General Ludd in the Long Seventies ⊗ Better than ethics ⊗ Taiwan is making democracy work again ⊗ Oil is the New Data — No.105

This week → General Ludd in the Long Seventies ⊗ Better than ethics ⊗ Taiwan is making democracy work again. It’s time we paid attention ⊗ Oil is the New Data

A year ago → At once tiny and huge: what is this feeling we call ‘sublime’?.

General Ludd in the Long Seventies

At LibrarianShipwreck, a review of Matt Tierney’s Dismantlings, a book seen as “a vital contribution to attempts to theorize what Luddism might mean, and how we are to confront the various technological challenges facing us today.” The book is focused on the “long seventies” (1965 to 1980) and looks at the work of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Norbert Wiener, and Stewart Brand, but also Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany. It’s kind of fascinating, and more than a bit depressing, that some of the thinking from back then was already talking about technology alongside decolonization, sexual and gender autonomy, and racial justice. One might think we’d have gotten further ahead by now but on the contrary, we seem to have gotten closer to what the “Ludditeish” thinkers of the late seventies were worried about.

In contrast to the “technological Messianism” of the likes of Fuller and McLuhan, the “communion” based works by the likes of Le Guin and Delaney focused less on exuberance for the machines themselves but instead sought to critically engage with what types of coexistence such machines would and could genuinely facilitate. […]

“Decentralized technologies that meet the needs of the people those technologies serve will necessarily give life to a different kind of political structure, and it is safe to predict that the political structure that results will be anticolonial in nature.” […]

That the Luddites are so constantly vilified may ultimately be a signal of their dangerous power, insofar as they show that people need not passively sit and accept everything that is sold to them as technological progress. Dismantling represents a politics “not as machine hating, but as a way to protect life against a large=scale regimentation and policing of security, labor, time, and community.” […]

To a certain extent, Dismantlings stands as a reminder of a range of individuals who tried to warn us that we would wind up in the mess in which we find ourselves. Those who are equipped with such powers of perception are often mocked and derided in their own time, but looking back at them with hindsight one can get a discomforting sense of just how prescient they truly were. […]

[L]inking Luddism to “species expression and…planetary survival,” Tierney highlights that even if this Luddism is not “the hatred of machines as such” it still entails the recognition that there are some machines that should be hated – and that should be taken apart.

Better than ethics

Rachel Coldicutt on how sympathetic technology can go beyond ethics. The latter can end up being “an exercise in defining the floor—what can be got away with, not what should be done—and how instead it’s vital to raise our sights and aim higher.” She also argues that we should be thinking beyond humanity when dealing with the climate crisis, that technology is not ungovernable, and that shareholder value is not the only value. Nature is changing faster than we can really grasp, and “the same can be said of data and the digital world, which is too big, too numerous, for most of us to comprehend.” Finally she advocates for a moderate path between technodeterminism and luddism, between survivalism and apathy. (Coldicutt ends up echoing a lot of the thinking in the article above, but her writing is a lot more approachable.)

And meanwhile, the complexification continues – the amount of data collected is going up and up and up, but very little of it is understood. Just as we’re burning the planet, we’re at risk of drowning ourselves in data – making new problems faster than we have time to solve them. […]

So just as we need to find new ways to live on planet earth, we need to look for different ways to co-exist with technology. We need to settle in, find out what a good life feels like, and feel empowered to claim that. We’re just over a decade into living with smartphones; it’s a tiny blip in time, there’s nothing inevitable or immutable about it. It’s our current reality, not our destiny. […]

Rather than assuming there is only a binary choice between technodeterminism and luddism, between survivalism and apathy, there is the opportunity of creating a moderate path – something more sympathetic, and more balanced, in which honouring others’ human rights, taking care of the planet, and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals comes as standard, in which data supports us and doesn’t overwhelm us, and in which business doesn’t always take the lead.

Taiwan is making democracy work again. It’s time we paid attention

After major protests in March 2014 in Taiwan, the government asked for help, “the government wanted to listen, and stop anything like the Sunflower Revolution from happening again.” They setup the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS), Audrey Tang became Digital Minister, and the team created a new process for consultation, vTaiwan. It’s a mix of online and offline consultations aiming to use the Internet to pull people together rather than split them apart, designing an environment very different from the usual online forums for political debate. So far the bulk of the debating is done online and has been used for tech related issues, but their focus on finding consensus is promising for other policies as well.

Owned both by everyone and no one at the same time, the internet needed a new politics, and this community called it “multistakeholderism”. The idea was that anyone could have a seat at the table as long as they were animated by transparency, willingness to listen and consensus-finding, in order to bring together the different tribes of the internet. […]

To bring the groups closer together, Polis has reengineered many of the features we take for granted on social media. No reply button – hence no trolling. No echo-chambers, replaced by an attitudes map showing you where you are in relation to everyone else. The platform does not highlight the most divisive statements, but gives more visibility to the most consensual ones. The ones that get attention are those that find support not only in one cluster, but across other groups, too. […]

This technological change exposes a deeper human truth: on most issues, there might be half a dozen points of bitter division, but 20 or 30 of broad unity. The trick is to make these more visible.

Oil is the New Data

At this point it’s pretty clear that big tech companies will do pretty much anything to boost revenu or access to markets (hello Apple in China!) so this article isn’t surprising but it’s a good read to learn some of the numbers involved in selling cloud services to big oil, as well as understanding what it’s used for, which in this case includes Chevron hoping to surveil Kazakhstani employees through their movements on site and their emails.

The market is dominated by Amazon’s cloud computing wing, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which now makes up more than half of all of Amazon’s operating income. AWS has grown fast: in 2014, its revenue was $4.6 billion; in 2019, it is set to surpass $36 billion. So many companies run on AWS that when one of its most popular services went down briefly in 2017, it felt like the entire internet stopped working. […]

This is what our Chevron partners were most keen to discuss: how to better surveil their workers. TCO had thirty or forty thousand workers on site, nearly all local Kazakhstanis. They worked on rotating shifts — twelve-hour days for two weeks at a time — to keep the oil field running around the clock. And the managers wanted to use AI/ML to keep a closer eye on them. […]

On the surface, then, Microsoft appears to be committed to fighting climate change. Google has constructed a similar reputation. But in reality, these companies are doing just enough to keep their critics distracted while teaming up with the industry that is at the root of the climate crisis. Why go through the effort of using clean energy to power your data centers when those same data centers are being used by companies like Chevron to produce more oil?


  • Open tabs: NYC’s task force to regulate AI was a spectacular failure and The Second Wave of Algorithmic Accountability « Law and Political Economy.
  • ?? ? Alexandria is an invisible city: we live in it, but cannot see it. “As rapid development sweeps through Alexandria, architect Mohamed Gohar is trying to document both the past and the present of this ancient Egyptian port city”
  • A TED talk from 2009 with 20 million views so not news but a really fantastic talk on single stories vs multifaceted understanding. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story. “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” (via Flavie)
  • ?? ? A charity dropped a massive stimulus package on rural Kenya — and transformed the economy. “[T]he study suggests that basic income programs in poor countries, as considered by the current Indian government, could be more than useful poverty alleviation tools — they could also have real economic benefits. And in countries like Nigeria or Angola with lots of natural resources wealth that can be used to fund a basic income without distorting the economy, the promise is especially great.”
  • ? Mapping All of Earth’s Roads and Buildings from Space. “this automated approach offers a degree of global completeness and spatial consistency that is hard to beat and is already useful for many applications, like identifying construction in flood risk zones. And with continually refreshed imagery from space, such maps can be updated to highlight new changes around the world, opening up new possibilities to improve transparency and help life on Earth.”
  • ? ? Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. “We argue that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk towards zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions is 30 years at best. Hence we might already have lost control of whether tipping happens.”
  • ? How to Power a Steel Blast Furnace Using Only Hydrogen. “Steelmakers in Germany have taken a big step toward carbon neutral steel production by using hydrogen to power a blast furnace. This is the first demonstration of its kind. The company that did the demonstration, Thyssenkrupp, has committed to reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2030. In the steel industry, where production of the world’s greatest alloy has been exclusively powered by coal before this, reducing emissions is a daunting and major goal.”

Header image: Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (also here at Domus).