Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

rocket from the crypto / two dead letters

Chairman Bruce appears to be repubbing longreads from the now defunct Beyond The Beyond blog. This is a weird experience for me—distinctly atemporal, to use the man’s own term—because I recall reading this stuff at the time. And so it’s familiar and just-like-yesterday, but also so alienated and impossibly historical… I mean, I can’t recall the last time I saw anyone so much as mention the New Aesthetic, but I certainly remember a time when it seemed like everyone was talking about it. (That feeling of atemporal synchronicity is being compounded, no doubt, by my having been going through some of my own published material from the same period over the last couple of weeks… with the added irony that said act of retrospection was to the end of writing a chapter about Sterling for an academic collection.)

TL;DR—middle-age is a headfuck. I kind of understand why my parents went so weird in their forties, now… though I’m not sure I yet forgive the particular direction in which they went weird. And they didn’t even have the internet!

Anyway, the essay in question is the Chairman’s response to the New Aesthetic panel at the 2012 SXSW, and the bit I’m clipping is less about the New Aesthetic than a side-swipe at AI that reads just as true (and just as likely to be ignored) today:

… this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.

Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.

Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.

It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.

Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.

AI is the original suitcase word; indeed, it’s a term that Minsky came up with to describe the way the goal of “AI” kept drifting, and coming up with the term and identifying the problem didn’t get him anywhere nearer to solving it. I was writing a report on AI last year in a freelance capacity (for a foundation in a location whose commitment to the Californian Ideology is in some ways even greater than that of California itself, despite—or perhaps because of—its considerable geographical, historical and sociopolitical distance from California), and tried to make this point, drawing on the tsunami of critiques of AI-as-concept and AI-as-business-practice that have emerged since then, both within the academy and without… but, well, yeah.

I guess we just have to conclude that the sort of person who decides to make Super Mario their best man is not the sort of person who’s going to take it well when you point out that Super Mario is a sprite… no one wants to be the first to concede the emperor is naked, particularly not when they’ve stripped off in order to join the parade. Nonetheless, given the residual enthusiasm for peddling that particular brand of Kool-Aid which still persists among the big global consultancies, the McKinseys and their ilk, there’s probably a few more years in business models offering “Super Mario solutions” before smarter, faster-moving players start focussing on practical applications without the pseudo-religious wrapper. Or, I dunno, maybe not? Seems like people will believe whatever the hell makes them feel like a winner these days, and the very unfalsifiable nebulousness of “AI” might make it all but bulletproof for that very reason. Every era has its snake-oils.

in the belly of the chronophage

Offered without further comment.

In these concern trolls and reply guys, Seymour’s chronophage was literalized. The social industry doesn’t just eat our time with endless stimulus and algorithmic scrolling; it eats our time by creating and promoting people who exist only to be explained to, people to whom the world has been created anew every morning, people for whom every settled sociological, scientific, and political argument of modernity must be rehashed, rewritten, and re-accounted, this time with their participation.

These people, with their just-asking questions and vapid open letters, are dullards and bores, pettifoggers and casuists, cowards and dissemblers, time-wasters of the worst sort. But Seymour’s book suggests something worse about us, their Twitter and Facebook interlocutors: That we want to waste our time. That, however much we might complain, we find satisfaction in endless, circular argument. That we get some kind of fulfillment from tedious debates about “free speech” and “cancel culture.” That we seek oblivion in discourse. In the machine-flow atemporality of social media, this seems like no great crime. If time is an infinite resource, why not spend a few decades of it with a couple New York Times op-ed columnists, rebuilding all of Western thought from first principles? But political and economic and immunological crises pile on one another in succession, over the background roar of ecological collapse. Time is not infinite. None of us can afford to spend what is left of it dallying with the stupid and bland.

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…

as events evaporate (material virtuality / virtual materiality)

Harbingers of middle-agedness, #836: your journey around/along the dialectical Möbius strip of culture brings you to points when echoes of multiple previous moments thereupon reflect back at you at the same time. Point in case: Kieran Press-Reynolds on the phenomenon of the virtual rave [via Reynolds Senior].

I’m old enough to not only recall the earlier (though admittedly far clunkier) precedent of partying in Second Life, plus the rather lower bandwidth but nonetheless plausible possibilities of a PHPBBS party tied to a streaming radio station… but also the mid-Nineties commodification of rave, to which I arrived too late to realise just how tawdry an imitation it was of its seed culture. I suspect it’s my now-more-informed awareness of the latter that allows me to feel myself wanting to do the standard middle-aged Kids These Days routine, and to catch myself before doing it. What was once authentic and vital and NOW to me was always-already a copy of a copy of a copy. Virtual raving isn’t meant for me, and nor should it be; it’s for young folk in a world that lacks the space—cultural, economic, physical—for them to go wild in the Actual. More power to them.

But man, the echoes… and the indicators, perhaps, of the pendulum’s backswings yet to come.

… can computer-mediated events ever live up to real-life ones? One of the obvious downsides to virtual raving is the lack of secondary experiences. You can’t meet up with friends and journey to the venue. You can’t mosh, you don’t get that delicious after-feeling of dizzy bliss, and you can’t grab a post-show 2AM pink-frosted donut from Dunkin. It almost feels too easy: You plop in front of a screen and click on an app or type in a URL. Even though going to clubs requires effort and discomfort, there’s seemingly more payoff for that investment of energy.

I vaguely recall someone—I want to say Irvine Welsh, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him?—observing that a significant percentage of the thrill of drug-based subcultural activity came not from the drugs themselves, but rather from the obstacles overcome in the adventure of acquiring them, distributing them, getting them into the venue, sharing them at the afterparty in the basement of a crumbling four-storey terrace… you get the picture. Point being, it was an embodied experience—collectively embodied. Your McKennas and your Shulgins (and, IIRC, commentators like Reynolds Senior) pointed out the long paleohistory of the party as a shared and (sha)manic letting-down-of-the-hair, and I suspect the urge for that meatspace shindiggery will be harder to kill off than many are assuming right now… just as I suspect that the much-discussed and purportedly permanent upending of sociality due to the pandemic will be a far more temporary thing than is commonly claimed.

Perhaps I am just letting my nostalgia cloud my judgement? More than possible. But how’s this for an echo of post-rave clubland:

The culture surrounding an event is practically as important as the event itself. Club Q, for example, is one of the largest queer clubs on Zoom. Creatively misusing the videoconferencing app, Club Q has devised its own set of freaky features. One of these is what co-founder Andres Sierra calls “the jumbotron,” a sort of virtual rave equivalent to a sports stadium screen. Zoom allows the host of the room to choose which webcam to stream in the middle of the screen, making it both the biggest visible image and literally the center of everyone’s attention. When a club participant’s webcam gets selected, they become a momentary celebrity and freak out — just like with the blown-up shots of surprised spectators at a baseball match.

“It’s less about the celebrity who’s playing, and more a whole entire experience. The hierarchy between performer and audience is gone, and now the audience is part of the show,” Sierra says. “You have to see it in a different way from a real-life club… people come in and say, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be like that!’ Or, ‘Oh, this is way better than reading about it.’”

It was already a hollow fiction by then, of course, but the clubland mags of the mid-Nineties still regularly recited the catechism that contrasted DJ culture to the hoary hero-worship of rockism: The audience was the star! The hierarchy had been defeated! All this even as Cream and others were spearheading a return to the hierarchy, just with a new pantheon installed, their sticker-strewn flightcases now cradling rare vinyl instead of vintage Fenders and Gibsons.

That said, scenes such as Gatecrasher sustained a sense that the audience were a big part of the show. But you could say exactly the same of rockist culture at various points in its history. To pick just a few obvious examples: UK punk, 1976-77 (and arguably beyond); the Blitz Kids and New Romo; even 1990s Britpop and Britrock, to some extent (which I recall as being very dressy and performative things, at both gigs and clubs alike). That tension between the hero on the stage and the hero on the dancefloor will likely oscillate for as long as there’s a music culture to pluck at it… and each new generation will believe that it’s invented the latest inversion, just as it should.

But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t go all infrastructural on it, right? Right—and here’s the crux:

… but virtual fashion has one big thing going for it: sustainability. It proposes a pixel-sized alternative to the over 32 billion pounds of textiles generated every year, 22 billion of which end up in landfills, according to the EPA in 2017. “Virtual clothing is a product of information technology, which means it’s made out of data and uses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running,” explains Florian Mecklenburg, co-founder of the design studio Goys & Birls. He recently formed NEW FORMAT, a digital group dedicated to exploring virtual fashion. “Once a piece is created, it can be multiplied—limitless. You can copy and paste the data, and everyone has access to it. If people accept digital clothing, they will rethink their consumer behavior.” Obviously, virtual clothing could never outright eliminate the need to wear fabric in real life, but it could help reduce the mammoth waste caused by empty, vacuous practices like fast fashion.

“[U]ses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running”… that “except” is doing a whole lot of work, there, just like the server farms and power stations keeping the networks alive.

To be clear, this is not me making an old-man argument against virtual raving, but rather an argument against this shrugging away of the materiality of the virtual. Stuff happening on the internet is not inherently more sustainable than stuff happening elsewhere; in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Likewise, I’m all for the end of fast fashion—but the connection between rapid and consequence-free swapping of digital outfits and the seductiveness of brands and image on the one hand, and the disposability and effaced consequences of fast fashion on the other, is being rather conveniently waved away here, in much the same way that the materiality of the virtual is waved away with the comment about electricity. All that is solid melts into hot air blown away from a processor chip, as someone didn’t quite say.

As long as humans fetishize commodities and care about appearances, a sizable portion of hypebeasts and shoe fiends won’t care if the items they buy exist in solid form. If a brand like Supreme or Saint Laurent creates enough mystique around an item, consumers will lap it up. The hallucination of cool that comes with owning a rare item from a chic brand has always been what these people were really purchasing — virtual fashion simply keeps the image and jettisons the solid product.

And I just don’t buy this argument at all. I’m reminded of the Gibson riff in (I think) Mona Lisa Overdrive, where a character observes that, in a world where idealised telegenic beauty via elective surgery is a commonplace, the uniqueness and cachet of an individual’s unaltered features ends up being amplified rather than muted, at least for those who can afford not to perform the signifiers of the center of the bellcurve.

Point being: if everyone can get that virtual Kanye-designed Supreme plaid bucket-hat (or whatever it is), the kudos in having the thing is erased immediately. Style (as opposed to fashion) is about scarcity, the search, the time and effort and money expended on the self-curation of the image—it’s about uniqueness, and the aspiration to such. Endlessly duplicable virtual threads, rather than killing off the desire for material threads, will serve only to increase demand for them—and where there is demand, there will be production, because capitalism. The virtual rave is thus not an alternative to fast fashion, but a new captive-market platform for marketing it. (I could probably do a side-bit on the low barriers to duplication and IP piracy here, but I’m supposed to be working…)

The closer:

The virtual rave isn’t a fad — it’s a point on a much larger, longer timeline, a timeline tracking humanity’s slow, hazy descent into becoming totally techno-human, where everything we do in real-life can be done online with equal efficiency and enjoyment level, and we never have to move or leave our bedrooms at all.

Well, we were always-already totally techno-human… but that’s a theoretical quibble (and personal hobby-horse) that this piece doesn’t really merit. The bit that matters here, and the bit that makes me feel old (and more than a bit sad), is the second half, which describes the retreat into a Matrix-esque existence of virtual thrills experienced from isolated pods in terms which, while not exactly utopian (notwithstanding the word “efficiency”), nonetheless suggest something more enthusiastic than mere acceptance.

Maybe it’s too much to expect a sense of dispossession from a generation who’ve never really known the access to public space and shared experience that mine was privileged enough to get? I dunno. But my hope, nonetheless, is that the virtual rave marks the peak of the pendulum’s swing in that direction, and that in a handful more years, the kids will come raging out of those bedrooms and find a way (and a space) to make noisy, colourful chaos in the Actual. Speaking only for myself, growing old in a world where that isn’t happening is perhaps the most depressing version of late adulthood I can imagine—a world where the forces of order have triumphed totally.