Tagtechnology

The problem isn’t technology, it’s exploitative business models

Former Twitter engineer and Simple co-founder Alex Payne writes in response to yet another rant by venture capitalist Marc Andreesen:

We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change – I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.

“Let markets work”, you say, “so that capital and labor can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs.” Well, we’re three decades into an era of systemic deregulation and financialization. The result? Global recession, lingering structural unemployment, and an accumulation of capital at the top of the economic pyramid. In this climate, capital has indeed “rapidly reallocated” … into hard-to-tax, hard-to-regulate asset classes like fine art. Small business loans are still crunched and austerity reigns while tens of billions in corporate profits sit in off-shore tax shelters.

The “severe macroeconomic down cycle, the credit crisis, deleveraging, and the liquidity trap” that you mention in passing? We “let markets work”, and that’s what we got in return. It’s been a failed experiment for everyone but the 1%. Dismissing “the crisis of inequality” as just a “pessimistic economic theory” has not been, historically, a move that’s gone well for aristocracy.

Full Story: Alex Payne: Dear Marc Andreessen

See also:

Marc Andreessen’s Crude and Nuanced Tech Cynicism

Rusty Foster on Andreessen

Technology And The Novel, From Blake To Ballard

Novelist Tom McCarthy on writers’ relationship to the haunting sounds of technology:

The telephone, it turns out, owes its invention to more than simply hearing-aid experiments. Alexander Bell, who grew up playing with mechanical speech devices (his father ran a school for deaf children), lost a brother in adolescence. As a result of this, he made a pact with his remaining brother: if a second one of them should die, the survivor would try to invent a device capable of receiving transmissions from beyond the grave – if such transmissions turned out to exist. Then the second brother did die; and Alexander, of course, invented the telephone. He probably would have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic and a rationalist throughout his life – but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there, wired right into the handset, which makes the phone itself a haunted apparatus. [...]

The pinnacle of literary modernism, its most sophisticated and extreme achievement, is Joyce’s final novel, Finnegans Wake, published 17 years after Ulysses as the world stood on the brink of a new orgy of technology and death. Impossible to summarise in a sentence, the Wake has been variously interpreted as the babble running through a dreamer’s head, a disquisition on the history of the world, ditto that of literature, a prophetic set of runes for our age, and a scatological tract so obscene that it had to be written in code to escape the censorship that had befallen Joyce’s previous novel. But whichever way you read it, two things are certain: first, that (as the word “Wake” would suggest) it’s a Book of the Dead, dotted with tombs and rites of mourning; and second, that the technological media people it at every level – telephones and gramophones, films and television and, above all, radio. We have “loftly marconimasts from Clifden” beaming “open tireless secrets . . . to Nova Scotia’s listing sisterwands”; we have a “contact bridge of . . . sixty radiolumin lines . . . where GPO is zentrum” (the post office was the site of Radio Eireann); we have “that lionroar in the air again, the zoohoohoom of Felin make Call”; we even have disembodied voices shouting to each other to “get off my air!” According to the Joyce scholar and poet Jane Lewty, co-editor of Broadcasting Modernism, “the Wake can best be understood as a long radio-séance, with the hero tuning into voices of the dead via a radio set at his bedside, or, perhaps, inside his head.” Perhaps, she concedes when I push the point with her, the “hero” might even be the radio set itself.

Full Story: The Guardian: Technology and the novel, from Blake to Ballard

Former DARPA Director Heading Up New Experimental Technology Department At Google

Remember how earlier this year Regina Dugan, the former director of DARPA, took a job at Google? Now we know what she’s up to there:

Google has also created a department within Motorola—Advanced Technology and Projects—comprised of researchers charged with finding cutting-edge technologies that could give Motorola’s products an edge. And the executive refresh includes a new senior vice president, Regina Dugan, a former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s long-term research arm. [...]

But whether the DARPA research model can work in the fast-evolving world of smartphones is unclear, says Chetan Sharma, a wireless analyst in Seattle. “Regina does bring in outside perspective specially related to projects that are leaps, versus incremental steps,” he says. “However, this will need to be executed under the constraints of competition, time, and money.”

While DARPA has had some storied successes—such as the precursor to the Internet—it also freely admits that it often fails. And it has pursued some odd projects, such as setting up a research program to figure out how to reassemble shredded documents.

Technology Review: Can DARPA’s Strategy Help Motorola Compete Again?

More on Technology Critic Jacques Ellul

Doug Hill explains Ellul’s work on technique and its influence on Ted Kaczynski and (indirectly) Kevin Kelly:

So, what are Ellul’s ideas on technology? His most central point was that technology has to be seen systemically, as a unified entity, rather than as a disconnected series of individual machines. He also argued that technology is as much a state of mind as a material phenomenon, in part because human beings have been absorbed into the technological complex he called “technique.”

Ellul defined technique as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” While technique isn’t limited to machines, machines are “deeply symptomatic” of technique. They represent “the ideal toward which technique strives.”

These quotes hint at Ellul’s conviction that technique has become almost a living entity, a form of being that drives inexorably to overtake everything that isn’t technique, humans included. The belief that humans can no longer control the technologies they’ve unleashed – that technique has become autonomous – is also central to his thought. “Wherever a technical factor exists,” he said, “it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.”

Full Story: The Society Pages: The Unabomber’s Favorite Philosopher (and Mine)

Previously: Jacques Ellul, Technology Doomsdayer Before his Time

Compare and contrast with: The Discipline Of Do Easy

Jacques Ellul, Technology Doomsdayer Before his Time

Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has been on my mind lately, so this Boston Globe story on the man is well timed:

An admirer of Karl Marx’s sociological theories, Ellul came to believe that by the 20th century, the central issue facing industrialized societies had shifted from class struggle to technology—or, as he called it, “technique.” Ellul used this term to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive the mechanical system, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods.

The character of technique is ruthless, Ellul believed. It relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Its single overriding value is efficiency. Because human beings are hopelessly inefficient by technique’s exacting standards, they must be forced or seduced into conforming more precisely to its demands. This amounts to a fundamental degradation of the human spirit. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility,” Ellul wrote. “Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.”

Full Story: Boston Globe: Jacques Ellul, technology doomsdayer before his time

Ellul also wrote on propaganda.

See also: Abe Burmeister on being a hypocritical luddite (a position I’ve come to embrace myself).

Charlie Stross on the State of Big Ideas in Science Fiction

In my rant about the new aesthetic of the future, I complained that there were few, if any, genuinely new visions of the future coming out of science fiction. Post-cyberpunk Author Neal Stephenson has been complaining about the lack of innovation in science fiction. Sci-fi author Charlie Stross has responded a question posed by the SF Signal inspired by Stephenson’s essay:

Are SF writers “slacking off” or is science fiction still the genre of “big ideas”? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?

Stross writes that a few authors – Greg Egan, Hannu Rajaniemi and Bruce Sterling – are pushing the genre forward, but he thinks that the real issue is that science fiction readers and critics want escapism, not new ideas. He writes:

To the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape, rather than a warm narcotic vision of a better place and time.

Charlie Stross: SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done?

(via Warren Ellis)

Notes from a William Gibson Q&A Session (9/08/10)

These are my notes from William Gibson’s Q&A session after his Zero History reading at Powells Books in Portland, OR on 9/08/2010 (here are some photographs from the evening). I thought initially that most of this would come up in other interviews, but I recently reviewed my notes and realized that although some of it has come up elsewhere, some of it is either unique or unusual. So I decided to type up my notes.

Gibson started off saying “Powells is the best book store in the world. It’s not even a book store, it’s a genre all to its own,” before reading the first chapter of Zero History. After the reading he said “The reason I write opening chapters the way I do is to get rid of all the people who won’t ‘get’ the book. They’re all fairly easy to read after the first chapter.” He then opened up to questions. Most, probably all, of these answers are incomplete – but close to direct quotes from larger answers. I didn’t ask most of these questions and didn’t get down the exact questions asked.

Q: What’s next?

Gibson: I have no idea. I have to have no idea. I know no one believes me, but I never intended to make trilogies. When I was learning about writing, I was told that trilogy was a long novel with a boring middle published separately. I think the books could be read in any order. I think I would be interesting to read these backwards. But maybe that’s too advanced.

[of course now he's said that his next novel will probably be about the future]

Where do you go for inspiration?

I’m not a globe trotting writer/researcher. Wherever I happen to go usually ends up in the book. For example, I happened to go to Myrtle Beach a few months before I wrote the book and I thought it was suitably weird.

Asked about predictions.

I’m not interested in the sort of sci-fi that does or doesn’t predict the iPad. I’m interested in how people behave.

Asked about the intelligence communities in his books

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gone “Tom Clancy” but what you find is that you have fans in every line of work. How reliable those narrators are I don’t know, but they tell a good story.

Asked about humor in his work.

Neuromancer was not without a comedic edge. My cyberpunk colleagues and I back in our cyberpunk rat hole sniggered mightily as we slapped our knees.

But writers can’t have more than two hooks. “Gritty, punky,” sure. “Gritty, punky, funny” doesn’t work.

I asked him about the slogan “Never in fashion, always in style” because I read that slogan on his blog and never found out what company that slogan actually belonged to.

Aero Leathers in Scotland. But they weight too much. You wouldn’t tour in a WWII motorcyle jacket unless of course you were on a WWII motorcycle. [Gibson reportedly wore an Acronym jacket on the Zero History tour]

Asked about Twitter

Twitter is the best aggregator of novelty anywhere. There’s more weird shit there than anywhere. It’s the equivalent value of $300 worth of imported magazines for free every day.

Asked about hypertext/electronic media and how it is changing his work.

The book is a cloud of hyperlinks. You can Google any unfamiliar phrase and you will be sort of walking in my shoes, going where I did in my research. The links are there, and there’s even some easter eggs.

I’m not sure what question this was in response to

I large part of my narrative comes from growing up in a particularly backwards part of the south, which had a particularly spoken culture.

Asked about his favorite contemporary writers

[Anything by Iian Sinclair, Zoo City by Lauren Bach, Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which he found "wounding."]

Asked about the punk influence on his work.

It wasn’t the Sex Pistols, it was Waylon and Willy.

Asked what sci-fi influenced him.

Certain sci-fi that never had much impact on the mainstream of the genre. My novels have had very little impact as well. If you don’t believe me, go down to a sci-fi specialist shop. Cyberpunk has become a descriptor – cyberpunk albums, cyberpunk pants.

Asked about cyberpunk’s legacy.

Anything with a manifesto ends up looking silly.

Asked what he thinks of the post-cyberpunk writers, Cory Doctorow et al.

I think the original cyberpunks were a little thin on the ground.

See also: William Gibson dossier.

The New Aestetic and Future Fatigue

pixel water

The New Aestetic is a Tumblr by James Bridle, who presented at SXSW this year. It’s based on a manifesto of sorts he wrote last year:

For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.

Bruce Sterling described it as sort of an antidote to atemporality.

Matt “Black Belt” Jones wrote this in response, proposing “sensor vernacular” as the new future vibe:

I guess – like NASA imagery – it doesn’t acquire that whiff-of-nostalgia-for-a-lost-future if you don’t remember it from the first time round. For a while, anyway. [...]

There’s both a nowness and nextness to Sensor-Vernacular.

I think my attraction to it – what ever it is – is that these signals are hints that the hangover of 10 years of ‘war-on-terror’ funding into defense and surveillance technology (where after all the advances in computer vision and relative-cheapness of devices like the Kinect came from) might get turned into an exuberant party.


From the Jeremy Scott Fall Collection

I like Bridle’s stuff, but it’s hard for me to feel like it’s a truly new aesthetic. The fashion bits look like electro revival scene style from the 00s that continue to be popular today, which is itself a revival of 80s electro, hip-hop and synthpop. And 8-bit already got a revival in the 90s and 00s, and of course that was all 80s nostalgia. Glitch still felt vital in the early 00s, but it’s by now passe (and it was all probably predated by Amiga stuff anyway). A lot of this stuff Bridle is rounding up still feels like retrofuturism rather than something new. We’ve had steampunk and dieselpunk and atompunk, so now it’s pixelpunk. We’re about to hit full circle and have retro-cyberpunk complete with VR headsets and Power Gloves.

chipflip glitch art
From Chipflip via The New Aestetic

And as to sensor vernacular, does that feel like “the Future”? Not to me. This machine vision stuff has been coming to us for a long time, with Terminator, Predator, Until the End of the World, etc. We’ve seen visions of the future where computers triggered by sensors, voice driven computers, unmanned aircraft for decades now. So now we’re seeing augmented reality, we’re seeing Kinect, we’re seeing Geoloqi and the Internet of Things, and yes it all feels very “now” but it doesn’t feel that much like the future because it’s just taking too long for technology to catch up to our imaginations. Kinect and Siri just aren’t Kit or HAL.

In 2010 William Gibson wrote about “future fatigue,” a symptom or perhaps cause of the atemporality that Bridle decries:

Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.

In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement. [...]

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

While Gibsons’s Neuromancer is mostly remembered for cyberspace and virtual reality and artificial intelligence, there’s a lot more going on in that particular future setting. Just about everything that was “the future” during Gibson’s life time up to the point that the Sprawl Trilogy books were written: neurotechnology, nanotechnology, space travel, life extension, cryogenics, biological computers and all sorts of other weird biotech. There are even geodesic domes and arcologies.

Where do you really go from there? The transhumanist and singularitian authors like Vernor Vinge, Ken McLeod and Charlie Stross try to take it further, but although their novels may be better and more scientifically accurate do they really have a vision of the future more advanced than Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov? And besides, even the extropian/singularian strain has actually been around at least as long as the cyberpunk strain.

The Headmap Manifesto was such a buzz when I first read it in 2003 (I can only imagine what it was like to read it in 1999). It didn’t so much predict new technologies – mobile phones, GPS and handheld computers all existed at the time – but rather new uses for existing technologies. I already had a smart phone when I read but it still seemed exciting. Minority Report didn’t predict any future technology that you couldn’t have read about long before the movie was released 10 years ago, but it captured many people imaginations because so much of it seemed to be right around the corner. But now as these things arrive – location aware applications, the Kinect – instead of being amazed we say “oh, it’s about time.” A friend of mine just bought a 3D printer, which is really cool but it’s yet another “it’s about time” rather than a future shock.

What comes next, other than iterative improvements to what we already have? Vat grown meat and organs for transplanting? When your first relative gets a vat grown heart transplant, will you think “that’s amazing” or “thank God they figured out how to do that in time?”

Do Entrepreneurs Really Create Jobs?

Barry Ritholtz has an iconoclastic take on entrepreneurs and job creation:

BI is a digital media property. The print industry (aka dead trees) has been fighting a losing battle versus online competition for years. The print news industry itself is shrinking, while the online industry is growing — but online’s gains are not nearly as large as offline’s losses.

Those 75 jobs Henry mentioned? Twenty-five years ago, they would have been 250 jobs at various newspapers and magazines. Writers, copy editors, artists, printers (Humans, not HPs), etc. The enormous gains in productivity allow far fewer people to do the work formerly employing far more people. This is the inevitable path of technology. Ever since the first human sharpened a stick to hunt, that curve has been the accomplishment of more production with fewer people.

What entrepreneurs actually do is facilitate moving workers from one firm to another — from the less productive business model to the more productive one — as they battle it out in the marketplace.

Economonitor: On Job Creation, Creative Destruction and Technology

(Note: It sounds from Ritholtz’s piece that Blodget is claiming that BI created jobs, but Blodget actually does not claim this. The original piece is here)

I do think that in some cases entrepreneurs create economic opportunity where none existed before – this would especially seem to be the case in the “shadow economy” that thrives in squatter settlements all over the world. But many enterprises now are in the business of destroying jobs through technology. Many more jobs now exist for computer programmers. I benefit from the IT revolution as a journalist in that I rather doubt there would be nearly as many people employed as technology journalists otherwise. But the companies that employ these people, the companies that I cover, are upending entire industries, such as legal services and travel agencies.

In the past we could assume the luddite fallacy was indeed a fallacy. However, reading Race Against the Machine or Slate’s Robot Invasion series it appears that concept may soon need to be renamed the luddite principle.

It doesn’t matter when you were born, we’re all a part of generation sell now. But are we about to turn a corner?

Where Do Companies Get Ideas for New Robots? They Look at Areas with Lots of Manual Labor

Cup of Robots

Julia Kirby writes:

I heard about other applications — the use of robots to inspect sewers for damage, to automate warehouse operations, to harvest crops in fields. The list goes on. In response to one would-be entrepreneur’s question, “How do you come up with a good idea to turn into a business?” a panel of CEOs had no end of answers.

Charles Grinnell, who leads Harvest Automation, said simply: look at places where there is still a lot of manual labor. When his team did that, he says they narrowed things down to 15 very viable product ideas. Deborah Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, put it this way: “In whatever field you work in—ours is healthcare—you see what the issues are. If as you look around, robots are on your mind, you see the applications everywhere.”

Harvard Business Review: Seeing Robots Everywhere

(via Race Against the Machine)

Artwork by hobvias sudoneighm

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