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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.


On economic metaphors

3 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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



Apple and Star Wars together explain why much of the world around you looks the way it does - Quartz

Yet “as little design as possible” is precisely not that. It is, rather, the exhaustive application of design until every detail, every offending element, is brought under strict, harmonious arrangement. We notice nothing because everything is under control. And this is where we get to the essence of the resonance between the artifacts of Apple and that of the Empire of Star Wars: the exertion of control, and power, over the complex, messy reality of systems and objects.

The thesis is perhaps a little too neat and just-so, but this is a wonderful piece of writing.


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.


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

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

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