Tags: capitalism



Sunday, June 18th, 2023

Probable events poison reality - by Rob Horning

No matter what a specific technology does — convert the world’s energy into gambling tokens, encourage people to live inside a helmet, replace living cognition with a statistical analysis of past language use, etc., etc. — all of them are treated mainly as instances of the “creative destruction” necessary for perpetuating capitalism.

Meet the new hype, same as the old hype:

Recent technological pitches — crypto, the “metaverse,” and generative AI — seem harder to defend as inevitable universal improvements of anything at all. It is all too easy to see them as gratuitous innovations whose imagined use cases seem far-fetched at best and otherwise detrimental to all but the select few likely to profit from imposing them on society. They make it starkly clear that the main purpose of technology developed under capitalism is to secure profit and sustain an unjust economic system and social hierarchies, not to advance human flourishing.

Consequently, the ideological defense of technology becomes a bit more desperate.

Saturday, May 27th, 2023

404 Page Not Found | Kate Wagner

Considering the average website is less than ten years old, that old warning from your parents that says to “be careful what you post online because it’ll be there forever” is like the story your dad told you about chocolate milk coming from brown cows, a well-meant farce. On the contrary, librarians and archivists have implored us for years to be wary of the impermanence of digital media; when a website, especially one that invites mass participation, goes offline or executes a huge dump of its data and resources, it’s as if a smallish Library of Alexandria has been burned to the ground. Except unlike the burning of such a library, when a website folds, the ensuing commentary from tech blogs asks only why the company folded, or why a startup wasn’t profitable. Ignored is the scope and species of the lost material, or what it might have meant to the scant few who are left to salvage the digital wreck.

Friday, May 5th, 2023

Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey? | The New Yorker

Bosses have certain goals, but don’t want to be blamed for doing what’s necessary to achieve those goals; by hiring consultants, management can say that they were just following independent, expert advice. Even in its current rudimentary form, A.I. has become a way for a company to evade responsibility by saying that it’s just doing what “the algorithm” says, even though it was the company that commissioned the algorithm in the first place.

Once again, absolutely spot-on analysis from Ted Chiang.

I’m not very convinced by claims that A.I. poses a danger to humanity because it might develop goals of its own and prevent us from turning it off. However, I do think that A.I. is dangerous inasmuch as it increases the power of capitalism. The doomsday scenario is not a manufacturing A.I. transforming the entire planet into paper clips, as one famous thought experiment has imagined. It’s A.I.-supercharged corporations destroying the environment and the working class in their pursuit of shareholder value. Capitalism is the machine that will do whatever it takes to prevent us from turning it off, and the most successful weapon in its arsenal has been its campaign to prevent us from considering any alternatives.

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023

Craft vs Industry: Separating Concerns by Thomas Michael Semmler: CSS Developer, Designer & Developer from Vienna, Austria

Call me Cassandra:

The way that industry incorporates design systems is basically a misappropriation, or abuse at worst. It is not just me who is seeing the problem with ongoing industrialization in design. Even Brad Frost, the inventor of atomic design, is expressing similar concerns. In the words of Jeremy Keith:

[…] Design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

So no. It is not just you. We all feel it. This quote is from 2020, by the way. What was then a prediction has since become a reality.

This grim assessment is well worth a read. It rings very true.

What could have become Design Systemics, in which we applied systems theory, cybernetics, and constructivism to the process and practice of design, is now instead being reduced to component libraries. As a designer, I find this utter nonsense. Everyone who has even just witnessed a design process in action knows that the deliverable is merely a documenting artifact of the process and does not constitute it at all. But for companies, the “output” is all that matters, because it can be measured; it appeals to the industrialized process because it scales. Once a component is designed, it can be reused, configured, and composed to produce “free” iterations without having to consult a designer. The cost was reduced while the output was maximized. Goal achieved!

Monday, September 26th, 2022

Your design system contribution practice is doomed to fail by Amy Hupe, content designer.

This is a great analysis by Amy of the conflicting priorities tugging at design systems.

No matter how hard we work to foster these socialist ideals, like community, collaboration, and contribution, it feels as though we’re always being dragged to a default culture of individualism.

Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Make Free Stuff | Max Böck

At its very core, the rules of the web are different than those of “real” markets. The idea that ownership fundamentally means that nobody else can have the same thing you have just doesn’t apply here. This is a world where anything can easily be copied a million times and distributed around the globe in a second. If that were possible in the real world, we’d call it Utopia.

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

Brian Eno on NFTs and Automaticism

Much of the energy behind crypto arises from the very strong need that some people feel to operate outside of a state, and therefore outside of any sort of democratic communal overview. The idea that Ayn Rand, that Nietzsche-for-Teenagers toxin, should have had her whacky ideas enshrined in a philosophy about money is what is terrifying to me.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

The Case Against Crypto | Pervasive Media Studio

The underlying technology of cryptocurrency is based on a world without trust. Its most ardent proponents want to demolish institutions and abolish regulation, reducing the world to a numbers game which they believe they can win. If the wildest fantasies of cryptocurrency enthusiasts were to come true, if all the environmental and technical objections were to fall away, the result would be financial capitalism with all the brakes taken off.

The promotion of cryptocurrencies is at best irresponsible, an advertisement for an unregulated casino. At worst it is an environmental disaster, a predatory pyramid scheme, and a commitment to an ideology of greed and distrust. I believe the only ethical response is to reject it in all its forms.

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Solarpunk Is Not About Pretty Aesthetics. It’s About the End of Capitalism

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank:

At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture

When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.

First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”

Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL: adactio.com/links/tags/whatever

There are some links that I return to again and again.

Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.

Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?

But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).

Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.

Those three paragraphs might be the most succinct critique of unfettered capitalism I’ve come across. The invisible hand as a paperclip maximiser.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.

I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.

Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!

I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

The cage

I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.

But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.

This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”

I saw the same tweet. It resonated with me. I had responded with a link to a post I wrote a while back called Get safe. That post made two points:

  1. GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
  2. It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.

But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:

It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.

He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:

Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?

When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.

Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:

“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.

But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.

What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.

The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.

And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.

Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.

Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?

It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

Remote to who? A working letter

The idea that your job should be the primary source of meaning in your life is an elaborately made trap, propped up across industries, designed to make you a loyal worker who uses the bulk of their intellectual and creative capacity to further their own career.

Friday, August 14th, 2020

Marxian Alienation And Web Development: HeydonWorks

As a web designer or developer burnout comes calling when you try to do good work, but you’re not allowed.

  • You want to make the app more performant; your boss wants to fill it full of third party trackers
  • You want to make the app more accessible; your boss wants you to focus on the ‘able market’ instead
  • You want to word the app more clearly; your boss wants to trick users with misleading language

If you are a good developer, and a good person, asked to do shit work, you will burn out.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The History of the Future

It me:

Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Open source beyond the market - Signal v. Noise

The transcript of David Heinemeier Hansson keynote from last year’s RailsConf is well worth reading. It’s ostensibily about open source software but it delves into much larger questions.

Monday, October 14th, 2019

The World-Wide Work. — Ethan Marcotte

Here’s the transcript of Ethan’s magnificent closing talk from New Adventures. I’m pretty sure this is the best conference talk I’ve ever had the honour of seeing.

Monday, July 1st, 2019

The Decolonial Atlas

The Decolonial Atlas is a growing collection of maps which, in some way, help us to challenge our relationships with the land, people, and state. It’s based on the premise that cartography is not as objective as we’re made to believe.

For example: Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet — a cartogram showing the location of decision makers in the top 100 climate-hostile companies.

This map is a response to the pervasive myth that we can stop climate change if we just modify our personal behavior and buy more green products. Whether or not we separate our recycling, these corporations will go on trashing the planet unless we stop them.

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

Nothing Fails Like Success – A List Apart

On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Fantasies of the Future: Design in a World Being Eaten by Software / Paul Robert Lloyd

The transcript of a terrific talk by Paul, calling for a more thoughtful, questioning approach to digital design. It covers the issues I’ve raised about Booking.com’s dark patterns and a post I linked to a while back about the shifting priorities of designers working at scale.

Drawing inspiration from architectural practice, its successes and failures, I question the role of design in a world being eaten by software. When the prevailing technocratic culture permits the creation of products that undermine and exploit users, who will protect citizens within the digital spaces they now inhabit?

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Facebook and the end of the world

I’d love to see some change, and some introspection. A culture of first, do no harm. A recognition that there are huge dangers if you just do what’s possible, or build a macho “fail fast” culture that promotes endangerment. It’s about building teams that know they’ll make mistakes but also recognize the difference between great businesses opportunities and gigantic, universe-sized fuck ups.