Two important (IMHO) reads from the past week…
Evgeny Morozov, who tends to really grate on me with his overly-generalized, ad hominen attacks, reminds us of his brilliance in spite of himself in this Guardian article: The rise of data and the death of politics
Such [algorithmic] systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify [Tim] O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.
Nils Gilman has honed his study of the ongoing deconstruction of the state by the engines of plutocracy and deviant globalization into a masterful treatise, The Twin Insurgency
During the 1990s, it became a fashionable form of irony to declare that, in the new post-Marxist era, the state (the dirigiste state, at least) was destined to wither away. In truth, something more subtle was going on: the double collapse of social modernist state’s capacity and legitimacy was giving birth not to the post-historical utopia of a universal consensus in favor of liberal democratic capitalism, but rather to a two-headed monster in the form of plutocratic secession and deviant globalization. Instead of projects of collective emancipation, what both plutocratic and criminal insurgents desire is for the social modernist state to remain intact except insofar as it impinges on them. Neither criminal nor plutocratic insurgents are revolutionaries in the classic modernist sense of political actors who seek to take over the state.
…What both insurgencies represent is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties. Rather than a single national space in which power is exercised and all residents enjoy rights in a consistent and homogeneous way, the cartography of the dual insurgency consists of diverse enclaves of heterogeneous political authority and of non-standardized social-service provisioning arrangements.
Returning to Morozov, again with the casual simplification and lazy stereotyping but, nevertheless, an important kernel:
As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened.
The “what” is cybernetic, the “how” is human. Interests below and above the game will always circumvent the algorithmic measurement, control, and containment that the rest of us are corralled into.
The ultimate losers in all of this, of course, are the middle classes—the people who “play by the rules” by going to school and getting traditional middle-class jobs whose chief virtue is stability. These sorts of people, who lack the ruthlessness to act as criminal insurgents or the resources to act as plutocratic insurgents, can only watch as institutions built over the course of the 20th century to ensure a high quality of life for a broad majority of citizens are progressively eroded.
In a sense, both speak to a progressive fragmentation of the social and economic order as the system becomes too complex and unwieldy to effectively manage. Morozov would likely see this as a failure of will, an abdication of agency. Gilman might regard it as both a cause and effect of the dismantling of statehood. Only algorithms can tangle such huge volumes of information spooling off the maelstrom. And only humans can ensure that our institutions survive and prosper enough to keep the common good at the center.
Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database just like Google search. It doesn’t understand what it’s reading. In fact, “read” is the wrong word. It’s not reading anything because it’s not comprehending anything. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. In that sense, there’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous.
- A recent comment from Douglas Hofstadter regarding the current state of AI.
We don’t yet understand how brains work, so we can’t build one.
Of course, it may be that our anthropomorphic maps for sentience and intelligence will prevent us from spotting a different kind of networked machine intelligence…
When I pause and consider it, this is a truly astounding artifact from the future – the future of, like, 1990. But it’s real.
Walled gardens are jurisdictions that exercise control over behaviors. Facebook determines what constitutes acceptable speech. Apple determines what applications are fit for public consumption. Google determines who has access to your data exhaust. When we each accept their TOS, we effectively opt-in to their legal system, yielding to further arbitrage whenever their lawyers or marketing teams or data scientists change the writ again. Most of us don’t even read the fine print. And yet, as long as we’re within the garden, we’re bound by the laws.
The Internet of Things is much more than just a buzzword and it’s instructive to consider what it means for these digital jurisdictions. The walled gardens are pushing into physicality, where they’ll likely further encircle us with their control structures [and I'm trying to use the term "control" in the cybernetic sense but it's hard not to see the political angle as well]. Platform owners will be able to govern not just in digital gardens but across the physical world. Wearables, embedded systems, and the emerging realm of machine perception/learning empower these gardens to grow across the landscape – watching, mediating, and correcting.
It’s not to say we’re headed for ruin (I’m too much of an optimist) but it raises important considerations when the devices we carry are registering us on innumerable invisible networks through which we pass, and those networks are analyzing us and provisioning our relationships to the digital and physical world and the many stakeholders focused on our behaviors. It’s not hard to imagine how geofencing becomes actual fencing, for example, revoking access based on whatever data transactions are happening between us and the many voices in the cloud. Soon enough, context and prediction will rise as the next wave of cybernetics, granting greater agency to the algorithms deputized on our behalf.
We typically want our applications to be smarter and to better assist us but these things take on very different characteristics when they begin to interpenetrate with the physical, beyond our direct reach. When they’re matched to machine vision and learning systems and robotics and actuators, and when they invite platform owners and stakeholders to encode laws and Terms of Service into the built environment, when they’re always-on in the background of our lives, watching – these are no longer applications that we invoke. They’re the fabric in which we live.
Of course, it will still be a battle of jurisdictions, of subsets and super-sets, of laws and contracts. And there will probably be algorithms whose sole task is to arbitrate between them all. But it’s an odd thought to imagine how the platform wars might engage with us and our market share when their gardens are growing in our cities.
Coherency in Contradiction is the main research project I’ve been working on as a Research Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge as part of the 2013 Shift Index. It’s just been published at Deloitte University Press. The paper looks at a selection of seeming contradictions faced by people and organizations, and then re-frames them as mutual opportunities rather than mutually exclusive choices. The deeper agenda I have with this work is to push leaders to look past the binary, black & white world we are programmed to create and move to a more holistic, relativistic perspective. The second agenda is to educate people about complex adaptive systems in a way that’s meaningful to the average executive. These two agendas come together in one of the closing statements: “In a messy, complex world, it’s not just possible to walk within paradoxes—it’s necessary.”
This effort is not about yielding to the chaos and trusting that everything will work out. But in order to better anticipate and shape their direction, we should become more adept at understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that increasingly drive markets. More systematic use of complexity modeling tools and scenario planning will help reveal patterns and identify where new opportunities are likely to emerge. Instead of trying to suppress randomness, we should cultivate environments that increase the potential for serendipity so that we can build new ecosystems and discover new ideas and practices. In certain cases, we may even be able to shape how broad arenas evolve, materially altering the probability of certain outcomes, rather than simply waiting to react to events as they occur. Shaping, however, is very different from controlling and requires a deep understanding of the forces that drive the evolution of complex systems.
Ultimately, a leading response to growing complexity might be to abandon certain management techniques of the past. Through embracing the flow within complexity, it is possible to develop simple rules for greater performance, innovation, and—importantly—adaption and alignment with the defining structures of nature.
So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine.
And many you couldn’t imagine.The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.
You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).
This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]
And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form. Continue reading
My new track – the first in an e.p. to be released over several weeks. Hip hop space dub.
I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.
For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.
Continuing its annual tradition of walking the lines between genuine social goodyness and highfalutin’ techno utopianism, the TED2013 conference kicked off this week in Los Angeles. Gathering together some of the brighter minds and more well-heeled benefactors, attendees come to tease apart the phase space of possibility and to take a closer look at how we consciously examine and intentionally evolve our world. Among the many threads and themes, one in particular tugs deeply at both aspirational humanism and existential terror.
From China, this article tickles my sic-fi bone in just the right way. It’s one of those news bits that seems enfolded out of the future just to remind us how odd and accelerated we are in the present. From Kotaku:
Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Mr. Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng… Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job.
The article itself is a bit bland but the concept is ultracool and ripe for embellishment. Son hires mercenary clan to defend himself against father’s hit men. Or, son hires hackers to destroy dad’s credit so dad turns to Lawnmower Men to wipe son’s digital identity. How about a new niche of virtual assassin’s paid to neutralize annoying troll’s, spammers, or distant relatives with bothersome religious/political agenda’s? Social media assassins that target Twitter & Facebook accounts for permanent deletion… How safe is the virtual self when we don’t have the hard-wired instinct to protect it in the way we do our own bodies?
It may be symptomatic of our times but the delta between weak signal & fast-moving trend seems to be getting shorter & shorter. Compelling innovations are bootstrapped rapidly into full-fledged solutions, enabling a highly-efficient lab-to-home ecosystem. While it’s been percolating for years, the emergence of consumer 3D printing really only landed on the hype cycle in the past 12 months or so but in this time there have been considerable advances.
When the 2012 election returns came in there was no more tragic and revealing figure than Karl Rove. His live reaction in the Fox newsroom after the network called Ohio for the Democratic incumbent was that of a man at odds with reality. He simply couldn’t grasp that his narrative had slipped free from the world, the map hewn in twain by the sudden jutting of an unexpected iceberg.
Apple recently booted Google Maps from its iOS 6 release, replacing the world standard for mapping & location with its own offering (having cobbled together the acquisition spoils from C3 Technologies). For people actually trying to find their way around, the results have been less than stellar. Complaints abound.
Last night I was on a panel of 3 with Peggy Dolgenos and Cliff Hodges interviewing our local candidates for Santa Cruz City Council. I represented the Santa Cruz Geeks, one of the event sponsors along with SC NEXT, Cruzio Internet, and Civinomics. The legendary Kuumbwa Jazz center hosted the event (I was on the same stage once held by Booby Hutchinson, McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Zawinul, and many other greats). Our local darlings, the Penny Ice Creamery, brought free waffle cones. Billed as “Inside Scoop“, we crowdsourced questions from the community, then reviewed, consolidated, & massaged them into ~100 min of public examination. The event was fun, and warm, organic, and surprisingly challenging to the candidates and the panel.
Peter Thiel’s foundation gives $350,000 to back Modern Meadow’s efforts to create bioprinted meats.
An engineer prints a working lower receiver for an AR-15 using a 15-year old Stratasys printer.
A Glasgow professor modifies a 3D printer to make pharmaceuticals.
More people manipulating matter with cheaper hardware. The rising tide of technology lifts all boats…
*Y’know, it’s crazy-making to read stuff like this. It’s so full of insight, perspicacity, lyrical beauty and complete hogwash… and there’s no possible way to know which parts are which.
*It’s like a tsunami is coming and someone hands you a witch’s broom.
When I first read this I was struck by how he managed to catch a fairly subtle piece of my character that indeed deeply informs my writing: I aim for no truth, merely sharing my own experience, equal parts analytic and trickster, swept up with some good ol’ mysticism.
Praise from Caesar is praise indeed! Thanks, Bruce!
“The intelligence of the city is on the streets.“ – Manu Fernandez
Amidst the swirling maelstrom of technological progress so often heralded as the imminent salvation to all our ills, it can be necessary to remind ourselves that humanity sits at the center, not technology.
A 15min presentation on the emerging ubicomp interface of the urban landscape
Also, here’s the full slide deck.
I’ve started a new job in an engineering group at a Fortune 500 company that’s delving into personal cloud deployment with multi-point device access. It’s pretty interesting tech moving into the same space as the Apple home media ecosystem but with a different angle on ownership. The idea is that you control your content & file management rather than trusting a 3rd party to hold it on some remote server. The implementation is pretty nice and the experience is good for such a young product line. While I don’t really have the job description I want, the organization is pretty loose and I’m following the “great employee guideline” of not being defined by my role. Of note, the commute adds 2 hours on top of an 8-hour day so it’s been a bit tricky to get used to the new schedule and the attendant physical overhead.
I’m also collaborating with the Hybrid Reality Institute run by Parag & Ayesha Khanna to contribute research and help grow client opportunities. This is a part-time volunteer gig at the moment but may dovetail with my consulting work at some point in the future. I’ve admired Parag’s efforts since reading his book, The Second World, and have been excitedly following his & Ayesha’s work growing HRI. I recently had the chance to chat with Parag for the first time and was very impressed with his friendliness and the incredibly dynamic life he & Ayesha lead. For my part, I’ll be looking at the broad & somewhat over-trod area of smart cities and urban development. It’s a cool challenge for me to map & articulate such complex systems; to integrate my interests in mobility, social structures, embedded systems, augmented reality, and CAD/BIM architecture; and to tease out hopefully novel approaches to understanding urban dynamics and bending development towards greater efficiency, equity, and sustainability.
On the side, I’ve got a new song I’ve just sent out for final mix & mastering. It’s a chunky hip hop beat with a big dubby flavor and some nice melodic elements. The whole track is built around this old recording of a “rasta elder” speaking on a radio station in, like, 1978. I’ve chopped it up and pulled out a couple of the most compelling bits. I love dub & reggae and have a fondness for rastafari culture in general so this song is really a realization of marinating in this stuff for some time. Particularly in the last 2 years I’ve been deep in the Dub Chamber trying to reverse engineer the dub reggae sound from a large archive of music produced by Studio One, Lee Perry, Trojan Records, King Tubby etc…. In the past few months it got mashed into my hip hop efforts with the result being this song, Man Crab. I’ll hopefully be publishing and promoting this track within the next month. More info as it proceeds but I’m working with a great engineer and can’t wait to hear the final result!
Finally, I’m talking with a German film maker who recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela. He approached me last year after finding my Sathorn Unique project and asked if I’d be interested in doing some soundtrack work for his documentary about La Torre de David, a 45-story abandoned skyscraper now home to literally thousands of squatters. He returned with a bunch of media to compile the documentary. I’ll be plundering the audio files for stuff to work into & inform the music. So, I may be carving out a very rarified niche as a producer who writes soundtracks for weird abandoned skyscrapers. :)
Anyway, I’ve got a lot of other stuff kicking around in the ol’ mind tank that will hopefully congeal into some coherent articles in the near future. In the mean time, thanks for reading!