All posts by The Good Doc

Bridle’s vision

Belatedly finished reading James Bridle’s book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2018). As the title suggests, the text is systemically pessimist about the effect of new technologies on the sustainability of human wellbeing. Although the overall structure of the argument is at times clouded over by sudden twists in narrative and the sheer variety of anecdotes, there are many hidden gems. I very much enjoyed the idea, borrowed from Timothy Morton, of a hyperobject:

a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety. Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things […] Because they are so close and yet so hard to see, they defy our ability to describe them rationally, and to master or overcome them in any traditional sense. Climate change is a hyperobject, but so is nuclear radiation, evolution, and the internet.

One of the main characteristics of hyperobjects is that we only ever perceive their imprints on other things, and thus to model the hyperobject requires vast amounts of computation. It can only be appreciated at the network level, made sensible through vast distributed systems of sensors, exabytes of data and computation, performed in time as well as space. Scientific record keeping thus becomes a form of extrasensory perception: a networked, communal, time-travelling knowledge making. (73)

Bridle has some thought-provoking ideas about possible responses to the dehumanizing forces of automation and algorithmic sorting, as well. Particularly captivating was his description of Gary Kasparov’s reaction to defeat at the hands of AI Deep Blue in 1997: the grandmaster proposed ‘Advanced Chess’ tournaments, pitting pairs of human and computer players, since such a pairing is superior to both human and machine players on their own. This type of ‘centaur strategy’ is not simply a winning one: it may, Bridle suggests, hold ethical insights on patways of human adaptation to an era of ubiquitous computation.

Bessemer blues

The recent, decisive defeat of the unionization drive in Amazon’s fulfillment facility of Bessemer, Alabama can be understood to teach many lessons, not necessarily mutually complementary. First of all, specifically local conditions were in play, which can call into question the overall strategy of attempting to start the U.S. unionization of Amazon from the Deep South. The outcome, however, can equally be read as a sign that, in the current crisis economy, workers are prepared to put up with more or less any employer practices and work conditions whatsoever in order not to jeopardize their employment status, especially for jobs with efficiency wages. It can, alternatively, be seen as confirmation that giant tech companies, for all their claims to discontinuity and disruption, have mastered the traditional playbook of pugilistic industrial relations developed by old-economy businesses in the past fifty years. It can be interpreted as a statement that the progressive electoral coalition that swept the Democratic Party back into power at the federal level between November and January has not effected a sea-change in public opinion with regard to labor rights and representation. It can further be considered, in conjunction with the easy passage of Prop. 22 in California last Fall, as evidence that there is scant public belief that the ills of the soft underbelly of the tech economy can be righted by means of twentieth-century policy solutions.

Whatever the lessons learned, the unavoidable conclusion is that, in the United States at least, the power of Big Tech will not be reined in by organized labor alone (despite the fact that industrial militancy in the Amazon workforce continues, in less conventional and institutionalized ways). Nonetheless, recent media attention focused on Amazon workplace practices has created a series of PR embarrassments for the company: it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately cement a certain organizational reputation, and if such a reputation in turn can have regulatory or, especially, financial implications down the line (as has recently been the case in other jurisdictions).

Edgelands Institute launches

Yesterday I attended the online launch event for Edgelands, a pop-up institute that is being incubated at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. The Institute’s goal is to study how our social contract is being redrawn, especially in urban areas, as a consequence of technological changes such as pervasive surveillance and unforeseen crises such as the global pandemic. The design of the EI is very distinctive: it is time-limited (5 years), radically decentralized, and aiming to bridge gaps between perspectives and methodologies as diverse as academic research, public policy, and art. It is also notable for its focus on rest-of-world urban dynamics outside the North-Atlantic space (Beirut, Nairobi, and Medellín are among the pilot cities). Some of its initiatives, from what can be gleaned at the outset, appear a bit whimsical, but it will be interesting to follow the Institute’s development, as a fresh approach to these topics could prove extremely inspiring.

Coded Bias

I managed to catch a screening of the new Shalini Kantayya documentary, Coded Bias, through EDRi. It tells the story of Joy Bualomwini‘s discovery of systematic discrepancies in the performance of algorithms across races and genders. The tone was lively and accessible, with a good tempo, and the cast of characters presented did a good job showcasing a cross-section of female voices in the tech policy space. It was particularly good to see several authors that appear on my syllabus, such as Cathy O’Neil, Zeynep Tufekci, and Virginia Eubanks.

Routinization of influence, exacerbation of outrageousness

How is the influencer ecosystem evolving? Opposing forces are in play.

On the one hand, a NYT story describes symptoms of consolidation in the large-organic-online-following-to-brand-ambassadorship pathway. As influencing becomes a day job that is inserted in a stable fashion in the consumer-brand/advertising nexus, the type of informal, supposedly unmediated communication over social media becomes quickly unwieldy for business negotiations: at scale, professional intermediaries are necessary to manage transactions between the holders of social media capital/cred and the business interests wishing to leverage it. A rather more disenchanted and normalized workaday image of influencer life thereby emerges.

On the other hand, a Vulture profile of an influencer whose personal magnetism is matched only by her ability to offend (warning: NSFW) signals that normalization may ultimately be self-defeating. The intense and disturbing personal trajectory of Trisha Paytas suggests that the taming of internet celebrity for commercial purposes is by definition a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, for the currency involved is authenticity, whose seal of approval lies outside market transactions. The biggest crowds on the internet are still drawn by titillation of outrage, although their enactors may not thereby be suited to sell much of anything, except themselves.