Skip to main content
 

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.]

 

 

The difference between information and knowledge: a riposte to Helen Milner on libraries

7 min read

It's been nearly a decade since I was employed in the public library sector, and I thought I'd become immune to reacting with blind fury to every mealy-mouthed consultant that proposes "reinventing" the library for "the digital age"... but apparently not. Here's the latest facile salvo in a war of attrition that's been ongoing for about fifteen years, if not longer, from a "digital inclusion charity", no less. A snippet for flavour:

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture.” Helen Milner, Tinder (No, not that Tinder... brilliant bit of misbranding, wot?)

There are two points I'd like to make in response to Milner's transparent shilling for more funding to be diverted in the direction of her own operation.

The first is to peel away the euphemism of "community hubs" and show what that tends to mean in practice. What it has meant for at least a decade is that in addition to the core functions which libraries were intended to provide -- of which more later -- they have long served as spaces of refuge for the homeless, and for those with mental illness; when governments speak of "care in the community", libraries are one of the places it happens. The same goes for troubled and truant adolescents, lonely older people, and the other groups left on the margins by neoliberal socioeconomic dogma. Library staff, especially the frontline staff, have two jobs, if not three: they are library staff, and they are de facto care workers and PCSOs as well (while lacking any of the training or legal protections given to actual care workers and PCSOs, such as it is). And of course "library staffing" also covers the running of the more visible and celebrated "community hub" functions. If you think for a moment library staff spend their days sat on their hands waiting to shush people, then you've clearly not visited one in a long, long time. They're busy, bustling places, and the lending of books is -- tragically, and often quite literally -- the very least of what they do.

And for fifteen years or more, they've also been acting as de facto free-to-air internet cafes, often under the patronising banner of "The People's Network". To be clear, I fully support the provision of internet facilities in libraries, and I support even more fully the provision of free internet access for those unable to access it elsewhere -- not least because the Daniel Blakes of this world need that access in order to avoid being sanctioned for failing to apply for work in the approved manner, which is to say online.

The error was to assume that internet provision for libraries and internet access for more general use could be delivered together. It certainly saved some beancounter somewhere a lot of ugly red marks on a balance ledger, but locating the People's Network in public libraries actively damaged the core functions of libraries -- predominantly by consuming vast amounts of staff time, through dealing with administrivia and managing the resulting queues of people, but also through eating into floor space and operational budget... and also, truth be told, by eating into the image of libraries as places of relative peace and quiet.

Now, my second point: let us recall what a library really is -- or what it was, at any rate. Milner's position seems to be something along the lines of "libraries store information; the internet stores information; but the internet is newer and better and faster and cheaper, and should therefore supplant libraries because [markets]."

This is a dangerous comparison, and this is why: libraries are not merely stores of information, they are curated stores of structured knowledge with the ultimate in natural-language query interfaces, namely human beings trained to understand how to answer the most complicated and random questions imaginable. (And believe you me, people ask some profoundly complicated and random questions of library staff... and those staff take pride in being able to answer them.)

The internet is not a library, because -- considered as a whole -- it is not curated or structured; indeed, these are the considered to be the internet's great selling point (and with some justification). The internet, as people have started to notice, isn't very good at supplying knowledge; there's knowledge out there, but one needs to know where to look for it, how to judge its veracity, which sources can be trusted on which topics. Knowledge is structured information; the internet is just information. 

But before you decry the curation and gatekeepering of knowledge represented by the archaic structures of libraries, recall that the internet has its librarians, too. The bodies now curating and structuring knowledge on our behalf have names like Google, Bing, Microsoft, Facebook. They are not trained to understand people at all; they are trained to provide what the customer wants, even when the customer doesn't know what they want. They are algorithms, larded all through with the implicit biases of their creators. They structure information, but they do not structure knowledge; algorithms can't do knowledge. Knowledge is a cognitive function of sentient beings; it requires not only the sorting and ordering of information, but the parsing and evaluation of information. And no amount of repeating the words "artificial intelligence" or "expert systems" will ever change that fact. Information -- or data, if you prefer -- can only become knowledge through human activity. All an algorithm can do is sort information into vaguely related piles, and let you sift through it yourself.

And that's why we should fear those who would see librarianship disappear, to be replaced by rows of gleaming terminals -- fear them, and fight them to the last. Because whether knowingly or not, they seek overturn a practice that has underpinned civilisation itself for thousands of years, and replace it with a digital teddy-picker.

Think of the inside of a library, for a moment: picture the orderly shelves, the labels on the spines, the ranks of books sorted by subject and topic, the staff waiting to not just give you a book, but give you the book which will best answer the question you've brought.

By comparison, the internet is a warehouse with a huge undifferentiated pile of books in no particular order, staffed by little robots who can find you any book which has the words of your question somewhere in its text, but who always present you with the book that was closest to the top of the pile, on the assumption that it's being on top of the pile means it gets used the most, and must therefore be the most relevant, because otherwise why would people keep asking for it?

That's why we live in a world of Putins, Trumps and Brexits. And that's why if you decide that we need to provide more free internet access for "the people" -- which, to be clear, I think would be a good thing to do -- you either need to separate that provision from library services to some extent, or alternatively provide the funding not only for the terminals and the network connection, but for _more_ trained frontline query staff than ever before, able to teach questioners how to evaluate the information that the algorithms provide -- able to teach people how to build their own knowledge, in other words.

And when you phrase it like that, it becomes pretty clear why the state would be happy to see the library system disappear. "Libraries gave us power," as the Manics once sang -- the power to empower ourselves, to acquire knowledge without being patronised, flattered, or dripfed falsities by partisan media and multinational corporations with expensive agendas to advance.

We mustn't let them take that power away. It was too hard won for that.

 

Narrative strategies in prose and cinema

4 min read

Some interesting and practical material in this interview with Alex Garland regarding the different narrative affordances of prose and cinema:

DBK: I can imagine a more robust form of that argument just being: A book can deal with ideas, a novel can deal with ideas, in a much more robust way than a film can, so express the ideas in a book.

AG: In its best medium.

DBK: In its best medium, right.

AG: And then I’d say, “Well, it probably depends on the idea. And it depends on the way you want to explore the idea.” If you want to explore it in a forensic way, then what you said is probably true, because just in terms of information, you can get much more information into a novel. Rather, you can get explicit information into a novel that allows you, in a concrete way, to see exactly what the sentence is at least attempting to say, within reason. In film, the ideas are more often alluded to. In the film I just worked on, which is an ideas movie, I would say some of the ideas are very explicitly put out there and literally discussed, and others of them are there by illustration or by inference, just maybe simply in the presentation of a thing. Of a robot that looks like a woman, but isn’t a woman, but maybe it is a woman. There’s an idea contained within that. There is, in fact, a brief discussion about it. But, broadly speaking, in a novel, you would be able to have much more full and forensic-type explanations or discussions.

Film relies much more on inference, but that’s its strength, too. I’ve often thought, as someone who has worked in books and film, about what you can do in a film by doing a close-up, or even a mid-shot, of a glance where somebody notices something, and how easy it is to pack massive amounts of information into that glance in terms of what the character has just seen, or what they haven’t seen. And in a book, how you can never quite throw the moment away, and yet contain as much within it as you can with film. The thing I like most about film is probably that thing. It has this terrific way of being able to load moments that it’s also throwing away, and that’s harder in a novel.

DBK: To be contrarian about that, for a second though . . .

AG: Cool. [Laughter]

DBK: In a book you can actually get inside someone’s head and just tell the reader what they’re thinking or inhabit their consciousness.

AG: Absolutely.

DBK: In a film, everything that the character is thinking has to be conveyed through their facial expression or body language.

AG: Or a bit of voiceover, yeah.

[Note how rare a technique the voiceover is in modern cinema. Note also, by comparing the original cinematic release of Blade Runner with the director's cut, the extent to which the addition or removal of a first-person voice-over completely changes the affect of a film.]

DBK: One thing that strikes me a lot about movies is that the character is deceiving other characters in the scene, but they have to be doing it in a way that’s obvious enough that the audience sees through them, whereas, why don’t the characters in the scene see through them?

AG: Well, it’s funny you should say that, because actually inEx Machinathe characters are often simultaneously deceiving the audience and the other characters. One of the conversations with the actors, prior to shooting, was about making sure that we didn’t telegraph in the way that film often does, in exactly the way you said, that you abandon that relationship. Now, that’s problematic in some ways, because it makes character motivation more ambiguous, but in other ways, that’s also a strength. That may be something I’m pulling from novels, I don’t know, but I didn’t think I was. I thought it was a more explicit version of show-don’t-tell. It was taking show-don’t-tell to a sort of extremist degree, or something like that. But interestingly, there are many, many times inEx Machinawhere a lot of effort is made to not have a complicit understanding, or an implicit understanding, between the audience and a character.

 

SELFIE by @rachsyme

"Capitalism, as Rowbotham noted, loves to self-reflect. It needs to perpetuate itself, and one of the ways it does so is via imagery — i.e. advertising — that keeps people desirous, that makes people feel incomplete without whatever shiny new thing has just hit the market. Those at the top benefit, naturally, from creating these images. It is bad then for the lust-economy to have people reveling in pictures they take themselves; it is very difficult to control consumers who do not need to look at the media to know what to value, what to buy, who to honor and protect. Selfies are not inherently political acts, but these resonant, addictive, unregulated images are another manifestation of this growing distrust of the mainstream and the swelling desire by many individuals to reclaim their own narratives now that they have the virtual microphone."

A fine and strident essay. Made me realise that my own disapproval of selfies is bound up with exactly the resentment of the self-love of others that Syme describes: why aren't these people as ashamed of their faces as I am of mine? And a reminder that my maleness is, as a result, imperfect: if men are those who are permitted by society to love themselves, then I have never been a man. And hell knows what that makes me, then -- but nonetheless, this is my face.

 

 

Raven, P G & Elahi, S (2015). "The New Narrative: Applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs."

From the abstract:

Both scenario development and design practices incorporate elements of storytelling, but this use remains undertheorised. This paper will draw upon literary theory, film theory and science fiction criticism to develop an analytical model of narrative structure and rhetorics which speaks to the concerns of scenario developers and designers when engaged in shaping the final outputs or deliverables of a futures project.

After highlighting the differing role of telos in art and futures and defining the metacategory of “narratives of futurity”, this paper then defines the terms “story”, “narrative”, “narrator” and “world” in the literary context. It then shows how those concepts map onto futures practice, before going into detail regarding the variety of narrative strategies available across a range of different forms and media, and the qualitative effects that they can reproduce in audiences. There follows the construction of a 2 × 2 matrix based on the critical concepts of narrative mode and narrative logic, within which narratives of futurity might be usefully catalogued and compared, and from which certain broad conclusions may be reached as regards the relation between choice of medium and rhetorical effect. The implications of this analysis are explored in detail.

This paper, part of a Special Issue of the journal Futures on "Scenarios & Design", is among the outputs of 2014's Oxford Futures Forum on the same theme, to which I was privileged to be invited. Many thanks to my co-author Shirin Elahi (of Normann Partners), and to the many people who contributed ideas on the day.

(Thanks to the generosity of the EPSRC, which supports my PhD research, this paper is free for anyone to download under a Creative Commons license.)