Monday April 26, 2021. An overcast day in Portland that just about struggled its way out of half-hearted rain this morning, while I simultaneously feel like I’m struggling out of a sort of 2.5 weeks post first-Pfizer-dose wall of fatigue that’s either vaccine related or, as pointed out by many, “just life these days”.
Two items for today: Snow Crashing continues as I start to recap chapter 15, and a few things that caught my attention first. Let’s do the few things, first:
Via Metafilter and other sources, news about Horizon, a botched (surprise) GBP 1 billion technology project to upgrade the systems used by the UK’s post office counter service.
Caught my attention because:
Last episode, I wrote about my frustrations with trying to do certain kinds of work on an iPad, and the revelation being that certain kinds of work are difficult to do on an iPad. A couple more things that came up recently.
I don’t think this situation is going to change, and it might be time for the people who care about such things (“I wish I could use an iPad the way I use my Mac”) to let go, and realize that Apple are serious, and that the iPad is a qualitatively different computing difference with a different use posture than a general purpose computer, like a Mac. This is despite the Mac and the iPad now using the exact same processing architecture.
I actually think that moving to the same M1 processor gives Apple a chance to underscore this. This Techcrunch interview has two standout quotes to me. On the iPad and Mac and those who think Apple will be “forcing them into a single platform”:
If we took Apple at their face value — and to be fair, we’ve been trained not to, given their history of saying one thing and then going “Ga! surprise! We totally didn’t mean it! Here’s a stylus!” — then we’d have to believe, for example, that an iPad is good at some things. Better, even, than a Mac could be, and that it really is too difficult, or not worth it, to try to make it more like a Mac, even though it has the horsepower to run Mac apps now. And the converse: that the Mac just isn’t as good at doing some things that the iPad is now, like throwing the entire weight of that processor and GPU and bandwidth at as much of a single application as possible. Of the device-becoming-the-app. A Mac is never going to be a device that becomes an app in the way an iPad does.
Then there’s this quote:
“The majority of our Mac customers have an iPad. That’s an awesome thing. They don’t have it because they’re replacing their Mac, it’s because they use the right tool at the right time.“
Now, I want it to be true that I can just use one of them to do everything I want to get done, but right now, I think Apple might be gearing up to show its users that, hey: here’s what an M1 optimized for a single app at a time looks like, and certain modes of use. And here’s what an M1 that’s optimized for “jumping from thing to thing to thing and different windows” can look like if we own the hardware stack more completely. I totally buy the argument now that those two are different things. Maybe it’s time to let go? This strategy “two devices that do different things, so well that you want to buy both of them” seems to fulfill both Apple’s business objective (ever since Jobs, it’s never been about not selling you more devices), and also Apple’s philosophical objective of “the best thing for the job”. Maybe there’s a way for the iPad to become more of a computer, but for now I don’t think we’re going to see it.
Karen Hao has a new-ish piece in the MIT Tech Review: “Big Tech’s guide to talking about AI ethics”
Caught my attention because:
One thing I noticed about the iPad/iPadOS that makes working on it frustrating for the switching-between-things work is just how slow the UI is for some cases. Take opening a new tab in Safari: the UI animation involves zooming out to the expose-like view of your open tabs, opening a new tab, then zooming back into it. So slow! It feels like it takes nearly half a second. Which IS slow, thank you.
It occurred to me that there might be a way around this, and it’s this:
Faster transitions between state, but I remembered that one fo the reasons I have these turned off is because they’re janky: they’re not how the OS is built, so things like doing the three-finger slide up (no, not the three sea shells) on Slideover is janky - the regular version smoothly animates the card stack fanning out horizontally, the “Prefer Cross-Fade” version just… weirdly fades between a few frames of fanning into the fanned-out version.
Last time we’d just finished up chapter 14 with L. Bob Rife giving us his unified theory of Media and Information, and Hiro and Vitaly arriving at the location for the Meltdowns’ gig.
Chapter 15 opens at the underpass location for Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns’ gig. The warm-up band plays “a kind of speed reggae heavily influenced by the antitechnological ideas of the Meltdowns”, and Sushi K (last seen in the Black Sun) might show up.
Y.T.’s at this gig, too, and once the gig starts, there’s not much for Hiro to do, other than an opportunity for me to use the word “liminal” in this description of him wandering off:
Besides, interesting things happen along borders—transitions—not in the middle where everything is the same. There may be something happening along the border of the crowd, back where the lights fade into the shade of the overpass.
We get a description of this fringe crowd: “hard core Third World unemployables, plus a scattering of schizophrenic first worlders who have long ago burned their brains to ash int he radiant heat of their own imaginings.”
I don’t know if there’s anything in Stephenson’s description of the hardcore Third World unemployables (some of them are “stocky Latino men”). Some of them are awed by the gig, which feels a bit weird if this is a stereotypical gig location, and some of them are amused/indifferent.
There’s a reminder of the ultra-privatized, outsourced world: the gig location is Crips turf, and through comparison with the Enforcers (who Hiro has hired for security, snubbing the Crips), they’re a private security company, although of course they’re not called private security, we learn of the euphemism “official peacekeeping force” when we’re introduced to MetaCops Unlimited in chapter 6.
The Enforcers, who Hiro hired, are your stereotypical thugs (they “don’t take well to supervision”) who have an attitude like, say, people who enjoy Qualified Immunity - their t-shirts under their uniforms are rumored to bear the “the unofficial Enforcer coat of arms: a fist holding a nightstick, emblazoned with the words SUE ME”. I mean, it’s not like there are secret societies of police officers involved in excessive force.
Back to the gig: we get some Future Technology Fashion worn by the Enforcers: tactical acid green windbreakers that use electropigment to hide the conspicuous ENFORCER logo spelled out across the back at the flip of a switch. We can do this now: you can use Vynel as wearable lighting and the marketing use cases include corporate (and school?!) logos, as well as cosplay.
When Hiro looks for the general, he’s got a bulletproof vest as well as “a nice assortment of communications gear”, and other than a specific, separate radio like the extremely expensive stuff custom-procured by police forces and military, it feels like these days any communications would be on that single-purpose supercomputer we have in our pocket. I mean, even real-life organized crime uses off-the-shelf OEM Android-based handsets with custom software.
The other thing the general has is “small, clever devices for hurting people” and other than a Taser, a knife and an assortment of guns, again, it feels like there’s no need for anything else. Especially with the guns. Unfortunately.
One thing that occurs to me is that the general is managing his team of Enforcers by “doing a lot of jogging back and forth, swiveling his head from side to side, mumbling quick bursts into his headset like a football coach on the sidelines”.
In other words, the Enforcer’s general isn’t using tech the way Hiro is. There’s no goggles, no HUD with a realtime tactical view, no millimeter-wave scanning, no overhead drones or planes supplying realtime aerial imagery, GORGON STARE style. Instead, the general looks “like a football coach on the sidelines”. Hey, did you know the NFL signed a deal with Microsoft for coaches and players to use Microsoft Surface tablets? Over 2,000 of them? There’s even an App! (It’s called the Sideline Viewing System, and of course there’s a YouTube video). It’s also not like the U.S. Army signed a contract with up to $22 billion with Microsoft for 120,000 HoloLens-based headsets.
There’s a few theories I have here: one is that democratization of technology isn’t what this book is about (it’s not — it’s in part about a hacker priesthood, networks, information and an ultra-capitalist dystopian future that has been mistaken for a series of aspirational business plans), and the other is that Stephenson is making a point that the Enforcers are ‘roided up thugs with muscle and not technologically literate, which hasn’t turned out to be the case in the real world. In the real world, abusers are quite comfortable using technology to find and harm their victims, to the perpetual apparent surprise of many technologists in leadership positions.
Despite being a student of Altamont, the Crips, who wanted to provide security, turned up anyway. That’s not as interesting right now: just your usual gang stuff. What happens next is that while checking out the edges of the crowd and us getting the chance to see the Chekov’s Crips, Hiro notices some laser light because it’s been bouncing off his face, and Stephenson describes what it looks like and how it’s a very different quality of light.
Hiro’s smart, so he wanders around and oh-so-casually happens to end up in a cloud of smoke helpfully placed by a special FX coordinator, and lo-and-behold, the laser light is traced back to its source: a gargoyle.
In 2021, Gargoyles are kind of hilarious, because in the Snow Crash world, they’re people who “serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them”, and oh well let me tell you what it is like to use a mobile phone in 2021! Moore’s law hasn’t been kind to Stephenson again here: the gargoyles carry a bunch of computing power - so much that it has to be broken up into “separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset”, whereas we just make do with small, pocketable devices. I don’t think it’s even mentioned what the battery life is like for these gargoyles, and perhaps the reason why the devices are so bulky and big is because they’re not obsessed with thin-and-light?
Here’s another divergence:
The CIC brass can’t stand these guys because they upload staggering quantities of useless information to the database, on the off chance that some of it will eventually be useful. It’s like writing down the license number of every car you see on your way to work each morning, just in case one of them will be involved in a hit-and-run accident. Even the CIC database can only hold so much garbage. So, usually, these habitual gargoyles get kicked out of the CIC before too long. This guy hasn’t been kicked out yet. And to judge from the quality of his equipment—which is very expensive—he’s been at it for a while. So he must be pretty good.
Alongside delivering pizza, Hiro’s a freelance stringer for the CIC, which is the Central Intelligence Corporation of Langley, which means he gets “information” and uploads it to the CIC database.
Examples of information are the usual: “gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster.”
We can leave aside the anachronisms like “videotape” or “audiotape”, in part because no matter how much some of us would like them to be anachronisms, people still talk these days of “the pee tape” and so on. It’s less an anachronism, everyone knows that the majority of this stuff is stored digitally. We can ignore the “xerox of a document”, because, sure, let’s just call that a “photograph” or a scan of a paper document or a PDF or whatever. That leaves us with “gossip” and “a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster” of which the last is clearly an image macro meme. Prescient!
Anyway: Hiro makes money by uploading this to the CIC database (“formerly the Library of Congress”), and Stephenson’s point about merging the Central Intelligence Agency with the Library of Congress is that a) libraries evolved from just books to more types of information like “videotapes, records and magazines”, fell down the inevitable digitization black hole (“ones and zeros”), and gently collided with the Central Intelligence Agency, because the methods of searching for information gradually got more and more sophisticated.
More reinforcement here: in this world, there is only One Library, and it starts with one of the world’s most canonical libraries. We’ll come back to this, because it reflects coming from a point of being definitive. This library, the Library of Congress, is Complete, so may as well start there. A less complete library is not as useful and, crucially, there’s no real option for multiple libraries. The second one, of course, is that the military-industrial complex would have a monopoly on sophisticated information search and retrieval algorithms and boy was that assumption correct until people figured out how to use data to sell ads, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s how the CIC ecosystem works:
Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC’s clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put into it, Hiro gets paid.
Some points of reference: Wikipedia’s live stats about wikipedians show 41,416,455 registered usernames, but only 140,349 users have contributed in the last 30 days.
I’m not aware of anything that is so large to the extent that it has millions of contributors who get paid for something as general as the CIC’s Library, which is somewhat described as content-agnostic (but not necessarily shown as such). We have specific verticals, like stock photography that have become disintermediated and opened up — anyone can be a stock photographer now/sell photographs now — but not something general like the Library, I don’t think.
What we have instead, though, are two-sided markets. It’s a strange omission, if we step back: the CIC is a centralized source of information that entities with a lot of money use, but there’s no indication that there are bids for information. People speculatively dump information into it, and then corporations use the CIC to sift through it. In our world, gig work and contract farms allow people to set a price for work they want done and allow for contractors to bid on performing that work.
Snow Crash is made fun of by people like me as being the wrong kind of business book: people see cool ideas in this text and decide that, well, they’re cool and they should exist in the real world. That’s not entirely fair and rather pejorative: it’s better to say that, perhaps, that Snow Crash is a fairly vivid and inspirational text, but that the people who take that inspiration into execution don’t always think about the externalities or second-order effects.
But what would it look like if we did want something like the Library, but tweaked, to exist in our world? We’d want something that anybody can contribute to — user generated content is such a big thing, darling — and these days, we’d also want something that would ensure everyone gets paid, especially those laboring as the means of production. These days, that would mean something like (sigh) a blockchain-based, cryptocurrency information exchange network. Someone, somewhere out there is imagining (or has already imagined) a CIC-type library crossed with NFT or ethereum-based smart contracts, a DAO, or whatever.
The CIC’s information market (truly, an information economy!) means that when Hiro uploaded “an entire first-draft film script that he stole from an agent’s wastebasket in Burbank” half a dozen studios wanted to see it and “he ate and vacationed off of that one for six months.”
Just look at that difference between an information economy and the attention economy — if you can call it that — that we live in now. I’m not even sure if attention economy is the right name for what we have, if instead some sort of commerce-surveillance economy might be a better description.
The note on Hiro selling the script is an acknowledgement of the power and value of intellectual property, while at the same time we’ve got someone like L. Bob Rife asserting some sort of DRM-ed up to the hilt version of intellectual property. You can imagine then that the CIC works a little like people uploading and tagging information, and then… studios bidding on it? In which case it is a bit like a market, and what Hiro’s kind of doing is extorting the agent? Presumably this is also a world in which a relatively savvy agent would also be trolling the CIC Library to find the equivalent of fanfic or whatever that could be optioned or is ripe for development.
And: Hiro’s stealing it from a wastebasket! Is it only a hop, skip and a jump to Hiro messing around with malware and outright breaking into the agent’s computer and copying the manuscript from there? What happens if the person who wrote the manuscript happens to find it in the CIC Library and realizes who bought it? This feels like the kind of thing people who get excited about NFTs get excited about: you can have a screenplay and stick an NFT on it, and people can buy it, those sales get tracked and the original writer still retains a, um, stake. And gets paid for it.
But back to the present-day of chapter 15. Here’s where we were:
The CIC brass can’t stand these guys because they upload staggering quantities of useless information to the database, on the off chance that some of it will eventually be useful. It’s like writing down the license number of every car you see on your way to work each morning, just in case one of them will be involved in a hit-and-run accident. Even the CIC database can only hold so much garbage. So, usually, these habitual gargoyles get kicked out of the CIC before too long.
You know what we do right now? We upload staggering quantities of information to the cloud and the attitude, more or less, is to ¯_(ツ)/¯ and say: you know what? Let’s just keep it around because it’s relatively cheap to keep around and maybe it’ll be useful later. Or: maybe it will become valuable later, where currently valuable means valuable in the sense of implying better targeting of advertising.
You know who’s writing down the license number of every car in the morning? Your Ring doorbell. And it’s sharing it with police. You know who’s streaming geomagentic information all the time, or GPS jitter? Your smartphones can, and we can use them to detect geomagnetic activity. You know who’s leaking location all the time? Or not even leaking it, but storing it? We are.
There’s this inversion of what Stephenson is understanding to be a morass of useless information, when the cost to store it becomes close to negligible (it’s really not negligible, it totally costs money), “on the off chance that some of it will eventually be useful”, and figuring out who’s willing to pay for trawling all that information. 11 years after Snow Crash’s publication in 2023, Clay Shirky would write about the long tail in an essay about weblogs (instantly dating the essay).
Instead of the “millions of stringers” uploading to the CIC, and the few who are full-on mobile computing processor-heads with LIDA everywhere (which… phones have now!), we have billions of smartphone users. We have every single photo uploaded. Those datasets, shifted into creative commons datasets, then become the (error-filled) training corpora and datasets we use to develop AI tools.
This wouldn’t be possible without the useless information uploaded to our equivalents of the CIC Library. This wouldn’t be possible without a more symmetrical net, and one that is less of a corporate information superhighway envisioned and extrapolated by Stephenson.
If you want one nightmare, it’s not that people are bringing Stephenson’s Snow Crash to life somewhat uncritically, it’s that they’re bringing Snow Crash to life in a world which does have user-generated content, and lots of it.
So maybe it’s worth thinking about why “even the CIC database can only hold so much garbage”, aside from the data storage cost reason. And perhaps the answer has to do with the subjective assessment of the information as being garbage. There’s the easy reading that “garbage” doesn’t allow for an “anything can be valuable to someone at the right time and place” approach, but I think a bigger vein of inquiry is that an information economy imagined by Stephenson presupposes that the information is actually valuable. There’s the argument to be made that collecting more useless data, but selling it as important data for, say, ad targeting, is… well, it’s a business model. Hey, did you know that Apple released iOS 14.5 today, and that it gives users more of a choice about whether their activity is tracked? [Apple].
Next in chapter 15: we meet and talk to the gargoyle, and then learn about Raven, the sovereign individual with a nuclear warhead strapped to their motorbike.
OK! Just over 4,000 words. How are you doing?