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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.


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Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on puts a spotlight on an uncomfortable fact about the economics of our working world. The more you care about something, the less you will be paid for it. Art is for art’s sake, and therefore monetary compensation is subsidized by the worker’s own care. The more you care, the lower the monetary reward required to get you to take on certain kinds of work. If you are truly passionate about something, you should expect no financial reward at all. This is especially true if you care about directly helping and educating other people. We’ve set up the incentives so that it’s almost impossible to care for another person without extreme sacrifice.

In her recent commencement speech for the 2014 graduating class of Juilliard, the great American diva Joyce DiDonato delivered a similar message. “You aren’t going to make ‘it'” and that’s because there is no “it”. The lives of these students of art, drama, dance and music will be dedicated to service within their respective arts. There’s no point in thinking about the financial rewards beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together. It’s as though DiDonato is talking to a room filled with religious martyrs about begin their journeys. Given the state of our culture, DiDonato is dispensing very practical advice.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the wealthy technology giants are learning the meaning of noblesse oblige. In an era of vast income inequality, these technologists have to learn how to care about the neediest among us. Of course, they learned long ago that there’s no percentage in “caring”. The people who “cared” ended up burned out and barely scraping by. It’s only by extreme focus on technologies that will “help all of humanity” (but no person in particular), that they’ve amassed these large fortunes. Only a loser would focus their energies directly on helping the people around them. To avoid the label of vampire squids of the West coast, the technology and venture capital giants must become less focused, must use their excess capacity on something completely outside of their corporate mission statement — helping the people sleeping on their doorstep.

In some alternate universe I imagine DiDonato giving this talk to a class of computer science students. Telling these young technologists to focus on, not monetary rewards or groundbreaking technological achievement, but on the ability to meaningfully touch the lives of people in need. No doubt they will face hardship and days when they’ll ask themselves if it’s really worthwhile. Only their passion for making a difference in people’s lives will carry them through.

For DiDonato it’s crucial to focus on the moments of joy along the way. That’s how a passion for the work can be sustained. For some reason that brought to mind a video of opera singers Rene Barbera and Wayne Tigges backstage in a dressing room singing “More than Words” by Extreme. In the mirror you can see Joyce DiDonato lip syncing and dancing to their impromptu performance. Sometimes those moments of joy aren’t under the lights of the main stage in front of a full house. Other times, they are.


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Apps and Sturgeon’s Law


Despite the fact that the Network has a kind of permanent memory, it’s not very good at remembering certain things. Or maybe it’s just that we aren’t. We see what we want to see.

During the last internet bubble we learned about startups, venture capital and burn rate. There’s a small window for new technology companies to find an exit before they burn up. The more companies in a space, the more difficult the exit.

The last bubble was burst when a list of tech companies was published that compared their cash on hand to their burn rate. Suddenly it was simple to see how much time each company had to make a profit or an exit. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The unlimited optimism of the time quickly turned into a climate of fear. Investors suddenly wanted to see revenues and profits. It changed everything. Should someone publish such a list today, it would have a similar effect. We’ve simply forgotten that start ups burn cash, and while many things are cheaper, the fuse has just been lengthened a bit.

Another thing we seem to forget is that free communications systems fill up with spam. It’s estimated that 70% of all email is robot-generated spam. Whenever a new social communications hub is created we think that this time it’ll be different. As a social networking system matures it attracts trolls and starts to fill with spam. It’s always worked that way.

If your company is marketing to a free (non-subscription) social network, it’s likely the audience is filled with robots and spam accounts. Free access to a social network lowers barriers to growth, but it also creates a fertile ground for gaming the system.

Recently I read that 80% of mobile apps are used only once. That seems like a high number until you remember Sturgeon’s Law. This law states that 90% of everything is crap. In light of that, 80% is actually an excellent number. The other thing this should tell you is that as the ecosystem of apps matures it will revert to the norm. That means the number of apps used only once is more likely to be headed toward 90% than 70%.

If an app store has 1 million apps, 900,000 of them are crap. That leaves 100,000 that might be useful. That’s actually a pretty big number. Some say that software is going to eat everything. It’s certainly going to try and eat everything. But despite the brilliance of the young engineers writing this ravenous software, 90% of what they produce is going to be crap. It’s easy to forget when everyone’s smiling, optimistic and sure that their new technology is going to fundamentally change the way we do this or that.

It might be more helpful to look at tech start ups as though they were a slot machine programmed to take your money 90% of the time. Some can afford to play games with those odds, most can’t.

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Escape from the Factory of Life


It’s as though we just looked up and noticed that someone is watching us. It’s that creepy feeling. You know that someone or something sees you, but you can’t see them. The Internet seemed like a place where no one knew whether you were a dog or not. Identity didn’t matter and that’s what created a level playing field, a kind of equality. But then it turned out that you could be identified, that you identified yourself on social networks for fun and profit, that your identity information and preferences could be aggregated and sold without your knowledge. Rather than a casual conversation, the Internet turned into an indexed and searchable permanent record. It’s the equivalent of having everything you type into your network-connected keyboard published to the front page of USA Today in real time. And that’s a very strange context in which to speak.


Doc Searls recently weighed in on the issue of Privacy in the age of connected digital networks. It’s an issue that he’s been deeply involved with for many years. Much of our current dilemma could be seen coming from a mile away. But here’s why Doc sees this as a pivotal moment:

I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one too, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.

There’s a joke that Marc Maron tells: “Big Brother is watching us. That’s what we pay him for.” Maron gets to the conflict at the heart of our complaint about surveillance. In a sense, this is what we’ve asked for. We want maximum safety and so we authorize and pay for unlimited surveillance in the hopes of preventing catastrophic events. Now that we see how our wishes are being carried out, we’re troubled — isn’t total information awareness just for the bad guys? Be careful of what you wish for…


Marshal McLuhan called advertising our cave art. It expresses our most basic desires. Some would say that it creates them, but the truth is that the desire needs to be there to start with. Advertising calls that deep desire to the surface. There’s a television ad that’s running now that says a great deal about who and what we’re thinking right now. It’s for a car called the Infiniti Q50.

We see a “Factory of Life”. Men and women, young white professionals are being assembled and outfitted in a factory. A disembodied voice narrates the stages of the process. Industrial robots apply lipstick to the women’s lips. The men’s suit coats and ties are fitted with precision. All the personal style is very high end — but it’s all identical. Industrial capitalism has raised the standard of living to a level of luxury. There are no workers in the factory, there are only the people on the assembly line getting a commodified wealthy lifestyle. Either the people of color are being hidden behind the walls of the factory or the factory has remanufactured their ethnicity to conform to a pre-established standard.

As our hero moves down the assembly line, it becomes clear that this isn’t a socialist utopia where everyone can enjoy the benefits of wealth. It’s a surveillance state where conformity is strictly enforced. Everyone accepts what’s happening to them with a blank stare. There are no emotions — merely impeccably-dressed cogs in the machine. No one loves the artifacts of their wealth, no one enjoys the luxury.

A robot arm puts our protagonist’s necktie into place and he experiences a sudden spark of consciousness. He turns and sees his reflection in some glass. He smiles, thinks “I look pretty good.” As he looks around, suddenly he’s able to see the Matrix. He moves farther down the assembly line to where car keys are being distributed. The keys are to identical C-class cars by Mercedes Benz. Each figure takes a key without complaint. We can see that our hero has begun to question what’s going on. A woman’s face appears on a small screen that only he can see. She’s a human like him and she’s hacked into the Matrix to help get him out. She tells him to check his pants pocket for a set of keys. These are the keys to the Q50 and escape from commodification and conformity. He takes the keys and makes a run for it.

The surveillance system detects his his break from the assembly line and dispatches robots to capture or possibly kill him. He’s not pursued by humans, it’s only technology that enforces its own mechanistic repetition. Making a different choice is clearly a dangerous act. The mechanical forces of commodity chase him as he makes his way to the Q50. He gets in, starts it up and drives out of the factory. The robots engage in the chase, but are left in the dust. The Q50’s acceleration is fantastic and quickly the factory recedes in the distance. The road opens in front of him as he drives out of the darkness and into the light. Freedom.

We easily forget that a commodity with special sauce provides our hero with the means to escape the boring commodities that everyone else accepts. A commodity provides the escape from commodity. It’s an open question how he will make a living outside the machine. No doubt he will live by his wits. The “Factory of Life” that opens the commercial is a good representation of what we’re asking of technology. It’s an expression of our wishes and desires. The machine will supply us with the good life as long as we accept the conformity and don’t get out of line. “Assimilation is beauty.” Individual desires can’t be tolerated. There’s great wealth for everyone in the envelope of a surveillance state. Not unlike the way we trade our personal data for a wealth of free online services.

And predictably, we want to view ourselves as the individual who breaks out of the mold. We’re not part of the machine, we have free will and a need to express our individuality. We wake from a dream anchored to one set of commodities and a mechanized life into another dream level where a revolutionary set of commodities anchor a new and improved fantasy with 30% more freedom. You and I wake up to see that we’re in a surveillance state of cloud computing and the NSA. We see our reflection in the glass and enter Lacan’s mirror stage. We perceive the image of our body and form a mental image of our individual identity. We make a run for it. We’ll live by our wits.

The idea of the “mirror stage” is an important early component in Lacan’s critical reinterpretation of the work of Freud. Drawing on work in physiology and animal psychology, Lacan proposes that human infants pass through a stage in which an external image of the body (reflected in a mirror, or represented to the infant through the mother or primary caregiver) produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an “I”. The infant identifies with the image, which serves as a gestalt of the infant’s emerging perceptions of selfhood, but because the image of a unified body does not correspond with the underdeveloped infant’s physical vulnerability and weakness, this imago is established as an Ideal-I toward which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life.

There’s a common political move that allows the complainant to achieve a state of blameless innocence. “Since I completely disagree with what the government is doing; I therefore bear no responsibility for its actions. It’s those people, not me who are doing this terrible surveillance. I am innocent; they are guilty. Me good, world bad. My purity remains as pure as it ever was.”

When things are going well, we’re quite proud of the idea of government by the people, for the people and of the people. In the experiment called the United States, the actions of the government are the actions of the people. The President is President of all of the people, not just those who voted for him or her. Instead of declaring our absolute innocence with regard to the bad acts committed by our government, what if we took personal responsibility for them. Those are our dreams and desires manifesting in the real world. Yes, those bad acts were committed in my name. And that defines my morality and the morality of my fellow citizens. We do that. We asked for, and paid for, a surveillance state. It’s only by owning it that it can be changed.

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