Marginalia 9: Owning, naming, waiting

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.