Tag Archives: infrastructure

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.

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?)