Episode One Hundred and Ninety Four: The Internet Of Your Economic System Of Choice; Little Red Spot; Stuck 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:13pm on Wednesday, 18 February 2015. The funnest thing today (for certain values of fun) was getting a CT scan of my head (more specifically, my jaw) as a result of my American dentist being a) surprised that I only had two wisdom teeth – which was a suprise to me because I thought I had none, and b) further being surprised and somewhat alarmed that one of my wisdom teeth had effectively gone rogue and was proceeding to move, albeit practically imperceptibly, towards one of my molars resulting in a sort of slow-motion dental car crash. Only made out of enamel instead of steel and aluminium and probably without the benefit of crumple zones.

I digress. The good thing about getting the CT scan of my head/jaw is that I’m going to get rid of two wisdom teeth (I think that’s good?), but the *even better* thing is that after I’ve paid whatever my dental/medical insurance deems I need to pay for the consult and procedure, I get a CD with my CT data. Which means I can make an animated gif of my jaw bone structure rotating. How cool is that?! I mean, probably not three hundred and fifty dollars worth of cool. Or maybe. It’s hard to tell these days.

In other words, protip: any time you get a scan of anything, ask for a copy. You may well end up being charged up the wazoo thanks to the opacity of the charging structure of your relevant local healthcare regime, but you might also end up with a nifty animated gif that no-one else has. Think of it as a family keepsake.

1.0 The Internet Of Your Economic System of Choice

The collision of two separate replies to yesterday’s newsletter and the Internet of Capitalism, rather than the Internet of Things being the thing that we might want to be fearful of.

The first, from the Internet’s Tom Hume[1], pointed out that two things: a) that the Internet of Things is a tool that we’re using at the moment – or, rather, that the trend of increasing connectivity to tend toward the omnipresent is the lens through which we’re reflecting other current fears. Replace capitalism with $dominant_economic_system, or whatever then, as Hume says, “it’s the story, not the fears to blame”; and b) reminding us of the age-old vision of micropayments all over the information superhighway and being literally nickel-and-dimed for every single transaction that we conduct, including all of the ones conduct on our behalf down in the API plumbing layers that enable the modern web as we know it. Hume pointed out to me that despite this vision being at least decades old, it still hasn’t come to pass.

Okay, I agree with the former: Ubik was a story that Dick could use to tell a cautionary tale about the extension of capitalism and contract-based transactions into every facet of life, however small and detailed. A sort of “what if capitalism and contracts, but too much”[2] style Mallory Ortberg retort of Black Mirror, I suppose. And Black Mirror *does* – well, I think it does, because I haven’t seen the Christmas Special yet – cover that “what if things were connected to the internet, but too much” story. The truth, as reasonable human beings are supposed to consider, will always lie (or hopefully lie) somewhere in between.

I suppose the point is this: does Bitcoin actually make that doomsday clock of micropayments everywhere, for everything, move closer to midnight, stay still, or move away? Are we closer to a wonderful libertarian ideal of being able to assess the value of something on an instantaneous basis, to have markets everywhere and have intelligent agents negotiate on our behalf for fractions of a BTC? History indicates no, but then history has a funny ability of being half-wrong about things, and half-right about others.

The second reply came from Paul Mison, who pointed me in the direction of two quotes. First, here’s Kim Stanley Robinson who of late is apparently turning out to be some sort of surrogate father figure for “get your ass to Mars” Elon Musk, talking about utopias in the era of climate change:

“a non-capitalist co-operative society in which people band together in small collectives, and then, instead of buying and selling things like a company, they fill out lots of requisition forms, somewhat in the style of a Chinese work unit or even a soviet”

“Possibly it would not be a very appealing utopia to live in, but we don’t know; and in any case it’s fully worked out, an alternative system that with modern supercomputers could very possibly work. Maybe the computers could even fill out the forms. An algorithmic artificial intelligence economy; it’s worth considering.

“The problem, however, with this and all other utopian alternatives, is that we can’t imagine how we might get there. We can’t imagine the bridge over the Great Trench, given the world we’re in, and the massively entrenched power of the institutions that shape our lives — and the guns that are still there under the table. Indeed right on the table.”[3]

My anecdata-based thoroughly unresearched reckon about how we get from here (globalised capitalism in a highly un-distributed pre-post-scarcity semi-networked economy) to there (post-scarcity utopias a la the Federation in the 24th Century) (perhaps the even more instructive and applicable sequel to Steven Johnson’s current How We Got To Now[4])) is that invariably there’s a sort of slate-cleansing and great levelling. Almost as if JJ Abrams would come over and reboot our world economy and social systems and then when we wake up, sure, they cost about $25 to get in and you need to wear swanky 3D glasses all the time, but everything is super glossy and gosh the lens flare really starts to wear on you after a while.

How *do* we get there from here? Is there really such a thing as an end-state? And part of the amusing thing about KSR’s non-capitalist co-operative society that requisitions things is, of course, a) who fulfils the requisition requests (presumably TaskRabbits) and b) no, you don’t need modern supercomputers to fill out the forms because everyone who’s anyone knows that sufficiently advanced user experience is indistinguishable from a) magic, b) a post-scarcity utopian economy, c) hell, if you’re on the other end and d) “delivery”.

Mr. Mison then hits me over the head with this quote from Ursula K Le Guin (who recently delivered this barn-storming speech[5] upon receipt of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Letters)

“Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed.”

“Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.”[5]

Le Guin’s speaks about how we live in an age of capitalism, and how its power seems inescapable, like the divine right of kings. But even that age changed and now seems alien to us, in the same way that there are social changes that have happened even in the last fifty years that would seem alien or shocking to those who preceded us hundreds of years ago. Granted, it may mean that there isn’t much potential for massive change in the space of a lifetime – but that isn’t to say that we can’t also experience a punctuated equilibrium at the same time.

There is something of the inevitable about the grow-or-die way that capitalism, as a system, eats the world. Does it eat the world in the same way that software eats the world, and how inexorably is software tied in to that? There is, it feels like, the possibility that we end up with mundane utopia: not a shining bright future, but not a dystopia either. But a normal workaday future where we still work, where there are still daily lives, and, well, perhaps things aren’t that much better. Perhaps not a world so starkly divided as one in Blomkamp’s District 9/Elysium, but one in which more people have more connectivity, where there are more basic services, but that things just aren’t… perfect.

[1] Tom Hume
[2] Next on “Black Mirror” – Mallory Ortberg, The Toast
[3] Remarks on Utopia in the Age of Climate Change – Kim Stanley Robinson
[4] How We Got To Now – Wikipedia
[5] The Future of the Left – Ursula K. Le Guin, which speech also appeared in Debbie Chachra’s newsletter a week or two ago

2.0 Little Red Spot

I opened up Spotify today because I felt like listening to some more Robyn (I don’t care if I’m supposed to have listened to it already, and I don’t care about telling you – remember this typing is for me, not for you) and, well I had a notification for eight… things. I took a screenshot and tweeted about it, saying:

Help my music player has 8 notifications what is it notifying me about is this a young people thing am I old now[1]

I do not know what it is that my music player has to notify me about. I do not know why there might be eight things. I am aware that music can be social, but given that I’m the kind of person who still is much more likely to buy music than to stream it (in fact, I pretty much always buy music, and don’t stopped paying for a Spotify Premium account a couple years ago), that makes me an Old Person and thus the kind of person who doesn’t Consume Music in the way that Young People consume it, which given the way we appear to be using the verb ‘consume’, must be orally.

Anyway. Nothing more than: notifications? Really? What for? What could be *so* important that I can’t figure out a way to dismiss them? That they have to be yet another little red spot with a number in them resting in my dock?

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/568158366427529218

3.0 Stuck

I use a piece of software called Teleport to, er, teleport my mouse and keyboard from one computer to another when I have my work laptop sat next to my personal laptop and the Big Monitor. It works great until I grab one of the laptops and wander off – because that is rather the point of a laptop – and forget to turn off Teleport and then my mouse pointer falls off the edge of the screen and then I have to *go downstairs into the basement* because *that’s where my mouse pointer is* and I have to physically retrieve it so I can get on with doing whatever I was doing on the couch.

I will just say the word “computers” and you can insert your own sigh.

[1] Teleport

7:56pm. I’m done. Send me notes, I love reading them and then feeling super guilty about not replying to them. Also – is there anything you’d like me to write about? I won’t promise that I’ll write about anything you send me, only that it might trigger something else in my head. So no expectations of performing to reader requests, okay?

Best,

Dan