Archive for September, 2011

Jubilee: Systems of Forgiveness

The technical systems we build have perfect memories. They keep account of everything. The ones are the ones, and the zeros are the zeros. We network the systems together and even account for things across multiple domains. While on the one hand we talk about economies of abundance and prices of many things converging on free—we know the score.

When Jacques Derrida talks about forgiveness, he cuts to the chase. To forgive is to forgive what is unforgivable. It’s an act of transformation, and by definition impossible. Forgiveness without cost isn’t forgiveness. Forgiveness costs everything. A forgiveness that translates the debt from one domain to another isn’t forgiveness. To forgive is to break all the rules of the system.

David Graeber, in discussing his work “5,000 Years of Debt” talks about how morality and monetary debt have always been intertwined.

In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.

We’ve become very sophisticated in creating instruments of debt and even derivatives on those instruments. Our systems of forgiveness, however, have been left behind. Debt and forgiveness of debt historically were linked. Forgiveness allows a system reset, the negative numbers are zeroed out. The moral judgement that comes along with monetary debt is wiped away. What by definition shouldn’t be forgiven is forgiven.

As the economies of the world are gripped by a debt crisis, the call for austerity measures come down from on high. From within the system, there’s only one kind of solution that’s rational. Austerity is the proper solution on both an economic and a moral level. Only moral weakness and foolishness would cause a person or a country to borrow more than they could repay. A good dose of austerity will put them back on the straight and narrow.

Of course, as Graeber points out, there’s a certain rationality for breaking the rules of the system at particular moments in time:

The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.

This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.

As our societies become more rational, secular and technical we become less able to do the impossible, to forgive what is unforgivable. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s not a part of the algorithm. Something like a Jubilee seems like the superstition of a primitive people. In the systems that we’re building, is there a set of events that will cause the system to reset itself? Or do we think we’ve somehow evolved into a system of systems that never needs to be rebooted?

Well shake it up now Sugaree, I’ll meet you at the jubilee
And if that jubilee don’t come maybe I’ll meet you on the run
Just one thing I ask of you, just one thing for me
Please forget you know my name, my darling Sugaree

Identity: A Quantum of Dada

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We want to call it identity, or even personal identity. It’s the sum total of the text, images and video you’ve published to the Network, the preferences you’ve expressed–and then it’s also the things others have said about you. This might include networked systems that validate that you’re a member in good standing; for instance a credit card company that gives you a good credit reference implies something about the low level of risk you might introduce if admitted to some other system.

Somewhere on the horizon of technology we dream of a meta-data system that can capture all of this personal information across multiple archives in real time and provide an instantaneous reckoning at the push of a button. The system will evaluate whether we are a reasonable risk in academia, employment, commerce, friendship and national security. It will reveal the proper incentives and punishments as inputs to models of game mechanics, potential value in return on investment and what targeted offers have the highest probability of success. At any given moment a complete accounting of personal identity can be given.

We can imagine a dystopian version of such a system creating invasive access to our lives, not just measuring, sampling and reporting, but enforcing a particular set of behaviors. Or perhaps, it’s a paternal libertarian system that merely nudges us toward a particular set of behaviors, but allows us the freedom to opt out. And in its utopian version, it is the ultimate servant providing us what we want, when we want it–often acting on our behalf before we’re even aware that we want it. A offer at the right time in the appropriate context isn’t an advertisement, it’s a solution.

Sometimes it seems like the old story of the two guys running from a bear. When one of them, stopping to put on tennis shoes, is told he can’t outrun a bear, he answers, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

Of course, the system doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to perform better than the existing method. If the targeting is 20% more effective than other methods, it will gain market share. It will also still be filled with error. Offers will still be off-target, and sometimes even offensive. These off-target offers are tagged as bugs and engineers set off to correct them. The solution seems to be adding more data to get an even sharper picture of the human interacting with the system. Adding more pixels creates a clearer picture at higher resolution, and the result should be a higher success rate in correct offer targeting.

The metaphysical assumption underlying this approach is that the absolute identity of a human, or anything, can be captured by analyzing a sufficiently large corpus of continuously updating data. While ‘more data’ may provide gains in success probability over ‘less data’, could some amount of data actually provide a perfect picture?

Here’s were my thinking about technology suddenly cross connects to a separate thread in philosophy. While reading Graham Harman’s “The Quadruple Object” certain themes of the work began to the technical project I’ve been sketching out.

Here’s Harman describing Husserl’s process of phenomenological analysis. In this example, Husserl collects data about a water tower:

Recall what happens in any phenomenological analysis. Perhaps Husserl circles a water tower at a distance of one hundred meters, at dusk, in a state of suicidal depression. As Husserl moves along his sad path while observing the tower, it constantly shows different profiles. In each moment he will experience new details, but without the tower becoming a new tower in each instant. Instead, the tower is a unified “intentional object” that remains the same despite being presented through a specific profile: an Abschattung or “adumbration,” as Husserl calls them. But these adumbrations are not the same thing as the intentional objects they manifest. If Husserl increases his circuit around the tower to three hundred meters at dawn in a mood of euphoria, it still seems to him like the same tower as yesterday evening. The object always remains the same despite numerous constant changes in its content.

For Husserl, through this swirl of manifold presentations of the object remains the same object. The technical big data project seems to imply that if we could just record a sufficiently large quantity of these impressions, we could create a high-definition image of the real object. Husserl, takes the opposite approach:

The object is not attained by adding up its possible appearances to us, but by subtracting these adumbrations. That dog on the horizon need not have its hind leg raised exactly as it now does, nor does it cease to be the same dog if it stops growling and wags its tail in a spirit of welcome. Intentional objects always appear in more specific fashion than necessary, frosted over with accidental identity for us. Here already we see Husserl’s departure from empiricism. Just as an apple is not the sum total of its reed, slippery, cold, hard, and sweet features in any given moment, it is also not the sum total of angles and distances from which it can be perceived. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty relapse into saying that the being of the house is “the house viewed from everywhere,” while even Heidegger has little sense of the difference between intentional objects and their qualities.

In its optimism, the big-data approach sides with Merleau-Ponty in this debate. The object is knowable, and through technical innovations, a sufficient number of profiles of the object can be collected to asymptotically approach a real high-definition picture. And once digitized, it’s even better than the real thing because it’s now computable.

It’s difficult to imagine a Husserlian technology that, rather than collecting profiles and reducing them to a single image, strips away the profiles to get to the thing itself. The metaphysics embedded in the technology big data can only move in one direction. It’s like the story of Nasrudin, who one night loses his keys in a ditch next to the road. He looks for them under the streetlight, because that’s where the light is.

Recording large numbers of profiles is half of the equation, the other half is the reduction of the data for a convergence on a set of probabilities. Exploring the margins of this second movement, we find that some objects are not reducible. The quantum object that is both true and false is not reducible to truth or falsity. The dada object that contains a function and its opposite embodies a contradiction. And what of the human being who is both conscious and unconscious? The irreducible is a spanner in the works of the big data machine.

When we define identity to exclude these irreducible moments, we return to kind of conformity that produces a repressed reservoir of unconscious desire. The exhaust from the engines of the big data machine congeals into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu floating in an unseen dimension. The freaks must put their flags away, turn down the music and stand aside; identity is for the suits.

Blake’s Apocalypse and the Limitations of Innocence

I chanced upon a copy of Harold Bloom’s 1963 book, “Blake’s Apocalypse” while wandering through the stacks at the Mechanics’ Institute Library. The light blue hardcover book, without a dust jacket, had the sturdy appearance of a book published in the early 60s. There’s a sort of utilitarian optimism about its construction and feel. One senses in it an object with the confidence that it was built for the long haul.

The confluence of Bloom’s analysis and Blake’s poetry is intoxicating. But it was Bloom’s comment on the attitude of Innocence in Blake’s “Book of Thel” that caused me to pause and mark down this passage:

Unlike Adam and Eve, fearful and disgraced, and hiding from the judgement of death, Thel is sadly resigned. Gentle she will hear the voice that marks the evening of her beauty. Innocence can be maintained, and this unbodied child can die a child, to be absorbed into the natural cycle of her paradise.

Yet she could choose a better way, at the price of a birth into suffering and fallen reality. What “The Book of Thel,” by its very form, makes clear is the human limitations of the state of Innocence. Here is born what the engraved tracts had foretold: Blake’s dialectics of Nature, or his argument about the relative values of Innocence and Experience. Innocence is a higher state than Experience, but you cannot progress in it, for where there are no oppositions of spirit, the spirit stagnates. There are no truths in Innocence because there are no falsehoods, and no vision but stasis, because the only contrary to desire is mere cycle. The destiny of man in Eden is repetition., the circle of natural organicism. Thel’s Innocence is natural ignorance; she abides in a Mystery, and her very form is a reflection in a glass, a shadow in the water, an infant’s dream.

From William Blake’s Book of Thel

Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face,
Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden of the evening time.

A Change In The Weather: Buddhist Economics

In taking note of a shift in tone, we must immediately acknowledge that it will not be the new, new thing. It’s not the hint, the vague scent, that turns out to be the key to the next Network-scale technological advance. It’s not the thing everybody must have; it’s not the ticket that wins the lottery for its owner. Nor is it the hit song that will be playing in the background of everyone’s thoughts as the Summer ends and Autumn opens before us.

The pattern is larger than this, but there were two moments that signaled a change. One of these moments was Catarina Fake’s blog post “Make Things.” In this post she describes a more humble approach to making tools for people. Her thoughts are set in the background of an overheated venture capital environment where liquidity events are plotted prior to thinking about useful products. Deployment of, and return on, capital seems to have superseded the passion to build, explore and make things. Companies become just another fungible asset class, a tool for capital’s replication and growth. Fake asks the potential entrepreneur to take a step back and ask whether capital is subordinate to, and serving a passion (as a means) or whether the passion to make things has been securitized and sold to the highest bidder (as an end).

For Fake, capital isn’t the wellspring of inspiration, instead it’s the creativity of people making things:

…I have been inspired in my work by stuff that people make. I fell in love with zines and independent radio when I was an isolated teenager living in the suburbs. Then BBSs, people’s personal web sites, Usenet, Entropy8, online zines (holy crap, the old Bitch magazine site is now a porn portal! And Maxi is squatted!), blogs, Excel, online communities, Amazon, Salon, eBay, O’Reilly books, Google, Friendster, Alamut, NQPAOFU, Metafilter, board games, Blogger, paper games, 1000 blank cards, The Mirror Project, 1000 journals, Moveable Type, 20 things, Google Maps, Flickr, Gmail, last.fm, iPhone, NaNoWriMo, McSweeney’s, Kingdom of Loathing, muxtape, vimeo, Etsy, iPad, Kickstarter …the people who make these things are my leaders.

Putting ‘cool’ before ‘capital’ is certainly a commendable reordering of priorities, but somehow it doesn’t go far enough. On one end of the spectrum, passion must fend off the temptations of subordinating itself to capital; on the other end, it faces a kind of commoditization that has forced pricing expectations toward zero.

This leads us to the second moment in this shift in tone. Jaron Lanier recently published an interview and essay called, “The Local-Global Flip.” In it he examines the Network as a local and global economic platform. When we think about making tools for people, just what kind of tools are we thinking of?

Everyone’s into Internet things, and yet we have this huge global economic trouble. If you had talked to anyone involved in it twenty years ago, everyone would have said that the ability for people to inexpensively have access to a tremendous global computation and networking facility ought to create wealth. This ought to create well being; this ought to create this incredible expansion in just people living decently, and in personal liberty. And indeed, some of that’s happened. Yet if you look at the big picture, it obviously isn’t happening enough, if it’s happening at all.

Dominance at Network scale allows the major players to generate mountains of cash by charging a small vig on every transaction and transfer of data. Not just the long tail, it’s the whole hog. It’s a big data model that requires volume and an unlimited scaling infrastructure. The promise of cloud computing is that if you actually won the lottery, your infrastructure could scale up to handle it. The reality is there’s not much room at the total-Network-dominance table. The corporations flirting with the cloud have a lot in common with McSweeny’s writer, Pat Stansik’s friend who just upgraded to a Vimeo Plus account.

Hey, I know we haven’t talked in a while but I just wanted to let you know that I upgraded to a Vimeo Plus account. It costs $59.95 a year, which might sound expensive, but after doing some research I decided that it’s a good investment. You’re probably wondering why I would spend money on something I can already do for free but trust me; this is going to be a big step in my filmmaking career.

Economist, Tyler Cowen, in his book “The Great Stagnation” notes that these Network-scale technology businesses don’t actually employ many people. Their success is picking low-hanging fruit and doesn’t translate into success for our society or our country. And Lanier observes that while the Network promises efficiency, freedom and empowerment, if you look closely you see that it isn’t actually designed to deliver on that promise.

…I’ll often get a lot of pushback and they’ll say, “No, no, no. There are all these people who are being empowered by all this stuff on the Internet that’s free”, and I’ll say, “Well, show me. Where’s all the wealth? Where’s the new middle class of people who are doing this?” They don’t exist. They just aren’t there. We’re losing the middle class, and we should be saving it. We should be strengthening it.

If we used to be a bell curve society, we’re ending up as a U-shaped society, turning into what Brazil used to be, or something like that, that’s where America is going. You can see the Apple model, and it’s not just Apple, but this notion of the elite-controlled thing serving the upper horn of the U, and you can see the Google model, which is like the seedy pawn shop and cash store kind of approach to the Internet where, “Oh, we’ll give you coupons, and we’ll sell advertising to you, and it’s free, free, free, free, free.” That attaches itself to the lower horn of the U.

The Network has the potential to make the local into the global, and it’s in this possibility that Lanier puts his finger on one of the key issues of our time. When the local player becomes global, but still plays by the rules of locality, an unsustainable economy is created.

The network effects can be so powerful that you cease being a local player. An example of this is Wal-Mart removing so many jobs from their own customers that they start to lose profitability, and suddenly upscale players, like Target, are doing better. Wal-Mart impoverished its own customer base. Google is facing exactly the same issue long-term, although not yet. The finance industry kept on thinking they could eject waste out into the general system, but they became the system. You become global instead of local so that the system breaks. Insurance companies in America, by trying to only insure people who didn’t need insurance, ejected risk into the general system away from themselves, but they became so big that they were no longer local players, and there wasn’t some giant vastness to absorb this risk that they’d ejected, and so therefore the system breaks. You see this again and again and again. It’s not sustainable.

And so we spin back around to Catarina Fake’s post about a humble approach to building tools for people. Are the tools we’re adding to the Network ones that allow adults to make a living, or do they just promise more non-negotiable social reputation points. The economics of these tools need to work for more than the rich or teenagers living under their parent’s roofs. Again, here’s Lanier:

There is this huge increase in efficiency, but the interesting thing is that increasing efficiency by itself doesn’t employ people. There is a difference between saving and making money when you’re unemployed. Once you’re already rich, saving money and making money is the same thing, but for people who are on the bottom or even in the middle classes, saving money doesn’t help you if you don’t have the money to save in the first place.

The choice isn’t necessarily a simple one between capital and passion, it may be necessary to put our concept of economics on completely different footing. E.F. Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics provides a framework for rethinking and de-centering our preconceptions about economics. What if we were to “make things,” create useful tools that were meaningful in the framework of Buddhist economics? How would those tools look different from the ones we make today? Here’s Schumacher:

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.

It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—and, labour, and capital—as the means. The former, in short, tries to maximise human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption, while the latter tries to maximise consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. It is easy to see that the effort needed to sustain a way of life which seeks to attain the optimal pattern of consumption is likely to be much smaller than the effort needed to sustain a drive for maximum consumption. We need not be surprised, therefore, that the pressure and strain of living is very much less in say, Burma, than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labour-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter.

It’s a shift in the tone of the normal flow of the conversation. Things that solidly had one well-known meaning suddenly have an unsettling ambiguity. Now we ask not what we can do for the Network, but rather what the Network can do for us. For a brief moment, a slight crack is visible in the veneer of Network of bread and circuses. And no, it’s not the new new thing. It’s something else entirely. It starts by asking about who the economics of “free” really benefits.