Category Archives: Technology

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Justifications for critical utopianism

A strident argument for critical utopian discourse  (and against  technotopian solutionism) from David F Ruccio at Real-World Economics Review [via SyntheticZero]:

[This] doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

And that is why, after five years of feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall, I’m nonetheless bandaging my metaphorical head and carrying on. For the most part, infrastructural research in the UK academy has been thoroughly colonised by solutionist paradigms, to the extent that it feels like being caught in an warped loop of the Marge vs. the Monorail! episode of The Simpsons that never reaches the denouement. It’s frustrating — and has frequently felt futile — to do battle with the unholy alliance of perverse economic incentives and semantically ambiguous suitcase words… but as the old cliche goes: to try is to invite failure, but to give up is to ensure it.

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.

 

No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

There is no meaningfully superhuman way to install a ceiling fan

In the history of both technology and religion, you find a tension between two competing priorities that lead to two different patterns of problem selection: establishing the technology versus establishing a narrative about the technology. In proselytizing, you have to manage the tension between converting people and helping them with their daily problems. In establishing a religion in places of power, you have to manage a tension between helping the rulers govern, versus getting them to declare your religion as the state religion.

You could say Boundary AI problems are church-building problems. Signaling-and-prayer-offering institutions around which the political power of a narrative can accrete. Even after accounting for Moravec’s paradox (easy for humans is hard for machines/hard for humans is easy for machines), we still tend to pick Boundary AI problems that focus on the theatrical comparison, such as skill at car-driving.

In technology, the conflict between AC and DC witnessed many such PR battles. More recently VHS versus Betamax, Mac versus PC, and Android versus iOS are recognized as essentially religious in part because they are about competing narratives about technologies rather than about the technologies themselves. To claim the “soul” of a technological narrative is to win the market for it. Souls have great brand equity.

A proper brain-hoser of a longread from the latest episode of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter*; religion, sociotechnical change, artificial intelligence, societal alienation, ceiling fans. So much to chew on it took me an hour to pick a pull-quote; it is completely typical for Rao to just wander about like this between big-concept topics and find connections and comparisons, which is why I started reading him a long, long time ago.

* It appears you can’t see the latest episode in the archives, presumably until it is no longer the latest episode, because [newsletters]. Drop me a line if you want me to forward the email version on… or just trust me when I say that if you’re intrigued by the pull-quote, you should just subscribe anyway. Not like it’ll cost you anything, beyond a bit of cognitive bandwidth.

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.