Money for nothing ⊗ Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment ⊗ Control creep — No.169

This week → Money for nothing ⊗ Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment ⊗ Control creep: when the data always travels, so do the harms ⊗ Creativity is dead, long live curation ⊗ Waking up in the monster factory

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.122 was “It’ll all be over by Christmas” by Charlie Stross.

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Money for nothing

I was already down on Bitcoin back in 2012 when we spoke with a fan for The Alpine Review, yet it’s still going strong so maybe I’m wrong, and perhaps there’s some aspect the author is missing, or some upcoming technological twist, like Ethereum switching to proof of stake. But I still loved and even laughed out loud at this piece by Vicky Osterweil which, caveats above not withstanding, is I believe an excellent take on the state not only of NFTs and crypto more broadly, but even on Silicon Valley thinking in general and the way they basically use mystification and obfuscation to transform existing labour and value “into electricity” transferred to fewer people. It’s still jobs below the API, handing labour to gigs and to users, money to the app companies, and creating a thin layer of interface between the two to hide what’s happening, all in the guise of making things easier and frictionless. (Let me preempt the replies of some readers; yes there is lots of good going on in tech but the dominant players right now are definitely not forces for good, and certainly not acting responsibly.)

Osterweil also talks about NFTs as a “a process of mass, self-inflicted intellectual gaslighting,” that “the more people who can be brought to agree that some arbitrary object is valuable, the more valuable it becomes,” and that the only thing that keeps the value of commodities is the backstop of the state. Without it, as in the blockchain, the value is built on how much people trust the value of the technology, there is no backstop to all that “value” vanishing.

In nearly every article about them they are framed as an incredibly complicated technological phenomenon requiring careful explanation, rather than an incredibly boring one that tends to repel one’s focus. […]

It’s more fun to believe in magic than to recognize how much of financialized capitalism is just scams and pyramid schemes. […]

This is what libertarian evangelists see in crypto: a currency unmoored from a state, from an apparatus of violence, taxation, and territorial control. Instead of violence, the backstop will be technological cryptography, complex coding, and electrical power. But there is nothing innately value-producing about computer code any more than there is in tulip genes, and NFTs are just like tulips in that they are a volatile store of value subject to the irrational whims of investors. […]

Through the wonder of coding and engineering — but actually through brute ecological destruction, low-paid labor, and electrical expenditure — value emerges from “nothing,” creating a financial asset bubble that just seems to never pop.

Control creep: when the data always travels, so do the harms

Sun-ha Hong, assistant professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, reviews the short history of wearables, the quantified self movement, and how they got sucked into the maw of surveillance capitalism. Starting with Kevin Kelly and friends wanting to track themselves to optimize their lives, then to widgets like Fitbit and the Apple Watch; this collection of data, under cover of being for personal benefit, just becomes part of bigger data, tracking, control creep, loss of agency, and making human workers more compatible with machines. Worse, “when our data is used to empower the gaze of others, this also affects how we see ourselves.” Be sure to consider the conclusion alongside the first article, with the abstraction and transfer of labour and value. Same thing here.

[B]ig data analytics often has “no clearly defined endpoints or values.” It is precisely this capability for new and unexpected use cases that renders big data so attractive for governments and businesses — and pernicious for the rest of us. […]

In a “smart” or “AI-driven” workplace, the productive worker is someone who emits the desired kind of data — and does so in an inhumanly consistent way. […]

For many of us, to appear correctly in databases is the unhappy obligation on which our lives depend.

Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment

I wish every author wrote such an essay when launching a new book. Here Jeff Vandermeer writes a deeply personal one on his childhood travels, health issues, and a memory that would last a lifetime, resulting in a fascination with hummingbirds, and recurring appearances in his writings. If you are interested in well written introspection, how life experiences and emotions propel writing and influence style, you’ll enjoy this read.

Because the nonhuman world exists in a complexity we still don’t grasp, it is easy to see something true and pure about an essential connection to “nature,” to a world beyond the human that exists without us, that might be better off without us, and whose connections and communications are often so invisible to us. […]

From a writer’s perspective, the idea of some kind of constraint is compelling, because constraint functions as resistance, and conflict and story occur when the writer has to deal with resistance. […]

Neither context resembles my own, but the magician’s trick is that my encounter with hummingbirds in Cuzco still exists in the novel, in the sense that thinking of that moment allowed me when writing other scenes to conjure up the emotion of the ecstatic moment, the encounter with the beautiful unknown. The world beyond the world we know.

Creativity is dead, long live curation

This one by Ana Andjelic was floating around my unreads for six months, glad I finally circled back to it. Quoting quite a bit from Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, it’s an interesting look at curation in fashion or by brands, but also more generally its importance in culture and in taming the flow of products and information.

This expanded meaning of curation makes products only one of the currencies individuals and brands trade in. “It has a lot to do with proliferation of ideas. It includes non-objects, quasi-objects and hyper-objects, like the weather, that are more complex systems,” says Obrist. […]

“The curator is a junction-maker, a catalyst, a sparring partner, somebody who builds bridges,” says Obrist. […]

Curators bridge the gap between different taste communities and introduce them to one another. They also often connect people, products and ideas in a way that creates something that’s simultaneously new and familiar. […]

[C]onnecting them with a point of view and a subculture that makes them stand out in the vortex of speed, superficiality, and newness.

Waking up in the monster factory

This whole podcast interview with Vinay Gupta is some very potent abyss gazing, yet delivered in a no-nonsense, direct, no fucks given way. It’s also worth some serious pondering, most of what Gupta talks about I’ve already covered through various articles shared here, but his wrapping of multiple challenges together in a clear systemic and longterm view, and the in-your-face directness, come together as a strong but necessary medicine. (Via Doug Belshaw.)

[W]hy we ought to abandon all causes except the avoidance of total human extinction, why our situation is not just a repackaged mythical eschatology, why the victors of global capitalism are becoming the new losers, why we live in a ‘monster factory’, the reality that poverty IS collapse, why love is not enough, why a UBI might be the best thing we can do to escape the worst impacts of collapse.


Header image: Maybe that’s what Vandermeer’s wall looked like? (3rd article).