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.
It was an experiment in “happier” and “sadder”. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Facebook collaborated with some researchers on a psychological experiment on 700,000 of its users. It went something like this: add 20% more happiness and see what happens; add 20% more sadness and see what happens. The subjects of the study appeared to go with the flow, creating happy posts when fed happiness, and sad ones when fed an extra helping of sadness.
The internet explodes in outrage. How could Facebook abuse its position and add extra emotional shading to the newsfeeds of unsuspecting users? All of the big data merchants have this power. All of them assure us that they would never do such a thing. They are completely neutral, simply a transparent medium. Think of them as the Switzerlands of big-time data technology. (And as long as you don't know too much about the history of Switzerland, that'll seem just fine.)
The newsfeed is an interesting animal. It's the personalized stream of items that has been theorized over for a long time. If only we could give people what they want at the exact moment they need it, it wouldn't be perceived as advertising. Each person's newsfeed is unique, made of of selected interests, social graph and radiating out to a couple degrees of separation. Because of the personal nature of the selections that make up the newsfeed, it has the feel of an internal stream of consciousness. Your stream is unlike the stream of any other person. There are common elements, and there are moments where the streams cross, but each one is unique. As “individuals”, we identify strongly with our own feed; it's like no other.
The violation Facebook is charged with is similar to one we encountered in the 1970s — with subliminal advertising. Someone is airbrushing sex and death images into the ice cubes of liquor ads in magazines. Advertisers are intentionally targeting our unconscious minds, and there's no defense. We become like sleepwalkers, buying products without conscious intent. In our pragmatic, utilitarian society what could be more sinful?
We feel violated, some big corporation is messing with our insides — that feed is ours. It “is” us. All the while we walk through shopping malls filled with positive images designed to flatter and make us feel good. We watch television dramas that reinforce our moral values. We read magazines filled with an extra helping of happiness. The world as a feed that enters our ears and eyes is chock full of extra happiness. We already live inside a world that conditions our desires and provides positive reinforcement when we purchase the correct brands.
Facebook's error was to believe that it was an external feed like all the rest. In Bradley Kaye's book on Zen and Critical Theory called “The Boundless Open Sea” he describes the relationship between the internal newsfeed and the self.
Most Buddhists believe that actions are a direct result of a thought behind the action. Unethical actions are a direct result of untrained and messy thoughts. For the vast majority of people on this planet, thoughts pop up and appear as if they were completely natural. The vast majority of people never reflect on these thoughts. They come into the mind, make a cameo appearance and then leave without ever fully grounding themselves in anything solid or real. These untrained thoughts appear so natural they often unreflectively burst out as a set of spoken words. Habits and conditioning supersede the pathway to enlightenment and there is a way that people identify themselves with these untrained immature thoughts. There is no detachment from the thought process going on in these minds. The mind-images, or the mind-movies that are playing continue on as if they are an unstoppable force.
The streams of thought that Facebook appears to be contaminating with its extra helpings of happiness or sadness are already contaminated. Or rather, they are comprised largely of external memes and entities that make up the flow of thoughts rushing though our minds. The word “contamination” implies that there could be a pure state of cleanliness — as though we could take few squirts of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer and somehow massage our brains to remove the alien thoughts.
Bradley Kaye goes on to discuss how one might separate one's self from the flow of noise. The method does not involve prohibiting Facebook from adding or subtracting emotional shading to our newsfeeds.
The first step to liberating the mind is having an awareness that you are not your thoughts. To be aware that there is a voice in the mind and that this is the ego, not the true self. By sitting quietly, reflecting, and listening to the stammering voices that exist in the mind you diminish the Clamor of Being and can become completely detached from this white noise. It never completely stops because in modern society we are completely saturated with noise.
Courbet | Godard: Essence and the Data of Stop Motion
It’s with the digital that we imagine we’ve made the bits small enough to get to the bottom of things. Nothing is smaller, more atomic, more essential, than those ones and zeros that make up the digital. With high-definition 3-D digital motion pictures we appear to capture things perfectly, to get to their essence, their reality. In some cases, the digital simply replaces a thing. What was encoded on vinyl records is now bits in a file on a hard disk or flash memory. An image once printed to photographic paper is now just flashed on a screen as part of an ongoing slide show.
This notion of capturing the essence of something surfaced recently while reading an essay by Ulrich Pfarr on the painter Gustave Courbet in the book “Courbet: A Dream of Modern Art.” The essay looks at how the quality of “introspection” is conveyed in the portraits painted by Courbet. Of course, a portrait is also meant to capture something of the essence of a person. It’s not a snapshot, or a documentary representation of how a person looked at one particular tick of the clock. We understand that the portrait captures a general way of being of a person. Here’s Pfarr on Courbet and portraits:
Conspicuous eyebrow movements are also a feature of the Rembrantesque chiaroscuro in the portrait of art dealer H. J. Van Wisselingh. As a consequence of the hard incidental light, the drawn, furrowed eyebrows cast the eyes into shadow, so the nerves are not tense and therefore the eyes are not narrowed. In this way, the expressive touch of anger in the eye area is toned down into a sign of inner concentration that, combined with the slight tilt of the head, is condensed into the image of an energetic personality. Of course, this may reflect not Van Wisselingh’s inner constitution so much as his professional mask. To that extent, Courbet, who complained that Baudelaire looked different every day, seems to have only a limited interest in the dubious ability of the physiognomy to offer indications of psychological traits in fixed physical features. Although these pictures confirm Courbet’s endeavors to filter permanent features from transitory visual phenomena, the deeply etched traces of facial movements are in turn adjusted in favor of the subjective impression you only get from a living sitter, which art theory traditionally calls an “air.”
Following phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, we might imagine that the essence of a thing could be definitively determined by statistically analyzing every possible profile a thing presents to us. We might easily conclude that the essence of a thing is, what it mostly is. There’s a kind of democratic quality to this approach; as though inside each thing an election could be held with its essence determined by a majority vote. Normativity rules. In this kind of big data scenario, the concept of “essence” is hedged through the use of words like “propensity” and “probability.” Our actions with regard to a thing tend to line up with the majority — we act as though we perceive an essence. We’d be fools to buck the odds.
Going back to Courbet’s portraits, there’s a kind of compression of observation that produces an essence. The resulting essential painted image may very well be outside the actual collection of observed data. Here the expression of essence might be different than any one thing perceived or recorded about a thing. But a thing’s essence is more than just an average or composite of the majority, it’s the unique minor elements that create all the specificity. In fact, the expression of essence in a portrait is fully contained in the small differences.
When we look at a thing, we see it at a certain tempo. You can think of this as “beats per minute.” A tune can be played within a whole range of beats per minute. Returning to a charged memory at a later time, we can play it back at a slower speed. We become the director and editor of our memory, shaping it to fit its purpose. William Wordsworth wrote about this process in his preface to the “Lyrical Ballads.”
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.
We can see new aspects of a thing by changing the tempo. Jean Luc Godard’s 1980 film “Slow Motion” (also called “Sauve Qui Peut” or “Every Man for Himself”) gives us some memorable examples of this phenomena. There’s a scene that has stuck with me since I first saw the film; it’s sequence where Nathalie Baye rides a bicycle through a country landscape. Occasionally the film slows down and stops on a frame for a moment. Out of this fluid bike ride, these very poignant sculptural moments are carved out. Suddenly we see the outward signs of the inner world, the quality of introspection becomes visible. A simple bike ride is revealed to contain an infinity of interior space. Nothing about the real-time video recording contains those moments.
If we were to look at the world through the eyes of the objects around us, we’d see at varying tempos. The rock has a slower tempo than the honey bee, the electron has a faster tempo than a pumpkin. As humans, we tend to think of the music of the spheres all moving at the same tempo. A single beat holding down the discotheque of the universe — a human beat. Viewing a stop motion film of a flower growing and blooming, we can clearly see that plants dance to a different beat. Sunlight, soil and the plant all relate at the plant’s tempo. Humans require the technology of stop-motion photography to speed plant tempo up to human tempo so that it becomes visible to us.
Returning to our starting point, we ask whether the digital as a medium has any particular advantages in capturing the essence of a thing? Certainly it has reduced the cost of certain kinds of reproduction. Video, still image and sound recording have been made much simpler. With our big data systems we’re able to create very large haystacks where previously invisible patterns suddenly emerge. Is there a simple method that combines raw digital capture and algorithmic computation on big data sets that results in a picture of the essence of a thing? Or as it would be said in the lingo, a “high probability” of the essence of a thing? Could it understand the introspection of a thing operating at a radically different tempo? Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Imagine if this kind of encoding were done using oil paint. Again, here’s Pfarr on Courbet:
Courbet has a whole repertory of techniques to suggest the gradations between half-sleep, falling asleep, waking up, and daydreaming, ranging from wide-open eyes to the features of deep sleep. Figures with eyes half or completely closed feature sitting upright, smoking a pipe, or holding a cup, like “The Lady on a Terrace” — in all these cases, the facial expression does not function as an empirical physical symptom but indicates various gradations of mental introspection.
The “meta” formation of the old saw of technology journalism is to say that “calling technology ‘X’ dead, is dead.” In its most entertaining usages, the “is dead” formulation refers to a disruptive change in the infrastructure of computer technology. It’s a way to tell the story of changing fortunes in the feudal kingdoms that have come to dominate our technology landscape. There’s a fierce battle for the tip of the spear. These kingdoms have variously been called platforms or technology ecosystems. And rather than the use of force, we see our personal stories rewritten such that it’s impossible to imagine living without the devices and services delivered, like clockwork, each day to the leading edge.
Technologist and hands-on thinker, Jon Udell recently wrote about MOOCs on his blog. MOOCs attempt to impose a digital industrial model of production onto university education. An infinite number of uneducated young adults are dumped into a chute, a crank is turned, and some smaller, but still significant number, of educated adults are spewed into society through the other end. It’s a model where technology is used on students — Udell prefers his thinking to be hands on, he wants to see technology used by students. In support of this effort he’s made a key strategic decision, he’s retreated from the fierce battle for the leading edge. Here’s Udell on the value of the trailing edge:
And while I was often seen as an innovator, the truth is that much of my work happened on the trailing edge, not the leading edge. The Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) was already ancient when I was experimenting with ways to adapt it for intranet collaboration. Videos of software in action had been possible long before I demonstrated the power of what we now call screencasting. And iCalendar, the venerable standard at the heart of my current effort to bootstrap a calendar web, has been around forever too.
There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.
No one is fighting for dominance of trailing edge technology. Yet the landscape is strewn with valuable technologies left behind by the big technology silos battling each other for monopoly position at the top of the hill. Modern digital computer technology moves so quickly that it’s often forgotten how slowly societies comprehend and incorporate new technologies. The telephone and the television have not been fully understood and digested by society. The VCR became obsolete well before the average person could program it to record a television show at an appointed time.
RSS is famously, dead. It’s been shouted from the mountaintops of every snarky technology blog around the valley. Clearly the RSS syndication format is no longer a potent weapon in the battle for the leading edge. But along with some of the other technologies Udell mentions, RSS has joined the undead. This makes it an excellent candidate for a “user innovation toolkit.” Undead technologies continue to function and roam the landscape despite being casualties of the war for technological dominance. The trailing edge of the undead is the most fertile ground for finding and creating non-violent technological solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people in their daily lives. More importantly, they are the means by which ordinary people can fashion their own solutions.
Technology is a kind of thinking with your hands. It’s something each of us does everyday. And despite what we read on our screens, most of it isn’t digital.