Tags: politics

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Monday, July 19th, 2021

Solarpunk

My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.

I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:

individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.

Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.

At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).

When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.

But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.

That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).

Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.

Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.

Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.

There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.

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.

Friday, May 14th, 2021

Office politics: A working letter

Here’s the thing: we need politics in the workplace. Politics—that is, the act of negotiating our relationships and obligations to each other—is critical to the work of building and sustaining democracy. And the workplace isn’t separate from democracy—it is democracy. It is as much a part of the democratic system as a neighborhood association or a town council, as a library or youth center or food bank. By the very nature of the outsized role that work plays in our lives, it’s where most of us have the potential to make the biggest impact on how we—and our families and communities—live.

Mandy, as always, hits the nail on the head.

When we talk about politics belonging outside the workplace, we reduce democracy to an extracurricular instead of a core part of our lives. Democracy cannot be sustained by annual visits to the ballot box—it isn’t something we have, it’s something we practice. Like all things that require practice, if you don’t practice it often, you lose it.

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Middle Management — Real Life

The introduction to this critique of Keller Easterling’s Medium Design is all about seams:

Imagine the tech utopia of mainstream science fiction. The bustle of self-driving cars, helpful robot assistants, and holograms throughout the sparkling city square immediately marks this world apart from ours, but something else is different, something that can only be described in terms of ambiance. Everything is frictionless here: The streets are filled with commuters, as is the sky, but the vehicles attune their choreography to one another so precisely that there is never any traffic, only an endless smooth procession through space. The people radiate a sense of purpose; they are all on their way somewhere, or else, they have already arrived. There’s an overwhelming amount of activity on display at every corner, but it does not feel chaotic, because there is no visible strife or deprivation. We might appreciate its otherworldly beauty, but we need not question the underlying mechanics of this utopia — everything works because it was designed to work, and in this world, design governs the space we inhabit as surely and exactly as the laws of physics.

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

Time Lords | Lapham’s Quarterly

A fascinating look at the history of calendrical warfare.

From the very beginning, standardized global time zones were used as a means of demonstrating power. (They all revolve around the British empire’s GMT, after all.) A particularly striking example of this happened in Ireland. In 1880, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland declared GMT the official time zone for all of Great Britain, Ireland was given its own time zone. Dublin Mean Time was twenty-five minutes behind GMT, in accordance with the island’s solar time. But in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, London’s House of Commons abolished the uniquely Irish time zone, folding Ireland into GMT, where it remains to this day.

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

mnot’s blog: RFC8890: The Internet is for End Users

RFC 8890 maybe the closest thing we’ve got to a Hippocratic oath right now.

A community that agrees to principles that are informed by shared values can use them to navigate hard decisions.

Also worth noting:

Many discussions influenced this document, both inside and outside of the IETF and IAB. In particular, Edward Snowden’s comments regarding the priority of end users at IETF 93 and the HTML5 Priority of Constituencies were both influential.

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Ted Chiang Explains the Disaster Novel We All Suddenly Live In - Electric Literature

Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.

Monday, August 26th, 2019

A Walk In Hong Kong (Idle Words)

Maciej goes marching.

The protests are intentionally decentralized, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests.

This sounds like it shouldn’t possibly work, but the protesters are too young to know that it can’t work, so it works.

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.

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

A Conspiracy To Kill IE6

This is a fascinating story of psychological manipulation and internal politics. It leaves me feeling queasy about the amount of power wielded by individuals in one single organisation.

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Optimizing for outrage – A Whole Lotta Nothing

I have no doubt that showing just the top outrageous tweets leads to more engagement. If you’re constantly hitting people with outlandish news stories they’ll open the app more often and interact and post about what they think so the cycle continues.

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Why Behavioral Scientists Need to Think Harder About the Future - Behavioral Scientist

Speculative fiction as a tool for change:

We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books

Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:

Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.

SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.

And on Borges:

He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

How can we break the Brexit deadlock? Ask ancient Athens | James Bridle | Opinion | The Guardian

James describes an ancient Greek machine called the kleroterian:

The method of governance embodied in the kleroterion, which dates back to the very establishment of democracy, is called sortition, meaning selection by lot, as opposed to election by vote.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche

A brilliantly written piece by Laurie Penny. Devestating, funny, and sad, featuring journalistic gold like this:

John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Google Walkout Organizers Explain Their Demands

This instance of collective action from inside a tech company is important, not just for the specifics of Google, but in acting as an example to workers in other companies.

And of all the demands, this is the one that could have the biggest effect in the US tech world:

An end to Forced Arbitration.

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

fascism in sci-fi | Sci-fi interfaces

Chris is putting his examination of interfaces in science fiction on pause while he examines a more pressing matter for today’s political climate—an examination of depictions of fascism in science fiction:

  1. Sci-fi interfaces and fascism
  2. A surprisingly empty survey: Strong fascism in screen sci-fi
  3. Why is strong fascism missing in screen sci-fi?

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags – Locus Online

Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Untold AI: The Untold | Sci-fi interfaces

Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.

And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

A Book Apart, We’re donating 25% profits to RAICES

What’s happening right now at the US border is heartbreaking and inexcusable. We’re donating 25% of all profits today and tomorrow (June 19 & 20) to RAICES, to help reunite detained immigrant parents and children.