Tag Archives: interface

history is constantly being re-animated, re-mixed, and re-heated

Dang, how have I missed out on reading Aaron Z Lewis before now? Please excuse the following long stream of lengthy excerpts, but there’s too much good stuff here to pass by…

Each subculture has an implicit understanding of its “ideological conversion funnel”. This phrase, borrowed from digital marketing, refers to the stages that people go through on the way to becoming a True Believer, from first contact with a mysterious meme to full-on understanding of a grand narrative. The conversion process is known to the in-group, but largely illegible to outsiders. Unlike offline communities, these subcultures aren’t always neatly labeled, and people don’t consciously choose to join them. The “gravity” or “current” of social media algorithms pulls people into orbit around ideological sub-groups. Algorithms are the riverbed, and users are the water.

In the early days of the internet, the Web’s surface was relatively smooth and its “gravitational force” was weak. You could random walk without getting sucked into any black holes. During the 2010s, social media platforms “dug into the Web surface, dragging activities down their slopes … As a result of this magnetic-like attraction, caused by the web slope, Internet users slowly slide down the slope in a digital drift,” writes Louise Druhle. The virus has likely accelerated this process because it’s pushed so much cultural activity online.

I’ve recently been using the gravitational metaphor to discuss momentum in sociotechnical transitions. Lewis is looking here at something pretty far over to the social side of the scale—or so it seems at first. But values and ideological frameworks are part of the constitutive make-up of practices… and what’s particularly interesting about this situation is that the same technological substrate is producing such a fecundity of different divergent value-systems among its user-base; Lewis returns to this point later on. Along the way, we get a fairly succinct description of postmodernity without actually mentioning the p-word, nor invoking any of the demons of Theory:

As the line between “internet culture” and “Culture” gets increasingly blurry, Old Media gets increasingly confused. Online tribes are basically proto-political coalitions, sprouting in the graveyard of America’s zombiefied corporate media. This is, of course, a huge gravitational shift in the landscape of power. In 2004, an anonymous George W. Bush official famously told the New York Times:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Sixteen years later, it’s clear that digital media has made things a little more complicated. The old guard is now left to study the activities and new realities of online tribes. These groups are constantly churning out unsanctioned narratives that attract large followings, and that’s how things have sorted out. As in the media revolution sparked by Gutenberg, the powers that be are not too pleased about losing their monopoly over the technologies of reality creation.

CF this fragment from a much longer piece by James Curcio, guest-posting at Ribbonfarm a while back:

‘In modern political performances’, writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, ‘the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs and tastes – ‘ an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility’. Not only from responsibility, but also from reality. Possibly one of the most quoted poems of the previous century, Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ does a terrific job of anticipating a core anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial worlds, which is maybe not so surprising when we consider modernity coming to self-awareness in the aftermath of the First World War. That is, of course, that ‘the centre cannot hold’.

Many generations separate us now from the outcome of that apocalyptic conflict, and its sequel, yet the existential crisis, even the core political ideologies remain fundamentally the same. We may find no better presentation of the reactions to this crisis than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence, a world with nothing sacred, copies without originals. Postmodernism didn’t generally proclaim a solution, but it does uncover problems that we’ve yet to satisfactorily answer as a society. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with today’s headlines, of the collapse of consensus reality – or the consensus that there is one – into the event horizon of what author-philosopher R. S. Bakker refers to as a ‘semantic apocalypse’. People are right to feel anxious, though this particular crisis is different in quantity but not kind from the sort of unmooring and acceleration which followed the advent of the printing press.

(A quick reminder reminder: postmodernism was not a creed, but a diagnosis, the denial of which is looking more absurd even as it is stated more loudly with each passing week. Curcio is a far more theory-oriented writer, but Lewis is making much the same point throughout this piece I’m snipping from. And now we return you to our regular programming…)

Lewis’s take on temporality is particularly exciting, as I’m thinking a lot about the Marx-via-Harvey-and-others notion that infrastructure folds and warps timespace—but, rather surprisingly for me (as I always seem like such a placeless abstractionist when I discuss things with colleagues who are planners and geographers), I tend to get tied up in the spatial side of that phenomenon, and have yet to really get to grips with the temporal. This whole piece—which draws a fair bit upon the writings of yer man Venkatesh Rao—is full of fuel for a bit of time-travel of my own, such as:

Unlike the clocks of Old Media, the subjective time zones of internet subcultures are a de-centralized creative expression that reflect the idiosyncrasies of many different reality tunnels. Whereas geographic time zones sit next to each other in a very orderly fashion, internet time zones are kaleidoscopic and multi-layered — they allow you to look back at the same time line through many different lenses. There are as many versions of history as there are subcultures.

The conversations of internet subcultures often feel substantive and expansive compared to the shallow discourse of presidential debates, op-ed pages, and cable TV shows. Mainstream news cycles rarely last more than a few hours, and their narratives are constantly shifting. They don’t tend to give a big-picture sense of where we came from or where we’re going. Internet subcultures, by contrast, are building grand narratives and meme worlds that help people feel their way through the chaos that’s currently unfolding. These stories cut deep, down to the most foundational questions of race and religion and destiny. We shouldn’t be too surprised that complex conspiracy theories, intergenerational trauma, and age-old religious fervor are coming to the fore — in a contest of narrative memes, deep history is a serious competitive advantage.

And then:

Thanks to the ghosts in the digital graveyard, our selves are strung out across extremely long stretches of time. The internet allows one body to ingest the memories of thousands, creating a new kind of interiority that’s almost superhuman in its scope. I probably come across more perspectives in a single Twitter session than my great grandparents heard in their entire lifetimes.

In a 1970 interview, Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed this situation and described what it might do to our minds: “We live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and all futures that will be are here now. In that sense, we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of the varieties of human expression re-constitutes the mythic type of consciousness, of once-upon-a-time-ness, which means all-time, out of time.”5 The psychological shift that McLuhan saw on the horizon 50 years ago is now being felt all across the Web. The line between present and past is getting increasingly blurry now that we all carry around a miniature Library of Alexandria in our pockets. We can’t agree on where we’re headed because we can’t agree on when we are.

Mmmm, McLuhan. Is it just me, or are a lot of people starting to (re)read and cite McLuhan again? But the interpretation has changed a lot since the the glory days of the Wild Wired West… for which we should probably be thankful; McLuhan was much less the optimist than he was painted by the early webbies and cypherpunks, a much more nuanced thinker than the glosses tend to imply (though this is perhaps true of all philosophers and theorists).

Lewis is a bit of an optimist himself, it turns out:

The algorithmic feeds that grew to prominence in the 2010s are a circus that set up shop in the lobby of the Library of Alexandria. As we spin round and round the carousels, everything seems to dissolve into an atemporal soup at the end of history. “History ends not when the stream of apparently historic events ends,” writes Venkatesh Rao, “but when the world loses a sense of a continuing narrative, and arrives at what psychologists call narrative foreclosure” — a hollowing out of the collective imagination, a sense of the future being cancelled. The ghosts of yesteryear float around the Cloud, hoping we’ll continue to embody their trauma, fight their battles, and live out their dreams and memes.

But maybe our ability to imagine collective futures hasn’t been damaged for good. The old ghosts don’t just haunt us, they also give us inspiration. Last time we saw this much history emerge from hibernation was in 14th century Italy, and the Renaissance was about to begin. Like those who came before us, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of memories and histories that are bubbling up to the surface. We’re still in the early days of the digital age, and I trust we’ll figure out how to adapt to the time machines we’ve built.

I’d rather not trust in that possibility; instead, I’d rather work toward that result in whatever small way I can. (To be fair, given Lewis’s background, I suspect he probably does too… but hope > optimism is becoming one of my obsessional dichotomies, and this site is where I exercise those obsessions, so, yeah.)

Lewis wraps up with—praise whatever deity you prefer!—an appeal to the materiality of the virtual, and a reminder that the infrastructural metasystem not only has a (biiiig) material-extractive-emmissive footprint, but also exhibits characteristics of strength and weakness simultaneously—a brittleness, if you like.

Just as the early viewers of television sometimes forgot that they weren’t seeing an un-mediated stream of Reality, us early users of digital media sometimes forget that social media algorithms are not showing us the world as it is. A recommendation algo is a “frame” that can be hacked, gamed, and messed with. More than anything, it’s a funhouse mirror that reflects back a warped image of whatever you hold up to it. The questions it thinks you’re asking, the answers it thinks you’re seeking, the things it thinks you care about, the narratives it thinks you believe in. “There are as many internet architectures as there are users,” says Louise Druhle. “Each of our clicks serves to sculpt the internet according to our own image.”

We’re transitioning from a world of linear narratives and time lines to a garden of forking memes that we’re free to explore and tend to. The gardening games with the richest soil, the deepest roots, and the most interesting characters will attract the most people.

But if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that all of our virtual toys teeter precariously atop an infrastructural system that is currently under great threat (to say the least). Digital memory is material. The Cloud is made of rare earth. Lamps in video games use real electricity. In cyberspace, we’re constantly surrounded by simulations, abstractions, and pseudo-events that make it all too easy to forget about the geological stack that undergirds our virtual hall of mirrors. We forget that the garden of forking memes is rooted in the earth — in the underwater fiber-optic cables and server farms and electric “nervous systems” that connect us all together. Most designers and technologists try to hide the material complexity that lurks beneath the surface of the internet. They want it to be “indistinguishable from magic.” But if we continue to crop the earth (and the ecological crisis) out of the frame, we’ll soon cut off the very branch we’re sitting on. Without sustainable infrastructure, the digital garden will decay and disappear.

“Indistinguishable from magic”, heh… that’d make a good title for a talk, wouldn’t it?

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
 
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)

The device paradigm

The switch induced a new and modern space defined not by size, shape, struc­ture, material, use, ornament, or any other conventional measure of architectural merit. Rather, it conjured a space distinguished by its instantaneous appearance, willed into visibility, as if volition alone were enough to make it so. Indeed, the very idea of a volitional space presumes that individual will is as much a part of the transformation created by electric light as the switch mecha­nism’s metal contacts. Visibly projecting willpower into a third dimension, voli­tional space is the amalgam of technology and desire, an image of desire reliably fulfilled.

[…]

… the switch typifies the “device paradigm,” an idea introduced in 1984 by the philosopher of modern technology, Albert Borg­mann. The phrase describes a common trait of modern technology: the way in which a par­ticular configuration of components enables a productive mechanism to be eclipsed by the commodity it delivers. Borgmann saw social relations in modern society as structured by the pairing of productive apparatus and a delivered commodity in such a way that consumption appears to be unmediated. Pipes and ducts, for example, separate the combustion of fuel from the resultant heat: they convey warmth while concealing the means of making it. Though common to many tools, and facilitated by modern technologies, this cultural preference was neither inevitable nor neutral in its effects. Indeed, Borgmann argued that dissociation from productive mechanisms made us ignorant of their social and material costs. As long as benefits were assured and costs predictable, consumers remained strangers to their own environments. The invis­ibility of the technology was proof of its effectiveness.

At first glance, the switch seems to contradict the device paradigm since it refocused attention on the mechanisms of the delivery system. But in experiential terms, the switch exemplified the ease with which vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be snapped into service at a moment’s notice. The switch not only controlled the flow of electricity, it represented that control. Its trifling size and trivial operation encouraged confidence in the ability to bring to heel a force of nature. Additional details — an ivory or gold-plated key, common adornments for ceremonial switching, even an ordinary decorative switch plate — moved the switch further from techni­cal functionality and into the realm of cultural signification. If anything, the switch’s instantaneous operation and distant action dramatized the device paradigm, at least for those earlier generations that marveled at the spread of electricity. With its disproportion between physical effort and visual impact, the light switch is the device paradigm made emphatic.

[…]

The switch became a crucial interface between ordinary people and an all but invisible infrastructure, between potent natural forces harnessed by new technologies and the day-to-day doings of everyone. It was the banal object wherein the juggernaut of modernity became the stuff of everyday life.

Clips from an excellent essay, “At the Flip of the Switch” by Sandy Isenstadt, at Places Journal. Lots of parallels with my own theoretical work. I’m astonished that I never stumbled across the work of Borgmann before, but the curse of the contemporary academic corpus is precisely its size: this is not the first time I’ve found a literature effectively parallel to (or at least shadow-mirroring) the ones I was working with, but which is all but unacknowledged by them.

(The ubiquity of this phenomenon, particularly when it comes to technological and infrastructural topics, is almost certainly political: put simply, heresy goes uncited. The effect is compounded by the ubiquity of search engines in literature review processes: heavily cited works float to the top, and everything else sinks into the long tail. If nothing else, it explains why the last five years of my life have felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall.)

The interface and the illusion of control

Most obviously, in using [smartphones] to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

(Ordinarily, and also purposefully; Clarke’s Third Law is an implicit and nigh-ubiquitous directive in contemporary interface design, and in that enduringly popular branch of genre fiction known by its practitioners as “technological forecasting”.)

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

Adam Greenfield. The screen is the site of the Spectacle.