Tag Archives: infrastructure

archaeology of prestidigitatory production

A short Doug Rushkoff riff that chimes with my extended infrastructure-as-stage-magic metaphor:

The industrialist’s dream was to replace [workers] entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.

Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

Provision ex nihilo. The seemingly magical product or service always sells better. Rushkoff points off in the direction of the metamedium, too:

While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.

Infrastructure as a metasystem is complicit in its own effacement. Its purpose is not only to enable our prosthetic consumptions, but further to obscure their consequences by displacing them in timespace. It is the veil that capital draped over Gaia, the entangled cause and effect of the social/natural dichotomy.

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?

protocols > platforms

I used to read Techdirt, and Mike Masnick in particular, with genuine reverence when Futurismic was still a running concern. He was tech-critical long before it was fashionable to be so, but from a position that challenged my own thinking quite a bit, and still does: in short, Masnick’s about as close to First Amendment Fundamentalism as I’ll go. (I used to go a fair bit closer than I do these days; insert your own wistful reminiscences of more innocent times on the still-somewhat-utopian internet of the Noughties here.)

These days my greatest and enduring interest in Masnick’s work comes from his maintaining the old (and seemingly all-but-forgotten) distinction between protocols and platforms. As presumably foreshadowed by the preceding paragraph, this is largely in service of “free speech” — though Masnick’s notion of free speech is notably more thought-through and pre-problematised than the one you encounter most often. I guess we might say he’s one of the last intellectually honest techno-libertarians.

Here’s Masnick introducing a long piece at Columbia U’s Knight First Amendment Institute, where he argues in favour of a return to an internet based on open protocols rather than proprietary platforms:

Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices. It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.

In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.

Now, regular readers will likely have picked up some hints in recent years that I no longer assume competition between commercial actors will necessarily, or even possibly, result in the emergence of an optimal solution. (YA RLY.)

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that a lot of the sociopolitical issues we’ve seen in the last decade have been exacerbated by the ubiquitous reach of certain proprietary platforms of communication. A very reductive way of putting it might be to observe that if a platform and the set of rules by which it is used (which we might call its interface) are considered as a game, then two things are likely to happen: a) highly motivated people will find a way to win the game by pushing at the edges of the rule-set, and b) highly motivated people with access to money will lean on the curators of the rule-set to make their pushing at its edges more successful. All of this will happen within a broader ecology where almost all the strong incentives to action tend to be driven by and towards the accumulation of profit and/or power.

(Or, more succinctly: Facebook, and its abuse for political and financial influence, is inevitable in a capitalist context which does not actively mitigate against the existence of Facebooks.)

But Masnick’s spot on when it comes to the power of protocols — because both he and my anarchist self recognise that replacing Facebook with a state-run monopoly platform, however well intended, would result in similarly dysfunctional results. (This is another sense in which the big comms/tech companies are infrastructures, and thus very similar to the rapacious railway companies from which they are descended.)

I don’t have the time (and you likely don’t have the patience) to revisit some of the more woolly implications of my PhD thesis today, and in the end the protocol/platform distinction didn’t make as strong a showing in the final work as originally expected — but nonetheless it’s a distinction that matters a great deal in my theoretical model of sociotechnical change. To simplify hugely, the reason why a state-run monopoly platform is little better than a privately-owned monopoly platform is not that they are both monopolies; on the contrary, any geographically inelastic distribution system (be it a railway or a communications network) should, nay MUST be a monopoly, because breaking the network up into subnetworks reduces both its functional and its economical efficiency.

Rather, the problem with platforms is that, to use my preferred theoretical nomenclature, they control both the infrastructure layer and the interface layer. A protocol, by contrast, is provided as an open opportunity (or capacity) by an infrastructure layer in order that all comers are able to to develop their own compatible interfaces thereto; those interfaces will work with the clearly delimited capacities and potentialities of the infrastructure layer, and package them in such a way as to fulfill the teleology of a particular practice-as-performance.

(Regrettably, the full elucidation of my theoretical work has yet to make it into any publications, and I’ve not had the time to write it up for its own sake. I’m hoping that an SI proposed in the aftermath of last year’s RGS conference, plus a paper I’m hoping will be accepted for this year’s Petrocultures, will give me the chance/reason to get this stuff down in print and out in the world.)

Looping back to Masnick, then: my theory broadly agrees with him on the point about “pushing power out to the ends of the network” — but with the proviso that the network (which cannot be disentangled from the organisation charged with running and maintaining it) must necessarily be a closely regulated and functionally restricted monopoly in order for his proposed freedom of use-cases to be possible; the total organisational separation between the infrastructure layer and the interface layer must be maintained. This is not an ideological position, but an argument from function which can be illustrated with pretty much every infrastructural development in history.

And that’s the core thesis one of the handful of books I’d really like someone to pay me to write… but as no one’s gonna even think about paying me until it’s been written, I guess I’d better find the time to write it while I’m being paid to do other things, eh?

leveraging their putative goodness / the psychopathology of private infrastructures

You may remember Joel Bakan from such influential Noughties non-fiction books/movies as The Corporation. Well, Bakan’s back, and his earlier thesis — that corporations, if considered as people, are basically psychopaths — is no less true than before. In fact, he claims it’s worse, because concepts like “corporate social responsibility” have merely encouraged them to become superficially charming psychopaths.

The fact is, despite all the celebratory talk, corporations will not – indeed, cannot – sacrifice their own and their shareholders’ interests to the cause of doing good. That presents a profound constraint in terms of what kinds and amounts of good they are likely to do – and effectively licenses them to do ‘bad’ when there’s no business case for doing good.

The further problem – and this is the part about democracy – is that corporations are leveraging their new putative ‘goodness’ to support claims they no longer need to be regulated by government, because they can now self-regulate; and that they can also do a better job than governments in running public services, such as water, schools, transport, prisons, and so on.

This later point is not original to Bakan, but it deserves to be repeated — and furthermore demands to be appreciated more thoroughly than it is:

For many tech players, monopoly is built into their business models. Facebook, for example, has to be the place everyone goes for social connection. Amazon needs to be the platform for all shoppers and retailers. Google, the search engine everyone uses. The value of these companies is based on being the one place where everyone goes. That gives them a monopoly on the two things that have value in the tech space – attention and data.

It also incentivises them to go beyond their sectors, to invade and dominate other sectors…

These companies are infrastructures. They are also media. (These terms are not contradictory.)

The unstoppable logic of monopoly should be familiar from the hey-day of the rail barons, but we carefully (and, it seems, very deliberately) chose to forget all of that as we slipped into neoliberalism’s vampiric embrace during the latter third of the twentieth century. But the analogy is so clear, it’s almost absurd: think back to the way in which the railways colonised last-mile delivery, lodgings and hostelries, materials extraction and processing; recall the collusion of rail barons in buying up land alongside the routes their track would follow.

(Heck, recall that the seed of the comms network that we erroneously and reductively call “the internet”, namely the telegraph, first emerged as an internal function of the railways themselves, and was subsequently expanded and spun off once the railways themselves had stopped being so exciting to investors and capitalists alike.)

This is not malice, though it might well be greed; the contextual incentives of capitalism produce these effects almost inevitably. It is a Skinner box we collectively built around ourselves, and it’s been there so long that for the most part we question it no more than a fish questions its immersion in water.

It’s not software that’s eating the world; software is merely the interface to the hardware, the functional mask of magical provision draped atop the infrastructures that are eating the world and vomiting the chunks back up in our mailboxes. Long before fibre, it was the railways eating the world — until eventually their miraculous bubble of profit popped against the pin of practicality. It always turns out that you can’t make a profit from infrastructure if you want it to be fair and efficient — though you can profit by riding the wave of expansion and making impossible promises.

And when that wave crashes down, and you’ve long since cashed out, the world will be faced with the necessity of funding the upkeep of what you built — because what you built ate the world that came before it. The disruption you worship, the legacy you crave, the transformation you dream of… it’s already achieved.

But just like any other male western hero, you’ll walk away and leave everyone else to deal with the aftermath, because maintenance isn’t sexy, and there’s no way you’re going to be the one who carries the cooking kit.

The corporation is a psychopath, because heroes are psychopaths, and we’ve become accustomed to the entrepreneur as the hero of our age.

Time to turn the page.

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.