Category Archives: Technology

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Unpacking the suitcase words

Half a dozen different people sent me this article for slightly different reasons; one has come to dread the listicle format, but this example is excellent, with every point well worth passing on. My talk in Munich last week was an extensive riff on Clarke’s Third Law, so I’ll not reprise that now; instead, I’ll highlight this bit:

Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

[…]

Suitcase words mislead people about how well machines are doing at tasks that people can do. That is partly because AI researchers—and, worse, their institutional press offices—are eager to claim progress in an instance of a suitcase concept. The important phrase here is “an instance.” That detail soon gets lost. Headlines trumpet the suitcase word, and warp the general understanding of where AI is and how close it is to accomplishing more.

I hadn’t heard Minsky’s coining before, but I sure as hell know suitcase words when I see them; I tend to call them “hollow signifiers”, myself, but suitcase words is a far better formulation.

I’m less sanguine than Brooks regarding the intentionality of suitcase words, however; I have long been of the opinion, and am increasingly so, that the energetic trumpeting of under-paid, under-trained and under pressure journalists that results in this semiotic inflation is not seen as a bug by the “artificial intelligence” industry, but is in fact seen as (and quite possibly nurtured as) a feature to be relentlessly exploited. This would be why Elon Musk takes every opportunity to position “artificial intelligence” as a potential threat, even as his own companies are sinking billions into R&D programs; so long as people are talking about a suitcase word, whether positively or negatively, said suitcase word becomes a lever for attention, and thus for funding. Sell it as an angel, sell it as a devil… don’t matter how you sell it, so long as you’re selling, right?

A way to sell selling itself

VR/AR is ad-tech. Everything built in studios (except for experimental projects from independent artists) is advertising something. That empathy stuff? That’s advertising for nonprofits. But mostly VR is advertising itself. While MTV was advertising musicians, the scale and creative freedom meant that it launched careers for people like Michel Gondry, Antoine Fuqua, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, etc. A band from a town like Louisville or Tampa could get in touch with a local filmmaker and collaborate on a project and hope that 120 Minutes picks it up. There were entry points like that. And the audience was eager to see something experimental. But a VR audience is primed to have something like a rollercoaster experience, rather than an encounter with the unexpected. The same slimy shapeshifter entrepreneurs that could just as well build martech or chatbots went and colonized the VR space because they have a built in excuse that it took film “fifty years before Orson Wells.” Imagine that. A blank check and a deadline in fifty years.

The always-insightful Joanne McNeil. Everything the Valley does is marketing; that they’re still flogging away at a horse two decades dead tells you everything you need to know about what the word “innovation” really means.

Surveillance and legibility: systems of seeing

“Networks weird people.” Quinn Norton and Ella Saitta explain the yin-yang nature of network effects — and the complicity of hackers and “geek culture” in such — to the Chaos Communications Conference.

This is of considerable interest to me, for two reasons. First of all, because legibility is a big part of what my doctorate is about: the systems on which we depend are illegible to us, and in the same way that the state needs to “see” its citizens to interact with them effectively, we need to “see” our infrastructure; however, this would be counterproductive for those who own and control infrastructure, leading to the ironic endgame of the atemporal, wherein the illusion that society is separate from nature is both sustained by and projected upon the very metasystem which binds them inseparably together.

Secondly, because I’m increasingly convinced that an unexamined methodological positivism is at the root of solutionism and geek exceptionalism alike; it’s the dark side of scientific epistemology, a faux-empiricist position wherein that which cannot be quantified cannot exist. It’s also a central plank of neoclassical economics, and neoliberal political theory. Ironically, however, it has created the ultimate machine for forcing humans to confront the subjectivity of the human experience, namely the internet. This is the ideological paradox at the heart of atemporality: the more finely the metanarratives are shredded by our distrust, the more desperate we are for someone to stitch us together a comforting and authoritative story from the fragments. In such an environment, curatorship is power, as Rupert Murdoch knows very well; curation imposes a narrative on the fragments it collects together by excluding the ones it discards.

But what if you gave an exhibition and nobody came? Curation with no visitors is like art with no audience, a scream in the wilderness. So the complementary power to curation is that of distribution: the ability to not only shape the narrative, but to get it in front of the right audience.

He who owns the pipes controls the flow.

Positivism will eat itself

They’re mixing the Kool-Aid pretty strong in the Valley these days [via @moonandserpent]:

Julien Cuny and Louis-Pierre Pharand, former producers and creative directors at Ubisoft on Assassin’s Creed and FarCry, have formed a new development studio named PIXYUL. Their goal: to map our planet at 1:1 scale using drones, and use the resulting 3D recreation as the setting for a survival RPG called ReRoll.

Tell ’em how it goes, Georgie Borges…

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Cf:


Mmm-hmm.