The aesthetics of decentralisation

Despite the cacophony of political conjecture, the story of blockchain so far is a tale of financial speculation, in which the cash rewards reaped by bankers and venture capitalists are largely a result of the techno-utopian hype. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The prospect of decentralizing control does not absolve us of the hard work of politics, and blockchain has so far failed to transfer power to ‘We, the people’, whatever the white papers might suggest. Political economy cannot be replaced by technology alone. Today, technological wealth produced by and for society largely oils the machinery of capitalist accumulation. While we have yet to witness the decentralization of control, the collective wealth produced by of the decentralization of production — that is, the ‘sharing economy’, the big data industry, and other platforms that monetize our daily social interactions — remains firmly in the service of exploitative (centralized) corporations. Whether in logistics or social media, it is not so difficult — nor even particularly radical — to imagine decentralized, peer-to-peer services which produce value by and for the commonwealth. Nonetheless, it would require governance, by nationalization or other means: the network is not identical to the commons, and nor should we hope for it to be.

A super-chewy long-read [via Jay Springett]: “Systems Seduction: The Aesthetics of Decentralisation” by Gary Zhexi Zhang, one of ten winners in the Journal of Design & Science “Resisting Reduction” essay competition.


Free market bullshit

David Graeber’s on tour, plugging his new book on the remarkably successful and resonant “bullshit jobs” hypothesis. Snipping this from an interview with him at Dissent Magazine:

Brooks: And this also helps to explain why market enthusiasts are wrong in their claims that it’s impossible or unlikely that capitalism will produce bullshit jobs.

Graeber: Yes, exactly. Amusingly enough both libertarians and Marxists tend to attack me on these grounds, and the reason is that both are still basically operating with a conception of capitalism as it existed in maybe the 1860s—lots of little competing firms making and selling stuff. Sure, that’s still true if you’re talking about, say, owner-operated restaurants, and I’d agree that such restaurants tend not to hire people they don’t really need. But if you’re talking about the large firms that dominate the economy nowadays, they operate by an entirely different logic. If profits are extracted through fees, rents, and creating and enforcing debts, if the state is intimately involved in surplus extraction, well, the difference between the economic and political sphere tends to dissolve. Buying political loyalty for your extractive schemes is itself an economic good.

Earlier in the piece Graeber makes that point that, far from being a conspiracy theory, this is precisely the opposite, in that it neatly explains the absence of concerted elite action to rig the econopolitical system: if it ain’t broke (for you), then why expend any effort trying to fix it?

Roamin’ roads, redux

The WaPo [via the good folk at Moving History] reports on some interesting research which comes to a conclusion that (I hope) no regular reader here would be surprised by: current geographical levels of population and prosperity in Europe correlate strongly with the Roman road network laid down around two millennia ago.

Dalgaard and his colleagues marshal convincing pieces of evidence to argue in favor of a causal link that runs from ancient roadbuilding to modern-day prosperity. For starters, Roman roads weren’t typically built with trade in mind: their primary purpose was to move troops and supplies to locations of military interest. Trade was an afterthought.

“Roman roads were often constructed in newly conquered areas without any extensive, or at least not comparable, existing network of cities and infrastructure,” Dalgaard and his colleagues write. In many instances, the roads came first. Settlements and cities came later.

Just because I’m not a quant doesn’t mean I don’t like to see someone run the numbers and do the GiS work; indeed, it’s a pleasure to see an instinctive qualitative conclusion bolstered by solid research. As such, it’d be nice for someone to run a more detailed study of the same correlation focussed on Britain (for which some fine person did a tube-map style plot of Roman roads a while back)… and as an imminently unemployed self-employed researcher with experience in matters infrastructural-historical, I stand ready should anyone decide they’d like to fund such a study. Our operators are waiting for your call, etc etc.

In the meantime, have you read Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power? Because, by whatever gods (or the lack thereof) you may believe in, you really should — because it’s a  brilliant book exactly about how those Roman roads formed the basis of the road network we have now (as well as how the civil engineer came to be a thing, and the relationship of infrastructural provision to the projection of domestic state power, and much more), but also just because it’s a brilliant book, full stop.

Amend Malthus

So one is left with the thought that Malthus might just have been unlucky with his timing. It would have been hard for him to know that the small workings of coal he might have been able to observe were in fact a foretaste of the large scale mining of the 19th and 20th centuries, or that we’d stumble across more more-or-less free energy in the shape of oil in the 20th century.

[…] Malthus casts a doubt over the whole notion of progress and growth that has been our dominant discourse for the past 150 years, certainly in the countries that did well out of the Industrial Revolution. More: it has been our only permissible mainstream discourse. And if Malthus was unlucky in his timing, his argument still implies that we might, as a species, have been lucky rather than clever in stumbling across all of that easy energy. Which, in turn, casts a doubt over a large part of the story about human capacity and human development that is the story of the Enlightenment.

Andrew Curry at The Next Wave. Note that ragging on Malthus is a classic strategy of Wizards, as Malthus is arguably the pioneering Prophet.

Cold equations in the care vacuum

In a nutshell, over-reliance on computer ‘carers’, none of which can really care, would be a betrayal of the user’s human dignity – a fourth-level need in Maslow’s hierarchy. In the early days of AI, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum made himself very unpopular with his MIT colleagues by saying as much. ‘To substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love,’ he insisted in 1976, is ‘simply obscene.’

Margaret Boden at Aeon, arguing that the inability of machines to care precludes the “robot takeover” scenario that’s so popular a hook for thinkpieces at the moment.

I tend to agree with much of what she says in this piece, but for me at least the worry isn’t artificial intelligence taking over, but the designers of artificial intelligence taking over — because in the absence of native care in algorithmic systems, we get the unexamined biases, priorities and ideological assumptions of their designers programmed in as a substitute for such. If algorithmic systems were simply discreet units, this might not be such a threat… but the penetration of the algorithm into the infrastructural layers of the sociotechnical fabric is already well advanced, and path dependency means that getting it back out again will be a struggle. The clusterfuck that is the Universal Credit benefits system in the UK is a great example of this sort of Cold Equations thinking in action: there’s not even that much actual automation embedded in it yet, but the principle and ideals of automation underpin it almost completely, with the result that — while it may perhaps have been genuinely well-intended by its architects, in their ignorance of the actual circumstances and experience of those they believed they were aiming to help — it’s horrifically dehumanising, as positivist systems almost always turn out to be when deployed “at scale”.

Question is, do we care enough about caring to reverse our direction of travel? Or is it perhaps the case that, the further up Maslow’s pyramid we find ourselves, the harder we find it to empathise with those on the lower tiers? There’s no reason that dignity should be a zero-sum game, but the systems of capitalism have done a pretty thorough job of making it look like one.

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