Episode One Hundred and Seventy: Small Pieces, Loosely Joined; The New Slang 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

4:17pm in the green room at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, watching the feed of the main stage in a place where I can listen and but also talk, catch up and slowly have my brain process the stuff that it’s been absorbing over the past forty-eight-odd hours.

1.0 Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

My interpretation of the “small pieces, loosely joined” is that it’s an explanation of the design philosophy first of Unix, and then the internet. That there’s value in small, well-defined tools that do one thing well, but that can be connected to each other to form larger, more complex chains and networks of features.

It turns out that the world that we’re building in 2014 is one that, in some cases, is intentionally brittle and inflexible. Via the not-always-depressing new aesthetic tumblr[1] is this story of new business models enabled by telecommunications, the end-result of small pieces, loosely joined, but in effect, strictly, inflexibly and abusively deployed[2]:

The thermometer showed a 103.5-degree fever, and her 10-year-old’s asthma was flaring up. Mary Bolender, who lives in Las Vegas, needed to get her daughter to an emergency room, but her 2005 Chrysler van would not start.

The cause was not a mechanical problem — it was her lender.

Ms. Bolender was three days behind on her monthly car payment. Her lender, C.A.G. Acceptance of Mesa, Ariz., remotely activated a device in her car’s dashboard that prevented her car from starting. Before she could get back on the road, she had to pay more than $389, money she did not have that morning in March.
– Miss a Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car – New York Times Dealbook

Just in case that doesn’t make you angry enough, if you go and read the full NYT article, regulations typically only allow for repossession when borrowers are in default – which is around 30 days after payments become due. In none of the four cases in which Bolender’s car was remotely disabled was her account in default.

Sometimes, though, this isn’t even a case of blaming things on an inflexible algorithm. The NYT article makes clear that most of these deactivations are done by people. They can be done from smartphones, and one lender at a credit union boasts of remotely deactivating a car from a Walmart.

This isn’t empathetic. This, I imagine people would say, is *business*. This, I imagine people would say, is a *clear contractual relationship* with penalties that are spelt out, and furthermore, I’d imagine that they say that what they’re doing is a Net Good, because it’s given More People Access To More Credit.

Well, bullshit.

You want a consequence of an internet of things? This is one of them. Absolutely and unequivocally. And one of the consequences of a world in which you can reach and touch and affect people at scale, from anywhere is that you lose empathy and that you lose understanding of those with whom you’re dealing.

The shellshocked Bash shell exploit[3] turns out to be a small piece, somewhat loosely joined, but now a piece of infrastructure. Are they still small, loose pieces or are they instead the equivalent of hundreds of thousands or millions or billions of screws, holding a precarious structure together? The rumoured rolling-outages at Amazon point to a cloud where infrastructural complexity has been abstracted away, and you don’t have to worry about patching a gazillion bits of real hardware with real Bash exploits in it, until your cloud infrastructure goes down.

But this is what software is. It can do amazing things, and it’s also everywhere but still invisible, until it breaks. Concrete doesn’t break. Well, sometimes it does. Screws aren’t supposed to break. Roads aren’t supposed to break. Infrastructure is thought of as being made of physical things, something you can actually rest a coffee cup on. But this new layer of infrastructure is ephemeral. And it’s not just “the internet” – it’s *all software*. It’s anything the network touches, and most software is on a network now. It is this bizarre situation where you are as likely to have your credit card information compromised if you use it at a big-box US retailer as you are if you use it online. Because: software.

[1] The New Aesthetic – entry permalink
[2] Miss a Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car – New York Times Dealbook
[3] CVE-2014-6271: remote code execution through bash

2.0 The New Slang

So I’m playing around with ello.co[1], the startup that’s taken $435k in funding[2] to build a non-advertising-funded “you are not the product” social network.

It’s really hard to use, and apparently I’m not the only one who finds it that way. It’s opaque and cool and I’m not entirely sure that this is a conscious design choice: in that I’m not convinced that it’s been intentionally designed this way to keep the olds out.

There’s a lot to be skeptical about with ello. After having spent three years in manifesto-land, ello’s manifesto[3] sets off alarm bells for me because there are a bunch of things that they’re saying that either aren’t true, or feel like overreaching. Certainly there are things in there that resonate with people (“You are not a product”), but the way that they’re acting in communications (“In the meantime, please help us spread the word”) doesn’t address the fact that there’s labour to be profited from. And again, the now conversion-and-engagement-driven pattern of not including content in notification emails to increase click-through for site retention means that those emails saying someone has replied to your post don’t actually include the reply to your post: requiring you to go back to the site.

Completely separate to whether ello is going to work or not is the idea above that it’s intentionally designed in a difficult to use way purely to define it as a separate space, much like the way that teens like to invent new language so that they can erect some sort of language boundary. The idea that there’s an evolution from language to products/services with which to create safer/more private spaces is super interesting and feels like something that we’re potentially seeing more of, if not just in name with things like archiveofourown.

[1] ello.co
[2] Andy Baio on ello
[3] ello.co – Manifesto

OK. Brain fried. Back to Portland tomorrow. 11:08pm.

Dan