The best articles published in February 2020.
I’ve been quite distracted over the past couple of months. The ongoing drama that dominates the world is one reason, but another big reason is deciding to finally give up on Canada and move home to Iceland.
‘Give up on Canada’ isn’t entirely accurate. Maybe. There is an element of that. But it’s mostly a personal decision—a desire to be closer to friends and family. But I also definitely don’t feel at home in Canada.
Quebec’s ongoing anti-immigration tactics aren’t helping either.
The move itself is still a few months away. Summertime, probably. But even with that notice there’s a lot to be planned and, more importantly, a lot to be stressed and distracted about.
One of my coping mechanisms is finding good articles to read and this February had a few standouts. Every single one of them is highly recommended.
Tech and anti-Tech
I think you can generally distill down most of anti-tech criticism into two main points.
The first point is “The tech industry is the worst of late capitalism.” This critic argues that the prime directive of tech companies is to move fast and break things, exploit labor, regulatory and geographic arbitrage, and then extract shreds of profit out of dying institutions in the name of consumer convenience. Amazon destroyed retail, Google and Facebook destroyed newspapers, Uber is destroying labor, Airbnb is destroying neighbourhoods; that kind of thing.
The second point is “These are just stupid apps.” This critic argues that we’ve gone all-in on an innovation economy that’s fine tuned to produce profitable but pointless bullshit instead of solving any real problems. To this critic, the window of opportunity for reshuffling existing stuff will almost always be open wider than the window of opportunity to invent something fundamentally new.
Neither of these points is wrong. The tech industry has some of the worst examples of late stage capitalism you can find.
Not the worst, though. Not by a long shot. As bad as Facebook is, it’s only influenced one major election so far. Companies like ExxonMobil and Rio Tinto have ruined dozens of countries and are in the progress of utterly destroying our future. The military-industrial complex is responsible for countless deaths and brought us close to global annihilation several times in the past sixty years. Those are the companies that have based the world on disaster capitalism. They are the ones propping up the world’s decaying oligarchies.
Of course, preventing harm is always a positive but the influence that tech companies have wielded so far is more cultural than political.
Both of those points, coherently argued as they are, aren’t exactly right either. Technology is a practice and a culture. The companies themselves are no more or less rotten than any other amoral multinational in our society. But the culture of tech permeates everything and which is why the anti-tech backlash is a cultural backlash.
The way tech scepticism is being conscripted into a larger “culture war” has broader consequences. Wars, even those that exist only on an ideological plane, have a clear landscape. There is space. The other side has some of it. Yours has some. You’d like to have it all. In real wars its a question of land—how much of this world do you have. In ideological wars its a question of bodies—how many follow you.
The problem with applying the tactics of war to conflicts on the cultural level is that under normal circumstances cultural interchanges tend not to be zero-sum games. Learning about other ideas and cultures tends not to diminish your own but enriches it instead. There is no loss; only learning.
The only way to turn cultural conflicts into zero-sum conflicts is to bring them down to the level of organised ideology: nationalism, political extremism, and religious zealotry.
Letting people like Peter Thiel define and frame the tension between tech culture and the cultures of social democracy like you find in Europe and in some wings of the US’s Democratic Party is to be drafted into a ideological war dominated by nationalists and zealots.
It doesn’t matter which side of this you think you are on because you’re wrong. There are no sides here. Just society. Putting some safeguards in place to prevent the excesses of the tech industry isn’t ‘anti-tech’ any more than banking regulation is ‘anti-banking’. It’s just harm mitigation and harm mitigation benefits everybody in a society, even those in tech.
None of this should be controversial, but it is because people want a culture war.
Because without a war, there cannot be a victor and victors have power. Those who want you to fight on one side against the other only want the power that comes with victory.
(Besides, if this is a war, then we already lost it when TV won over print.)
Days later. Print it out and read the thing again, but do not edit as you read. Start at the beginning and read to the end. Leave your red editing pen alone. You want to best approximate the first reading experience by someone else. Okay. Red pen time. Now edit harshly. How does the story sound in your head? Slash anything that detracts from the narrative harmony. Remind yourself as you remove your favorite paragraph that there will always be more words. Still, only 75% done.
When I was a kid, my mother gave me one of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received. It was simple: sleep on it. For as many nights as you can get away with. Get some distance. Read your text with a strangers' eyes and all of its flaws will come to the surface.
It’s also advice that I’ve rarely followed when it comes to blogging.
This is not a matter of the industry becoming more conservative as it has assumed more power and has more to gain from preserving the status quo. For all its celebration of disruption and innovation, the tech industry has always tended to serve existing power relations. In a 1985 interview with_ The Tech_, an MIT News service, Joseph Weizenbaum — the computer scientist who developed ELIZA, the first chatbot in 1964 — pointed out that “the computer has from the beginning been a fundamentally conservative force … a force which kept power or even solidified power where it already existed.” In place of fundamental social changes, the computer allows technical solutions to be proposed that would allow existing power hierarchies to remain intact.
Weizenbaum, initially part of the project to simulate human thought, came to see that approach as resting on a gross misunderstanding of humans as mere “information processing systems,” and began to warn against the “artificial intelligentsia” promoting that agenda. In _Computer Power and Human Reason,_Weizenbaum insists that “humans and computers are not species of the same genus,” since humans “face problems no machine could possibly be made to face. Although we process information, we do not do it the way that computers do.” Even to ask the question, he argues, of “whether a computer has captured the essence of human reason is a diversion, if not a trap, because the real question — do humans understand the essence of humans? — cannot be answered or resolved by technology.”
Beyond being skeptical about the prospects for an “intelligent machine,” Weizenbaum also recognized how computers were beginning to be invoked as an easy way out of complex, contingent, and multifaceted challenges. This attitude — now widespread— was particularly evident in the education field. In the 1985 interview with The Tech, Weizenbaum was asked about the benefits of having computers in the classroom. He promptly dismissed the question as wrongheaded and “upside-down,” loaded with unwarranted assumptions. If bettering education is at stake, Weizenbaum replies, then the question should begin with “what education should accomplish and what the priorities should be” and not “how computers can be used in the classroom.”
Among the standard justifications for developing and deploying harmful technology is the claim of their inevitability: It’s going to be developed by someone, so it might as well be me. See, for example, the reasons offered by the researchers who tried to develop algorithms to identify sexual orientation. In his 1985 interview, Weizenbaum rejected such reasoning as absurd, claiming it is like saying, “it is a fact that women will be raped every day and if I don’t do it, someone else will so it might as well be me.”
Because tech is a culture, absolutely nothing about it is inevitable. Tech is what we choose to do with our tools.
A new axis of meaning
There is a renaissance underway in online text as a medium. The Four Horsemen of this emerging Textopia are:
- Roam, a hypertext publishing platform best understood as a medium for composing conspiracy theories and extended universes.
- Substack, a careful and thorough ground-up neoclassical reconstruction of the age-old email newsletter.
- Static websites, built out of frameworks like Jekyll or Gatsby (full disclosure: a consulting client).
- And finally, Threaded Twitter, a user-pioneered hack-turned-supported feature that has wonderfully revitalized the platform.
I’m still digesting this piece but for some reason it reminds me of George P. Landow’s Hypertext books. For example, this passage from Hypertext 3.0
Hypermedia differs from print technology, however, in several crucial ways that amplify this notion of virtual presence. Because the essential connectivity of hypermedia removes the physical isolation of individual texts characteristic of print technology, the presence of individual authors becomes both more available and more important. The characteristic flexibility of this reader-centered information technology means, quite simply, that writers have a much greater presence in the system, as potential contributors and colalborative participants but also as readers who choose their own paths through the materials (p. 136)
Hypertextual writing is maturing online:
- Thread writing has become a form and, in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes generalised and made available in CMSes all and sundry.
- Blogs exist now primarily as hypertextual extensions of pre-existing communities however and whereever they grow: forums, micro.blog, Mastodon, the Indie Web, Twitter, Facebook, or mailing lists. This transformation of blogs into tools for making satellite lexia is easily worthy of a PhD thesis or two.
- Feeds and feed reading, despite being disregarded by the original author is big enough to sustain an interesting ecosystem of paid apps and services. It’s also turned into the plumbing of the web: being the underlying mechanism that makes podcasts and a whole host of automations work.
- Roam is evidence of a renewed interest in hypertextual notetaking.
We aren’t seeing a resurgence of old-style blogging. Thankfully, as blogs were a limited medium dominated by generalists with little to say and not much art in the saying. I’m hoping that what we’re seeing instead is the first hint of a new wave of maturing hypertext genres.