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Walk This Way (2019-09-18)

17th century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress. 17th century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress.
Seventeenth century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress, may 2019.

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General Purposeness (2019-09-11)

Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019. Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019.
Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019.

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Perceived Lawlessness (2019-09-04)

The iconic illustration of chaos theory. The iconic illustration of chaos theory.
The iconic illustration of chaos theory, often referred to as the lorenz attractor, courtesy of wikimedia commons, january 2006. See quanta magazine for a recent update on the history of this diagram.

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Whose Convenience? (2019-08-27)

Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869. Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869.
Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869. Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust via wikimedia commons.

A growing trickle of articles suggests that more and more people are questioning the ostensible rationalization for increased surveillance and insertion of computers even where it makes no sense in our lives: convenience. For example, quite apart from the growing corpus of articles (and books) questioning the actual utility and value of "artificial intelligence," economics blog naked capitalism's posts include the especially pointed Technology, Convenience... and Death from 20 may 2019. The piece traced the "convenience" mantra versus the actual results and the messages about life, the body, and plain humanity these various technological pseudo-fixes entail. It would be easy to think that these are new concerns, driven by the ongoing implosion of formerly respected airplane manufacturer boeing and the eerie explosion of the tesla car company. In fact, these issues were picked up quite early on with sensible warnings and workable proposals for course changes to boot. See Margaret Wertheim's 1999 The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet and David F. Noble's 1997 The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Both of them point out the lack of real conflict between science and religion as practised, and furthermore how the development of computers and the internet recreate particularly authoritarian views rooted in the medieval era in europe. There is a wide range of threads to unravel and think through related to this, from tracing the "secularization" of the dubious notion of "the rapture" as "technological singularity" or space colonization for the select few to attempts to recreate supposedly godlike powers on Earth via total surveillance. But for the moment, I would like to go back to that stubborn word "convenience."

Quite apart from its life as a euphemism for "toilet," convenience is widely understood to describe a state of being easy to do or access. So a step stool is convenient if it is available close to where it is used to reach a high shelf, or opening a can is convenient with the help of a pull tab top. Logically then, our expectation on being told that computers or software will make some aspect of our lives more convenient means that we expect that aspect of our lives to become easier. An internet-connected, computer equipped refrigerator is supposed to make grocery shopping less fo a chore, just like little rfid tags on the soap in the laundry room set up to allow automatic online ordering of new supplies when levels get low. On one hand that sounds sort of good, but since I open my fridge and use what's in it every day, and use the soap in my laundry room too, I'm generally aware of the state of my supplies. But the argument from those who insist our homes should be "smart" is that then I wouldn't have to be aware. Just as various remote monitoring set ups would make it so that I wouldn't have to be present, or even pay attention unless the system sent me an alert. Yet this still doesn't make much sense to me, because there is the cost of getting so-called "smart" gear, then the labour of setting it up, then sweating the now exponentially increased likelihood of some sort of security breach. If your house should be cracked, or your baby monitor, or simply your internet router, you have non-trivial headaches to deal with. That is not at all convenient, and the resultant inconvenience is not easily removed.

With this in mind, we need to ask some critical questions about this notion of "convenience from technology." "Convenience" may seem an obvious and unquestionable good, but at any time it won't hurt us to question what strikes us as obvious and unquestionable. Specifically, we need to ask "convenience for who" and "convenience for what." As should be no surprise to anyone, the people most convenienced by shoving a computer and an internet connection into anything and everything possible are those most interested in surveilling us. The usual beneficiaries of this being of course advertisers first and foremost in late stage capitalism, and then authoritarian-inclined governments and their agents, from spy agencies to police. Whether the "smart" whatever is secure for a short time or never, they always win, while the rest of us struggle to cope with the equivalent of radioactive fallout in the form of inappropriately shared and revealed personal information. So, convenient for serving a dangerous and hubristic project of providing certain men with what they believe to be godlike powers of knowledge and pretended control. They of course provide tempting morsels of the same pretended powers to men with less money and social influence in the form of the various devices manipulated by men engaged in stalking and other such anti-social behaviours.

I have read and watched a range of ideas about what the future of human life would be like in "developed" countries based on the assumption that as much of the daily work of maintaining our bodies is delegated to machines as possible. The authors invariably believe they are describing the best of all worlds. In these imagined futures, women are at last relieved of the drudgery of housework and childcare not by men taking on their fair share but by having androids and "smart devices" take up the work instead. Your briefcase or backpack will check your calendar for the day and tell you what to pack and refuse to let you pack an unhealthy lunch. Personalized advertising will be sent direct to your communication devices, maybe even your retinas, who knows. No matter how manically happy the narrator in these scenarios, I always come away wondering how they can be so delighted about what is an obvious dystopia of total surveillance in which you are not actually allowed to make your own decisions.

Yet that seems too surface a complaint. Thinking about it harder, I found myself remembering a now very old Dilbert cartoon, in which the Pointy Haired Boss' assistant cheerfully does practically everything about his job for him. It becomes clear in a few panels that she is training him into helplessness. Of course, this is meant to be a joke, and I don't actually think that the various techno-boosters hope to train all humans into helplessness so that they may eventually manipulate them at will. Not because having so many basic elements of day to day living wouldn't make humans helpless, but because that isn't the way they view having those tasks taken over. No indeed, such "delegation" is no doubt considered an increase in efficiency and rationality which is meant to solve a whole range of practical problems such as improving health by preventing us from choosing bad food and missing work outs to improving our productivity by releasing more of our time for work, to finding yet another way to allow capitalism to expand a bit more. No doubt they find it impossible to believe that it could be a serious problem for humans to lose basic skills like how to properly clean clothes or manage their own food. All of which suggests that a great many of these techno-boosters don't do this stuff for themselves in the first place, and that they don't understand how complex these tasks actually are. Nor that our minds and bodies can't be separated, or how important to our personal and social health it is that we take active part in making and reshaping our own immediate environment. (Top)

The Pleasure Machine (2019-08-20)

Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox courtesy of wikimedia commons october 2007. Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox courtesy of wikimedia commons october 2007.
Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox courtesy of wikimedia commons october 2007.

I read Yanis Varoufakis' curiously uneven book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism recently, struck by the mix of wonderful on point definitions and analogies and unfortunate periodic clangers. Nobody can write or say something that nobody else will find something to argue with of course, but the contrast was so startling that it really stood out. One of the best sections is when Varoufakis unpacks the difference between commodities, things produced explicitly for sale, and goods, which are not produced for sale as such at all, and may have important experiential value that putting a price on them would eviscerate. He does a marvellous job of showing how these points are not mere sentimentality. Another excellent section is in the eighth chapter, when he discusses what we can call "the pleasure machine."

Varoufakis describes his version of the machine very carefully, and apparently he was also duly impressed by the first big Wachowski hit, The Matrix. In Varoufakis' version of the machine, you can choose to enter the machine, though after doing so it would be difficult to tell if you had actually gotten out, if you could. The machine is designed to give you a completely pleasurable experience. You'll have all the sorts of experiences you like, and none of the other kinds. He leaves it to us to ponder whether this means the machine would ever allow you to interact with other real people, since then the machine would have to prevent those people from somehow preventing you from experiencing something you like, even by accident. Still, suppose if you made the choice to enter the machine and have these experiences without any particular concern about that. A person could reasonably take this at face value and wonder what concerns a person could possibly have, or how anybody could possibly want to leave again. For his part, Varoufakis points out a difficulty in that the machine can only provide the sorts of experiences you find pleasurable when you enter it. This could be okay for quite a long time, but as he notes, the experiences and actions we find pleasurable change significantly over that same long time. We may still enjoy things we did as teenagers for instance, yet not in the same way. Our ongoing experience and growing maturity shifts what we appreciate.

Although he doesn't say this explicitly either – the original genesis of this book was as a sort of long letter to his then nine year old daughter, so this is to be expected – but by design the machine is unlikely to challenge us in the ways we depend on to mature as we age. For better or worse, those experiences our parents obnoxiously label "character building" are important for our developing self-knowledge and ability to face down difficulties. But the process of facing them down is not pleasurable. In their own inchoate way, I think the Wachowskis were groping towards this in the original Matrix, via Agent Smith's declaration that "entire crops were lost" when the construct humans were plugged into only provided what the machines understood to be the human definition of paradise. Of course, we have no idea what the machine definition of this for humans would actually be, so there is plenty of room for things to go wrong if the machine is equipped to decide. There is at least as much room to go wrong if the programmers are all human but also possessed of very narrow views of what pleasurable experiences are.

Let's take this a little further along, and consider what an early sort of "pleasure machine" is like in real life. The photograph illustrating this thoughtpiece shows one, an early slot machine. No fooling, this was a pleasure machine of its time as surely as its computerized counterparts are today. The fun was supposed to come from just the same sources as now: the chances of winning, the excitement of the whirling symbols, the action of inserting a coin and pulling the handle on the infamous "one-armed bandit" with the accompanying sense of defying convention, the ringing bells and rattling gears. The photograph is a bit deceptive in that this is one machine alone, when as we know such machines were and are arranged in rows. People lost and lose fortunes playing these machines, seeking to catch the apparently random drop that gets them the prize. For the time they spend playing, all troubles are gone, blocked out by the game and the pursuit of the chance. Oh yes, these are pleasure machines. And they are addictive. It is unlikely that the inventor of the liberty bell slot machine knew anything about dopamine and adrenaline and the ways our pleasure responses can be profitably and dangerously hijacked by noise, lights, and dangling a prize just out of figurative reach, especially if our lives are difficult to face. Still, he managed to take what we can now refer to as primitive advantage of this very factors, and made a profit.

Here we are today, and as we speak there is an entire industry fixated on making pleasure machines, seeking the one area of stable profit left in late capitalism, which is gambling. That industry is not the gambling industry as such, but the software industry. If there is one thing almost anyone can vouch for from experience, it is that newer computers and devices with computers foisted into them against all good sense do not work better. In fact, even something as apparently bland as the most common computer operating systems are now full of random behaviours and shut downs that make it a sort of perverted game of "try to save your work" before something goes wrong or you are interrupted for a security update that may be anything but. Meanwhile, the drive to increase the reach of so-called "social media" which is full of seemingly random alerts if not from other people than from the automated systems of their providers, along with all the pathologies of on-line mobbing they can encourage. There is something sad, and striking, in how well "social media" and indeed much of popular culture continues to reproduce the sorts of experiences that would please boys between the ages of roughly twelve and seventeen. These pleasure machines, both literal and virtual, are all about that population, and many of the founders of the various "social media" and software purveyors got their start in the business at close to those ages. And so they coded and valourized – valourized both in the sense of made money from and marked as more valuable than other possibilities – what they knew and valued at that age.

So in effect we have a myriad of pleasure machines, many designed to behave much like the liberty bell slot machine, even in times and places where that is completely inappropriate. True to Varoufakis' and the Wachowskis' intuition, they have fossilized a narrow snapshot of possible pleasures. It will be interesting to see how many people will realize that contrary to what we have been encouraged to believe, we have never consented to enter the machine, and there are plenty of reasonable ways out. (Top)

Strategic Emissions Cuts (2019-08-13)

Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd. Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd.
Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, august 2007.

Now that the usual suspects think they can make money from the fast-moving climate changes induced by human-driven global warming, suddenly news stories and advertising are proliferating with new messages all about the individual virtues we should all be pursuing. If only we would be adequately virtuous towards the environment on an individual basis, there indeed would be salvation. So it is that we are being encouraged to eat insects, or eschew meat, or cut our electricity usage and reduce our carbon footprint. Now, leaving aside the question of what protein we eat, which is not solved by vegan or vegetarian diets, of course why wouldn't we avoid wasting electricity and other forms of energy, thereby reducing our carbon footprints. It's a bit like talking about "raising educational standards" as Ken Robinson points out: of course let's raise educational standards, why would we lower them? The harder problem to face is that the real source of trouble rests with the major energy wasters and users, and they do more than most human populations do on a net basis anyway. I should also add for the folks out there who like to snipe that canadians ought to cut their emissions first because they use the most, that a great many of those major energy users and wasters are indeed busy destroying the lands and waters currently labelled canada. But making the general canadian population freeze in the dark won't fix that, nor would making the american parallel population in alaska.

The major energy users and wasters are typically either raw product refiners, or massive manufacturers. The first category includes such outfits as ore processors – many hydroelectric dams have been built explicitly to permit cheapened aluminum processing, for example – log finishing, pulp and paper refineries, and of course such monstrosities as the money burning tar sand refineries in northern alberta. The second category includes the factories that turn out seemingly endless thousands of plastic junk in various forms, from bags to bottles, let alone more complex items like cars and computers. Despite the amazing profits in building this stuff, somehow among the first subsidy demands made to support these enterprises are near free energy, water, and land. I leave the exercise of sorting out how a profitable business can need subsidies if it is in fact profitable to the reader.

Another huge category is of course industrialized monocrop agriculture, which is completely dependent on major energy inputs to generate the fertilizers and poisons used to force the crops to grow in cycles matched to "their" markets. At this point even animals should be referred to as crops in that context, because the drive is to make them more and more like plants. Pigs, cows, whatever you can name, these animals are being bred to produce more, be more docile, and spend less energy on growing or doing whatever they might have done left to their own devices. This is a terrible way to treat any creature we intend eventually to eat, whether it has legs or roots. The huge role of energy-gulping machinery is a key factor here at all times, especially when the agribusiness companies are seeking to automate wherever they cuts the costs they can;t avoid by downloading them onto the public purse.

In effect, the key thing that has to stop, as numerous authors of officially published books and papers have said again and again, is industrial capitalism. I would go even further with the subset of those writers and thinkers who argue that it is capitalism period that has to stop, because its very logic demands perpetual expansion and more destruction because that destruction can be monetized, while whatever goods that happen for free cannot. (By "goods" here I mean not only objects we may like but also altruistic or simply pleasant interactions and safe weather.) If this seems implausible, consider the current efforts by major corporations to lobby for bans on attempts to ban plastic bags and other plastic items. Ending plastic use alone will not fix the complex challenges we have to face either, but in effect those corporations have given away what a key element of their profits and supply chain plastics are.

Neither plastics, nor these huge industrial set ups are necessary to decent, complex human lives. Before plastics were in everything, there was indeed complex technology and sensible ways to store food and the rest. There is nothing about a complex form of life that demands the proliferation of machinery and computers that we are fending off right now. I concede that if all those industrial concerns were somehow shut off for good tomorrow, it would be rather surprising, and in many parts of our lives we would be inconvenienced for awhile. But we humans are quite adaptable, and we can cope with such changes. The growing reach of authoritarian systems in our lives cannot, nor can they cope with widespread resistance to authoritarianism beyond the individual level. But there is a subset of people who would certainly prefer that most of us stick to what serves authoritarianism, and the sad fact is, individualized, hyper-liberal solutions fit the bill just fine. Furthermore, if most of us somehow solve the riddle of stopping global warming by individual acts of abstinence and continuing to somehow consume fast enough to keep capitalism from eating itself, you may rest assured that it isn't us who will experience much benefit.

I think we need to be far more strategic about emissions cuts than that. (Top)

Closed Workspaces (2019-08-06)

A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013. A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013.
A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013.

There have been cracks in the reputation of the supposed "bullet-proof" solution to getting more work out of office workers in less time, the "open plan office" from nearly the beginning. This may be surprising to read, but it does make sense. To my knowledge the deliberate construction of workspaces without offices is an approach more typical of architect's businesses and similar types of work where a team of collaborators work together with a principal to write project proposals and ultimately design and carry them out. In some types of work a continuous "open plan office" environment may indeed make sense, being a good fit both culturally and practically. I can certainly agree with anyone's argument that the inclusion of team working spaces that can be used over extended periods rather than attempting to ad hoc them using short term meeting room bookings could add significantly to the effectiveness of people working in office teams. Whether we actually want to increase management's ability to ruthless exploit those they think they are managing is a question that we can gently set aside for now. In the real world, even a microsoft staffer like Dave Coplin has noted the problems with "open plan office" layouts, and studies like that published july 2018 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B are pretty clear that the results of these layouts are typically the opposite of the ostensible reasons for introducing them.

Okay, so these layouts are not working as the label says they should, but they are popular against all the evidence with neoliberal wonks in and out of government. As soon as we see such huge disconnects between evidence and claimed reasons for doing something, we should be taking a second look. So let's see. As Coplin notes, one thing that this type of layout is very good for as implemented, is for making workers subjected to it feel that they are continuously under surveillance, continuously being watched for the least slip. As the quote of Andrew Park's animation of Coplin's talk show, people seek to recreate a sense of privacy as well as force down the level of overstimulation created by an environment now full of more noise, visual distractions, and yes, smells. Maybe people are emailing each other from three desks away, and that is a level of interaction that is skyrocketing as the paper I mentioned already notes. So far as I know, no one has looked into whether this has had knock on effects on worker solidarity, for better or worse. I am inclined to doubt that it is for the better, and management rarely has an issue with that. In the anecdotal case of an organization I know well, a major response to the new layout has been working from home whenever a person has no on-site meetings. People regularly flee the office so they can get some work done by taking it home, which wreaks havoc on any effort to work a standard work week. Hmmm.

Then there is the nature of constructing these so-called "open plan office" spaces. As you can well imagine, they take a lot less to construct. After all, there are no walls, except for the few offices that are set up anyway, for management. The examples of this I have seen place management in the centre looking out to the windows, across the collaborative working spaces. Said spaces don't get much use because they are too noisy for the neighbours to tolerate, including the further neighbours at the edges whose desks are part of cube farms. Of course, maybe this is a canadian thing. Maybe this is in part a weirdity of the canadian case, where cube farms have been relabelled "open plan offices" or "open offices" and the debacle goes on from there. These are cheaper and quicker to set up. Staff get moved around on a regular basis to respond to position changes, health accommodations, and mysterious rumblings with no detail to explain them. Plus, you can potentially cram a lot more people into a cube farm than in offices, and really turn up the screws of ambition by making the cubeys feel how their status is inferior to those who rate offices and can therefore do things like not try to figure out how to jam their winter jacket into a 20 centimetre wide locker while avoiding soaking the lot with their winter boots. (Full disclosure, I have never been other than a cubey myself.)

Well, obviously I am not impressed per se with the ostensibly "open plan office" which is actually very closed. But I really think that there is a wonderful baby in the bathwater to hang onto here, in the form of a space that is less formal and set aside so that teams can get together for group working sessions when that makes sense. Rooms with good light, tables and chairs they can move around – something reminiscent of a respectfully designed classroom. Of course, in late stage capitalism, the majority of us are hardly likely to get that at work! (Top)

No Recruiting (2019-07-30)

World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198). World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198).
World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198).

Honestly, I don't know what to make of it. Way back in the bad old days, when people my age walked uphill both ways to school and had to listen to cassette tapes through mini-muff style headphones, there were a few topics considered absolutely verboten in schools, right up to senior high. Even more verboten if you had the dubious fortune to attend a parochial school. Sex period, let alone sex outside of marriage of course – even in the 1990s. Any sexually transmitted disease or infection, communism and socialism, and any suggestion that people below the age of majority could ever be activists or politically curious in their own right. I got roundly scolded in junior high for asking concerned questions about nuclear weapons, because how dare I ask or think about things that shouldn't have been my concern. Never mind that these questions came up after a school assembly was called so that we could be subjected to a lengthy talk from a nuclear industry advocate. (Seriously.) But if you really wanted to get your figurative clock cleaned, all you had to do was hint even vaguely at the idea that there are people in the world who are not heterosexual. You could poke at sex-based stereotypes if you insisted, but to question heterosexuality was a serious taboo. Meanwhile, a moral panic was still in full swing, in which various talking heads insisted that even the slightest mention of such a thing around the tender ears of people below the age of majority, especially children in primary grades, was tantamount to recruiting and bending them into sexual perverts. Totally ridiculous, but a real thing. People get embarrassed and insist that such claims are indeed foolish now while also understandably reserving the right to ask tough questions about what is age appropriate and reasonable to tell young people about homosexuality and whether they have to live according to sex-based stereotypes or not.

Now, in the good new days I guess, there are in many english-speaking countries entire curricula put together by people who may or may not be educators, actively spreading new narratives about "gender identity," how to recognize yours, how to behave according to it (this part confuses me because if you just need to recognize it, surely you don't need lessons on how to be what you are?), and how to go about getting it validated by others. When I was in school, if there had been course packs and posters and things put together to tell you all about how you could be homosexual, how to behave to demonstrate your homosexuality, and how to go about getting acknowledged as one by all and sundry – well, it would not have ended well. It is one thing to acknowledge that people are homosexual and even bisexual via children's books or courses carefully graded according to the age and level of understanding of children, with the aim of teaching them not to treat such people with fear, contempt or violence. But attempting to influence children's sense of their own selves is a whole other ball game that makes even me pretty uncomfortable. The lines aren't easy to draw here, especially in this strange time of resurgent sex-based stereotyping driven by capitalism and authoritarian impulses.

Let's consider things from a slightly different angle. Like most people, I was completely oblivious to sex or sexuality until I hit puberty. That's pretty ordinary. As that uncomfortable process went on, I was struggling to make sense of how and why my experiences were so different from those of many of my peers. I didn't want anybody to try to tell me what I was or should be – let me tell, you, I was mightily sick of being told every day that I must be a heterosexual female who had a pathetic inability to act and dress according to sex-based stereotypes of females and must really be interested in sex with boys. I wanted to be left alone with some trustworthy information to sort things out. Knowing that there were other ways to be a woman and that women could love each other in fulfilling emotional and sexual ways was a real life saver. It was hard to find information that simply set out the possibilities, instead of trying to persuade me of something. It was also hard to find information that stated clearly and unequivocally that nobody had the right to treat me or anyone else badly because we weren't much interested or able to perform certain stereotypes. I didn't find any of that until well into my adulthood, which is really too bad. Overall, I came out of all that (pun not quite intended) thoroughly untrusting of attempts at recruiting anybody for anything, in any of its forms, from proselytizing to military propaganda.

So personally I would be totally comfortable with books and classes that teach children of all ages that nobody should ever be bullied or otherwise ill-treated for not behaving according to a sex-based stereotype or ideas about what their "gender" is supposed to be. Makes good, solid sense. As children enter puberty and begin to have questions about sexuality, that's where things get tough because it seems that adults have a terrible time refraining from trying to push kids in particular directions that are not necessarily respectful of their boundaries. In english-speaking societies, the principle that people below the age of adulthood should be protected so that they may grow into full-fledged adults sometimes seems more honoured in the breach than the practice. It is hard to figure out how to set out information and possibilities without slipping into more or less subtly pressuring pubertal children in particular directions. Being older and at least a little wiser, I realize part of the challenge is that puberty is also right around when we begin making more decisions for ourselves, and the adults in our lives need to step back and let us take those decisions on. But there are still decisions we can't make on our own for awhile longer, no matter how sure we are we know what we're doing. I have to agree that it takes awhile for us to be able to successfully make life-changing decisions in an informed way and then manage the impacts of those decisions.

All of which is to say, I still disagree with people who try to claim that merely acknowledging the existence of homosexuals and anybody else who does not live according to sex-based stereotypes is recruiting and a danger to children. Not all of them are raising the issue in good faith. But on the other hand, there are genuine concerns about what is appropriate and respectful of children as they grow into adults and begin to deal with questions about how to comport themselves and what their sexuality is. I can agree that we need to be careful and rigorously examine materials intended to teach children about sex, "gender," and the various stereotypes they are presented with from day to day. It's not always comfortable to carry out those examinations and debate the materials, but then again, discomfort does come with stepping up to tough questions. (Top)

You Can't Have It Both Ways, Redux (2019-07-23)

Roman era representation of the deity Janus, one of the Roman deities of liminality, in his case the hinge between the new and old year. Roman era representation of the deity Janus, one of the Roman deities of liminality, in his case the hinge between the new and old year.
Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, original photo by Loudon Dodd july 2009

I have received some fascinating responses to the first You Can't Have It Both Ways thoughtpiece, but had not expected to add anything to this particular theme. Yet the issue of the relationship between firmspace and cyberspace, "real life" and what we plan to do or think we do online remains as contested as ever. And yet another example of where we can't have it both ways, like it or not. Complex relationships like that between the different "spaces" tend to draw sharp outlines around responses that preferentially disadvantage the all too familiar types of people we hear of being disadvantaged already every day. Therefore women, people who don't think they are white, poor people whether they think they are white or not, and anybody else who somehow does not match the cookie cutter outline labelled "white heterosexual middle class or higher male with a chip on his shoulder." And people affected by online threats or general abuse via asocial amplifiers are not just being wilting little flowers when they protest, report, and try to get their concerns taken seriously. As more than one person in their account of online stalking and abuse has said, knowing that there was reluctance to respond to their concern because what happens online is perceived by authorities unfamiliar with the internet as "not real" and therefore "not dangerous," they took care to document a record of longterm abuse and evidence of "plausible threats." That is, threats delivered alongside such firmspace information as address, knowledge of their routine, or an ability to invoke action in their town via locals who followed the same online groups and fora. Yet something pretty odd is going on here.

Feel free at this moment to spend a few minutes with your favourite search engine looking up examples. Among the people who have issues of this sort to deal with, you can start with journalists at any website or publication attempting to cover news and ask critical questions about just about any issue you care to come up with. If you want to see examples particularly tied to the video gaming community, Brian Kreb's site is an excellent place to start. Or look up the british site mumsnet, or just about any major Feminist publication, blog, or article by a known Feminist writer. It doesn't matter whether you or I agree or not with any of the people who have been subjected to online threats and abuse. It does matter that there seems to be a serious double standard when it comes to the responses to reports of threats and/or abuse. Have a look at the ongoing dumpster fire that has twitter in one corner, automattic in another, and of course facebook and google in the other two. Anyone who has had the grave misfortune of dealing with abusive individuals of any sex or background will know all too well that practised and determined abusers are appallingly good at manipulating others and weaponizing systems intended to help their potential victims avoid and/or put a stop to their behaviour. I think there is a strong argument that this has certainly been achieved via the "gaming" of reporting systems on asocial amplifiers and other crowdsourced databases. Feel free to look up information on the latest mass shooting or vehicle attack and note that the instances when they have not written online about their hostility and potential future plans or have not already engaged in abusive behaviour on line are far from numerous.

I have thought about this a lot, because on one hand, the police can happily insist that a person should not be perturbed by online abuse. We should just grow up and turn off the computer, leave asocial amplifiers, and so on. In principle that does sound like a potential solution, all too often condescendingly framed. Except, somehow all that vanishes the instant one of these people, the vast majority of whom are male, acts in firmspace by setting up a swatting, engaging directly in a mass shooting or other violence or murders their estranged girlfriend or wife. Then their online behaviour becomes a major point of interest, something to be carefully sifted for evidence about their actions and intentions. Suddenly their online behaviour is real. And the people affected by their actions may or may not have been able to just "shut off the internet." More like than not they couldn't, if they have to use a cell phone daily or access the internet for work. Even if they did, that couldn't protect them by itself. It certainly couldn't protect those who were caught in mass violent acts which depend on affecting as many strangers as possible. But this is ridiculous. Firmspace and cyberspace are not hermetically sealed off from each other.

Wait, an especially critical reader may be thinking. All I am talking about here is violence and threats, and only a minority of people are targeted by those. Yes they shouldn't be and they should have considered recourse implemented in a thoughtful manner, and the duty of recourse should not be fobbed off onto so-called "artificial intelligence" algorithms that have been trained on heavily biassed data. That is hardly anybody, and the bugs just have to be worked out. So who cares, right? Well, I take the point that so far I have not discussed a very broad set of examples. How about this. Have another look using your favourite search engine, into the apparently proliferating attempts to use someone's previous online activities to drop them from contention for a job, particularly in the united states where economic conditions are so difficult people feel unable to refuse to hand over their asocial amplifier passwords because then they are sure they won't get the job. They are being coerced by quite a powerful indirect threat, including people who may have behaved despicably as teenagers and young adults but then have generally sorted themselves out and are busy being responsible human beings. I do agree that a record of not continuing to behave despicably and clearly taking steps to be properly accountable should lead to their earlier bad behaviour being set aside. The people making the threats in this case are not the same as in those other examples, and are in fact far more common. Some of them work in areas like border control, where they like to impose warrantless searches on electronic devices owned by people who are not rich. Many of those people are travelling for work, and they can't necessarily do without the internet or their work devices. Should they just submit and not complain then, because they can't leave the internet and it isn't "real" anyway, as the border service agent threatens to have them arbitrarily locked up?

By the way, I don't mean by this that cyberspace and firmspace should have this type of relationship between them. As thinkers ranging from Bret Victor to Maria Popova have noted, the internet is in a state of terrifying and terrible flux. There is an ongoing effort underway to remake it into the ever-watching, ever-recording virtual panopticon of nightmares, a virtual panopticon that never forgets, is managed by completely unaccountable people, and is somehow able to reproduce itself like a pernicious infection. The same folks busy with that project would also prefer that we treat the internet and its various services as a conversational medium and a faith-based belief that everything we could write, say, or do through it is ephemeral. So you put together the most ugly website of all time when you were twelve, it's long gone now. Maybe. There are also a great many people who are seeking to put an end to the surveillance infections and shift services and interactive spaces into truly ephemeral mode analogous to a conversation in firmspace rather than imitations of permanent etchings in crystals from cosmic particles. They are also designing ways for the internet to remember properly what it should remember, and struggling with the questions of what projects like the internet archive are doing. There is preliminary evidence that it is possible to suborn the archiving functions established in that project, and over time the leaders of the project have struggled to design appropriate archiving rules. This is really hard, because both remembering and forgetting are not automatic, they are social constructions. They are political by nature, no matter how hard we try.

We can argue about whether this is a bug or a feature, but the fact remains that we can't have it both ways. We can't treat the internet as "just a toy, just turn it off" one minute, then double down on how real it must be when it intersects unavoidably with firmspace. This isn't just about being logically consistent. It is about being ethical and opposing seriously oppressive tendencies in both cyberspace and firmspace. Much as Cicero comes across as a lousy guy, he nevertheless passed on a great tool to help us out when struggling with complex issues like this. He seems to be the earliest person who asked "cui bono?" "who benefits?" when faced with a particular argument. Who benefits, when, and how, when claims are made about the relationship between firmspace and cyberspace are made? (Top)

Search Engine Repair (2019-07-16)

Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011. Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011.
Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

I've written several thoughtpieces on what is wrong about the web, and several on what is right about the web. Considering the thoughtpiece just before this one, I think it is fair to conclude that what is working in favour of pseudo-platforms like facebook, google, or twitter is sheer peer pressure within the social groups that predominate in using them. Google is a bit unusual in that it began on the back of a real need online, a need for a way to find stuff in all the websites out there after they became too numerous to curate via your own and a few friends' bookmark collections. Personally I don't have a use for an online bookmark curating and social service like pinboard right now, but clearly that is a real need for a lot of people as well. Practically speaking much of what makes the services that have taken over the niches of bulletin board services, instant messaging, and the like is a fancy looking application that can run on a cell phone and packed full of privacy invasion software. Yet of course people want to share news, argue, and so on, and they want to do so both online and in person. There is still real hope of killing surveillance capitalism and surveillance period online dead – criminals were found and captured without all this stuff before, it just meant people had to do themselves instead of hoping to fob off most of the effort on computers.

Many scholars, developers, journalists, and writers before me have noted that major positive features of the web and the internet more widely that are in danger right now include:

  • decentralization, does not inherently have to be based in one or a few servers;
  • flexibility, it can be applied to many positive uses that involve sending and receiving data;
  • supports interconnections between people with potentially simple and cheap equipment;
  • has developed into a new version of "the press" in the proper sense, a device to reproduce what we have to say and share it with others;
  • based on free and open standards that can be updated in a democratic way;
  • we can turn it off.

I'm serious about the last one. It matters that we can turn the internet off. It matters that we know we can. We need that knowledge and the perspective it supports, because as more and more of us are learning, all this good stuff will not happen without our applying scrutiny and work to making it happen. Corporations are going all out in an effort to centralize the internet in their few patches of servers into which they would like to virtually herd us and mine us mercilessly. It's the next nastily logical phase of treating people as so-called "human resources." While it won't be easy to fix the mess things have gotten into to date, things are nowhere near as far gone as the various corporate owners and shills would prefer we believe.

One great place to start is to deal with the search engine problem. I appreciate duckduckgo very much, and wouldn't want search engine businesses of its type to go away. There is a place for them online. But we need search engines with different priors to help keep those with privacy philosophies like duckduckgo stick to those philosophies and generally keep honest until capitalism and its mess of perverse incentives is gone. In that case, we need not only peer to peer search engines and other approaches to decentralizing those services. We need free software search engines whose code can be audited and run for free by libraries and schools of all types and for nominal fees by businesses who are running their own servers. The copies of the code they run must also be auditable. I find myself thinking of something analogous to websites where you can run the code for a webpage through a checker to spot errors and problematic bits like deprecated tags and tags that work but aren't set up properly. Anyone who is going to use a search engine should be able to run a check on the search code just as easily and quickly. The indexes that are the other key part of search engines should be stored across servers, not sequestered in just a few nodes, and also free for anyone to audit.

This sort of approach suggests right away that we need some more places to run servers. A friend of mine suggested that besides schools and libraries, a great home for servers and to host private email service is the post office, which is a brilliant point. Before the internet or even the telegram, we had mail, and the whole reason to start applying electromagnetic and later electronic ideas to sending messages was for speed. What makes post offices a great fit is that every town should have one, or one that can be re-opened, they are properly held and administered as a public service, and they can complement what is already out there while making use of infrastructure we have already built. Oh, and helping insure more people have jobs in their own towns and support the development and ongoing lives of communities they love and yearn for. Meanwhile, with a stronger mandate to provide a portion of the internet infrastructure themselves, public libraries and public education can play a role in helping people who wish to to use this new style press we've got and support the development of new people-based approaches to content moderation and conversation moderation in cyberspace. The fact of the matter is, many of the social pathologies we are observing online can't be automated away. The underlying issue is that we have been fooled into treating "the web" and "the internet" as somehow communities that don't count, where we don't have to perform the social tasks that prevent any place, be it virtual in cyberspace or physical in firmspace, from becoming a cesspool.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an instant fix nor is it an approach that I think will be easy to do socially. Technically I suspect it is far simpler than anybody would expect before trying it. Doing it will involve making mistakes and pissing off selfish and entitled corporate tycoons who think they should make all the rules for the rest of us. Those hardly sound like drawbacks to me. (Top)

Cyberethics (2019-07-09)

Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' -- a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines. Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' -- a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines.
Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' – a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines. Image courtesy of the bbc via the internet archive, march 2019.

Late twentieth century may be no more profound than its predecessors, but it is at least as redolent of intriguing one liners bundled into unexpected places. Take for instance the original Doctor Who, which had its share of "multi-Doctor" episodes, with the "Five Doctors" demonstrating that having that many leads can be forced to work, but it works badly. I won't wander off into how paradoxically bad the story is for how clever the gimmick is to somehow shove all the bits together. Instead, I'll wander off on a one liner that was more in character for the alien delivering it than the rest, and also rather thought provoking in spite of its surroundings. The screengrab illustrating this thoughtpiece is from right around when the "Cyber-Leader" declares "Promises to aliens have no validity." On one hand this line is banal. On the other, it is a chilling summation of the fundamental attitude of most of the people who have managed to acquire a great deal of money and access to the personal information of millions if not hundreds of millions of people. It is also stylistically perfect in its own awful way. We only wish that evil was marked by the ludicrous rants of Bond villains and the careful bowdlerizations represented in silent films and children's cartoons by the moustached and oddly enough, british RP-speaking bad guy, "Curses!"

"Others" are aliens, and promises to them, commitments to them don't count. The Cybermen, like most cartoon villains, apply this principle on the basis that they have greater force at their disposal and less vulnerability to attack than others. Well, that is the assumption that such villains make in the context of such stories. Such people certainly exist in real life, but it is probably more common to encounter wrongdoing by people who deem the others they deal with as simply too stupid to take seriously. The presumed stupid don't deserve to be taken seriously, and what could they do to their presumed cleverer betters, who will have thought up all their possible modes of retaliation and blocked them? Pick a current tech millionaire and you'll have an example of one of these. It isn't necessary to be perceived or perceive yourself as a villain to get caught up in this attitude. Take those driven by the fire of "right makes might" described by philosopher Minnie Bruce Pratt, whose certainty of their righteousness makes them able to dismiss any rights of or responsibilities to those who don't share their views. All together, I think the key feature these mindsets have in common is the application of a sort of "dehumanizing" filter. And such filters are particularly rampant in what is still misnamed the "technology industry," including versions of the bare three that I have outlined here. It is hardly news that this is the case. Nor is it news that speaking of others in dehumanizing ways makes it all too easy to rationalize treating them horribly, including supposedly acceptable references like "human resources."

Yet there is also a paradox embedded in this if we are so unwary as to assume that people who take and enact such views have no ethics at all. Far from it. They most certainly do. Sometimes that sentence may need to be adjusted to "we" or "I" most certainly do if perchance you have unwittingly come to accept rationalization of terrible exploitation or oppression of someone else. A very uncomfortable spot to be, especially if realizing you're there brings the cognitive dissonance crashing down on you at last because the rationalization can no longer fend it off. The distress cognitive dissonance causes becomes its own rationalization for punishing the person who challenges another person's habit of dehumanizing certain others. Hence the repeated banning and suspension of women, people of colour, and homosexuals when they refuse to accept oppressive behaviour by others on "social media," who are blamed for instigating the whole thing by either obviously not being white, male, and straight online or else for refusing to accept behaviour that everyone had officially agreed wasn't supposed to be happening on the first place. Good, bad, or indifferent, people who have accepted dehumanization of some group of people will likely have agreed that such ideas and actions in line with those ideas don't happen in their crowd. As I noted in a previous thoughtpiece, without being challenged on this they recreate those very same biases in the new spaces and tools they create. And they may do it with a set of ethics that they are sure they enact in their minds, and a completely different set embodied in the real world by what they literally do.

In light of some recent political developments in the world abroad and closer to home, I have been puzzling over this. Practically all of us are being dehumanized by somebody for some reason. Some of the most prominent ones today are tied to economics and insistent stereotypes of people who are poor, rich, in debt, involved in the stock market, and so on. There are major players in politics and the economy who are quite unblushing about their contempt for those they consider stupider, poorer, or weaker than themselves. So how the people who are objects of this contempt manage to find these people palatable and do things like give them money or vote for them is quite baffling at a glance. Please note I am focussing on being the brunt of contempt here, so questions of intelligence or wealth are not at play here. I don't think supporting such players indicates the supporters are stupid, ignorant, or so poor and vindictive they would just like to lash out at everybody and supporting those who despise so many seems a great way to go about it. There are too many people engaged in fandoms of people like the current head of the united states government, or the canadian government for that matter, let alone various sorts of pundits for coercion to be a good explanation either. Even the notion that a ten percent coercion rate is enough to keep the rest in line doesn't fit. Even outright dictators don't actually do that to get into power or win their original adherents, they engage in the really nasty stuff after they have power in hopes of perpetuating it.

Maybe the awful truth is that it is all about a thing we used to get taught about when I was in high school, the thing we were supposed to resist at all cost for fear of becoming dope fiends randomly having sex at the drop of a hat. The descriptions did seem that silly even at the time, because this seemed to be the only way that fully developed adults could imagine they could communicate risk and consequences to younger people not fully able to envision such longterm stuff yet. The "thing" was labelled "peer pressure," the subtle coercion of the people we like, respect, and live with every day to think or at least act in certain ways in order to fit in. The truth is, we never outgrow our vulnerability to peer pressure, nor our willingness to apply it and likelihood to do so without any conscious thought. Right now I have friends who are unbearable to talk to if certain subjects like alleged russian election interference or criticism of sex-based stereotypes comes up, because if topics of that sort come up, within fifteen seconds they have gone into "right makes might" mode and they are soon angry that I do not share their views or beliefs on those topics. All it takes is merely not sharing them, that alone is challenge enough. This such a precarious state of mind to be in, that I wonder if this mightn't be a reasonable and non-condescending explanation for the extraordinary levels of anxiety and rage expressed against not oppressors or propagandists but the oppressed and the innocent. The anxiety and rage are real too, not false. All of us have excellent reasons for being anxious and enraged right now. So it seems to me that peer pressure is being used to redirect that negative emotion, which is not necessarily a bad idea in principle, except the redirection is not into effective channels. And that makes awful sense too, because we're struggling with plenty of terrifying involuntary change, which discourages voluntary change, logically enough.

Here's another thing, though. Fear and anxiety are both temporary. Holding back from change is also temporary, even if we have to dress up the change as not really changing to do it, a way of dressing up change that historically we humans are pretty good at. Let's hope between the lot of us we manage to pick some good duds for some better options. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 0:00:55