Tag Archives: infrastructure

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.

A more humane and generous account

Eugene McCarraher at Aeon:

If it’s long past time to deny that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the time has come to renounce the parochial secular dogma of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. The pre-modern belief in the enchantment of the world – modernised in Romanticism, blending scientific rationality with Hopkins’s conviction of God’s worldly grandeur – offers a more humane and generous account of our place in creation, and it provides the most compelling foundation for opposition to capitalism.

Cf. my talk from a few years back: “How does the rabbit end up in the hat? (Or: what transhumanism doesn’t want you to know about infrastructure.)”

The technology/magic overlap is in desperate need of more thorough exploration. Assorted friends’n’colleagues have been doing great work with Haunted Machines, but that’s not quite the same thing that interests me; for me, technology isn’t merely analogous to stage magic, it IS stage magic. Which is fine, so long as everyone understands that the trick is a trick, and that the magic that powers the trick is a function of the plenitude of the world. But the disenchantment of capitalism is reified through infrastructure’s seeming provision ex nihilo: we mistake the plenitude of the world for the beneficence of the metasystem, while the latter is actually engaged in the effacement of the consequences of our consumption.

(Yes, this is just my own particular beachhead in the massed last-ditch assault upon the social/natural dichotomy. Because if you’re going to choose a hill to die on, why choose a crowded one?)

Flygskam

At the NYRB:

Non-flying academics can’t help but notice a conspicuous tension between, on the one hand, the espoused values of universities and professors, and, on the other, the flying behavior that is condoned, incentivized, and relished at their institutions. Professors are not especially highly paid, considering their educational credentials, and getting flown out to give talks and hobnob at conferences in destinations such as Berlin, Bangkok, or Johannesburg is a major perk of the job. At the same time, even if they would prefer to stay put, junior faculty members feel pressure to travel, in order to schmooze with colleagues and promote their work.

With their petition, which currently has signatures from more than 600 academics, Wilde and Nevins ask both universities and professional associations to take steps to modify this system. One idea they propose is the “regional hub” conference model, in which academics would congregate in their respective regions for personal connections and use video-conferencing to interact with other hubs. A few of these associations have begun to consider experiments with the conference model, which, after all, has remained static for decades—why shouldn’t it change in the face of both new technological options and new environmental imperatives?

If we took a fraction of the money spent on aviation engineering research — or a fraction-of-a-fraction of what Muskrat and Bozos et al are pissing away on their exoplanetary colonisation efforts — and threw it at the challenge of dragging videoconferencing out of the glitchy uncanny-valley hellscape where it still resides, the need for conferences would effectively disappear.

One problem being, as this this article points out, that the desire for conferences would not disappear. We academics are certainly part of the problem, but the globetrotting suits of capitalism are a far bigger one — and it’s far more about status for them than it is for the rest of us, as anyone who’s ever been upgraded to business class should be well aware.

(I’ve been a non-flyer for about three years now — with one exception for a job interview in the Netherlands last year for which there just wasn’t enough notice to arrange for trains — and it’s less of a sacrifice for me, because I utterly loathe flying, for an assortment of mental health-related reasons. But what’s been interesting to note is that when I’m asked why I don’t fly, if I say it’s because flying makes me crazy, no one bats an eyelid; but if I say it’s for ethical reasons, it’s like I opened Pandora’s box, and all the justifications come pouring out. As one respondent in the article notes, refusing to fly for ethical reasons sends a signal — and that signal really does elicit a reaction.)

The other problem is manifest in the multiple diasporae of immigration: how will those hard-working people see their far-flung families if not by flying? I don’t have a good answer for that — but while it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different to academics and businesspersons flying for work, it’s still an expectation of mobility which, historically speaking, is hugely anomalous, even within the timespan of my own lifetime.

The movement of mass through timespace is the basic function of all infrastructure; the faster and/or further that mass moves, the more damaging the movement is environmentally. That expectation has to end, one way or the other.

Qui autem temperet moderatores?

… [UK] consumers have overpaid for the natural monopolies and other networks underpinning many of these markets for at least the past 15 years. Because of patchy reporting from regulators, it’s impossible to document the full extent of these overpayments. However, this research finds that regulators have systematically set prices too high, leading to consumers facing unnecessarily high bills – that is, bills well in excess of what is required to deliver the necessary investment in these essential services.

We’re able to put concrete figures on these overpayments for water, energy, telephone and broadband infrastructure. Our conservative estimate is that that excess figure is £24.1bn. We find that the errors in energy and water have cost consumers £11bn and £13bn respectively.

[…]

… just focusing on the technicalities would neglect a simpler explanation: regulators have been out-resourced and outgunned. If this was just a story of errors in financial modelling, the errors would sometimes fall in consumers’ and sometimes in investors’ favour. But this is not what we see: instead, the errors are biased. Indeed, as we show below, this has sometimes been a conscious strategy from regulators: fearing under-investment, they have ‘aimed up’ on capital costs, choosing higher values than their estimates indicated they should.

Monopoly Money report from Citizen’s Advice

Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.