Notes from the Underground: Not Disruptive, Not Revolutionary

thelonius-underground

It’s not disruptive and it isn’t revolutionary. That’s what’s happened to technology and the Network. The early days of the Internet were filled with promise. The possibilities were endless. People said similar things about television. A short time later TV was described as a vast wasteland. What seemed to make the World Wide Web different was the idea that anyone could publish to the system. Individuals were equal nodes on the Network and that difference would create a force of radical democratization.

Instead the Internet turned into another platform play. Some said the Network was a platform without a vender, and that’s sort of true. But once the World Wide Web became a mass medium, it necessarily became a platform with a small set of vendors. In 2012, Bruce Sterling said the Internet was over and we’d entered “the age of the Stacks.” Platforms are technology stacks, or as the vendors themselves like to position them “ecosystems.”

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Real-time social networks radically simplified the publishing process. Type into a “textarea” and click a mouse button to publish. Streams of short messages are arranged in reverse chronological order via non-reciprocal social graphs (subscriptions). To enable instant publication to any other node on the graph, a central hub was required. Structurally this is similar to the way real-time stock quotes work. Transactions are submitted to the central exchange and then broadcast to subscribers.

Owning the hub means owning the platform. When an individual writes into a platform, it means that someone else (a public corporation) owns both the pen and the paper. No individual message has value, but the data generated by the firehose of messages has a high value to advertisers. Despite the millions or billions of users of social media, the possibility of generating revenue is reserved for the few thousand who own and/or work for the platform. It’s not even a pyramid scheme. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that services provided by platforms are “free.”

The central hub has visibility into all the messages flowing through the network. Individual subscribers only have visibility into their subscriptions set. It works the same way with search engines. Unless you know the address in advance, you can’t find anything on the World Wide Web. It’s not like entering a library and walking up and down the aisles looking at titles. You can only see what the search engine shows you. The search platform indexes the World Wide Web, the user can only access what’s in the index, the Web is never accessed directly. This is why Sterling talks about Stacks rather than the Internet.

These days to call something disruptive or revolutionary it must disrupt the hub / platform / cloud structure. Creating a new stack or displacing an old stack isn’t disruptive, it’s business as usual. Usenet, established in 1980, has a much more radical structure than any of the dominant Stacks. Even the old BBS systems are more interesting than the central hub model.

The Network has to go underground. It may even have to go offline, slow down and get much smaller. Most importantly it’ll have to learn how to earn a living outside of the Stacks.



Slippin’ Into Darkness

Milton Glaser has designed a graphic representation of our biosphere. The first thing I noticed about it was that the darkness seemed to be spreading from the top down. The second thing was how little green is left. In 1700, seven percent of the world's land was used for farming. That number is now more than fifty percent. Ecological awareness is beginning to interupt the conversation about Capital, optimization and the possibility of infinite growth that we've been having with ourselves for the last couple hundred years.

 

Who is the Space Traveler?

It's the hero, the astronaut. He's the man who defies all odds and travels in a tin can into the most inhospitable environment humans could imagine. There's no life there; it's empty, lifeless and dead. The tin can contains an abbreviated biosphere capable of supporting human life for a limited amount of time.

With the exception of the moon walk, there's not really been any human exploration of space. The experience is always highly mediated by the technology required to sustain human life. In the past (on earth), explorers had sensual experiences that involved direct interaction with the explored environment. Space exploration has mostly been a visual and interior experience. A more direct immersion in “space” would result in the instant death of the explorer.

The “I” who decides to on embarkation and narrates the story of space travel appears to be a cartesian subject. The astronaut must put his unconscious into abeyance for the duration. The unconscious must remain unconscious, only the trained ego of the astronaut flies, all internal demons are locked up. It's the pre-Freudian human who travels in space.

A little more difficult is the issue of the microbiome. We humans contain multitudes. We are both humans and a cooperative life form that requires a functioning of a vast internal ecology. When the human travels in space so do the hundred trillion microorganisms that live in his intestines. We do the best we can by scrubbing off the bacteria and crustaceans that live on the outside of our skin, but the creatures on the inside have to go along for the ride.

It's quite conceivable that the first life forms from earth to colonize mars will be bacteria that have hitched a ride on our rockets. Those bacteria will be the evolutionary seed that may start a whole new chain of events in a radically different biosphere. Martians will evolve to survive on mars. It's not that they'll be specifically adapted or “tooled up” to the martian environment. Evolution doesn't work that way, it's not an optimization algorithm looking for a single best solution. Multiple correct solutions can and will coexist. There are millions of right answers to the question of what a martian looks like.

Our scientists want to eliminate the possibility of “contaminating” Mars because it will complicate our search for life there. In this too we want to eliminate our unconscious. Somehow every aspect of ourselves and our voyage must be conscious and accounted for. Scientists are very good at this kind of self delusion. Once they fail at non-contamination, we'll hear about how they can keep track the natives versus the aliens.

Of course from a slightly different angle one could see human bodies as the space ships created by bacteria for transport to mars. Humans have been selected because they're quite clever with machines. Bacteria have survived in space and could easily flourish on mars. Except as transport, humans aren't very well adapted to the task.

 

Readings: Tabs Won’t Close

Occasionally browser tabs get stuck–they can't be closed. It's not a technical issue with the software; it has to do with the text on the web pages. Sometimes an essay creates resonances and reverberations that unfold over a long time. These ongoing echoes defeat the click that might close the tab. It's as thought the text has too much life to send it back into the darkness of the Network.

Here are a few tabs that seem to have set up permanent residence in my web browser.

“The New Inquiry” Malcolm Harris's essay “Turn Down for What?” is a thoughtful exploration of the strain of Marxist thought called Accelerationism. It's a crucial analysis because it perfectly mirrors the ecological arguments of the techno-optimists. The “Accelerate” crowd believes it's only by inflating the bubble faster that we get to the revolutionary moment when it pops. For the techno-optimists we must double-down on technos to undo the damage we've done to our biosphere. The only solution for too much speed is faster speed.

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The PoemTalk podcast's close reading of Lydia Davis's “A Position at the University” is a reminder of what writing can be and do. We encourage reading as a necessary social skill, but there's reading, and then there's reading.

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Extinction Events and the Human Sciences” by William E. Connolly and Jairus Victor Grove begins the process of finding a new footing for thought in the age of Hyperobjects. The ecological thought forces itself into discourse across the spectrum and asks us to take another look at where we're standing. Think of this as the beginning of the anti-Cartesian meditations.

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The Verso site gives us Jordan Skinner's interview with Giorgio Agamben. It's called “Thought is the Courage of Hopelessness.” Everyone should spend a few hours looking at the world through Agamben's eyes–he's that important.

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The London Review of Books publishes Judith Butler's thoughts on Jacques Derrida's “On Cruelty”. After reading David Graeber's “Debt,” Derrida's explorations continue opening up the question of the strange equivalences we perform when trying to balance the books. The amount of destruction we've unleashed to arrive at what we perceive as a “fair and balanced” equilibrium is horrifying. Forgiveness emerges out of the discourse as the impossible act that must nonetheless be performed.

‘Whence comes this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’

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The idea of entropy suggests that the power in these tabs should eventually dissipate. Typically we lose interest when the signal becomes too weak to attract our attention. The flavor seems to be worn out of a thing and it fades into the background. When the tabs are closed on these essays it will be because their constant blazing energy will be too much to bear as I attempt to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the thoughts.

 

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