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Notes from the Underground: Not Disruptive, Not Revolutionary


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.”


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.

Dr. Dre versus the Big Bad Algorithm

We're seeing some new shapes among the feudal technology stacks. Apple has made a couple of moves that puts them on the human side of the ledger. Yahoo seems to be following in that direction. Google and Facebook remain fully automated, and they've placed their bet on male software engineers, big data and algorithms.

A few years ago, as the stacks were establishing their hold on networked computing, Nicholas Carr asked “Does IT Matter?” The question occupied the spot between home-grown corporate technical systems and the eventual outsourcing to professional cloud-based services. In most cases utility computing in central networked data centers turned out to be a better investment than a local IT team cobbling together a custom application. If the technology in question wasn't a company's core business, it didn't matter. Outsource everything possible to a vendor who counted that service as a core competency.

The networked computing platforms that have battled so fiercely to be among the few left standing have learned a bittersweet lesson. The platform is just a blank sheet of paper, a surface ready to be inscribed. Its worth is minimal, in fact, Apple has begun giving away its newest operating systems. There's no value in an individual installation of the platform, it's only the platform as a whole that has value.

When the technical press looked at Apple's acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre they didn't understand. The music service didn't have enough subscribers, the head phones weren't even among the best, nothing matched up with the dollar figures that were being thrown around. Non-engineers aren't acqui-hired, non-engineers are replaceable worker parts that merit commodity pricing. Sure these guys have “taste”, but that's not really worth anything. An algorithm can be built to easily reproduce something like their taste. In a reversal of Nicholas Carr's thought, the algorithmists asked “Do Human Factors Matter?”

Jimmy Iovine's response to the machine was that something was missing from the algorithmic output. Here's how Iovine put it:

“The sequencing of an album was very important. Music is made in bite-sized pieces, but you need an hour's worth of music for certain activities. The other guys have an algorithm. For some reason, these young people aren't understanding why they aren't getting the feel they're supposed to get. We said no, no, you're supposed to have the right sequence.”

What's the value of being able to create “that feel” across a networked computing platform? There doesn't seem to be an acknowledged economic value that can be applied to in creative people working at the platform level. The technologist and the financial analysts ask “where's the game-changing technology?” That's what Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Where's the iWatch? Where's that next big thing? No one creates a game changing technology. Steve Jobs said it best and very simply many years ago.

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

You choose the wave. You don't invent the wave. In this new era of feudal technology stacks, the technology should intrude less and less. The technology, if it's well designed, should start to recede into the background. If you're noticing it, generally that's because it's broken. Finding the feel, creating the feel of, and within, the platform, that's the thing a machine can't come up with on its own. Or at least that's what we're about to find out. Will creative people who can operate at the level of a large platform (Dre, Iovine, Ahrendts, Deneve) be more successful than an algorithm that crowd sources, sorts and filters?


Imagine You’re Responsible for Everything

Whenever there's an outbreak of evil among us, we seek to understand what could have possibly caused it. One reason we do this is to figure out if anything can be done to stop that particular thing from happening again. The other reason we do this is to build a wall between us and evil. Evil is circumscribed and isolated, it's labeled insanity, it's called completely uncivilized. This wall allows us to make sure that we're untainted by evil, that our innocence is preserved.

The victims of evil want us to know that this isn't an isolated case. Evil has a broader purchase than is generally acknowledged. We hedge, and say that some, but not all are evil. And the “evil ones” — they're readily identifiable. This allows us to keep evil on the other side of the wall.

Imagine that you're responsible for everything. Imagine that I'm responsible for everything. The racism, the sexism, the hatred, the stupidity, the insanity, the crime, the violence, the addiction, the bigotry — all of it. Every time there's an injustice, it's not the “other” who acts. It's one of us. It's me. When my country commits atrocities, those are mine too.

The quarantine of evil allows us some measure of safety and assures us that we don't have to change our ways. But as we're learning with the garbage that our civilization generates, there is no “away” to which it can be sent. There's just here. We behave as though our individual speech acts could be separated out from the language we all share. Prisons and other facilities are where you go when you're sent “away.” Prisons aren't on another planet or hidden in another universe. There is no “away.”

We look in the mirror and imagine we're something good and pure. Sure we have our problems, but they're inconsequential. We're nothing like that nut-job who unleashed evil and death. In fact, it'd be a good idea to arm ourselves against people like that. The wall that keeps evil out should be outfitted with lethal defensive weaponry. Our place in the afterlife depends on maintaining a certain level of purity.

Or imagine this. Imagine that you have a skin in the game. Imagine that you're responsible — that you're both the perpetrator and the victim. Imagine that you can't build a wall around evil. Imagine that the last mass shooting, this mass shooting and the next mass shooting are simply expressions of who we are. It's not a war that belongs only to the other political party. It's not a cruelty that other people are inflicting on the poor. I'm all these things, and I'm not comfortable with all the things that I am. How could I be? Own all the the good things, own all of the bad things, and then decide whether we need to change.


Erasing the Trace: The Right to be Forgiven

The European Union says you have the right to be forgotten. The technologists say that by asking to be forgotten you bring more attention on yourself. They call this the Streisand effect. A movie star demanding privacy causes more attention by virtue of the demand. Alec Baldwin is a good example of this negative feedback loop. The more violently he fights for his privacy, the more interest the tabloid press has in the force involved in his effort. What could be better than a photograph of a celebrity trying to stop a paparazzi from taking his photograph?

Journalists, if that's still a thing that exists, believe they have the right to report on any digital trace of what could be perceived as bad behavior. They don't think you should have the right to decide what should be erased from your own record. This right could lead to criminals covering up a history of bad acts. It would also require journalists to leave their keyboards to do research.

Search engine companies and technologist believe that it's too expensive to filter out stuff you don't want as the top hit for your name. They believe the data is what the data is, and that you should just live with it. These are the same people that probably have been shaping and gaming their own search engine results pages for years. Too bad for you if you have something in your past that brands you forever. The new morality dictates that you ought to behave as though your worst moment will represent you to the world for the rest of your life. Google will tell anyone who asks about your most extreme behavior, and it'll be the first entry on the first page of their search engine results. What is it they say about “first impressions?”

But what about “evil” you say, isn't it mostly evil that asks to be forgotten? Isn't forgetting evil and its deeds an evil in and of itself? “Forgetting” allows evil to cloak itself and inflict itself on us in a neutral guise. No doubt this is why we use our Google Glass to check the backgrounds of all the passersby as we walk the streets of the city. The flaneur knows what you did last summer.

The machine would like you to know that it's nothing personal, just like when it reads your email. It's simply trying to make connections and offer the space for advertisers to offer coherent purchasing suggestions to you. When your name is entered into a search engine, it returns a slanderous screed by a troll assassinating your character. It's nothing personal, that's just the entry in the index that scored the highest based on an algorithm. The machine doesn't really understand the result in a human way, it's just the output of a process.

The thing about one piece data is that it's just like any other piece of data. No data needs to be forgotten or forgiven; it's just grist for the algorithm. The fact that humans make this or that of any particular piece of data is simply a factor that feeds into the algorithm's scoring process. The algorithm makes no moral judgements and no assessment of the truth value of its output.

Erasing a trace from a search engine's index would require from the machine a sense of morality and propriety. For all the talk about artificial intelligence, machines seem to be getting smart in a very limited way.


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