This week: Facing the Great Reckoning head-on / Tech-Master Disaster / To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution / “We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism” / A Smart Commons
A year ago: We’re Measuring the Economy All Wrong.
The featured articles aren’t always clearly linked together but this week there’s definitely a way to connect one to the next. From danah boyd on how people in tech must insure that “products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur,” to Morozov on that very harm and neocapitalism treating users as “bags of data,” to Tarnoff on the effects of computerization (and data) on climate, to Naomi Klein’s new On Fire book on solving several interlocking crises at once, and finally to extraction through public investment and real estate growth.
Short read, interesting to infrastructure nerds and history buffs for the following bit.
Why did all of these telecommunication companies choose to locate their fiber cabling along this specific route across the United States? It’s because each of these cables are buried in the contiguous 200-foot right-of-way alongside the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. The United States government granted these land rights to the Union Pacific railroad via the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. If you’re a telecommunication company in 2019 wishing to deploy new fiber across the United States, you only need to negotiate with a single entity: the Union Pacific railroad.
danah boyd’s powerful acceptance speech at the EFF, on the repercussions at the Media Lab and the Great Reckoning that’s needed. I’m not going to add any comment over her words, just endorse them fully and encourage you to read the whole thing.
Let me be clear — this is deeply destabilizing for me. I am here today in-no-small-part because I benefited from the generosity of men who tolerated and, in effect, enabled unethical, immoral, and criminal men. And because of that privilege, I managed to keep moving forward even as the collateral damage of patriarchy stifled the voices of so many others around me. […]
If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process. We need to bring back and reinvigorate the profession of quality assurance so that products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur. Call it security or call it safety, but it requires focusing on inclusion. After all, whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance. […]
In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic. […]
So as we leave here tonight, let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo.
No.95 Asides ⊕ See Note
- Insightful 🧵 by Ryan Broderick. The net could keep transforming into just the new tv but I hope (and tend to think) he’s right: I think the internet is breaking up again and moving back towards the way it was in the mid-00s and I have several observations about this I’m going to dump in a thread. The TL;DR is that grassroots internet use is both good and will create all kinds of fun new social problems.
- ⚖️ Excellent detailed 🧵 by Stacy Mitchell, concerning an investigation of Amazon practices: On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee wrote to Jeff Bezos & told him to hand over a huge cache of documents as part of its investigation of monopoly power in digital markets. It’s a remarkably long list. Here are a few items that stood out to me.
- 🍄Short 🧵 by samim, featuring Paul Stamets on the wonders of fungi: “How fungi create soil and can be used for fungi remediation”.
- 💩🛢 Just when you thought Nadella might be pretty cool. Just Days Ahead of Employee Climate Strike, Microsoft Announces Partnership with Chevron to Accelerate Oil Extraction.
- 🎥 Extended trailer for a documentary about the work of Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson on meditation back in 1981. How a scientific attempt to demystify Buddhist meditation yielded astounding results.
- 🎥🇭🇰🇨🇳 Bloomberg TicToc on Twitter: ⛑️ “People in my generation can’t not come out.”Meet 24-year-old Michael, a first aider supporting Hong Kong protesters with a worried mom at home.
- Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?. “One of the creepier conclusions drawn by scientists studying the Anthropocene—the proposed epoch of Earth’s geologic history in which humankind’s activities dominate the globe—is how closely today’s industrially induced climate change resembles conditions seen in past periods of rapid temperature rise.”
The people at Dark Matter Labs, exploring how some public infrastructure investments lead to rising real estate prices which don’t even recoup costs for the public. Most of the gains are actually in the land value, not even in what is built upon it. How can some of this value be better directed to communities, and how can they be part of the decisions and gains? The article gives a detailed example based on the High Line in NYC and “outline[s] a proposal for democratizing the tools of public investment.” There’s also a strong focus on how such a system based on community would be much better equipped to build the types of cities needed for climate transition.
So instead of the local, adaptable and circular neighbourhoods we need, we get neighbourhoods of extraction, stagnation and loneliness. […]
If our cities are going to be the main sites for public investment in carbon-free sustainable infrastructure, we’re going to need to rethink how the economics behind those investments work. […]
We still think of rising property prices as growth. Yet if the same thing happened to the price of everyday goods, buying a coffee would cost you around £20 ($25…at the time of writing). Now imagine the state paid for the coffee machine. That’s not growth, that’s not even just inflation, that’s subsidised rent seeking. And it’s a cost to all of us. […]
To reiterate — the High Line cost $187m to build, it contributed to an additional uplift of $3.4bn for nearby properties, yet the government has only received $103m in additional property tax. The rest went to private landowners. […]
Writing our documents of ownership as code could allow us to do some interesting things. It could allow us to be much more fine grained about the transactions we make and how value can be created and circulated at a local level. It could allow the terms of those transactions to be rules based, or even based on the performance of the spaces around us — like the improvements to air quality, or reduced energy use.
Tech-Master Disaster: Part One ⊕ See Note
Radio interview with Evgeny Morozov. I’m not sure if it’s because of the back and forth with Lydon but it’s a much more fleshed out and broad vision than in his various opinion pieces. They start from the Epstein - Media Lab explosion, then go to the much deeper neoliberal financing and influence, talk about his recommendation to dismantle the Lab, and TED, the influence and connections of the literary agent John Brockman, the Edge network, monopolies, and the gig economy. There’s not transcript so no quotes but definitely worth a listen.
Excellent piece on the impact of computation on emissions and climate collapse. Interestingly, also framed as a Luddite viewpoint while centering on common good; there’s no need to cut all tech, just making decisions on what is actually needed and good for society, instead of the current focus on computerizing everything to get ever more data for the AIs, and the riches some are hoping to extract from it.
Computation encircles us as a layer, dense and interconnected. If our parents and our grandparents lived with computers, we live inside them. […]
Training models isn’t the only way ML contributes to the cooking of our planet. It has also stimulated a hunger for data that is probably the single biggest driver of the digitization of everything. Corporations and governments now have an incentive to acquire as much data as possible, because that data, with the help of ML, might yield valuable patterns. […]
We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives. […]
In 1812, a group of Yorkshire Luddites sent a factory owner a letter promising continued action until “the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” […]
Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.
More: Good recommendations for further reading in this thread by David Golumbia.
Instead of repeating the numbers from various reports, Naomi Klein really focuses on the impact on people (including climate barbarism and a challenge for the left) and how everyone needs to be included in all solutions considered. She explains that including the most affected (with the Green New Deal for example) needs to be done for the right reasons, but also as a way to bring more people into the fight against vested interests and power.
A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well. […]
But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption. […]
And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it’s so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. […]
What gives me the most hope right now is that we’ve finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime.
[I]n the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts. Because the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology. Challenging underlying forces is an opportunity to solve several interlocking crises at once.
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