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Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays

Interesting piece, arguing for more attention being paid to the maintainance of existing systems than the production of new ones. Particularly liked this bit:

... focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce.

A thousand times, yes! Though I'd be remiss in not mentioning having been annoyed by this bit:

... especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.

What a shame it would be if scholarship matured to the point where an entire series of books might be trashed by someone who likely hasn't read any of them.

 

Dymaxion: Infrastructural Games and Societal Play

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation.  Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift.  This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis.  When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change.  For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers.  They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system.  Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways.  Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects.  Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

 

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.

 

Behind the scenes in the "Northern Powerhouse"

The North rejects the Oyster card model... but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system? None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

It's pretty apparent that they're talking about some sort of flexible contactless/near-field ticketing set-up, whether through cards or mobile devices; one suspects that the only difference from the Oyster system will be the opportunity to have a non-registered card which you top up as and when you need it; while that's a useful system for us as end-users, it doesn't capture enough valuable data exhaust and personal travel profile data, the reselling of which can be assumed to be a revenue stream already baked in to any plans. And of course we can't have anonymous travel because [terrorism].

Also, people are talking about a new cross-Pennine tunnel crossing:

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

It's not bold at all -- it was bold in the 1800s, perhaps, when the original transPennine tunnels and canals were built, but now the only boldness lies in imagining that Gideon will actually put his hand into his pocket and give the grubby proles the toffee he's promised them.

Cynicism aside, what's often overlooked is that the idea of connecting up the Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds corridor isn't a new idea so much as an attempt to revert to the original and long-established economic orientation of the north, which was always dominated by an east-west flow with export connectionss to Europe, the Americas and beyond, and it has been argued that the dismantling of that east-west network, particularly the railways during the regrouping exercise of the interwar years, effectively removed the possibility of economic independence for the region.

However, over the last century we've moved from a situation where almost all long-distance freight went by rail to where it almost all goes by road, so improved transPennine rail links are only going to improve passenger travel times; the secondary infrastructure for rail freight that still exists is slowly rotting away since its abandonment during privatisation; hence the suggested need for a road link, which has the added bonus of being easier to sell to parliament (which has always loved roads, particularly when Tory) and car users (whose sense of entitlement to new infrastructure has been very carefully manufactured and sustained by parliament).

And who knows -- perhaps they'll pull it off:

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

(What a hero! Though I expect the compensation package may have been something of an inducement, too.)

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go. You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction."

Oh, yes: responsibility is definitely flowing in their direction, if not the ability to raise and spend funds, and I'm sure there'll be bountiful opportunities for the usual suspects in the consultancy industry before it gets kicked off into the long grass. 

If the north wants its destiny back, it'll have to do more than tug its collective forelock to London.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

The cloud is their avatar

1 min read

"Its physical aspect could not be less cloudlike, Server farms proliferate in unmarked brick buildings and steel complexes, with smoked windows or no windows, miles of hollow floors, diesel generators, cooling towers, seven-foot intake fans, and aluminum [sic] chimney stacks. This hidden infratructure grows in a sybiotic relationship with the electrical infrastructure it increasingly resembles. There information switches, control centres and substations. They are clustered and distributed. These are the wheel-works; the cloud is their avatar."

-- Gleick, James. The Information: History, a Theory, a Flood. London: Fourth Estate, 2011. p396. (Emphases mine. An excellent book all through.)

 

What The History of Fossil Fuels Teaches Us About Renewable Energy - The Atlantic

Those transitions have also been heavily dependent on the energy infrastructure that came before. The age of steam was not possible without human and animal work to mine the coal and build the machines. Even now, the wind turbines we look to to help us escape fossil fuels are steel towers (you make steel in coal-fired blast furnaces) topped by plastic blades (which comes from petroleum), installed by (gasoline-powered) construction equipment. A wind turbine is a “pure expression of fossil fuels,” said Smil during a 2013 lecture at the Perimeter Institute.

So, while Smil agrees with pretty much everyone else that the next big energy transition is from nonrenewable to renewable resources, he is cautious about the timing. At one level, the change is plainly inevitable. There will come a time when non-renewable resources run out, and Smil says it will be advantageous to transition off of fossil fuels long before then, to avoid climate change.

In this, Smil is no different from countless energy advocates from Greenpeace to Al Gore to T. Boone Pickens. Where he does differ is in his opinion about how quickly it can happen. Where Gore calls for a complete conversion to renewables in 10 years, Smil thinks the transition will take generations.