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On Genre Fiction (2019-03-19)

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C. Osborne, april 2014

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Voice Control Absurdities (2019-03-12)

One of Randall Munroe's reflections on voice recognition in technology. One of Randall Munroe's reflections on voice recognition in technology.
Voice Commands, xkcd 1787, january 2017

The idea of controlling any device by talking to it has never impressed me much, it sounds like gilding the lily at best, a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Which is not to say I couldn't see any possible uses for sound controlled devices, it's just that often the uses turned out to be better served by other techniques. Automatic lighting being managed by a sensible combination of timers and/or light sensors for instance, or using motion sensors, all depending on the specifics of the lights and where they are, of course. On the other hand, there is a tremendous area where voice controls makes incredible sense and should be worked on with all due speed and carefully managed to hedge against disaster, and that is in helping people whose ability to use their hands is critically impaired. That doesn't seem to be anywhere near the centre of the heat and light of the current corporate obsession with selling devices that can "listen" for a person's commands. The corporate obsession is of a piece with the corporate obsession with surveillance and control. I am not going to write much about that in this thoughtpiece per se, but on a point raised in an at recode.net.

Basically, according to Rani Molla, who wrote the article, corporations are hoping to achieve the passivity effect associated with radio. The passivity effect has two aspects, starting from the expectation that we will find it too much work to change the station. Personally, I think that this expectation is based on a bad data set created from cherry picking. In its early corporatizing days, after regulation drove down how many people could legally broadcast on the airwaves, there weren't many stations to listen to, so yes, listeners were stuck. But once there were more stations and radios with dials or knobs to set the stations, radio listening was not quite so passive. Even piss-poor digital tuning hasn't changed that, although the rapidly shrinking selection of radio stations is its own issue. Arguments from on-line streaming today at the other end of the technological extremes don't impress me much because that is quite a small group of people. But then again, as the resurfacing of old articles about Jeff Bezos and his dreams of unlimited monopoly to fatten his bank account ever further remind us, that small group is of special interest. They have money. These big tech corporations want money, otherwise known as profit, and data and surveillance are a means to an end there.

The second passivity effect is that it is hard to consider multiple options when product information is provided verbally, so people are more likely to go with the first suggested option. Molla argues then that the dream here is to take advantage of this very effect via people saying to their listening devices "order me some toilet paper" and accepting whatever the default given by the device's operating system is at that moment, presuming they would never take the time to set their own. Alas, based on the widespread evidence of failure to change default passwords in internet of shit devices, that would probably be a good bet. So if people could be persuaded to do all their shopping from home, then the listening device that can do what you tell it becomes the ultimate wet dream for advertising companies who are involved in developing this sort of technology. After all, they can turn to whatever corporation that makes stuff and have them bid against each other for position in the default product list and secondarily in a short list of products. Sounds great except it works directly against the ways in which shopping has been conflated with socializing, and also with the simple fact that people like to actually examine most of the things they buy.

But now let's try to envision the sort of world that this points to. First of all, a completely surveilled one, because right now these devices are being designed to supposedly only start listening on hearing a trigger word. Clearly that is not a final state the purveyors of these devices actually have in mind, or a "bug" couldn't lead to them listening constantly or at least more often than expected. If the trigger word were the basic idea, then the software would not be set up so that effectively the device is listening all the time, just not capturing and analyzing the sound it picks up. Economically speaking, the implications are almost as interesting as they are disturbing. If we push the notion of default purchases activated by voice commands, where most people are not setting their own defaults either via some level of passivity or the software making it despicably difficult to do, then we get a system that brings together technologies already available. RFID equipped devices report when whatever product runs out, wears out, goes out of warranty, or gets superseded by the latest version. Person decides to purchase a new one and gives an order to their listening, internet connected speaker or whatever. The default item gets ordered. But then again, the person is hardly necessary in this loop once the products are all tagged and reporting on their own to the internet connected device. In which case voice recognition isn't needed for this task at all. It all can just "magically" happen.

Suppose that somebody decides the RFID thing is going too far, and people should have to do the ordering themselves, otherwise it would be harder to get companies that make stuff to compete for the default and short list spots. After all, maybe the person would usually get the four suggestion short list, and the gamble the companies on it make is that those mentioned earlier will get more orders, and in any case they can gamble on a guaranteed twenty-five percent. To me this still sounds like something that would soon develop into a corporate command economy, because it would lend itself to cartels even more than the current economy does. The number of devices would be known, the people who use them would be the ones who have money, and if they aren't going out to shop to any degree, then to that degree they have become a captured market. Well, at least as long as their cash holds out. Limiting options and enforcing passivity may be great for extracting more profit from people buying things, yet it hardly bears any resemblance to a free or fair market even in capitalist terms.

Then again, it all depends on who is supposed to be free and what is defined as the market. If the freedom is supposed to be that of capital and of capitalists to accumulate it, then actually there is nothing to guarantee benefits for everybody else. We have already seen this in the case of the people who work for capitalists. Every form of limit is placed on the movement of people because it helps drive down the "cost of labour," a cost that in late stage capitalism apparently can never go down far enough, except the consensus now is that slavery is cost ineffective unless bankrolled by the state via prison systems. This feeds the drive to automate as well. How this all ties back to voice control and "remote shopping" via telling an internet of shit device to order things for you is whose jobs go missing if nobody leaves the house to shop. The very sorts of jobs vaunted to the sky as the future economy, all those low paid, rarely full time, often precarious "service jobs" in retail that so many of us are being shunted into. Funny that. (Top)

The Tiniest Violin is Playing... (2019-03-05)

Smallest violin playing meme. Smallest violin playing meme.
Smallest violin playing meme, november 2018

So apparently all these media executives and such are upset, upset beyond belief. #metoo has been so unfair, they can't run around sexually abusing women and children in the industry anymore, and younger members of the industry busy writing scripts, casting, and so forth, are demanding that casts and stories reflect something more like the real world population. And the old guard is stressed, stressed, why they need tranquilizers it's so bad, and whenever they think they can get away with it they are apparently indulging in sexist and racist rants of the worst sort. Now they are angry that one of their award academies is using non-white-maleness as a tie breaker to help break the stranglehold of white males on seats, and they are even more furious because that is supposed to be unfair to them. Never mind that before now the rule was that nobody but white males could get in except as an extraordinary exception, if ever (I don't think there has been an ever if at all until now), which means nobody who was qualified but not a white male ever had a chance. It doesn't matter, they are angry, how dare anyone challenge the oppressive structures that work in their favour. How dare anyone make it impossible for them to maintain the illusion that they did this all based on their own personal skill, merit, and grit.

To which my reply is, oh fuck off and go snivel and cry somewhere else. If you're so tough and competitive, you can hold your own just fine in this new world where the playing field isn't tilted and the referees can no longer give as many extra penalties against anyone who is not a white male.

I have certainly bumped into claims that the entertainment industry is in trouble, and all over again, I have to wonder how anybody can claim this with a straight face. Among the strongest large and small businesses where I live are the movie theatres, and every time I glance at news reports on the music or movie industries, the messages are about rising profits and record sales, even as they try to claim piracy is sinking them forever. These two things don't go together, but, just as in the case of people committed to gun ownership past any good sense, the logic of the people making these contradictory claims and snivelling every chance they get that the women are standing up for themselves and sticking together is evidently not founded on arguments from profits. I am no fan of capitalist paeans to disruption, but that is actually what is at play here, and #metoo is an important factor but by no means a primary part of it. Pointing at #metoo is just about blaming and hating on women, the usual response in patriarchy to changes that challenge established oppressive structures and the old guard clinging to them.

The people crying loudest are from the older, ever more heavily concentrated media companies, whose entire business models now depend on either controlling distribution as tightly as possible or somehow maintaining vertical integration. They are struggling to deal with the affects of computers and the internet, newer huge advertising companies that are getting into media as a means to sell more advertising – that is the endgame, even if we do get some great movies and programmes out of it – and they are getting outcompeted by anybody who treats fans and viewers more broadly even slightly more respectfully than a soft touch. The older guard clearly despises the audience and the majority of the people whose labour directly goes into the media they sell. On top of that, audiences aren't so conservative as these older players hope, and are more open to seeing new stories than they ever dreamed. So in hollywood they keep generating endless remakes, and can't figure out why this is a bad strategy, or that the remakes that do sort of okay get lots of screams from the usual white male fan brigade while doing just fine. There is such a thing as criticism that happens when you're doing something right, and that is good criticism to get. But apparently these established entities are criticism allergic, as unfortunately, are many of the larger newcomers who will probably revert to similar patterns if allowed to as soon as they feel strong enough to treat their audience as locked in.

Quite apart from technological change, the change in people is important. Younger people are getting into positions of power and influence, they have different ideas about audiences and what media is for, and their approaches are working better. They are the ones bringing in all those great new shows and unusual casts and the rest, and they form an important base in the "upstart" media sections of advertising and companies like microsoft and google. They aren't all nice, and their ideas are not all positive. As the apple and amazon approaches to "user generated content" remind us, there is an important segment among those same people desperate to capture and monitize fans and fanworks, and close up the newer doors again to independents once they have a strong foothold. The truth after all is that no matter how much they go on about "the marketplace of ideas," "the benefits of competition" and so forth, they only mean it as long as they can control and squeeze cash and other types of profit out of it.

So, the obnoxious whining is from people who are seeing their stable world upended, one in which they thought they had the whole gig sewn up and they didn't have to work for things they had come to take as their due. It seems to me that they are also uncomfortable with a real challenge to the established oppressive systems, because even if many of the large new players just want the same system but with them on top and better pressure release valves for resistance by the oppressed, that is still a risky time for those systems. Any time they change in a larger way, there is a chance the change could actually take the whole mess down. And in a patriarchy, old men in positions of power, especially in the context of the entertainment industry old white men in positions of power, have been instructed that all they have to do to put a stop to things is snivel like little boys and everyone will rush to their aid. There have been several analogous displays in politics recently, and it isn't hard to find examples in men's sports.

No sympathy here, but cautious hopes that the people who are determined to take down oppressive systems period, not just make new pressure valves, refuse to let themselves be distracted by offers to take less than that in exchange for personal benefit and complicity. Don't be fooled when the same shit turns up in the form of a svelter guy with better hair who doesn't need to wear lipstick to look like he has an expression on his face. (Top)

When the Old Outcompetes the New (2019-02-26)

The old style apple logo, used until 1999. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The old style apple logo, used until 1999. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
wikimedia commons, 2016

Among the articles I ran my eye over towards the end of last year was one featured on motherboard, which I rarely read to be honest due to not being much of a fan of vice.com. But, as it is important to acknowledge, even broken clocks can be right twice a day, and it doesn't hurt to check them out once in awhile. This particular article dealt with the fact that amazon.com has begun the very process serious business and tech commentators have been worrying about for not nearly as long as the people who realized their figurative heads had bullseyes painted on them. In collusion with apple, amazon.com has booted anybody who repairs apple hardware but isn't specifically licensed by apple itself off of amazon.com's marketplace. Licensing is not a solution, because apple actively does everything it can now to end access to means to keep its hardware running or to run alternate software besides microsoft crud on it. I actually think that the affected businesses and people are going to make it through this, and not because of some naïve belief in the bullshittery of "the market." No, this is about human stubbornness and the fact that there is a hubris in this move that has opened a lot of people's eyes. It's about something else though, something that nobody has said out loud very consistently yet.

What we have here in this move by apple, is a screaming confirmation that old apple hardware vastly outperforms its current successors.

I had already gotten wind of this on what is technically an anecdotal basis. Personally I wasn't happy with the increasing impossibility of repairing or upgrading apple hardware, and the ongoing contempt for people and destruction of what had once been a well-designed and if not respectful at least not intrusive interface. That said, I am not unaware of my generally idiosyncratic notions of the world and what I want out of my regularly used tools. Still, last year I began to hear from more and more acquaintances in the graduate student demographic about how their old mac was still chugging, and the newer machine they had purchased or even received as a gift was so unstable they had given up on it. Then several of them commented on how the latest macbook air they had had been replaced three times now due to a known manufacturing flaw, among them a person who threw up her hands in understandable disgust and found the least horrible windows 10 machine she could. That machine should at least make it just past its warranty end. But all anecdotal, and as if my personal wanderings make up a scientific sample.

All that acknowledged, I think we can fairly conclude that now that apple has gone to the next level in its war against its own earlier products, that those older products must be outcompeting their successors on every level. Otherwise, why bother to force large recyclers who collect electronics recycling to sign contracts in which they promise to shred every apple computer they receive? Why go after the "unauthorized repair shops"? If it were otherwise, all apple would have to do is sit back and wait, every old machine ages out if life's misfortunes don't take it out first. There would be no need for software that prevents the machine from being repaired by "unauthorized" repairpersons, or to prevent the machines being booted with other operating systems, which is the clear next step once security on an old machine gets too precarious. There would be no need to actively crapify software even if it still runs on the old machines until a person either gives up or dumps the update, which those of us have been around awhile know how to do perfectly legally.

Then again, this isn't a war against apple's old products at all. Not really. It's a war against us oldtimers, the folks who had macs when it wasn't cool, when the company was expected to die at any moment. When fan fiction writers could fondly imagine a hyper-developed ipad as the precursor of the tricorders in star trek. It's a war against a belief that we should be allowed to select and control our tools, and that those tools should not spy on us or be made in a way that prevents us from upgrading or repairing them in order to meet our needs. Which means it isn't a war just on wryly referenced "oldtimers" like me at all, but on anyone and everyone who insists that rights to privacy and control of our tools are not to be granted by corporations and their stockholders, but facts of life to be maintained and enforced. People have them because they are people, not because a corporation or government pretended to invent those rights.

I have mentioned in other thoughtpieces my perspective on buying computers or anything analogous, that it can make sense to save the pennies and pop for the more expensive computer and get a solid five to ten years out of it before it needs replacing. (And it can make sense to refuse to spend all that much, of course, it all depends on your use case.) Hard core gamers are all over this as well and I have not doubt have far more detailed and nuanced explanations of the ways to balance the different major tasks computer hardware may be used for depending on what sort of number crunching we want it to do. Being a bit of tech person myself, I began quietly keeping an eye on hardware alternatives for apple hardware several years ago, since it is quite possible and still legal to make what are colloquially called "hackintoshes" on non-apple hardware, though obviously you can expect no tech support from apple or the manufacturer of the hardware. In light of what has already been happening with the macos, I had already switched my operating system expectations to a flavour of gnu/linux. For several years the best alternative hardware option was, yes, the original ibm thinkpad. For repairability and its record for not having difficult to remove preloaded spyware from the manufacturer on it, it was solid. This is no longer the case. The hardware option I have queued up now and that is holding its own for both hardware and software features is from Purism. The stock operating system can be replaced by any gnu/linux version you like, and several critical functions are controlled by hardware, not software switches.

So there you have it. Not only do we now have a clear confirmation that the older hardware if we can get it and it has survived to today in the apple world, and in some portions of the microsoft-running world, are outperforming their successors. And they are likely to be quite affordable as well as having repairability and better respect for security and privacy in their favour. The collapse in quality and respect in the established manufacturers is also opening up space for more companies like Purism, which have somewhat higher prices but an entirely different view of the people who buy what they sell. The possibilities are still open, if we keep them that way. (Top)

Resistance to Oppression is Perennial (2019-02-19)

Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecien, july 2005. Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecien, july 2005.
Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecień courtesy of wikimedia commons, july 2005.

I have already stated quite bluntly my views on so-called "identity politics," the latest co-optation and backlash against effective resistance to oppression by the oppressed by those doing the oppressing. As usual, the co-opting involves specious claims by oppressors that they are the ones who are really being oppressed by the awful oppressive structures they couldn't be bothered to change. They have leaned extremely heavily on the younger folks out there being too ignorant or at least too naïve to be able to spot the misdirections and lies. They definitely dislike any attempt to learn about the issues at hand independently. Co-opters and backlashers hate it with a passion when anyone, and especially those they consider easy marks like the young or the otherwise apparently uneducated or unsophisticated, insist on finding information for themselves and making up their own minds. I say "apparently" here in absolute seriousness. I disagree absolutely with any claim that people can be denied their own good sense and knowledge merely on the basis that they are young, old, or haven't got education from one or another sorts of institution. That is a backlash, anti-democratic tactic, just as anti-intellectualism is. Unfortunately, this does not protect anyone who may be more vulnerable to flimflammery due to age or experience from at least temporary periods of confusion induced by it, including by the most dangerous types inherent to backlash and co-optation.

One of the hardest things to watch and hear has been the people often labelled "millennials" for marketing purposes declaim that somehow they are the first people ever to challenge sex role based stereotypes. Well, of course, that isn't how they universally describe it. Many of them don't use terminology even remotely like this, instead inveighing against oppression against their gender identity and the failure of previous generations, especially Feminists, especially "second wave" Feminists for not doing this. Their tragic misunderstanding of the great and brilliant lineage of perennial and determined resistance they are joining to sex-based and other forms of oppression is terrible to see, because it disconnects them from the power and momentum available to them from that history. Instead they start all over, apparently from scratch, and refight the old battles all over again, starting with the basic insistence that no one ever, at any time, should ever be oppressed for their sex or their refusal to embody and perform sex-role stereotypes or the more loosely named "gender stereotypes."

As a historian, it frustrates me deeply to hear and read these younger people and others who have joined the "gender identity" train try to argue that "trans-people" existed before the twentieth century. No, they didn't. The very idea of trying to change a person's sex physically was not in play before the twentieth century, when certain endocrine hormones were selected out and labelled "sex hormones" because of their apparent connection to the development of secondary sexual characteristics. Crude sexual surgeries were available from as soon as humans figured out how to cut bits off of themselves and others, for better or worse, and the terminology and life paths varied over time and culture, but so far nobody has found evidence that these people shared the particular construction of "transsexualism" in the twentieth century and now "transgenderism" in the twenty-first. What there most certainly were, were people in places and times before the twentieth century who defied, with all their might and main if they could, restrictive sex-role stereotypes if they were present and socially valourized. It is certainly possible that if they were alive today within fundamentalist-influenced and patriarchal cultures that they might subscribe to and actively attempt to embody ideas at large among a small segment of western cultures and labelled now in the twenty-first century "transgenderism." Or they might not. We really don't know. But the circumstances of their time and place were such that we cannot retroactively impose modern notions of "transsexualism" or "transgenderism" onto them. But it is completely fair to point out that they were defying oppressive sex-roles, and that such resistance is not unique, unnatural, or evidence of a society in collapse. They are in fact evidence of a society's resilience to bullshit perking up, a sign of hope because it means that people within it are still able and willing to work to stop authoritarianism in its tracks, even if at first they were caught on the back foot.

In fact, it seems to me that the previous examples of resistance demonstrate that such resistance has a deep, cross-cultural history, and that societies that responded positively by working on removing the oppressive structures actually did better. When the system enforcing "gender conforming" or the clearer "sex-role conforming" behaviour tightened and became more oppressive, the society in question was in trouble. The people fighting that oppression were and are in fact opposing part of an authoritarian turn, which is always the right thing to do. People always resist. The resistance is perennial. Alas, so are efforts to co-opt that resistance, thereby creating a backlash to counter it. We are seeing that happening right now, in a process that began in the early days of what we can now call "austerity" thinking. But no matter how hard the co-opters and backlashers try, the perennials keep coming back, and the oppressive structures do come down.

But it is impossible for us to know that, and resist successfully or lay needed ground work for successful future resistance, if we get taken in by co-optation because we have been turned away from our own history and encouraged to project into the past concepts and acts that never happened. We can't stand our ground on purely faith-based positions or retrospective relabelling of people in quite different circumstances. But we can based on real evidence and honouring the actual efforts of past resisters, those previous perennials whose bulbs and shoots, if we are very lucky, we are today. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Sunday, November 11, 2018 23:26:05