Marginalia

Notes on what I've been 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.

It's probably quite foolish to write this in public — especially after such a long break between posts — but I'm hoping to turn Marginalia into a fortnightly publication. This probably will mean a slight tweak to how it's presented, but ultimately this was always supposed to be a kind of outlet for sharing articles, books, and my thoughts about them, in the way I liked to think I did on Twitter when I was a regular addict uh, user of the site.

Anyway, on with the show...


In Marginalia 11 I wrote about mushrooms, mycelium, and (among other things) the way they complicate any attempt at neat taxonomy. Back in April last year, about 500 months ago, Uneven Earth published a piece on the only topic of conversation. What are viruses? Are they alive? What does that mean? What are limits? What can viruses tell us about them?

All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe.

Re-reading it now, ten months distant, the article seems more exploratory and intriguing to me. At the time I knew it was saying something important but it was impossible for me to process it properly. There was a lot to think about in April 2020.

Turns out hard-to-classify life forms aren't just good for helping us re-think our assumptions, or frying up to eat with butter and toast. Claire Evans reminds us that “computers are basically just smart rocks”, introducing the weird world of “unconventional computing”. This is computing via slime moulds or mycelium networks, instead of silicon and electricity. It might bring a whole new meaning to the idea of “server farms”. But Evans thinks this through further than just getting excited at the prospect of “greener” or “natural” ways to use computers in the same way.

computing is not so much an industry as a way of seeing — an interpretation of the world. “If we are inventive enough, we can interpret any process as a computation,” [Andrew] Adamatzky says. If you’re looking for a computer — even if you’re looking under a rock — a computer is what you’ll find.

This sort of thinking is why Randy Connolly suggested last August that Computing belongs within the Social Sciences.

To be deinon is to be both wondrous and terrifying at the same time. “There are many deinon creatures on the earth, but none more so than man” sings the chorus in Sophocles' tragedy Antigone.

Within computing we have generally only focused on the wondrous and have ignored the terrifying or delegated its reporting to other disciplines. Now, with algorithmic governance replacing legal codes, with Web platform enabled surveillance capitalism transforming economics, with machine learning automating more of the labor market, and with unexplainable, non-transparent algorithms challenging the very possibility of human agency, computing has never been more deinon.

This datafication of everything without thinking too hard about the consequences is of course not a new observation. Technology Review explored it seven years ago in The dictatorship of data. I also wonder if Connolly knows about ANU's amazing 3Ai.

One small but fantastic (in every sense of the word) project that sometimes turns computational and taxonomic thinking against itself is the Decolonial Atlas. Check out Britain as Palestine, or the Eora map of Sydney Harbour.

See you in a couple of weeks.

Over the last couple of months I've been listening to Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast. I enjoyed Revolutions and thought maybe I should see what his first outing was like. I managed to get all the way to The Tetrarchy before I finally snapped. Duncan isn't a bad historian, but I just got a little bit sick of everything being viewed from the point of view that more people, land, wealth, and order inside the Empire equals good, and less of those things equals bad.

It might be the untimely death of David Graeber (more on which from me some time soon, probably) that has been weighing on my mind. Perhaps it's simply weeks on end of being confined to my suburb, one hour of exercise a day by law, watching the bunch of kleptomaniacs who rule over my part of the world shamelessly shove more of the country's wealth into the pockets of their mates, their families or — on the odd particularly brazen occasion — themselves.

Robodebt and threats of military strike breaking for us. Mining royalty holidays and tax deductions for them. In the words of the great philosopher Tony Abbott, as he sought to show his humanity to Australian soldiers after their colleagues were killed supporting our imperial masters: “Shit happens”.

Shit has been happening to machine learning algorithms lately. Whilst ethicists, social scientists, and anyone with the most basic understanding of how racist the average police force is have been fruitlessly pointing out to computer scientists for years that algorithms based merely on historical record keeping might be a little problematic, it seems that what has finally got them to sit up and notice is the complete collapse of “just in time” supply chains.

Much more interesting is the disorderly order of the “natural” world. In Europe, scientists have been studying what happens when they do nothing at all instead of “cleaning up” the carcasses of dead animals. It seems amazing that “modern science” has to “prove” things like this, after so many millennia of humans just taking it for granted that death is part of the cycle of life, but here we are. Meanwhile in Christchurch, millions of dollars have been spent on a losing battle to keep a reborn swamp “tidy” after earthquakes returned whole suburbs back to wetlands. The world is in chaos, but then the world is chaos — embrace it, because it turns out that the way epidemics end is that they don't really. There is no normal: neither old nor new.

No gods. No emperors. Never normalise.

Graham Lee's Five Computers is a short article, but I've not stopped thinking about it since reading it. There will be more to say about Five Computers on my blog, but I have some marginalia to mention here as well. Lee skilfully captures the essence of modern computing, and why this industry that is full of people who consider themselves hyper-rational actually makes very little sense.

There is really one central computing economy, controlling well over six trillion dollars of technology investment, with five different public faces...

...A tiny morsel of this multi-trillion-dollar planned economy is sent out to see where it sticks, and what new ideas the computing Gosplan department should factor into their forecasts.

Lee's reference to Gosplan is particularly delicious, though he's not alone in comparing Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist culture to the Soviet Union: Maciej Cegłowsk has been doing so for years. We pretend to watch their ads, and they pretend to protect our privacy.

Of course, the Soviet Union wasn't the only experiment in socialist living. Over in Yugoslavia, they were running their own thing. In Tribune magazine, Michael Eby tells the story of the “Socialism’s DIY Computer” – the Galaksija. I'd never heard of this before, and the whole thing reads like a fusion of cyberpunk and steampunk:

Because all the day’s computers, including Galaksija, ran their programs on cassette ... the idea was that [radio show] listeners could tape the programs off their receivers as they were broadcast, then load them into their personal machines.

...[The host] would announce when the segment was approaching, signaling to his listeners that it was time for them to fetch their equipment, cue up a tape, and get ready to hit record. Fans began to write programs with the expressed intention of mailing them into the station and broadcasting them during the segment. In the case of games, users would “download” the programs off the radio and alter them—inserting their own levels, challenges, and characters—then send them back for retransmission. In effect, this was file transfer well before the advent of the World Wide Web, a pre-internet pirating protocol.

The first computer I ever used (and programmed!) was a BBC Micro, a rough contemporary of this period which also used cassette tapes as storage. Even so, it had never crossed my mind that computer programs could be broadcast over radio waves as a file transfer system 🤯. In principle I suppose this is not much different to WiFi, but using tape cassettes and AM radio to transfer computer programs is definitely not something I'd ever considered before! I'm intrigued to know what it must have sounded like. Not, I'm guessing, quite like Ei Wada's barcode-powered dance floor bangers, but I feel like it might have the same energy.

While I was deep diving into alternative computing realities, I stumbled at some point upon the 100 Rabbits “tools ecosystem”. The 100 Rabbits duo spend their lives sailing the oceans, which sounded idyllic until I read about their most recent trip across the North Pacific when a capsize swept everything off the deck – including their solar power generator. For our purposes, however, the interesting part of their story ties back to the “Five Computers”. Our intrepid explorers simply don't have the energy or the bandwidth – literally – to operate within the “five computers” paradigm:

We had to adapt, to change our workflow. One big decision, was to scale our projects to the amount of energy we had available on the boat. This translates to shorter work hours, smaller projects (books, music etc) and making our own tools.

We made software that work offline, that use little power and that are good at doing one thing. This, recently, has evolved into coding our websites in C99, a language that is more resilient and light. We're also learning to code in Assembly, with the hope of making our games playable on older hardware like the NES and famicom.

I had never before really considered (yes I'm all too aware a theme is developing here...) the energy use of different computer programming languages. In the context of the existing climate emergency, this seems like something that everyone programming computers needs to at least consider. Intrigued, I fished around for some data and found an article suggesting that (SURPRISE!) Silicon Valley darling Ruby is pretty much The Worst at ...everything. Intriguingly for me, however, Rust – a compiled language I'm tentatively exploring – looks to be not only “safe” but also very energy efficient.

For some people, however, all this talk about file sharing over AM radio waves, programming in Assembly or (less hardcore) Rust, and showing your independence by using a recycled MacBook powered by solar panels is just completely soft. Why would you do that, when you could create a living computer made from bacteria?

Now that's green computing.

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