It’s Monday May 3, 2021 and an overcast day in Portland, Oregon.
Monday also means the latest episode of my Snow Crash recap/commentary alongside some things that caught my attention. Let’s go:
I saw a tweet (which I did not bookmark in time, so now it is forever lost) pointing out that Apple’s Mac Mini is still roughly the same form factor as when it launched in 1998 with a PowerPC G4 processor inside it1, and that form factor was dictated by the size of a CD/DVD disc because the little computer included a slot-loading drive.
Caught my attention because: This is interesting, right? Back in 1998, a Mac Mini couldn’t be smaller than the optical drive unless it didn’t include one. But now, 22 years later, the Mac Mini is still about the same size, despite not needing to be (the 2021 M1-powered iMac squishes the entire logic board under the screen, for starters). What I ended up asking in a Twitter thread was what are other examples of modern objects retaining vestigial form factors that they don’t necessarily have to? One of the best/most satisfying answers was from Matt Haughey, who pointed out “the metal swoosh thing on a modern hearse… a callback to a convertible roof on carriages used in funerals from 200+ years before”, and which Gem Spear helpfully pointed out are called Landau bars.
There were some other examples, like SLR-style cameras, but I’m persuaded that they’re also more about the ergonomics of hands and the benefit of viewfinders.
I went along to the New Future Laboratory’s open office hours on Friday. We managed to get from collective-member based funding of projects to new ways of funding thing-development (based on Julian Bleecker’s experience with omata). One thing led to another, as it does, and we got to talking about unions.
There was this assumption [citation needed, as usual] that in general, unions are backward looking, in that they’re figuring out how to preserve jobs that already exist. Which isn’t entirely true: the United Mine Workers of America announced support for the Biden-Harris administration’s green energy policy in exchange for job training [NBC News, April 19 2021].
Caught my attention because: there’s this thought I keep coming back to about platform-unions, as in: what do community/member-owned platforms look like? We certainly have community-managed platforms, but I don’t think we have that many internet/digital businesses (or otherwise) that are member-owned or co-operatives. The prolific Darius Kazemi had started Feel Train, a worker-owned creative technology co-op – you can see its operating documents, and it would be wonderful to see more worker/member-owned organizations like REI5 or the John Lewis Partnership (owned by a trust on behalf of all of its employees4). My point being that member-owned organizations aren’t a new thing. In the U.K., I grew up with building societies6, which are similar to member-owned credit union7 cooperatives.
I’m normally against positions like chief innovation officer, in part because they’re frequently figureheads and I had a bad experience of the rash of CIOs being appointed or announced in the early 2000s by “legacy companies” and being effectively side-lined. But I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of the purpose of innovation for a union. Look, how about this:
Say you’ve got a union for people who work in manufacturing. You have the usual job of advocating for and protecting your members’ current jobs in an imbalanced power dynamic. That’s great. You also have – in the context of manufacturing – an economic environment that’s, well. Let’s say it’s been evolving_. Robots have been around for ages, and more and more people are worried about automation and the off-shoring of work.
In the UK, Unite is the largest trade union (and merged with the United Steelworkers union in America in 2008). It’s interesting to me to look at Unite’s rulebook to see what the official objects of Unite are. There’s 14 enumerated, and I’d call most of them fairly boilerplate/standard/what you might expect. (Or what I’d expect).
But what I’m interested in is this: say you win. Say we achieve, somehow, an idyllic future where we’re post-scarcity, or there’s enough post scarcity (yeah, doesn’t make sense, I know), and wealth is distributed significantly more evenly, there’s a universal basic income and you don’t have to be paid to be a teacher because your fundamental needs are being met, but that teaching for you is a calling.
Could there be a teachers’ union for that? Is there? 2.1.3 of Unite’s objects calls “to defend and improve the social and economic well-being of members and their families”; 2.1.4 calls for amongst other things “a collective society” and “a more equal society in which wealth if distributed from the rich to the poor”.
I might have a better example than the teaching one, one that I’ve written about before, I think: could a taxi drivers’ union have come up with something like a ride-sharing platform? That’s a different question from a taxi drivers’ union being able to compete with a ride-sharing platform, the venture-backed kind that has billions of dollars to burn in the name of customer acquisition to achieve market dominance and an effective monopoly. If I were going to simplify, there’s these issues that feel like they’re in tension:
Anyway, the point being: a quick (i.e. undisciplined) Googling doesn’t reveal Chief Innovation Officers for unions (you have to get rid of all the credit unions, which… don’t count in what I’m thinking about). And, you know, take for granted that I’m not thinking that a union’s Chief Innovation Officer (or such role) is all about Apps For Members. Basically, I’d be super interested to see trends forecasting and 10-30 year strategic plans for unions and what they’re doing about it.
Look, this is a short one. What if LinkedIn went all weird? I mean obviously not too weird, but what if it decided to go a bit Geocities or MySpace and just let the people who use it customize their profile pages? Or have another profile page that was fully customizable?
The point being: it’s fun making things weird on purpose.
Some very quick things that caught my attention:
Last time, at the beginning of chapter 15, we had a fun time going deeper into the CIC, the CIA/Library of Congress’ merged database and more implications of a weird information age with hardly any user-generated content, then ended with Hiro finding a gargoyle…
The gargoyle Hiro finds is Lagos, a pro gargoyle with expensive equipment. Turns out, the laser that’s been attracting Hiro’s attention — and that helped him find Lagos, by purposefully wandering into a cloud of smoke — isn’t a rangefinding/LIDAR-type device, it’s a “long-range retinal scanner”, which can be checked against a now-meagre CIC database of “tens of millions of scanned retinas” and identify you, otherwise “if you’re not already in the database, well, you are now.”
Last year, in 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reached 10 million, opt-in paid members for TSA Pre (I’m one of them), a pre-screened “security experience for low-risk travelers”. PreCheck doesn’t do facial recognition, but it does use fingerprint biometrics. Instead, the GAO has a report on the use of facial recognition at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and as of May 2020, “over 7 million travelers on 54,000 flights have been biometrically verified”8.
But that’s a government database. I was going to add something here about Facebook’s facial recognition database as an example of private companies doing facial recognition/biometric identity “at scale”, but instead I’ll just remind you that:
What’s funny, though is that in Snow Crash
Of course, the user has to have access privileges. And once he gets your identity, he has to have more access privileges to find out personal information about you. This guy, apparently, has a lot of access privileges. A lot more than Hiro.
What does Lagos show that he knows, that must impliedly require “a lot of access privileges”? Let’s see the list:
I mean, Lagos basically has access to the public information on Hiro’s LinkedIn profile. Which Hiro would’ve uploaded/published himself. So that other people could find him.
This is just another example of the miss in Snow Crash of user-generated, user-published content and the extrapolation of centralized control of information. In 2021, it’s hard to imagine why Hiro would choose not to make this information available about himself, given that he’s a hacker for hire. (OK, fair enough: he wouldn’t make it available because he’s incredibly paranoid and he wants to keep a low profile. Fine, I know people like that. But they’re in the minority).
In fact, without any access privileges, these days you could find out even more about any random person you were able to identify. In other words, these days, anyone can dox someone.
Gargoyles, we’re told, are rude:
They never finish as sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they’re talking to you, but they’re actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead. For all he knows, Lagos is standing there measuring the length of Hiro’s cock through his trousers while they pretend to make conversation.
Um. So turns out, people in the 21st century are rude, and so are the companies that provide the ad-funded internet products and services the majority of people use. Pretty much everything Lagos does is done by average users on the internet. Looking people’s details up, doing a web search, identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead is just a normal, boring day on the internet. The only exceptions are looking up credit records (which, I guess, have been somewhat “democratized” thanks to the wholesale irresponsible leaking of personal information), and the use of infrared and so on, but a) that’s probably only a matter of time now that LIDAR’s a thing, and b) half the time we don’t need to use technologies like that because with Google Lens all you need to do is just point your phone camera at something. Most of this stuff is only possible because of how easy it has been to publish information online, instead of an environment where practically all information is posted to a central database, which even then is worried about “useless information”.
Lagos and Hiro are meeting because Juanita (the one who actually knows what’s going on, is the best developer Hiro’s ever met, and whom Hiro is all puppy-dog after) told Hiro to meet with him. So Lagos gives us a classic Stephenson infodump, and in just a short conversation we learn:
And Hiro walks off because you shouldn’t listen to people who are Too Online.
Then we meet Raven, a sovereign individual, who has POOR IMPULSE CONTROL tattooed on his forehead because “quick and dirty punishments” like public humiliation have become the norm thanks to most of the small neighbourhood-states lacking jails or anything as sophisticated as a judicial system.
But Lagos was here not to meet Hiro, but to meet Raven, who’s just been ID’d by the laser-backed retinal ping and “probing the contents of his pockets with radar (which regular people can’t do right now), recording his pulse and respiration (which we’ve been able to do, ever since 201114 15.
Raven’s arrival freaks Hiro out to the extent that he uses the voice dialing on his “personal phone” (sorry, this phrase is never not going to crack me up) to call Y.T. to let her know that he’s going to have to drop out for a while and keep an eye on Raven.
And that’s the end of chapter 15.
Next up, in chapter 16, we learn why Raven’s a sovereign individual, which has nothing to do with him believing in the power to recite special legal incantations, we have a brief musical interlude with Sushi K, and Lagos is unable to recover from a terminal crash.
And that’s it for today.
I know I end these all with a “how are you doing?” — but I really do like getting email from people (and always get around to replying!), even when they’re just a one-word “hi”.
So: how are you doing?
The NYPD used a controversial facial recognition tool. Here’s what you need to know. Technology Review, April 9, 2021 ↩
FBI used facial recognition to identify a Capitol rioter from his girlfriend’s Instagram posts, The Verge, April 21, 2021 ↩
This Site Published Every Face From Parler’s Capitol Riot Videos, Wired, 20 January, 2021 ↩
Philips Vital Signs Camera app measures heart rate using iPad 2 camera The Verge, November 17, 2011 ↩
Automatic Webcam-Based Human Heart Rate Measurements Using Laplacian Eigenmap, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 7725 ↩