Marginalia

Notes on what I've been reading

I've recently been spending a lot of time finalising a coding project I've been working on for the last year, but I have read a few interesting things worth sharing.

Mike Jones is always asking interesting questions, and in Paths he asks plenty about the state of GLAM records and catalogues:

But do we need larger and larger aggregates with less description attached? Do we need more documentation produced from the perspective of the creator rather than considering subjects, communities, and users? As Michelle Caswell might ask, whose standpoint are we encoding through such an approach, and whose perspectives are being excluded as a result? When aggregating discrete records what pathways and relationships are missing from the map, and what stories, narratives, and connections are being lost? In relying on search technologies rather than rich, contextualised, relational description what are we making hard to find? Mike Jones, Paths, 2019

On a slightly related theme, Dan Cohen noted in Humane Ingenuity 13 that archival research practices have rapidly changed, at least in US institutions, and he too is asking questions:

What happens when instead of reading a small set of documents, taking notes, thinking about what you’ve found, and then interactively requesting other, related documents over a longer period of time, you first gather all of the documents you think you need and then process them en masse later? Dan Cohen, Humane Ingenuity 13, 2020

The answer, of course, is that we don't yet know. But it did make me wonder if there is a relationship with Franco Moretti's concept of Distant Reading – the 'Ship Map' referred to in Jones' paper is an example of 'distantly reading' shipping records. I've gone back to both of these pieces in recent days, thinking of course in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Two datasets show how both close and distant reading of records can be useful, and the pandemic itself highlights some limitations of archives in general. Johns Hopkins University is maintaining a dataset and dashboard of COVID-19 cases and deaths, presented both as a global map as well as in a sort of macabre 'leader board' by country or jurisdiction. This provides an interesting 'at a glance' overview of the current state of the pandemic. In contrast, a video passing through Twitter shows a man comparing the Obituary pages of local Italian newspaper L'Eco di Bergamo a few weeks apart: two and a half pages in a 'normal' week, versus ten pages last week. This shows the very human impact of the pandemic on a particular town. These two datasets are about the same event, but tell the story in different ways. As Cohen comments, “For what it’s worth, I actually think that the new practice is neither better or worse than the old practice, but it is vastly different.”

The second point about the Johns Hopkins data is that it is official data: known cases, deaths, and confirmed recoveries. This dataset is useful, but it can only show what is recorded and reported. Early on in the pandemic, many people questioned the accuracy of both the Chinese and, later, Iranian official figures, claiming a cover up. More recently questions have been asked about the real state of the United States situation, with testing unavailable to many, and a President attempting to prevent a cruise ship from docking in the US so as to avoid the official number of US cases going up. In contrast, South Korea made testing widely available, likely recording many cases that in other countries would pass officialdom by. This merely highlights what people who have been subject to state control always say about official records and archives: they record what governments want to record, and can only ever reveal partial realities.

And speaking of COVID-19 testing: Victoria's DHHS has released an amazingly clear and helpful flowchart (pdf) to help those of us who have been completely confused about when and if testing is advised. Recommended reading!

Stay safe, and remember to wash your hands.

Owning things

In Marginalia 8, I wrote about coral reefs as a metaphor. I partially had Mike Jones' Descending upright among staring fish in mind, but also a piece Oliver Wainwright wrote in The Guardian called The case for ... never demolishing another building. I found Wainwright's piece fascinating: some of the ideas within I find deeply attractive, and others are profoundly repellent. The repellent part is not the inherent ideas but rather how they would be carried out in a capitalist society. Indeed, the whole article is deeply subversive: it's just that what it is subverting depends on how one looks at it.

Speaking to Dutch architect Thomas Rau, Wainwright writes:

Taking reuse to its logical conclusion, Rau sees a future where every part of a building would be treated as a temporary service, rather than owned. From the facade to the lightbulbs, each element would be rented from the manufacturer, who would be responsible for providing the best possible performance and continual upkeep, as well as dealing with the material at the end of its life. “Ownership blocks innovation,” he says. “Treating building elements as a service would remove planned obsolescence and increase transparency and responsibility.”

I'm not at all convinced this is true, at least in the current reality. The Internet of Shit provides ample evidence that late stage capitalism is perfectly capable of combining subscription services with planned obsolescence. And whilst technically “smart lightbulbs” are owned by the householder rather than rented, this also would make little difference. I've had suppliers of complex electronic equipment effectively beg to replace equipment for no cost just so they didn't have to maintain an older system. And yet...

Naming things

Ownership blocks innovation is an intriguing statement. When we're attached to things, they can hold us back. Na’ama Carlin writes about this in Of the name, a lush exploration of naming, mental health, and many other things besides:

I don’t know how not to identify, but I know that we could try to allow ourselves the space to let go of all the names, markers, memories and pathologies we think make us who we are, and can pause and look at those around us—truly look—and let them look into us. We should take our stand in relation. And then we can breathe in the world and live.

Speaking of names, Robin Sloan recently published a great piece on software development as home cooking.

The exhortation “learn to code!” has its foundations in market value. “Learn to code” is suggested as a way up, a way out. “Learn to code” offers economic leverage, a squirt of power. “Learn to code” goes on your resume.

But let’s substitute a different phrase: “learn to cook.” People don’t only learn to cook so they can become chefs. Some do! But far more people learn to cook so they can eat better, or more affordably, or in a specific way. Or because they want to carry on a tradition. Sometimes they learn just because they’re bored! Or even because—get this—they love spending time with the person who’s teaching them.

This is the sort of coder I am too – and why I refer to myself as a 'coder' and not a 'programmer' or 'developer'. And speaking of coding, there is some interesting stuff coming in the next ECMAScript (JavaScript) release. Of particular note is Intl.RelativeTimeFormat which will allow developers to display a date in relative time according to the user's device. Time is one of those things that seems simple until you need to program a computer, and from then on seems impossible to fathom. Up until now momentjs has been the go-to solution for tricky chronological problems in JavaScript, but baking in some of the more common but confounding use cases is a great step forward. Now we just need to wait a decade for browsers to catch up.

Waiting for things

If waiting for things frustrates you, I recommend Jason Farman's book Delayed response: the art of waiting from the ancient to the instant world. A meditation on waiting, Farman's book covers phone etiquette in Japan, pneumatic tube mailing systems in New York, and message sticks in Melbourne. Whilst the Melbourne chapter contains some inaccuracies that did make me question how true the rest of Farman's story is, it's still a really interesting book. Great for reading at the train station.

Reality

Last week I read Axel Bruns' Are filter bubbles real?, and whilst I admit I was a sympathetic audience, his arguments are pretty compelling. I've always been somewhat sceptical of claims about filter bubbles, but Bruns subjects the related concepts of filter bubbles and digital echo chambers to a much more rigorous analysis. Ultimately, he finds that they are, at best, grossly exaggerated and barely defined theories. Bruns' arguments reminded me of this brief 2018 article I've shared before, by Laura Hazard Owen at NiemanLab. She quotes Matt Grossman:

“Media choice has become more of a vehicle of political self-expression than it once was,” Grossmann writes. “Partisans therefore tend to overestimate their use of partisan outlets, while most citizens tune out political news as best they can.”

It also reminded me that, in some ways, Safiya Umoja Noble's book Algorithms of oppression is a long complaint that Noble was promised a filter bubble that, despite her best efforts, never appears:

Of course, Google Search is an advertising company, not a reliable information company. At the very least, we must ask when we find these kinds of results, Is this the best information? For whom? We must as ourselves who the intended audience is for a variety of things we find, and question the legitimacy of being in a “filter bubble,” when we do not want racism and sexism, yet they still find their way to us. Algorithms of oppression, Noble, p5

Grossman mused that people may wish to claim they live in a filter bubble as a form of political self-identification. Bruns looks from the other side, pointing to the benefits of claiming that others live in a filter bubble:

In particular, even while ramping up their own social media offerings, mainstream news media have gladly accepted the idea of social media as echo chambers because it enables them to claim that, compared to these new competitors for the attention of news audiences, only the carefully researched and edited news published by established news outlets offers a balanced news diet that penetrates the cocoon. Are filter bubbles real?, Bruns, p8

This reminds me of nothing more than the glee with which some librarians have pounced on the idea that citizens are helplessly trapped inside a filter bubble, and need librarians wielding the sword of truth to burst it. Kevin Seeber delivered a wonderful broadside against this delusion in June last year, in a talk at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians Conference. Ben Jenkins wrote a shorter and somewhat more depressing analysis of why 'fact checking' is of limited value in his newsletter last December.

Kindness

Edward Shaddow wrote in November of the continuing impact of newCardigan's visit to Incendium Radical Library. Shaddow did not attend the visit, but listened to the podcast recording later, and was struck by many of the same things as those of us who were there. In particular, Shaddow draws on his past work in a sexual health service to consider how library work could fit into the medical profession's idea of harm minimisation – particularly the model commonly used in alcohol and other drugs (AoD) support services. Sam Popowich took a very different approach but explored a similar question in Dialectics and social responsibility:

By thinking of [intellectual freedom] and [social responsibility] as distinct and different, rather than part of a single, larger, total system (which we might call “social justice”), libraries end up reproducing not only the values and structure of capitalism, but it obscures the real interrelationships of the social world of which libraries are a part. In this way they maintain and reproduce the very logic by which capitalism structures the social world, making it that much more difficult to change the world itself. By insisting that intellectual freedom and social responsibility are not two things, but one thing, we might go a long way towards understanding a kind of IF appropriate to the real social relations of capitalist society. And if we can do that, we might stand a chance of changing those relations, something that is impossible by treating intellectual freedom as an isolated, self-sufficient, well-defined set of principles and values, repressing the claims of social responsibility by drawing a neat dividing line between the two positions.

Angela Smith dissects the pseudo-politics of kindness to come to similar conclusions to Popowich:

Looking for solutions in the private sphere of demonstrations of affect and the registration of opinion instead of the public sphere of political processes and participatory action, drains political energies and fractures political will and collective strength.

The machine

And Kinjal Davis, in Systemic Algorithmic Harms riffs on Noble's deliberate use of the phrase algorithms of oppression rather than bias:

when we say “an algorithm is biased,” we, in some ways, are treating an algorithm as if it were a flawed individual, rather than an institutional force.

But what are we to do in order to reduce harm, change these relations or blunt this institutional force? Many of us like to joke about wheeling out the guillotines, but like “draining the swamp”, or “blowing the place up”, it's not a particularly helpful conception of how to move forward. For some reason I keep returning to coral reefs as a metaphor. There are three things I find interesting about coral reefs: they are collective projects, they grow by slow accretion, and they're “alive”. Hence my attraction to sortition, which Tim Dunlop mused on last year. Dan Cohen talked about human agency in Humane Ingenuity 12, and agency is exactly what government through sortition brings back to democracy. Cohen talks about it in opposition to automation (thinking in particular of AI), but any system that denies humans agency is degrading – it's largely irrelevant to the victim whether the human decision to deny other humans their agency is embedded within computer code, legal code, or a guidance note for bureaucrats.

Like the animals that live on a coral reef, we are both individual beings living within multiple, stacked environments – and part of those environments ourselves. We act and are acted upon. We fight the machine at the same time we are part of the machine. I have long felt this particularly keenly as a part of the bureaucracy: for many years in local government and now within a university. Emily McAvan attacks this head on in a review of the classic film The Matrix on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. In I would rather be a cyborg, McAvan explores what The Matrix meant then, and what it means now – its themes of posthumanism and transgenderism more relevant than ever, but also evolving in their meaning over time. McAvan has some ideas that might help us through our despair at the state of the world, when social and environmental revolution seems both necessary and impossible:

Posthuman theory has taught us that there is no real return to the ‘common sense’ of humanism – technology has removed that possibility. Early in the movie, Neo is told that ‘it sounds to me that you might need to unplug,’ yet that is, in the end, impossible ... Perhaps what The Matrix’s really teaches us, with its fight against AI and its ambivalence towards the virtual, is that we need to revolutionise our encounters with the machinic. To take the possibilities inherent in the virtual and radicalise them. How different would our world look if the apps we used, from Facebook to Uber, were socialised, created not to exploit workers and consumers alike but to benefit society?

Silicon Valley has been promising revolution and radical possibilities for decades. What they've given us is Airpods, surveillance capitalism, and Bitcoin. And yet, like Neo, we know how the system works because we are part of it. Of course we don't live in a Hollywood film, so there is no “The One” to save us. We have to dodge the bullets together.

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