Marginalia

Notes on what I've been reading

In Marginalia 23 I mentioned Julia Reda’s GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright. Reda noted:

Those who argue that Copilot’s output is a derivative work of the training data may do so because they hope it will place those outputs under the licensing terms of the GPL. But the unpleasant side effect of such an extension of copyright would be that all other AI-generated content would henceforth also be protected by copyright.

Well, the day has already arrived in relation to copyright’s close cousin, the patent. This is a blow against open society and democratic public affairs. In short: the people most likely to control the machine learning power capable of spitting out patentable “discoveries” are already rich. This legal precedent means they can simply buy some compute and further monopolise “innovation”. It’s certainly not going to incentivise any human creativity.

This story gets top billing in today’s Marginalia because it combines two strands that have been on my radar recently: technology monopolies, and machine learning aka “artificial intelligence”.

In The rise of community-owned monopolies, Konrad Hinsen writes “One question I have been thinking about in the context of reproducible research is this: Why is all stable software technology old, and all recent technology fragile?”

One response would be to point Hinsen to selection bias, and the (in)famous second world war “bullet holes in planes that returned to base” diagram. Old technology that is still around is likely to be still around because it is stable. New software could be expected to be unstable in part because it’s new. But this isn’t the whole story and he does have some interesting things to say about how even in an “open” and “free” project, a type of community monopoly can evolve:

While in theory Open Source is good for supporting diversity (“just fork the code and adapt it to your needs”), the reality of today’s major Open Source communities is exactly the opposite: a focus on “let’s all work together”. Combine this with the chronic lack of funding, and thus also a lack of incentives for developing the structured governance that would administrate funding and create activity reports, and you end up with large number of users depending on the work of a small number of inexperienced developers in precarious positions who cannot reasonably be expected to make an effort to even understand the needs of the user base at large.

Another line that caught my eye is “Standards-based markets can only form when there are multiple competing producers right from the start”. This is also true when there may have been competing producers at the start but for whatever reason there are fewer and fewer over time. Clear examples of this at the present are web browsers, where there are essentially three competing browser engines (Blink, WebKit, and Gecko), but Mozilla is so reliant on funding from Google/Alphabet that arguably there are only two independently funded endeavours. Web rendering engines are so complicated that there is no realistic opportunity for competitors, and the computing technology giants control the standards, so that’s not likely to change.

Rich Harris sounds the alarm on where this control has led with his post Stay Alert:

A short while ago, Chrome broke the web by disabling alert(), confirm() and prompt() dialogs from cross-origin iframes. The justification was that “the current UX is confusing, and has previously led to spoofs where sites pretend the message comes from Chrome or a different website”; removing the feature was deemed preferable to fixing the UX.

One may or may not agree with Harris’ stance on alert()but that’s not really the point. Chrome, and more importantly Blink (which also drives Microsoft’s Edge browser), has such a large market share that effectively what they decide determines where web technology goes. Even if you think they’re right this time, it’s extremely dangerous.

We also see this in library “science”, at least in the English speaking world. You’ve read me complaining about this before but why are the extremely weird and particular needs of the United States Congress used as the basis for both classification and controlled vocabularies in libraries across the United States, let alone those in the UK, Australia, and many others? Standards monopolisation.

Graham Lee provides an interesting take on how software develops and who gets left behind and why, in Majoring in versions. He also has some great and funny lines:

“Scripting language” does not actually mean anything. It is said by people who want to imply that a programming language is less worthy somehow because it is easier to use.

But beyond that, Lee provides a really great explanation of what has happened in Python with the migration from Python 2 to Python 3, and more importantly, the incredible complexities of trying to reach consensus in a community-managed software project used by literally millions of people (my emphasis in the below):

The last release of the 2.7 lineage was in April 2020, two decades after the first release, two decades after the discussions of py3k started, 14 years after the migration path was published, and 11 years after the release of version 3.

And people still felt that they had not had enough warning.

In fairness, some of them had not. They were not Pythonistas per se, they were computer users who happened to engage with Python when using a computer. Climate scientists, perhaps, who relied on their library vendors and their site administrators to keep everything ticking over. But they did not realise that their library vendors did not have funding for maintenance, and that their site administrators were relying on the operating system package maintainers.

The operating system package maintainers did not dare upgrade the default Python package, because that would break people’s scripts. Better to ship version 2 tomorrow so that everybody’s programs from yesterday carry on running.

Nobody was responsible for migrating to Python 3, so nobody did. It was not until 2.7, when people were finally told that this was the final release of Python 2, that these Pythonistas noticed the corner that they were painted into.

Ed Summers, in a much shorter post (Opinionated), covers some of the same ground:

Software always takes sides, and expresses opinions–and in fact often embodies multiple opinions in multiple arguments or controversies, rather than just one. The question is, do you understand the opinions it is expressing, and the decisions that are being made to express them? How can these decisions be negotiated as a group that includes the designers and users of the software?

So that was a bunch of reading about monopolies and sameness. My last few links are about splitting things into more discrete focuses – for better or for worse.

First up, two really cool things.

Brigham Young University wanted to analyse their chat logs to spot any issues with how they were responding to student queries or any patterns in terms of problems students were experiencing. The problem was that nine years of chat history was about 90,000 different transcripts. Enter machine learning. What I like about this project is (a) they did the analysis themselves with downloaded logs rather than some cloud service and (b) they shared exactly how they did it in an open access journal.

I have also been meaning to share this interesting podcast episode from What’s new? about The Women Writers Project:

Since the dawn of the printing press, women have written and published works of prose and poetry, and yet these texts have almost always received less attention than books written by men. In the early years of the internet, one project sought to redress this imbalance, and to make women writers not only more visible, but available for students and researchers to study in entirely new ways.

This project is basically the opposite of the chat analysis project – it uses humans to manually code text from nineteenth century women’s novels, allowing researchers to find links between texts, authors, and styles that would otherwise by missed. A fascinating metadata story.

Finally, there’s this garbage from Clarivate earlier in the year. In short, they’ve found a new way to artificially slice knowledge about the world into arbitrary categories. But allegedly it’s “bottom up” (though why this is “bottom up” rather than “top down” or “sideways in” for that matter isn’t really explained). Don’t get confused. There are no “responsible” research metrics. This is not about creating new knowledge or more “natural divisions” or any other marketing rubbish. This is about creating new “specialties” and therefore new journals and therefore new profit streams. In an interview with Emergence Magazine earlier this year Suzanne Simard talked about the way the academia-publishing complex conspires to reduce our understanding of how things are connected:

In academia, you get rewarded for the number of papers that you publish. They still count the number of papers. You get more money, you get more grants, you get more recognition, especially if you’re the lead author. Then you see, in areas like microbiology or even satellite imagery and remote sensing, if you can dissect your paper in these little bits and bites and publish these small ideas and have many, many, many papers, you’re much further ahead than writing that one big, seminal paper that integrates everything together, that’s going to be really hard to publish.

And so academics do. They put them in these little bite-sized pieces. I find myself doing it too. It’s how you can survive in that environment. And so it is a self-fulfilling system of always having these little bits of papers. It’s the antithesis of holistic work.

I’ve given you some bite sized pieces here, but hopefully it’s building a holistic work.

Barbara Fister recently published two windows into her thoughts on information literacy and the mis-information and dis-information economies. For a more general audience, I assume she didn’t choose the headline used by The AtlanticThe Librarian War Against QAnon. Of course, this is a topic that librarians have been working on well before the bizarre phenomenon of QAnon. On the Project Information Literacy website Fister provides a slightly different version of the same message (and Lizard People in the Library) is a much better title!

Fister leaves us with a lot to chew over:

As the historian of science Jacob Bronowski wrote in 1973, “There is no way of exchanging information that does not involve an act of judgement.” We’ve grown accustomed to many of those acts of judgement being made by algorithms that have a commercial goal in mind.

So how do we make those judgements? And who gets to make them? As has been noted elsewhere, conspiracy cults like QAnon are as much about feeling a sense of control as anything else. From Lizard People:

Those who spend their time in the library of the unreal have an abundance of something that is scarce in college classrooms: information agency. One of the powers they feel elites have tried to withhold from them is the ability to define what constitutes knowledge. They don’t simply distrust what the experts say, they distrust the social systems that create expertise. They take pleasure in claiming expertise for themselves, on their own terms.

But wait, what does Fister mean about classrooms lacking information agency? Isn’t education all about providing students with information..?

While school-based efforts to promote information literacy are typically tied to producing information (college papers, digital projects, PowerPoint slide decks), students are not as frequently invited to reflect on how information flows through and across platforms that shape and are shaped by participatory audiences and influencers. They aren’t learning much about how information systems (including radio, print journalism, academic and trade-book publishing, television, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram) make choices about which messages to promote and how those choices intersect with political messaging and the social engineering of interest groups.

Fister makes this same point from The Librarian War a little more pithily back in Lizard People:

Too often what passes as information literacy continues to be instruction on how to satisfy the requirements of assignments that may explicitly forbid students from using information that doesn’t pass through traditional gatekeeping channels.

But this is all just one librarian’s opinion, right? Well, a group from the Stanford History Education Group really put the boot in to typical university library information literacy training in an October 2020 working paper Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers.

Based on a study of 263 students but also reflecting on the typical instruction by libraries across North America (Australian academic libraries have a broadly similar approach), this paper has some alarming results, but insightful observations. Students struggled to identify problems with the sources of online information in the study, but the Stanford researchers quickly realised that this was at the very least partially due to the very techniques for assessing information sources they had learned from librarians. The much-maligned and much-relied-upon “CRAAP test” comes in for particular criticism, but it is just one of many long-standing techniques that come under the SHEG blowtorch. This is compulsory reading for all academic librarians and indeed anyone interested in information literacy.

And speaking of standard practice in academia that is self-defeating, Utrecht University has formally abandoned “impact factor” in assessments of researcher performance. I will leave it for readers to decide what rating on the ironometer this gets for being published in the Nature blog.

Oh, irony? How many of the references in Niamh Quigley’s thesis on Open Access do you think were paywalled?

Well we’re a way into this edition of Marginalia and I still haven’t mentioned the robot art or the software gardening. So here goes. ABC Science asked a new kind of AI art tool to make 'paintings' of Australia. They’re weird, but perhaps not as weird as you might expect.

“These programs have only existed since January,” [Katherine Crowson] said.

“We're not even a full 12 months into their existence and we already have art critics going around making sure everyone understands they're not to be considered 'real art'.

“Of course, this is about the surest possible sign something has become real art.”

Meanwhile, Seb Chan of ACMI is Opening a conversation on ‘soft tech infrastructure as community garden’:

As Dan Hill pointed out in his talk in the same session, gardens can be planned but not ‘controlled’. Gardeners ‘tend’ to gardens rather than ‘manage’ them. It helps that the relationship between gardens and gardeners is much more widely culturally understood than that between software systems and programmers. With gardens comes an explicit understanding of the need for continuous care and maintenance — this is the tending, and of lifecycles and evolution. A garden is understood to never stay still.

But how on earth are you supposed to make sense of all this? 3Blue1Brown has a great introductory video on neural networks which might help you to understand how the “robot art” works. And Loleen Berdahl tells us How to assess shiny new ideas and invitations on her Academia made easier Substack. It’s a useful little tool for next time you need to check whether the new thing you just heard about is really what you should focus on, or you’re just procrastinating.

I’ve missed a few weeks of Marginalia – sorry about that.

Regular correspondents will be familiar with my views on the invisible work of systems maintenance in libraries. Sorry but it can never be said too much. Here’s Danielle saying it again:

In my 10 years in libraries there’s been a definite move toward vendor supplied solutions for most library systems. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s given libraries the false belief that systems just run themselves. It’s hidden the complexities of technology and the work of keeping them running.

Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder libraries are addicted to the bright and shiny things that get them good publicity and make them popular with funders. But what is often forgotten is that for libraries to do the showy things they need good systems and librarians who can make that happen.

She wrong of course about there being “nothing inherently wrong with that”, but everything else is right 😆

MPOW has just announced a long-anticipated restructure that will ultimately end with 200 people seeking new opportunities. The driver is a sea of red ink in the financial books triggered by Australia’s international student market suddenly closing at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, but there’s been plenty of rhetoric about automation and efficiency. When the filing cabinet was invented, it too was going to make everyone more efficient:

Now, in the early 21st century, the file cabinet is associated with inefficiency. No longer an exemplar of productivity, rationalization, and speed, it instead represents our collective failure to save time and optimize labor. A file cabinet’s storage capacity now embodies the facility of bureaucracies — impersonal and procedure-oriented — to produce paper, to delay, to leave us waiting.

Hmm, maybe not. Craig Robertson’s The Filing Cabinet, from Places journal, does however provide a fascinating history of this ubiquitous office technology. A seemingly simple piece of furniture (though never described as such), the filing cabinet popularised a dangerous idea that we in the “information sciences” have swallowed greedily:

The filing cabinet contributed to the rise of a popular nontechnical understanding of information as something discrete and specific. Critically, it illustrates the moment in which information gained an identity separate from knowledge, an instrumental identity critical to its accessibility... In this historical period, filing technology provided a conceptual gateway for understanding information as a thing that could be standardized, atomized, and stripped of context — information as a universal and impersonal quantity.

Of course, now physical filing cabinets have become rare. Some large government bureaucracies still actively use them, but most organisations migrated their filing practices to computers – which to a large degree still merely replicate the logic of filing cabinets and the files they housed. Still, computers have made work life easier for everyone, right? Alas:

Initially promoted as a kind of personal assistant, the proliferation of computers meant that many high-level white-collar workers no longer had somebody else to do their clerical chores.

Laine Nooney picks up the story in VICE, with How the Personal Computer Broke the Human Body which at the time of writing is returning a 404, but hopefully VICE will pay their web storage bill soon. With the introduction of PCs into offices

Work became a process of filling in blanks; there was no longer anywhere for the clerks to experience decision-making in their jobs. …As intellectual engagement with the work went down, the necessity of concentration and attention went up. What the computer did was make the work so routine, so boring, so mindless, clerical workers had to physically exert themselves to be able to focus on what they were even doing.

Probably not since the automobile has there been a technology that is so insistently reorganized how we use our bodies in day-to-day practice—and the long arc of these transformations are still being played out.

Don’t forget to get up every 20 minutes and stretch.

With a history like this, it’s hardly surprising that Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly write, in Real Life, that

when social change is framed primarily in terms of choice of technology, the debate necessarily centers the activity level of a productivist society, not a paradigm shift from growth to wellbeing.

Any technology we adopt should be both appropriate to the world as it exists and to the future we desire.

Brown and Mesly’s article explores what E. F. Schumacher’s ideas on “appropriate technology” tell us nearly five decades after his famous book Small is Beautiful. It’s a complicated story, and as usual not as straightforward as either his supporters or his detractors have expected. A couple of years ago Os Keyes, Josephine Hoy and Margaret Drouhard wrote a fantastic paper on Human-Computer Interaction called Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI. Their paper is a nice primer for anarchism as much as for HCI, and one of things I most like about it is the plain, jargon-free language it uses.

In the long term, there are other ways of running things. Our concern is not organisation but who gets to define the terms under which things are organised, and how consensual participation in and departure from systems is: with autonomy and decentralisation. Rather than an absence of technologies, we are talking about technologies built in a way that centres the communities using them and avoids reserving for some third party the powers to modify, adapt, and repair; about design processes in which the members of that community are treated not as participants but as accomplices.

So let’s look at a couple of tech projects that have been in the news, and the terms under which things are organised. Last year (I think? It was probably longer than that but pandemic-time is confusing), the machine learning model GPT-3 was all over the news. Ed Summers shared some thoughts about it in February:

GPT-3 is an example of an extraction project that has been underway at large Internet companies for some time. I think the critique of these corporations has often been confined to seeing them in terms of surveillance capitalism rather than in terms of raw resource extraction, or the primitive accumulation of capital. The behavioral indicators of who clicked on what are certainly valuable, but GPT-3 and sister projects like CommonCrawl shows just the accumulation of data with modest amounts of metadata can be extremely valuable.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a lot of comments about Microsoft’s new beta product GitHub Copilot, and the observation that it too is an example of “primitive accumulation of capital” or what normal people call “stealing”. But the smartest take I’ve seen, and one that has rightfully gained a lot of eyeballs, is Julia Reda’s GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright. Reda notes that many Open Software advocates are concerned that CoPilot uses software published under the General Public License (GPL) as source material, yet CoPilot itself is a closed-source subscription service, which they claim violates the GPL.

Those who argue that Copilot’s output is a derivative work of the training data may do so because they hope it will place those outputs under the licensing terms of the GPL. But the unpleasant side effect of such an extension of copyright would be that all other AI-generated content would henceforth also be protected by copyright.

If we return to the point our anarchist HCI experts made, it should be obvious that the problem not CoPilot, nor even Microsoft using GPL-licensed works as training data. The problem is that gigantic monopolistic billion-dollar corporations are allowed to exist. “Copyleft” licenses are a clever hack, but I’ve always had a concern about the way many Free Software advocates centre their rights as individuals in discussions around freedom. Defending individual rights against copying by a corporate titan chooses the wrong battlefield, even if it’s the right enemy.

On a light note, there’s a beautiful community project that combines all the the things I’ve been writing about above – tech giants, bureaucracy, volunteer-driven tech projects. Mitch Anzuoni’s True Fans Translate: Fansubbing BookStory explains how he recruited a community of translators, using a Google Sheet, an old version of Visual Basic and a lot of spare time to create an English translation of an old Japanese computer game where you play as a book store manager.

Finally, if you liked Lim, Hellard and Aitken’s classic 2005 paper The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute, you’re going to love Confronting Indifference Toward Truth: Dealing With Workplace Bullshit. Not only is this a paper with a fun name, it actually does provide really useful suggestions for dealing with the problem (as well as demarcating the important distinction between liars and bullshitters).

Happy reading 😀

This week I have some stories to share about the simplicity of complexity, the fragility of simplicity, and how the very best infrastructure is invisible. Some of this stuff has been sitting around in my “marginalia” file waiting for the right context. Some of it I read this week.

Sabu Kohso writes a letter to The New Inquiry:

For most of us across the world, with the expectation of a worsening pandemic, ongoing oppression, and other disasters, future prospects are dark, yet strangely exhilarating for their unknown character. We are immersed in mixed feelings – between the apocalypse of the world’s end and the aspiration for a possible planetary revolution. Overlapping them lies another layer of emotion: a deep sorrow for the loss of invincible nature, and a burning rage against those who are responsible for the degeneration of the world.

What's that? You heard that crypto-currencies like Bitcoin will be part of that revolution? LOL – Cryptocurrency is an abject disaster. Not only are “proof of work” crypto-currencies contributing to the climate crisis, not only are these “currencies” used almost exclusively as stores of wealth instead of mediums of exchange (unless you're in the ransomware business), but these “decentralised” “currencies” are held and controlled by a tiny number of very powerful people. These twin aspects of shitcoins are to be expected, because that's how the more conventional economy works too. If you or the policy maker you're trying to convince need some conventional economic research to believe the fairly mundane observation that a more equal world would be easier to decarbonise, Yannick Oswald has you covered.

Cryptocurrency isn't the future, but it is Futurism. Futurism brough us Fascism, and its sibling, Ayn Rand's faux-philosophy of Objectivism. Ironically former US Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was one of Rand's chief acolytes, and now the very people who claim to be opposed to “fiat currencies” and central banks like the one he led for 19 years are following basically the same simplistic and mean-spirited lifestyle championed by Rand. They've looked at something complex, and tried to replace it with something that is simple yet complicated.

Jet travel is futurist too. That's why airports die, and thousands of empty “investment properties” and unhoused people can be found within the same cities. Barcelona has a solution:

This week [July 2020], the city’s housing department wrote to 14 companies that collectively own 194 empty apartments, warning that if they haven’t found a tenant within the next month, the city could take possession of these properties, with compensation at half their market value. These units would then be rented out by the city as public housing to lower-income tenants, while the companies in question could also face possible fines of between €90,000 and €900,000 ($103,000 and $1,003,000), according to Spanish news outlets.

The Barcelona city government doesn't actually want to take possession of these apartments, they just want them to be available to people at a reasonable price or indeed at all. Their policy simply changes the price signals in the property market, because the city government recognises that houses are for living in, not for speculating on. This sort of halfway-house of collective power against capitalist waste isn't exactly Red Vienna, but also it's 2020, not 1920. Better to house people now under a less-oppressive arrangement than maintain your purity and leave people to live out on the streets. Which is why I really like the new laptop company Framework, who just opened pre-orders for fairly high-end laptops designed to be repairable, upgradable, and customisable. Somewhat “back to the future”, but refreshing in a world where it's increasingly impossible to have the machines we use repaired, let alone repair or upgrade them ourselves.

My favourite news story so far this year was definitely Ben Collins' deep dive into cultural burning practices in the Kimberley, in a beautifully produced story by the ABC. Collins interviewed a number of Karajarri rangers working the Indigenous Protected Area, including Bayo, who shared what he and his community have learned since reclaiming title over the area and resuming preventative cool burns to avoid the sort of enormous summer conflagarations we saw in 2019/20. Bayo's big revelation is that contrary to the popular refrain from many settler land holders and conservative pundits, comparing evidence of historic burning practices to what is happening now, we're burning too much. But also too little. Because it's the interaction of both time and space that matters. Traditional Karajarri land burns weren't “preventative” as such. The Karajarri used to be on the move every few days. Burning a little bit here to clear a campsite or flush out some game, then moving on a few kilometres and doing the same again. I'm certainly not doing it justice so go read and experience it yourself. But the key point here is that Karajarri land cultural burns and other land management can be thought of as living infrastructure. They built a landscape that was filled with animals and plants, reasonably unlikely to succumb to massive hot burns, and contained diversity of landscapes and habitats – as part of their everyday lives. This is management without rigid control.

Mark Matienzo wrote a really thoughtful piece on a different kind of (potential) infrastructure that is nevertheless also, mostly, designed to be a combination of deliberate creation and uh, perhaps we could say “extra curricular activities”? Anyway, Matienzo's description of the promise, threat and complications of the Sourcery application/platform is worth a read for anyone interested in technology, labour, or archives.

Another piece from late last year on labour and the related field of libraries is Lynne Stahl's really excellent meditation, Librarian, read thyself published in The Rambling. Vocational Awe under conditions of COVID-19 and twenty-first century capitalism is a combustible and exhausting mix:

During this time, I’ve been monitoring my impulses—many of which cry out to help, go the extra mile, get something done sooner or better than needed. I imagine many academics, librarians and otherwise, have been grappling with similar impulses throughout the pandemic. They’re signs of passion and shared ethos, but I now also recognize them as narcissism (a need to prove to myself that my work truly matters) and anxiety under capitalism (a need to prove to my employer that my work truly matters to their survival).

Students and faculty need me, but more than that I need them to need me so that I can document my neededness to justify my continued employment through impending austerity.

Sam Byers (though not on the topic of libraries at all) writes of a similar malaise in ‘We will have to choose our apocalypse’: the cost of freedom after the pandemic:

We are encouraged to challenge power, punch up, resist. And yet at the same time we are exhorted to grow and glow, strive, achieve, become. The result is an excruciating double bind. Only through a more robust sense of self, we believe, can we muster the rebellious energy by which the unjust world around us might be changed. And yet, deep down, we know the truth: that our unjust world depends for its survival on the very project of selfhood in which we’re all so desperately over-invested.

Caroline Busta, in Document Journal, explains that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I confess I didn't expect to find counter-culture on Instagram (on which I don't have an account), but this is a pretty interesting piece regardless, and explores some of the same terrain as Byers and Stahl. Busta writes of the difficulty of expressing ones rejection of the dominant power, when that power is so good at feeding off the very act of expression:

The power of today is firmly situated in minimalism, restraint, and ease—it’s only power under threat that turns to physical displays of strength. Actual power is controlling the means by which lesser power can be displayed—i.e., congrats on the 500K likes on your polling numbers, @jack still owns all your tweets. Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.

So what does today’s counter-hegemonic culture look like? It’s not particularly interested in being seen—at least not in person. It gets no thrill out of wearing leather and a mohawk and walking past main-street shops, which are empty now anyway. But it does demonstrate a hunger for freedom—freedom from the attention economy, from atomization, and the extractive logic of mainstream communication.

Or as Sam Byers puts it:

...liberation is not about what we gain, but what we are willing to abandon. Far from the freedom to “be ourselves”, true freedom in this sense would mean an end to ever needing to be ourselves again. This is why, when faced with even the possibility of a better, more just, more liberated world, we claim to long for it, only to reactively stifle its emergence. It’s because we know that real freedom would entail nothing less than the erasure of all the boundaries and signifiers by which we have defined and comforted ourselves; that it would, in effect, destroy us.

Sumana Harihareswara outlines an effort – !!Con – to break out of some of these logics even whilst leaning into them. In Toward a !!Con Aesthetic, Harihareswara writes:

I hope here I’ve sketched the contours of a particular pro-subjectivity, pro-joy, anti-hierarchical, anti-dismissiveness approach to in-person tech talks and conferences that I see in the !!Con aesthetic. To the extent that mainstream programming culture stifles vulnerability and maintains an elitist hierarchy, !!Con is countercultural. If mainstream programming constitutes a public, then !!Con is a counterpublic — a “discursive arena” where we “formulate oppositional interpretations of our identities, interests, and needs”.

Which brings us, in a way, to Fermenting Culture, an interview with David Zilber from Noma restaurant's Fermentation Lab, with Emergence Magazine. Zilber talks about fermentation with reverence and enthusiasm, but also about how fermentation really pushes against the needs of modern restaurants. Fermentation is wild, and barely controllable. It resists standardisation. This is a really great interview – you can listen to the audio as I did, or read the transcript. There's a lot there, but I especially liked this suggestion:

I think it would be worth it if, instead of being taught civics class in high school, people spent six months in the wilderness learning how to keep themselves alive. I think that’s more important to someone’s long-term well-being, both mental and physical, than a course on what American president was doing what in 1792.

What other foundations of liberal democracy could we replace with something more ...counter cultural? Lynne Stahl has some ideas:

Libraries will never be irrelevant in a country whose richest one percent owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. They’re integral indeed to a society built by slave labor on stolen lands, where inequality is structural and pervasive, even constitutive. This framing confronts us with a curious and disquieting reality: that libraries are intrinsically reactive institutions whose essence at once inheres in their ability to meet needs and relies upon the continuation of unmet needs. In this sense, the obsolescence of libraries is a wonderful goal, because it would indicate that many of the public’s needs were fulfilled.

I confess that I – a fellow librarian – have had the same thought more than once.

I'll leave the final word today to Sabu Kohso, who I think nicely connects everything we've explored here:

What do radiation and the pandemic reveal? They paradoxically tell us something essential by way of what they destroy. They speak to us in the negative. In the philosophical sense, catastrophe is a message or an education – a lesson about its own origin as an event that takes place in the boundary between what humans do consciously and their unconscious effects on the planetary body. Radiation teaches us the indispensability of the rapport between people and land, by giving a fatal blow to it. The pandemic demonstrates the necessity of physical interaction among bodies, by making it hazardous. Their ultimate message is that we have nothing if not for these two relationalities.

Today's Marginalia is a collection of advice I've read that may (or may not!) be useful for you in your situation.

A while ago I got a shock when I was checking my wifi connection and had forgotten that a year or so earlier I'd renamed our home wifi network “ASIO Surveillance Van”. I was reminded of this recently when reading A conversation about wifi naming, Thursday Bram's brief meditation on the politics and cultural valence of SSIDs, and some of the things to think about when naming your own wifi network (hint: don't defame your neighbours).

If you need IT assistance to rename your wifi, something that was written a few years ago but you will find super helpful is Ruth Kitchin Tillman's How to write a useful support ticket. I endorse everything in this – especially Before writing the ticket, and What you expected to happen , both of which seem to be easily forgotten or not even considered.

Edward Shaddow has some helpul advice for a different situation:

You've found yourself on a professional committee and you're organising a PD event, well done. But, uh oh, you're about to book a speaker that might have been involved in some “controversies.” Whatever shall you do?

Mr Shaddow is back on his “do no harm” bandwagon, and I have to tell you – I'm here for it. Dealing with the same crap like this week after week can be exhausting and result in “burn out”. Ashley Blewer has collated all the advice she's received about dealing with burn out and shared it. What I particularly like about this is Blewer's careful framing: Here are some things that worked for me or for other people. They may work for you, but they might not.

Stephen Francoeur has some thoughts on language and design for library discovery systems and other websites. This is a pretty short post but covers some very big ideas that any librarian involved in communicating with library users (spoiler alert: every librarian) needs to think deeply about. The core question Francoeur grapples with is this: to what extent should we just go with the words or phrases people use when they ask for information or assistance? This seems like a simple question, but as Shaddow just pointed out, the words we use and how we use them matter. Francoeur doesn't address Shaddow's concerns at all because he's dealing with a very different issue, but it's useful to read these two pieces together because there is a relationship there that needs to be interrogated. But also Francoeur just has some reasonably sensible suggestions.

Oh, your library users speak a language from Southern Africa? You probably need to watch Sakhile Dube demonstrate how to pronounce Zulu clicks. They may alternatively (or additionally!) have a hearing impairment – Nikki Anderson has some great advice on how to help reduce “deaf anxiety” by making things more comfortable for everyone.

This edition is mostly tech stuff. But I don't believe in “non-technical people”, so there will be at least one thing here for everyone.

First up, I'll get my compulsory Dan Cohen link out of the way. Making Data Physical highlights a number of interesting tech projects, mostly around data visualisation. Highlights for me were Sound of the office — which may not be what you think, and Morbid Methods — obituaries for 'dead' digital devices.

If you're a music lover and also a data nerd, you may appreciate The Chaos Bazaar (warning: animated cover page and rather odd navigation). This in depth report analyses sales data from Bandcamp and comments on what this means for music sales and musician's incomes.

Web advertising vendor Google's latest attempt to not be evil is Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). Having banned third-party cookies from their Chrome browser, Google is now simply embedding user tracking right into the browser. Paramdeo Singh has a great overview of the issue and instructions for website owners to “de-FLoC” their site.

Mike Lynch's blog post, Territorial explores a number of timely issues around Internet use in Australia, anchored around the idea of the inherent physicality of the Internet:

One of the original promises of the net was that it would transcend territories, another part of John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence which hasn’t worked out.

...it’s possible that the international reputation [Australians have] acquired for being utter shitposters is based on the fact that we always start out as honorary night crew, bringing our slacking-off-at-work energy to an internet where (weighted by population) it’s 2AM.

On the recent episode of Facebook, Google, and the Australian Federal Government flexing their muscles at each other, Mike notes:

people my age, especially those with technical skills, talked about organisations hosting their own websites instead of relying on Facebook as if this were a simple thing.

...for a sizeable proportion of the audience now, Facebook is the net; referring to Facebook and Twitter as “websites” is funny because it’s a deliberate harking back to the old days, but it’s a joke that’s meaningless, I suspect, unless you’re the sort of person who could run up their own website in a weekend, which is itself a place of privilege.

I feel extremely seen by this comment, and I've been grasping for a little while for a space I truly believe exists between “Everyone should code their own compilers” and “People shouldn't have to be 'technical' to use computers.” That conversation is for another day, but being one of those people Mike is writing about, I've become interested in a new Internet protocol called Gemini . Gemini is specifically designed to avoid the sorts of shenanigans Google is up to with FLoC. Jason McBrayer has written a really nice introduction for people who might be interested, but aren't the sort of people who want to write their own client software.

Ed Summers is the sort of person who might consider doing that. In a recent online note simply called “j”, Summers gives a simple example of how a little shell script can improve your life. Ed's post inspired me to do something similar for my Gemini site.

Some librarians from University of Kansas have publshed an interesting paper on their internal culture around computing tools and skills. The tl;dr for developing tech skills is right in the title of the article: Time to play, access to attention. Ruth Kitchin Tillman has some succinct comments on perceptions of technical skill in libraries. In short:

I will never be as attractive a candidate to (many) folks looking to improve their tech as a man who comes in and overpromises the impossible.

... I want to work for and with people who understand that maintenance is critical and that creating an exciting thing is generally not worth it if nobody uses it. But I also know that when people aren't necessarily familiar with technology, they can't always tell the difference between an awesome thing we should do and an awesome thing we shouldn't.

This is so, so important, and I also see these dynamics all the time. Jeff Huang is also a big fan of building things to be easily maintained, publishing A Manifesto for Preserving Content on the Web in 2019. I'm pretty wary of anything called a “manifesto”, especially when it comes to computing technology topics, but this one is pretty sensible. I feel like Jeff might enjoy Gemini.

Finally, a project that is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19, but I just absolutely love. DeepMay is:

a 10-day intensive bootcamp in the mountains of the North Carolina that brings together the technical rigor and intensity of the hackathon with the communal ethos of DIY world-building.

Students, instructors, and organizers come together and experiment with data models, user interfaces, brand identity, and the misuse of technical systems—all while cooking, cleaning, and tending the farm schoolhouse and surrounding land that is our home for the week.

The concept and philosophy is outlined in an article in Inhabit:Territories, and if you're wondering why this appeals to me, go back and look at Marginalia 19! Our correspondent at Inhabit explains:

DeepMay is not an attempt at a redemption of technology – we are far more ambitious than that.

...Even those who are largely self-taught must market their skills to make a living, or accrue funding for their vision. We find ourselves selling our labor to make websites we don’t care about, or branding products to imply a better world can be bought. Your craftsmanship is laid to waste as your well-written piece of code gets integrated into a machine you’d rather break than buy. From the university to the start-ups, avenues of inquiry are explored insofar as they create a market advantage.

...The neoliberal ethic of a work-life balance creates perpetual oscillations between fragmented realities – eating healthy, hitting the gym, maintaining a social life, while always maximizing productivity. At DeepMay, a consistency between these otherwise discrete spheres was established through the rhythms of communal life. We exercised together each morning and took turns cooking for the camp. Late into the night people could be found huddled together in front of a laptop solving a problem, or returning refreshed from the wood-fired sauna. Taking a long hike together did not feel like a side activity or a distraction, but as aligned with the purpose of the camp as time spent coding.

Imagine that.

Most people in Australia have been enjoying a four day weekend for Easter. You might be feeling relaxed, wondering “why can't every week be like this?” Why indeed.

Like hating the police, hating your job is one of the most beautiful and natural things you can do, which is why popular culture works so hard to convince us that cops are heroes and that jobs are actually good.

So sayeth Kassandra Vee in The New Inquiry. The rest of Vee's piece is just as direct, exploring how so many of us feel that whilst the current state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory, nevertheless we can't see a way out.

Because we are all working so hard and our world is nevertheless balanced over the precipice of apocalypse, when people imagine a reduction of work they imagine only collapse. Is it not possible that this edge of total crisis and the constant state of frantic work are not in contradiction but are, instead, mutually enforcing facts?

David Graeber (RIP) approached this question when he famously outlined a theory on Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine and then later in an expanded form as a book. Graeber was important to distinguish between “shit jobs” — jobs that are crappy because of the actual work involved, or the conditions in which people are required to do it — and “bullshit jobs”, where the “work”, as such, doesn't really need to be done. Cleaning the bathrooms in a hotel is a shit job. Being the parking valet is a bullshit job.

The feeling they have bullshit jobs is Why Chinese youngsters are embracing a philosophy of “slacking-off”.

The intense anxiety felt by younger people, and exacerbated by the pandemic, prompted a wider discussion on a once niche academic concept: neijuan. Translated as “involution,” the anthropological term was first applied to agriculture, and has come to describe conditions in which a society ceases to progress, and instead starts to stagnate internally. Neijuan has become a hot topic on the Chinese internet and in media reports this year as a word that “captures urban China’s unhappiness.” Complaints of their work becoming too “involuted”—more competitive with little corresponding rewards—are as likely to be discussed on Weibo by white-collar workers as food delivery drivers.

Remember to laugh heartily next time someone calls China a Communist country. Jamie McCallum has a lot to say about “the work ethic” that these Chinese youngsters are rejecting.

The work ethic is easily weaponised these days, because it has a great affinity with what it means to be successful in a capitalist society. But the fact that the work ethic is also based on practice, and requires a lot of upkeep, is evidence that it might not be as sturdy as it seems on the surface. It’s that vulnerability that offers us some hope of transcending it.

This aligns with Vee's assertion that the natural state for humans is to assume that doing work because someone else told us we have to is uh, undesirable. How come we keep putting up with it, even proudly embracing “the dignity of work” or a “strong work ethic”? McCallum quotes some findings from economist Juliet Schor, who

found that workers have adjusted their expectations as work hours increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours, despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up ‘wanting what they get’ rather than ‘getting what they want’. The work ethic, in other words, is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.

Devon Price, on the other hand, tells us that laziness does not exist:

If a person can’t get out of bed, something is making them exhausted. If a student isn’t writing papers, there’s some aspect of the assignment that they can’t do without help. If an employee misses deadlines constantly, something is making organization and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it — some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed.

People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.

Price is a neuro-atypical Psychology professor, and whilst he's mainly writing in the context of higher education, his point seems fairly common-sense and generally applicable. People won't “apply themselves” to travel hundreds of kilometres to your backbreaking temporary job that pays $20 an hour isolated from any help if it turns our you're an asshole boss? “There are always barriers. Look harder.”

Maybe it wouldn't suck so much if we could just work from home all the time, like we have this last year? Or is that living at work? As George Wylesol puts it in The New Republic, these times will be remembered by most middle class office workers as:

a semipermanent Zoom meeting with colleagues in AirPods and athleisure, interrupted by the occasional surprise of a pet or a child. Exile from the office has been cast as one of this plague’s few consolations—and, we are told, a transformation that is already set in semipermanence.

Wylesol is sceptical. We've seen the “telework” movie before, he reminds us. For all the alleged cost savings and conveniences, there will always be something deeply unsatisfying about remote work:

the world, not merely the corporation, needs “serendipitous interaction.” It is indispensable to how we choose what to eat and what to wear, to fashion, love, friendship, culture—all that is most valuable and lasting. And all of these spheres of life draw their energy from the tidal movement of cities, movements set by commutes. Frank Lloyd Wright obsessed over the unnatural time-tabling of these diurnal movements, how they confounded the ancient influence of the sun on life. But it was electric light, not the subway or motorcar, that made this influence wane. Shared circumstances can feel communal, not only something that stifles or dehumanizes.

For those interested in this last throwaway line, I highly recommend Jonathan Crary's 24/7: terminal capitalism and the ends of sleep. I don't know I agree with Wylesol that “fashion” should be included in “all that is most valuable and lasting”. I mean, by definition, it's not lasting. Graham Lee, in Your place or mine?, present a different, more cynical view. The people who own the biggest corporations can't bear to see their perpetual motion machine stop:

The ultra-rich are the people who own the office complexes in London and Zurich. They rent 60% of the space out as modern, luxurious work spaces; 30% as chic eateries and after-work bars; and the remaining 10% as artisanal bean-to-cup coffee experiences.

These people need bums on office chairs, because those bums pop out to Pret for a sandwich at lunchtime, Costa for a latte in their edgy walking meeting, and Wetherspoons for a pint before picking their car up from the valet and filling up with petrol before heading out to the motorway. Every one of those businesses is on their property, every one of them is paying ground rent, and they need you to go back to work so that ecosystem continues to turn a profit.

Enjoy heading back to the office this week.

RS Benedict recently made the observation that in contemporary Western culture, Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny. Benedict is writing about about Hollywood film. But she's also writing about the culture more broadly, and it's hard to disagree with her about the vacuity of hyper capitalism and how it drains joy out of even our most elemental animal spirits:

In her blog McMansion Hell, Kate Wagner examines precisely why these widely-hated 5000-square foot housing bubble behemoths are so awful. Over and over again, she reiterates the point that McMansions are not built to be homes; they’re built to be short-term investments... The same fate has befallen our bodies. A body is no longer a holistic system. It is not the vehicle through which we experience joy and pleasure during our brief time in the land of the living. It, too, is a collection of features [which] exist not to make our lives more comfortable, but to increase the value of our assets.

Her piece starts with a reference to Paul Verhoeven's disturbing film “Starship Troopers” — a film that I haven't watched for years, but imagine would probably strike me as less wryly funny now than when it was released, because it so accurately describes our current reality. Benedict's piece is a great pair to David Roth's article published in The New Yorker last July, How “Starship Troopers” Aligns with Our Moment of American Defeat.

Once again, the present has caught up to Verhoeven’s acid vision of the future. It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.

So how to break out of this cycle? Once answer might be to pay more attention to The Intellectual Life of Kids, the topic of a great episode on KPFA's Against the Grain last week. Psychologist Susan Engel speaks about her research and her new book on the same topic, pointing out that the way we learn (as individuals but also as societies) is by constantly finding new things to be “surprised by”. I found this a really interesting way of thinking about the learning process, and it makes sense. Human brains enjoy novelty, and Engels seems to be arguing (amongst other things of course — her primary point is that children have intellectual lives that are very often under-appreciated by adults) that the driver for learning more and more specific detail about a particular topic is primarily driven not be “interest” in an abstract way so much as the desire to find out new “surprises”.

Something that might surprise you is an independent American small-holding farmer arguing against the Farmers Market model, yet that's exactly what Chris Newman does in a piece published on Medium in 2019, arguing that “the romance of neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. As a Certified Middle Class Wanker I frequent farmers markets but always felt slightly ambivalent about how they operate — at least in the Melbourne context. Newman's central argument is that Farmers Markets are extraordinarily inefficent, and if the same farmers organised as a cooperative they could provide access to their produce where the customers are located but focus their energy on the thing they like doing and are good at — farming — instead of working 100 hour weeks because, due to operating as independent consumer-facing businesses they have to be their own freight carriers, retailers, social media managers, and so on. That is, Newman sees a viable model that is neither the somewhat neo-liberal and very inefficient farmers market model nor the arguably highly efficient but extremely monopolistic and hyper-consumerist supermarket model: a producer cooperative. It's an intriguing idea.

The final little piece I wanted to share today is Mozilla's POP Your Event! guide:

For any project or event, it’s important to be clear on your purpose for the work, the outcomes you hope to see, and the process you’ll use to get there— before you get going.

I've been talking with some colleagues about improving some of our practices, particularly around that bane of office life, meetings. I think the simple POP model can also be useful for either running or avoiding meetings, if it's used to structure thinking around a particular need. If you think about a thing that needs to happen in a work context — “X” — that could be the purpose. Very often people skip immediately to “process” and on auto-pilot decide that the process should be “a meeting”. But if you think even just for a few minutes about the outcomes you want, often “a meeting” is clearly not going to deliver those outcomes. And if getting people together to discuss something is needed, you can use POP recursively to think (before the meeting!) about what the purpose, outcomes, and process of the meeting will be. I guess time will tell whether this helps in my own work context.

“How hard”, asked Josh Dzieza at The Verge last February, “will the robots make us work?”

While we’ve been watching the horizon for the self-driving trucks, perpetually five years away, the robots arrived in the form of the supervisor, the foreman, the middle manager. ...for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy, and as these little breaks and minor freedoms get optimized out, their jobs are becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous.

Dzieza, like many others, identifies Amazon.com as one of the most dystopian “algorithmically managed” workplaces, but it's certainly not the only example. Callum Cant, on a recent episode of Paris Marx's Tech won't save us podcast, talked about his book and what he learned from his experience working for Deliveroo in the UK — a job entirely driven by an opaque algorithm communicating via an impassive mobile app. Can't maintain the pace it sets? No more 'drops' for you.

In more “highly skilled” workplaces, the algorithms are, ironically, less sophisticated, and still used mostly to launder management decisions rather than completely replace bosses. In University.xlsx, Andrew Brooks and Tom Melick write:

[The university as spreadsheet] allows for some puzzling promises, such as a commitment to research without researchers and a dedication to teaching without teachers. Feedback is encouraged but never enters the spreadsheet itself. ...While the algorithms that work on Excel spreadsheets might remain relatively simple operations when compared with the machinic systems that sort and stratify massive data sets into perceptible patterns, it is important to not to lose sight of their complicated effects. In the workplace, the classification systems that organise the structuring of data in the spreadsheet are determined by managers and productivity consultants, and to many extents dissolve into the daily tasks of management like sugar in tea. Similarly, the problems in need of solving or the forecasts in need of generating have been identified by the same players. Despite the appearance of scientific objectivity, the spreadsheet is always a product of judgement: some things enter the spreadsheet while others are discarded; some things are assigned value while others are dismissed as worthless.

All of this must be a shock to Tech Crunch's Danny Crichton, who in 2014 heralded the dawning of a new age of worker liberation and happiness, declaring that “Algorithms Are Replacing Unions As The Champions of Workers”, and calling out fast-food delivery and university workers specifically as likely beneficiaries. It's hard to tell whether Crichton is extraordinarily credulous, or merely suffers from the myopia common to Silicon Valley vulture capitalists and their cheerleaders in technology “journalism”. Either way, he could hardly have been more spectacularly wrong. Just four years later, the tech workers who write the algorithms directing so many other workers were so fed up, they went on strike themselves — over company culture and management, not pay or hours.

Crichton was certainly aiming at the right target, he was just wildly off-base about how to hit it:

Perhaps most importantly, [under algorithmic management via platform capitalism] workers have the ability to develop their own personalities and brands, an issue that has deeply resonated with me in the past. One of the most insidious ways that employers prevent workers from advancing in their careers is preventing them from having their own voice and being recognized for their accomplishments.

But far from freeing workers to express themselves, algorithmic management has precisely the opposite effect. Dzieza writes about an application used in call centre work to measure and rank workers based on their “empathy”:

Workers say these systems are often clumsy judges of human interaction. One worker claimed they could meet their empathy metrics just by saying “sorry” a lot. Another worker at an insurance call center said that Cogito’s AI, which is supposed to tell her to express empathy when it detects a caller’s emotional distress, seemed to be triggered by tonal variation of any kind, even laughter.

This “affective computing” technology is the subject of Frank Pasquale's article More than a feeling. He's not a fan:

Much of affective computing is less about capturing existing emotional states than positing them. ...If institutions buy into these sorts of assumptions, engineers will continue making such machines that try to actualize them, cajoling customers and patients, workers and students, with stimuli until they react with the desired response — what the machine has already decided certain emotions must look like.

This literally inhuman oversight, far from allowing workers to “have their own voice and be recognised for their accomplishments”, does exactly the opposite:

Angela, the worker struggling with Voci, worried that as AI is used to counteract the effects of dehumanizing work conditions, her work will become more dehumanizing still.

“Nobody likes calling a call center,” she said. “The fact that I can put the human touch in there, and put my own style on it and build a relationship with them and make them feel like they’re cared about is the good part of my job. It’s what gives me meaning,” she said. “But if you automate everything, you lose the flexibility to have a human connection.”

The AI simply doubles down on all the terrible things about life under corporate control. Ingrid Burrington, talking to Inhabit: Territories about capitalism, supply chains, the COVID-19 pandemic and Jenny Odell, cuts to the heart:

One of the things that Jenny Odell gets across very well is that doing nothing is not about actually just stopping, or being useless or being lazy. It’s about being really clear about what you actually want and doing that thing instead of the thing you think you’re supposed to do, or the thing that meets someone else’s expectations.

Callum Cant ended his interview by outlining what on-demand food-delivery really is:

What is a service like [Deliveroo]? Functionally what is its core concrete nature? Well it's really care. What these platforms do is largely provide people who are exhausted from work, hungover, too depressed to go out to the shops, caring for children, with food quickly to their door. ...It's a care service that should be prioritised for people who need care. The actual use value here is “provide hot food to people who need it”... this should be one modality of a universal food service.

And Cant has a beautiful vision of what it could be:

Using food as a care service, providing it universally on a de-commodified basis, in delivery form to people who can't leave the house, in canteen form to those who can, and using that as a basis to rebuild our society.

Sounds pretty great to me.

With the utterly predictable politics of competing US-based media companies fighting a cartoonish proxy war in Australia, it would be easy to dedicate a whole Marginalia edition to that. But frankly, it's boring, and there are just too many people being wrong on the Internet for me to shed much light or add much value. So here's some things to read about information histories and futures instead.

In December Seb Chan shared Looking backwards to go forward — words from talks in late 2020. It's a really interesting read and provides a great tour of the last few decades in museum technology. But Chan also has some observations about maintenance and deep contextual knowledge that unfortunately apply to all cultural institutions and probably plenty of other organisations.

Those with any technical knowledge or experience know that infrastructure needs continual maintenance. Maintenance is unforgiving but is a necessary byproduct of any organisational innovation. Knowing exactly how much maintenance is going to be required by a new system or process requires skilled staff with a deep understanding of what has been made and why, and its lifecycle. If those staff have been let go, outsourced, replaced, then the amount of ongoing maintenance a system needs can be vastly misrepresented and misunderstood. Maintenance needs to be operationalised, and systems always worked on and adapted.

...Capital is easier to raise from funders whilst operations are virtually impossible to secure increased funding for. It can quickly become attractive, in the short term, to seek outsourcing as way out. But once outsourcing begins, it starts an unstoppable process of skill erosion.

I too have seen this process over my career to date. In the case of libraries, it has included not just what most people think of as “technology” but even the “technical knowledge” that defines the profession of librarianship — the creation and maintenance of sophisticated metadata, ontologies, and new ways of organising and managing collections, whether physical or digital. Many days of the week it's pretty depressing, if I'm honest.

But sitting in my virtual pile of things to read or things I have read, there are some sparks of hope and intriguing possibilities for the near and far future. We can be informed by the past without wallowing in it.

Christian Lauersen wrote (also in December) about A new language for the value and impact of libraries, describing how Roskilde Public Library has used the Arts Council of England study Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experience in a Danish context. This looks like a really interesting way to both strengthen advocacy and keep track of progress towards multiple competing outcomes, which has always been a problem for libraries and especially for public libraries. I like the approach both in terms of how the reporting is done (in a visual chart that clearly shows where things may be unbalanced) and also the process of thinking through what it is that libraries do.

Another approach to solving knotty (and quite typical) challenges of advocacy and goal setting is the University of Western Ontario Library's approach to developing an Open Access statement. In 2018 Lillian Rigling, Emily Carlisle and Courtney Waugh shared the library's experience developing a “values based” statement by using Design Thinking principles. This is a really interesting article showing a very concrete real-life example of Design Thinking, and I really like how they centred the approach on the shared values of library staff rather than specific targets or techniques.

Last June, Dan Cohen shared some thoughts about “withness” in his fantastic Humane Ingenuity newsletter. I was really taken by the work of the Siempre Collective and how they though through how to work “with the grain” of our humanity when designing group communication tools. Sometimes the answer is to go “low definition” in order to achieve more connection and lower our own bandwidth.

At last year's Activity Pub Conference there was a fascinating (for lots of reasons) talk about Supporting topic-based content syndication & discovery in a federated environment. One observer cheekily observed “librarians try to re-invent the Internet every few years” and even though I doubt this work will ever be more than an interesting footnote, I really like that libraries and independent technologists are thinking about this sort of thing.

Finally, just as I was feeling quite despondent about the present and future of library technology, I sat down with a beautiful hardcopy of Logic Magazine's Care edition and read Rodrigo Ochigame's Informatics of the Oppressed. What an amazing article. Ochigame introduced me to Cuban information theory (led by Cuban librarians), something I'd never heard of before, and also to how “liberation theology” worked in practice. In the 1960s and 70s the Cubans were trying to resolve a problem that has become even more acute in the decades since:

...publication counts did not conclusively determine the “productivity” of authors, any more than declining citation counts indicated the “obsolescence” of publications... Traditional informatics was incompatible with revolutionary librarianship because, by treating historically contingent regularities as immutable laws, it tended to perpetuate existing social inequalities.

In Informatics of the oppressed we are encouraged to consider the conversations the Cubans were having and the problems they were trying to solve, and how these approaches might inform our own behaviour in relation to modern information storage, retrieval and metadata management:

Whatever the merits and limitations of this particular mathematical model, the broader story of Cuban information science encourages us to be skeptical of the claims attached to models and algorithms of information retrieval in the present. If yesterday’s information scientists claimed that their models ranked authors by “productivity” and libraries by “effectiveness,” today’s “AI experts” claim that their algorithms rank “personalized” search results by “relevance.” These claims are never innocent descriptions of how things simply are. Rather, these are interpretive, normative, politically consequential prescriptions of what information should be considered relevant or irrelevant.

And finally, a call to action:

we must develop more critical methods of information retrieval, continuing the work that the Latin American experiments left unfinished. In short, we need critical search.

We do indeed need “critical search”. And who better to help build it than critical librarians? It was just what I needed to read.

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