Marginalia

Notes on what I've been reading

Mushrooms

I bought a copy of The mushroom at the end of the world last year, but I've been waiting for the right time to read it. It's referenced in a couple of other books I've read in the last year, and I had high expectations, so wanted to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. It doesn't disappoint. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing takes us on a journey from Oregon, across the Pacific to Japan, through to China and on to Finland – in search of Matsutake mushrooms and what they show us about both modernism and capitalism.

It's an extraordinary book: an academic study that rejects the norms of academia; a story of international supply chains that ignores transport logistics to focus on individual workers; an examination of what Tsing calls 'pericapitalism' – salvage practices that sit both inside and outside capitalist modes of activity. What I want to focus on here, however, is Tsing's examination of scale, and names. Perhaps it was always there, but I've increasingly noticed over the last few years an obsession in both the tech world and within libraries for projects and services to be scalable. This is generally understood to mean they are able to become bigger – deal with more users, or more data – without major changes to the underlying structure. But Tsing provides a more interesting take on scalability (my emphases):

Scalability ...is the ability of a project to change scales smoothly without any change in project frames. A scalable business, for example, does not change is organization as it expands. This is possible only if business relations are not transformative, changing the business as new relations are added. Similarly, a scalable research project admits only data that already fit the research frame. Scalability requires that project elements be oblivious to the indeterminacies of the encounter ...scalability banishes meaningful diversity, that is, diversity that might change things.

I've been wary of prioritising making things “scalable” for a while, but couldn't quite place where my unease was coming from. Whilst it's implicitly obvious that “we can scale this up easily” means “we can have this system interact with more people/things without it being changed”, when Tsing made it explicit that this is what “scalability” means, a lot of things fell into place for me. But she also provides a warning about fetishising non-scalability and the idea that “small is beautiful”:

It would be a huge mistake to think assume that scalability is bad and nonscalability is good... The main distinguishing feature between scalable and nonscalable projects is not ethical conduct but rather that the latter are more diverse because they are not geared up for expansion. Nonscalable projects can be terrible or benign; they run the range.

I think librarians often have problems understanding the appropriate scale to work with. There are many things we do in libraries at a very local scale, customised to and operated as bespoke systems. A lot of them don't need to be small scale, and would be much more effective and sustainable if resources were pooled and more large-scale systems and processes used. But you know that story: library managers and consultants have been telling it for years, mostly as a way to reduce the expense of hiring people with specialist knowledge. In some ways the more problematic issue with scale is in the things where the inverse applies. The primary candidate (and sorry if you've heard this from before) is the taxonomies and classification systems we use in library catalogues and discovery systems: Modernist creations like Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), Library of Congress Subject Headings, and even Moys Classification are used internationally, even though they were not really designed for that. UDC is sometimes claimed to be the superior alternative to DDC due to its international design, but it's still a Modernist project claiming to 'cover the whole universe of knowledge' – a pretty hubristic statement.

This is where Tsing's notes on 'contamination' and names, slightly earlier in the book, become relevant (my emphasis):

We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds – and new directions – may emerge. Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option... This changes the work we imagine for names, including ethnicities and species. If categories are unstable, we must watch them emerge within encounters. To use category names should be a commitment to tracing the assemblages in which these categories gain a momentary hold. Only from here can I return to meeting Mien and matsutake in a Cascades forest. What does it mean to be “Mien” or to be “forest”?

What would it mean to build library discovery technologies with “a commitment to tracing the assemblages in which categories gain a momentary hold”? If we worked on identifying the points at which identities and categories interact and change, rather than endless debates about which specific word to use when affixing a category to a particular person, concept or work? If our systems revealed what happens to the identity of pin when angels dance on one, rather than debating how many angels there might be?

Tech

How identities change through interaction was also on Kelly Pendergrast's mind in Who goes there, a piece for Real Life Magazine. In this rumination on how online security questions reflect the preoccupation and demands of the dominant class, Pendergrast puts a finger on some disturbing truths:

Security questions rest on unexamined assumptions about what constitutes identity, and what biographical details can be assumed as universal, private, and memorable to internet users. They are a form of quiet disciplinary power; specifically, they help enforce the hegemonic subjectivity required to provide an effective and sustained labor force.

I will resist the temptation to quote every second paragraph, but this is a great companion to Tsing's book when it comes to thinking about what identity means and how classification schemes both warp our sense of reality and act to communicate certain messages about who does and does not fit within the bounds of acceptability.

For something related but a little more lighthearted, you might like to read about the research project that set up adversarial AI systems to turn pictures of giraffes into pictures of birds.

If you want to map out how interactions can change taxonomies, or something else, you might like to look at drawio – a free open source diagraming tool that works in a browser. Or for mapping of a different kind, check out the amazing City Roads, where you can make city maps like this:

Map of streets of Hobart

COVID-19

Of course, The Virus has been on my mind as much as anyone's. You're probably avoiding reading about it by now, but I did think a few articles were worth checking out.

The first was in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Mark today in your diaries because it may be the only time I ever recommend you read something from The Chronicle:

The answer to the question everyone is asking — “When will this be over?” — is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never.

Why you should ignore all that Coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure is not unique in its main thrust, but does have some great thoughts from Aisha S. Ahmad, who has a lot of experience working in places that are experiencing or recovering from catastrophe.

Ed Summers has an interesting piece about archiving COVID-19, and how Jupyter Notebooks have the potential to change the way web archiving is done – not just on a technical level but also in terms of philosophy and theory:

...one nice thing about working in Jupyter, rather than creating an “application” to perform the collection and present the results, is that notebooks center writing prose about what is being done and why. You can share the notebooks with others as static documents that become executable again in the right environment. I think we must consider adding to our toolbox of web appraisal methods, to do more than simply ask people what they think should be archived, and to factor in what they are talking about, and sharing. Using Jupyter notebooks could be a viable way of both doing that work and providing documentation about it.

Finally, as someone who suddenly found himself managing a remote team from his kitchen table four weeks ago, I really appreciated Mandy Brown's The hard way, which provides some advice to people – particularly librarians – suddenly thrust into this new world:

The first lesson on leading a remote team when the world’s on fire is the most obvious one, but it’s shockingly easy to miss: the operative phrase is not remote team but world’s on fire. This is true whether you’re a veteran of remote practices or you have recently had to instruct people in the correct use of the mute button on video calls.

I think I'm mostly getting things right, but it's hard for everyone right now.

Stay safe, I hope you get time to do some reading of your own.

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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