Marginalia 12: big dreams and bad machines

It's been longer than I thought since the last instalment of Marginalia. Time, as many have noted, has felt different during the COVID-19 pandemic: “March lasted a year and April lasted a week”. But some people think about time quite differently. Peter Brannen, for example, outlines in hilarious detail why he thinks The Anthropocene is a joke, in an Atlantic piece of the same name:

For context, let’s compare the eventual geological legacy of humanity (somewhat unfairly) to that of the dinosaurs, whose reign spanned many epochs and lasted a functionally eternal 180 million years—36,000 times as long as recorded human history so far... If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell... The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations. It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism—from the animal kingdom, from nature, from the systems that govern it, and from time itself.

Brennan's point is not that we are not destroying our species' ability to continue to inhabit our one and only planet. Instead, he rather dismally is pointing to a significant part of how we came to be doing so: hubris.

This is also a reminder (in case you were feeling too comfortable) that humanity is currently in the midst of at least two crises – just because COVID-19 has temporarily changed the lifestyles of some of us, doesn't mean there's no longer a need for us to permanently change our societies to avoid the worst of anthropomorphic climate change. Sorry to be a downer. We can start by linking the two, with Samanth Subramanian's piece on How the face mask became the world's most coveted commodity:

No object better symbolises the pandemic than the mask, and no object better explains the world into which the pandemic arrived. Social distancing, at first, felt like a strange notion: the inaction of it, the vagueness of it. But the mask sang out to our deepest consumeristic impulses. In the absence of a drug or a vaccine, the mask is the only material protection we can buy; it’s a product, and we’ve been trained like seals to respond to products. As a result, in every corner of every country, the humble face mask – this assembly of inexpensive plastic – has been elevated into a fetishised commodity.

Subramanian's article is a masterful exploration of the utter failure of international “free market” capitalism to respond in any meaningful or effective way to a public health crisis, and highlights the way that COVID-19 has simply highlighted what critics of unregulated trade have been saying for decades: concentrating manufacturing in a few places with the cheapest prices, obscuring what's happening with a supply chain of nested contractors, and assuming that “the market” will magically match high-quality supply with actual demand is a house of cut-price cards that are actually tissue paper, resting on quicksand that is also flooding.

Speaking of capitalism being a complete clown car, two articles I read recently are even more revealing when you place them next to each other. Liz Pelly's Big mood machine takes a deep dive into Spotify's business model, finding that they have been remarkably happy to document how they eagerly tobogganed down the slippery slope of surveillance capitalism and mass manipulation of users in the name of a few extra advertising dollars:

In Spotify’s world, listening data has become the oil that fuels a monetizable metrics machine, pumping the numbers that lure advertisers to the platform. In a data-driven listening environment, the commodity is no longer music. The commodity is listening. The commodity is users and their moods. The commodity is listening habits as behavioural data. Indeed, what Spotify calls “streaming intelligence” should be understood as surveillance of its users to fuel its own growth and ability to sell mood-and-moment data to brands.

Pelly notes that Spotify, just like Facebook, has been all too eager not to merely monitor user emotions, but also to use their platform to change user emotions. Perhaps they should have used the Ethical Litmus Tests card deck when they were thinking about how to monetise, but I suspect it would have been far too late anyway.

Whilst Spotify's complete lack of moral compass and willingness to run experiments on unsuspecting music lovers certainly reinforces why universities have ethics approval processes, does it actually help companies to sell more stuff? That is, if Colgate runs adds when people listen to Chilled out study beats because Spotify has identified that “consumers” (🤮) are more receptive during that “emotional moment”, do they sell more units of toothpaste? Turns out the answer is ...probably not. Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn argue in The Correspondent that The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising. It's a long piece, but essentially Fredirik and Martijn argue that the data-driven online advertising revolution ushered in by Google is a mirage, with the effect of online ads no more measurable than the effect of ye olde newspaper ads:

Companies are not equipped to assess whether their ad spending actually makes money. It is in the best interest of a firm like eBay to know whether its campaigns are profitable, but not so for eBay’s marketing department.

Its own interest is in securing the largest possible budget, which is much easier if you can demonstrate that what you do actually works. Within the marketing department, TV, print and digital compete with each other to show who’s more important, a dynamic that hardly promotes honest reporting.

This reminded me of Ellen Broad's 2018 piece in The Guardian, Are Cambridge Analytica’s insights even that insightful? Readers will be unsurprised that Broad's answer to her own rhetorical question was “Probably not”:

These days getting access to data is reasonably cheap and easy. Making bad predictions is also easy. Creating accurate, targeted predictions about what an individual is like and their “inner demons”, in a context where Facebook is also acting on that constantly, remains hard. It’s particularly hard when an organisation’s whole business model is based on keeping those predictions – and how they’re made – secret from the subject of the prediction. We’ve slid so easily into a world of secretive inference, we’ve forgotten that transparency and trust can sometimes get better, more accurate results.

Trust is on Darius Kazemi's mind too. In this wonderful talk from Eyeo 2019 he outlines why “Trust is not harmful” – which seems like it's a thing that would be self-evident, but we live in a world where Bitcoin exists, so I guess not. Anyway, if you're unfamiliar with Kazemi's work this is a wonderful introduction, and a good outline of what trust and designing things to work within Dunbar's number can do that “operating at scale” can't.

To finish up today's Marginalia, I want to circle back to where we started (kind of). I've been meaning to read Troy Vettese's To freeze the Thames for many months, and I finally did last week. There's a lot of terrific (and terrifying) thinking in this piece, and you really should read it rather than rely on my very brief overview. If you need it: there's a pretty big content warning on this essay – it lays out a convincing argument that a quite extreme change in material living standards and behaviours is required if humans and many other species are to survive beyond the next century or two. Vettese says a lot, but in terms of ways forward he identifies two concrete ideas that have been proposed by other thinkers: the “half world” proposal, and the 2000-watt society. I'm a natural sceptic when comes to plans that would require planetary cooperation, though Vettese makes no attempt to outline how humanity might achieve these goals. By chance, around the same time I read To freeze the Thames, I read a speech from Murray Bookchin that is still highly relevant to our times despite being delivered before I was born. Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do is blunt, sometimes hilarious, and inspiring. Bookchin was very clear that human societies and non-human biological systems flourish together and are both threatened by the capitalism and the state. Bookchin then was just as clear as Vettese is now that tech won't save us:

Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference.

I do have some differences of opinion when it comes to some the detail of Vettese's proposals (or perhaps he would call them observations). Most importantly, living in a settler colonial society has allowed me to (eventually) see that the idea of “nature” is a mirage. Whether in the Amazon, Australia, California or elsewhere, Europeans and their offspring settler colonial cultures have stubbornly refused to see what was right in front of their eyes – societies that managed to assert a high degree of control over the growth of useful plant and animal populations without resorting to Total War on the rest of the biosphere. It's as if a bunch of Cubists suddenly discovered Impressionist watercolours and declared that they must have created themselves in the absence of any artist at all. So 'half worlding' looks awfully like the creation of the United State National Park System all over again. Let's hope not.

In solidarity


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