostensibly about fun and play, but Self being Self, it wanders off (see what I did there?) into psychogeography and other places. What really interested me in particular was his positioning of play as a counter to the constrictions of technologically mediated life: he talks of (and I paraphrase from memory and scribble notes, here) the way in which smartphones have 'fused industrial time and space into our cerebellums', with the result that we are rarely (if ever) in that state of unplacedness and unproductivity which the d‎érive was designed to discover. Now, this is scarcely an original observation on Self's part (Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy is in some respects entirely about what one character refers to as the 'eversion of cyberspace'), but the positioning of play and the derive against it is interesting to me because it opens the door on a way to experience infrastructure while receiving minimal or no support from it. The industrial conception of time was reified by the spread of the railways, and with them, the telegraph; meanwhile, the GPS network has seen a similar thing happen to the industrial conception of space, which, like its temporal cousin, is all about ownership and apportionment -- maps don't create or describe territories, but capture them, divide them up (all the better to be conquered).

Like Self, I don't se much likelihood of these systems rolling back any time soon, absent the sort of socioeconomic collapse in which the lack of GPS would be the last thing on anyone's mind. However, play and playful approaches to industrial spacetime -- per Debord and company, but perhaps minus their death-wish nihilism -- might nonetheless still offer escape from the invisible matrix, even if only temporarily.

(I also like his idea of walking to and from airports, though I suspect it wouldn't be viable for every journey, even assuming one had the free days required; I sure wouldn't want to try walking from Boston Logan to Harvard Square, f'rex.)

#

[* -- I remember during the late 90s a friend loaned me a copy of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, right around the time that said friend and others were getting into the cocaine glamour of superclubbing...oh, the irony. I mostly took away from the book the timely (and subsequently justified) warning that cocaine's worst side-effect was the way in which it turned ordinary people into monumentally self-deluded and paranoiac arseholes, but perhaps the affect of the writing -- which is as seedy and unsettling as the descent into fuckedupness it describes -- put me off reading him again.]

The arena of acceleration

5 min read

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

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

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

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

Fast-foward to some concluding remarks:

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

OFWAT the fuck?

5 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Infrastructure as community

1 min read

Quoth Adam Rothstein:

... I think this is one thing we are doing when we look at infrastructure--we are looking for the beginning of a way out. We are looking for a way to build a new community, by finding new infrastructural tools that would describe a different sort of community, not just one more, sequentially next faction centered around a few particular goals. Our societies are more than capable of replicating themselves. What we are looking for, perhaps, is a way to change the direction of our own production, not by demanding that change from people oppressed by production, but by looking for the designs within the infrastructure of that production itself.

When we talk about seizing the means of production, we ought not to be simply talking about the production of commodities, but about the production of our communities. And when we say seize, we ought to mean the whole thing, from our bodies to the pipes that connect our bodies to each other. And we ought to do it together.

'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.

Synthetic space(s)

3 min read

While I will probably always be gutted that someone else has beaten me to writing a history of EVE, I can at least take comfort in the fact that the person who's done it appears to get it -- the game itself is of little interest, it's the utopian economic space-for-action which the game provides that matters:

I met these two guys from the University of Ghent who created a computer model that shows what happens to economic prices in certain parts of EVE, depending on whether or not there are battles going on nearby.

In these areas where a lot of ships are being destroyed, you would expect to see the price of materials skyrocket, because everyone’s trying to build new ships and new fleets. But what they found was that, in areas where a lot of ships are being destroyed, the prices go through the floor, because everyone in that region of space starts liquidating everything. There’s an invading alliance coming, and they’re trying to get their stuff out the door as fast as possible, to make sure their stuff doesn’t get taken or conquered. They said this is similar to what you see in the real world. In pre-war Germany, the price of gold dropped through the floor because everyone was trying to liquidate their belongings and get out of the country. …

EVE is the most real place that we’ve ever created on the Internet. And that is borne out in these war stories. And it’s borne out because these people who—you find this over and over again—who don’t view this as fictional. They don’t view it as a game. They view it as a very real part of their lives, and a very real part of their accomplishments as people.

[...]

Something that I found formed very early on in EVE was the understanding among certain leaders was that people will follow you, even if they don’t believe in what you believe in, simply because you’re giving them something to believe in. You’re giving them a reason to play this game. You’re giving them a narrative to unite behind, and that’s fun. It’s far more fun to crusade against the evil empire than it is to show up and shoot lasers at spaceships.

Now mulling over the possibilities of studying the role of infrastructure in virtual economies... anyone want to picth in on a grant application?

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.