Category Archives: Technology

Smaller, better, faster, more!

beyond the valley of the trolls

Interesting interview with Anna Wiener, The New Yorker‘s woman-on-the-ground in Silicon Valley. Her critique is informed by actually having spent a number of years in the trenches of tech, always on the non-coding side of the payroll.

Today’s iteration of Silicon Valley seems ahistorical, anti-intellectual, irreverent in a way that is more reflective of the current phase of capitalism than of any unique industry value. I feel the industry needs to be more closely tied to both the government and academia, and better integrated—not in the current NSA, Stanford-pipeline sort of way. We’ve lost, for example, the tradition of research labs. In the late twentieth century, the countercultural idealism hardened into a libertarian ethos, an anti-institutional, anti-government stance, and also this new form of hubris that was legitimized by venture capital. I think people are incredibly reluctant to surrender that underdog identity, regardless of how true it was, then or now.

Like the interviewer here, I read (and was blown away by) her memoir piece at n+1 back in 2016; if her just-about-to-drop book manages to sustain that same tension and vibe, it’ll be a great (but also enervating) read.

a metrics of labour other than time

Very interesting long paper by Matteo Pasquinelli; going back through Marx’s notion of the general intellect, he shows that none other than yer man Babbage theorised computing systems not only as a concretisation of labour but a crystallisation of preexisting biases in the workforce. Everything old becomes new again.

… the distinction between manual and mental labour disappears in Marxism because, from the abstract point of view of capital, all waged labour, without distinction, produces surplus value; all labour is abstract labour. However, the abstract eye of capital that regulates the labour theory of value employs a specific instrument to measure labour: the clock. In this way, what looks like a universal law has to deal with the metrics of a very mundane technology: clocks are not universal. Machines can impose a metrics of labour other than time, as has recently happened with social data analytics. As much as new instruments define new domains of science, likewise they define new domains of labour after being invented by labour itself. Any new machine is a new configuration of space, time and social relations, and it projects new metrics of such diagrams. In the Victorian age, a metrology of mental labour existed only in an embryonic state. A rudimentary econometrics of knowledge begins to emerge only in the twentieth century with the first theory of information. The thesis of this text is that Marx’s labour theory of value did not resolve the metrics for the domains of knowledge and intelligence, which had to be explored in the articulation of the machine design and in the Babbage principle.

Following Braverman and Schaffer, one could add that Babbage provided not just a labour theory of the machine but a labour theory of machine intelligence. Babbage’s calculating engines (‘intelligent machines’ of the age) were an implementation of the analytical eye of the factory’s master. Cousins of Bentham’s panopticon, they were instruments, simultaneously, of surveillance and measurement of labour. It is this idea that we should consider and apply to the age of artificial intelligence and its political critique, although reversing its polarisation, in order to declare computing infrastructures a concretion of labour in common.

once more, with feeling

Another eviscerating review of Bastani’s Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, this time at Radical Philosophy:

… FALC is an improbable, unhelpful and frankly undesirable blueprint for our collective future: improbable because it glosses over the ecological reality of our desperate global predicament, unhelpful because at a time when we are heading for global ecological collapse FALC advocates more climate-wrecking economic activity, and undesirable because the theory is grounded on a discredited and corrosive vision of human wellbeing.

[…]

There is a telling line in the book when Bastani discusses resource scarcity and writes that ‘the limits of the earth would confine post-capitalism to conditions of abiding scarcity. The realm of freedom would remain out of reach’. ‘Freedom’ in this passage is defined in much the same way in FALC as it is in neoliberalism: through access to opulence and through the capacity to consume. Though Bastani proposes a different model of wealth distribution, the values he shares with the neoliberal paradigm may explain part of the success of his book. There is something deeply conservative about his adherence to the values of materialism and consumerism. These values have participated in driving us to the edge of climatic and ecological collapse, which can only be averted by radically and rapidly transforming society.

It’s very well intended, I’m sure, but left accelerationism is just one more contradiction stacked atop all capitalism’s other contradictions. “What if we could do what Amazon does, but without all the evil bits?” Well, you can’t. The master’s tools cannot nanotechnologically dismantle, detoxify and redesign the master’s house… but, as the old riff goes, the master will gladly sell you iteration after iteration of his toolkit while you try to find a way to use it to do away with him!

To be clear, I’m not sure full-on degrowth is the answer, either — but I’m increasingly convinced that a viable path for civilisational survival is going to have to run closer to degrowth than to FALC; much closer. This cake-and-eat-it crap is a distraction from the hard work of portraying the potential upsides of reconfiguring toward a absolute-minimalist deployment of technological means of resource management.

To paraphrase Giorgos Kallis (very loosely), the point of reneging on capitalism isn’t first and foremost about resource limits, though those are both very real and very relevant; the point it to build a way of life which — due to being less cluttered with consumerist “luxury” and the anxiety, envy and wastage that accompany it — has more space for joy, beauty and reflection. Likewise, I object to FALC on the basis of its economic and scientific shoddiness, but first and foremost because its main promise is that the future will be like the present, only more so.

FALC is to capitalism what methadone is to smack: the promise of quitting without actually having to quit.

a quasi-military device

Loads of grimly chewy stuff in this Will Davies interview. Like this map-is-not-the-territory riff about smartphones, f’rex:

What the phone promises you psychologically is not content as such, but a space on the screen that is totally obedient to you. This translates into the illusion that the world, seen through the screen, will be equally obedient. I think any effort to try to understand smartphone addiction needs to grapple with the fact that it is much closer to a control technology than an information technology. Of course, it tells you useful things but what it offers you is navigation and control, the ability to make a fast-moving and confusing world obey you. One of the main contrasts in the book is between a view of the world that tries to represent it—the classically modern one of the seventeenth century for which the map would be a classic example—and a view of the world which brings it under control, which is a military ideal. Today, we often have no idea where we are going until we put a destination into our phone and follow the instructions. This navigation-based approach to the world originates from military technology and the need to bring the world under control.

Etymology is important, kids! “Cyber”: a contraction of “cybernetics”, derived from from the Greek kubernētēs (pilot, steersman) and/or kubernēsis (governance, leadership).

nontransparent, unspiderable

Nicholas Carr on Page and Brin’s vanishing trick:

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

Cf: my riff on the wizards of innovation, and the relation between infrastructure and stage magic. The hero’s journey of tech is a ubiquitous generic form — presumably because it has a great deal in common with investor storytime, and fits well with the generally individualistic worldbuilding of capitalist realism. The G**gle guys are merely the most successful iteration of the sorcerer role to date — the wizard’s wizards, if you will.

I owe Carr an apology, really; back in the Noughties, when I was still a fully signed-up Sil-Val Kool-Aid consumer, I gave his book The Big Switch a kicking for what seemed to me to be a very pessimistic and negative take on the brave new world of web two-point-nought etc. I wish I had paid closer attention earlier on.