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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.

Someone’s Been Messing with My Feed

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.


Driving the Map, Not the Territory

It's classic slight of hand. What's breathtaking is that it caught the entire country in its misdirection. Google demos its driverless car, the tiny one with no steering wheel and no brakes. The media shows us the pictures and then asks Detroit why this car is coming from the Silicon Valley and not the car manufacturers. Clearly another sign that U.S. manufacturers are hopelessly behind the times.

A few weeks ago Alexis Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic called “The Trick That Makes Google Self-Driving Cars Work.” In his piece, Alexis explains how the trick is done. Self-driving cars have very little to do with the machinery of the car itself. In case you hadn't noticed Google has an extremely robust mapping application. The self-driving car can only drive itself through a territory with a sufficiently fine-grained 3-D map. That's because the car isn't really driving on the streets, it's driving on the map. This is a story about virtual reality for cars. And it's not about who builds the cars, it's about who owns the virtual streets.


Robots of Taste

The whole reason the feudal stacks of the Network have been tracking everything that you do is to pigeonhole your taste. If the machine knows your taste it can create a virtual simulation of your taste and then quickly scan everything available for purchase and pre-stock your shopping cart with the kind of things a person like you would like.

Things were going along swimmingly with this business model until the personal data stacks learned an uncomfortable fact. Lots of people who have money don't actually have any taste. They're not sure what they like. If you take all the personal data they've spewed across the Network it doesn't add up to any kind of coherent taste. Turns out in many cases the consumer needs to be sold on a kind of taste before they can be sold an end product. The tastelessness of the masses results in a lower return on investment.

As a nation of individuals, we are bred to believe that an array of products can be tailored to match our unique taste. The products that gather beneath our freak flag will much different than someone else's. All we require is the capital to cause the presents to materialize beneath the tree. With the millions of products circling round us, we need a refined sense of taste such that as many consumables as possible can be packed on to our taste buds.

If we can't develop a taste on our own, we'll need to purchase a few from a pre-packaged selection. Tastes accessorized with shelves up to the moon with a spot for everything and every thing needing a spot. Taste, you see, must be optimized. Simple tastes are fine for the unsophisticated, but they leave one at such a disadvantage in the age of technology.

Once you've purchased your taste the whole world comes into focus. Faced with a shelf full of soft drinks in the supermarket, you have clarity on whether Coke or Pepsi is the real thing. It's helpful if you've got your Google Glass affixed to your face so you can receive real-time updates on the state of your taste.

For the most part there's no need to keep the fruit of your taste on physical media cluttering up your house. That's what the cloud is for, your stuff is just a click away. Your taste is already conveniently stored in the cloud–think of it as a custom set of shelves made to fit your stuff perfectly. As long as you can afford to keep the engines stoked, the hunger pangs of your taste can be satiated. And you can rest assured you've invested in the optimal configuration for consumption.

As you watch the wheel of your desire spin faster and faster, it's natural to feel a little superfluous. You wonder if you stepped away would things continue whirring away. The desiring machine only requires fuel, with sufficient capital you could keep any number of plates in the air. Flipping channels from this set of pre-packaged tastes to the next.

Your Network profile shows off the set of tastes you've acquired. It tells the world that you're the kind of person who likes this stuff and not that stuff. You've optimized the filters to let in the good tasting stuff and spit out the disgusting stuff. In the higher realms of your taste you travel via negativa, here you simply separate yourself and point a finger at things that represent bad taste.

The Network stacks have a stake in binding your profile to the “real” you. If they can get it to stick, then they've got you. The binding agent is made stronger by the number of ties across a diverse set of relations. If they can erase the trace of the glue then it's a short distance to the idea that there's no outside. As in “there's no outside of Google.”

But there's always a gap. You look at the set of digitally encoded tastes you've posted to represent your world view and you can't help but notice it's not you. When people admire the profile, you identify with it. When they revile it, you distance yourself, talk about its inaccuracy. If you were to walk away today, you could create a whole new profile that might look like an entirely different person.


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