Archive for the 'zettel' Category

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2014 and After: Ten Thoughts

In no particular order, here are ten thoughts about technology and society at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. This past year might have been the one in which it was acknowledged that the ecological catastrophe and the destruction of the biosphere has passed the rubicon. Scientists are beginning to understand that the most important battles will be fought within rhetoric and not science. The Pope may have a greater effect on the future of the planet than any climate scientist.

Sony Pictures Hack

All computer networks are always already hacked. Once you have both the requirement that networks interoperate in a network of networks and that humans be able to simply and easily use software on the system, the system is compromised.

What this hack tells large corporations (and other organizations) is that if they become the target of a sufficiently strong hacker, they will be hacked. Certainly there is better and worse security, but there's no such thing as perfect security.

This problem is too frightening to contemplate as we put more and more of our transactions and records into hackable systems. At some point in the next five years there will be a hack that will change the way we organize and think about networks. In the meantime we will pretend that everything is just fine. Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead.

Cameras on Police (Google Glass)

What's bad about Google Glass for ordinary people turns out to be what may eventually be forced on police officers. In this era, it's always a question of who's watching the watchers. Total surveillance of the police is an interesting turnaround in the dynamics of power. Assume that it will turnaround again and the only unambiguous video evidence will be on the side of law enforcement.

Oddly even the police will ultimately decide that Google Glass style total surveillance is a bad idea.

Library Collections and Live Events

Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Pandora and HBO all provide membership access to their libraries. Each has learned that the way to spice up your library is to produce exclusive content that makes your collection unique. It's also a way to get the first release window for a new property. Traditionally these kind of libraries are very late, if not last, in the release cycle.

We're starting to see promotional events around the deletion of items from a collection. See it before it's gone. Initially there was a sense that these libraries had an infinite amount of content. There was so much more than you could ever watch or listen to. After spending a little time with them, Sturgeon's Law comes into effect. Turns out the 90% of everything in the library is crap, and you've seen the other 10%.

At some point someone will figure out that quality is more important than quantity. It might be HBO. They are well positioned to stake out that ground.

YouTube will be exposed as a file-sharing site and the true heir to Napster. The creative class will rebel and bring massive lawsuits against the theft of their work. The technologists at YouTube will claim that they are a machine and a medium; that they are not responsible for their users actions. This excuse will be seen for the cynical ploy that it is.

Live events are the other main category type in broadcast media. News, sports, awards shows, talk shows have dominated. The return of live television will continue. The live productions of Peter Pan and The Sound of Music were tests. Live television demands a different kind of talent. That means there's incredible opportunity for the Network has the vision and takes the risk. Broadway and live theater will be pillaged for talent.

Live Mix, Daniel Lanois

This was the year that Daniel Lanois downsized his operation. He took the live groove mixing and treatments that he was hearing in his studio and put them on small stages in front of a few hundred people.

This is a return to the days of Brian Eno live mixing and treating Roxy Music shows. The recording studio became a musical instrument for the recording studio. That technology is migrating back to the stage as more players emerge who know how to handle it in a live context.

In the show I saw, the drummer Brian Blade was keeping perfect metronymic time. This allowed Lanois to mix in samples and have them mesh exactly on the beat. It's early days for these kind of experiments, but it fulfills the promise of the recording studio as musical instrument.

The Permanent Record / Stain

The digital remains unforgiving. One wonders if there will ever be an artificial intelligence that understands forgiveness. We have a digital record of all our triumphs, failures and transgressions. Our flaws, errors and mistakes become a permanent record and an eternal stain on our character. Despite the much-hyped advances in technology, computers and artificial intelligence, there is no mechanical understanding of propriety or forgiveness. The algorithm doesn't know, and isn't programmed to understand, whether it's appropriate to gather up highlights of your year out of your social stream and show them to you.

This was the year we began to understand that technology is cruel, ignorant and inappropriate. The current crop of technologists are ill equipped to handle this problem. They've been told as long as it makes money, morality and propriety are unimportant.

In the Shadows

The gaps in total surveillance will be sought out and become more valuable. We will begin to prefer the digital shadows, where we exist unrecorded. Time and its “it was” will have a cultural resurgence.

The hollowness of live broadcasting your “real life” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week will become obvious. Simple recording or broadcasting of a personal event will no longer be considered the best way of memorializing something.

Marcel Duchamp and Art

The idea that anything can be “art” if the “artist” says it is will lose currency. What started out as a joke has become a dominant mode of understanding (or not understanding) art. In our nihilistic age, if anything can be art then nothing is really art. The devaluation of aesthetics and art begins with the inability to distinguish art from any other object.

The anthropocene and the general visibility of the finitude of the earth and its biosphere ends the concept that human imagination can turn a thing into any other thing. There's a corollary to this idea which states that in the interpretation of art or literature, any reading is acceptable. Anything can mean anything.

The sixth mass extinction and the end of a biosphere that will support human life isn't an event that can be interpreted as meaning just anything our whims desire. It's strange that it's only after the end of the world as we knew it that art may re-emerge.

Non-Digitally Reproduced, Object Interaction

There's a theory about the resurgence of vinyl records that states that it's the physicality of the experience that's the main attraction. Commodities give the illusion of exact duplication of an industrially produced object. But my record has peanut butter and jelly stains on the cover and the 4th track on side two has some crackles during a quiet part. One of my copies of Milton's “Paradise Lost” has some notes in the margin and a couple of underlines. The type is small, but readable and the paper is old.

The digitally reproduced is identical or it malfunctions. We've been sold the idea that we're getting the essence of recorded music when we listen to the digital file. All the excess has been peeled away. We might even think that the digital file is more environmentally friendly.

The process of listening to vinyl pressings of recordings introduces a physical set of interactions that change the experience of listening. There's nothing necessarily essential about vinyl records, liner notes and album art. But the physicality of the experience is vastly different than the unspooling and decoding of 1s and 0s by a small computer.

Hard Drive + Air Gapped

This seems unlikely, but non-networked sharing may return. Local files, hard disk drives, and computers unconnected to the network. Like the acoustic guitar, which required a new name when the electric guitar made the scene, the air-gapped computer will require a special moniker.

A kind of network will be created in these sneaker-net exchanges, but it will be between people with something to share. Because these networks wouldn't be between anonymous nodes over long distances, they would create a different kind of community.

True Sharing Economies

Because technology is firmly located within, and at the service of, Capital, it's incapable of sharing. Sharing means gifting use of something you own. As has been widely acknowledged, the so-called “sharing economy” is the rental economy.

With wage growth stalled, and the great recession still a strong presence, many people have taken to renting out rooms to make ends meet. We should just call this business what it is. The utopian technological dream has been unmasked as a sweatshop inside a panopticon.

If you're looking for a sharing economy, you'll need to move outside the boundaries of capitalism. Sharing has a different morality and a different goal. Technology has a role, but the implementations look very different. Check out the p2p Foundation to get a sense of what a “sharing economy” might look like.

 

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.”

basement-tapes1

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.



Mathematical Reason, Poets and the Purloined Letter

The_Purloined_Letter

In the end, we’d like it all to add up. The simplest way for things to add up is through counting. If we’ve got a pile of candy, or money, counting to a higher number is considered a better result. In golf, fewer strokes makes a lower score and thus determines the winner. Another way we add things up is to make a whole. Two arms, two legs, a nose, a mouth, et cetera and at some point we have a body. This kind of mathematics is the basis of the crime drama.

Sherlock Holmes adds things up to create an image of a crime and a criminal. A dog that didn’t bark, a bit of cigarette ash, a kind of writing paper and ink and a print of an uneven heel in the mud flash into a kind of picture of the prime suspect. One of the pleasures of the Holmes stories is following along a chain of deductive reasoning that only seems reasonable in hindsight. Television channels are stuffed with one-hour dramas using Conan Doyle’s template. As we read, or more likely watch, there’s the feeling of a conjuring trick— the creation something out of nothing. Even though, as Holmes likes to say: “You know my methods…” Implied is a sort of mathematical reasoning that operates like a logical sorting machine. Anyone making proper use of the machine would come to the same result, like counting apples in a basket.

The other night I was reading a story featuring a precursor to Holmes. Here the amateur detective is C. Auguste Dupin. The story, written in 1844 by Edgar Allen Poe, is called “The Purloined Letter“. The Prefect of Police has come to Dupin to discuss the case of a letter stolen by a Minister and hidden somewhere in his house.

Dupin’s exploration of the case with the story’s narrator, his version of Watson, begins with an assessment of mathematics, poets and fools:

This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.”

“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

Then as now, the “mathematical reason” is regarded as reason par excellence. The Prefect of Police has brought in microscopes and measuring sticks to search every speck of the Minister’s house. He’s been very methodical, no stone has been left unturned. We would expect Dupin to defend mathematical reason as the ne plus ultra, the method that trumps all other methods. The mechanical method that produces a correct result regardless whether humans believe it or not. Instead he launches in to a discourse on the limits of mathematical reason:

“I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation –of form and quantity –is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom falls. In the consideration of motive it falls; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability –as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned ‘Mythology,’ mentions an analogous source of error, when he says that ‘although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as existing realities.’ With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans themselves, the ‘Pagan fables’ are believed, and the inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.”

In the era of “Big Data” the computational power at our disposal is enormous. Big Blue can play chess or the game show Jeopardy. Google Now has a pretty good chance of predicting what you’ll do next and the data set that might prove useful in doing it. Even the NSA and the CIA, continuing the efforts started with ‘Total Information Awareness’, have started collecting and saving every electronic digital trace that is collectable. “Big Data” gives us the sense that we’re seeing high resolution, at zillions of pixels per inch. We could even say that we’re seeing at a resolution that far outstrips the organic capacity of the human eye. It’s in the mind’s eye that this new kind of picture comes into focus.

Just as with the Prefect of Police, there’s an illusion of high-resolution clarity that comes with Big Data. We think we’re seeing everything there is to be seen. And further, that with sufficient amounts of data, all answers will clearly present themselves. I wonder what will happen when we have all the data there is to have and we still can’t find the purloined letter.

Live Platforms / Dead Platforms

In the aftermath of the Facebook initial public offering, there were numerous postmortems about what went wrong. The one that interested me the most was by Bill Hambrecht (full disclosure, I used to work for Bill). Hambrecht advocates the use of a modified Dutch auction to find the right price and allocation for a new equity offering. His version of the auction process is called OpenIPO; Google used a version of it in their public offering. But it was his assessment of Facebook as a business that I found most interesting. He called it a “co-op,” and this is because without the participation of the users, Facebook has no value. Facebook is a co-op in the sense that the users voluntarily cooperate within its platform, although the distribution of benefits is heavily skewed toward the platform’s owners.

Out of this idea comes an interesting way of comparing Google and Facebook. Facebook is alive, it’s made of living things. Without those lives within the digital communications platform, there is no Facebook. On the other hand, Google is dead. Google operates on the traces left by living things, but not on the entities themselves. It’s the footprints in the sand that Google uses to predict the next set of footprints in the sand.

The health of the Google system depends on having access to both the sand and the footprints. If the footprints and the sand move into a restricted access sandbox, like Facebook for instance, Google’s output (SERPs) starts to lose resolution. Facebook’s system is a gesture farm, and with the extension of the “like” button to the Web, it has no boundaries. For the farm workers, there is no “outside of Facebook.” The health of the Facebook system depends on the voluntary cooperation of the farm workers; they need to believe they’re getting sufficient benefit for what they’re giving up. But as a biological system, Facebook is also subject to disease and viruses. If the users decide they don’t want to work on Maggie’s Farm no more, Facebook is drained of its health and its life.

Google, observing the growth of these gesture farms, rightly recognizes that the Web is no longer enough. The Google+ project attempts to graft a living Network entity on to the footprint analyzing machine they already have in place. But does this move Google from the land of the dead to the land of the living? If Google is mostly dead, does it operate more like a zombie? Is it subject to disease and viruses? And if it’s not, is it really alive? After so many years of being dead, could Google really cope with being alive?

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