Episode One Hundred and Thirty Six: Usborne’s Future; Phase Change; OK Google, Dismantle Barge

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

A recovery day after yesterday’s travel. Fresh pancakes for breakfast. New glasses. That thing with new glasses where the world is new, and presumably, that thing in a few years time where you put on the new glasses and you’re not entirely sure if you’ve just been rooted and you haven’t stepped out of physical reality and into someone’s PlatoCave. But then, you never really knew if you weren’t in a PlatoCave already, did you.

That thing where you fold socks.

Listening to: Sleater-Kinney

1.0 Usborne’s Future

This is one of those sections where I go through the following maneuvers: thank readers for interesting replies to previous episodes and disclaim the following by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and you should probably talk to a professional. In other words, this is all my humble opinion, pure reckoning and backed up with no academic knowledge whatsoever. I would say something like you may as well go and read Reddit for a bit, but everyone knows that if you avoid the creepy MRA bits of Reddit and the childish hiveminds (as opposed to the more mature hiveminds) then you’re more likely to end up stumbling across a comment by someone who *does* know what they’re talking about.

I get to say all of that, of course, because I prefix all of this with the aforementioned; because I get to say: this is just words spewing out of my head, Minsky’s society of mind and all, you’re just getting unmediated chatter from various different personalities inhabiting the 10% of the brain that I use (or I’m getting glimpses at the 90% I never get to use), piped straight through autonomic motor control through limbs, fingers and a keyboard.

So. With all of that out of the way.

Cities and technology and the future. I imagine that there’s a fair few people who remember stuff like the Usborne Book of the Future[1] (last idly mentioned in episode 91[2]), written by Kenneth William Gatland[3] and David Jefferis[4], first published in 1979, which just so happened to be the year I was born. By the time I was old enough to read it, it would already have been a little out of date. And yet.

But there’s something going on here, right? Those of us who were exposed to the Usborne future were exposed at an age ripe for imprinting: it was a children’s book, after all, intended to help kids understand what kind of wonderful world tomorrow was going to be. At the same time, though, some of us would be young enough to obliviously live through the cold war and not quite be exposed to something like the horrifying future imagined by a drama-documentary like Threads[5].

I think moaning about jetpacks isn’t moaning about literal jetpacks. It’s easy to poke fun at the jetpack moaners and point out to them that they’re using a miniaturised quantum-effect handheld computer connected to a worldwide information network to complain about the lack of personal air transportation in a world where a significant proportion of that world *can* afford air transportation. Sure, yes: you didn’t get a jetpack, but look at the bounty you actually got.

No, I think the jetpacks are shorthand. They’re shorthand for that entire future that 80s kids were promised in the books that they read and that optimists like Gatland and Jefferis thought was within our grasp. Many of the things in those books have come to pass – hybrid petrocarbon/electric cars are now a thing that don’t cause people to gasp. The best luxury car you can buy is an all-electric one.

One of the notes that I got was along the lines of the impact of technology, ninety-nine percent of the time, just helping us do the same thing, but slightly better. In other words, that genuine *disruption* just hadn’t happened. It may well be that we can point at Silicon Valley and jeer at the expansion of the what disruption means and the corruption of what it’s applied to, but when the microprocessor revolution came, there was the opportunity for real disruption. Instead, we got office productivity software where instead of new, more efficient processes, we got an efficient way to create new processes.

The Usbornian promise of the future was genuinely disruptive and obviously science fictional. It imagined alone what technology could do for us, *if we chose it*. But it turns out that we didn’t choose it: it would have been too hard, or it would’ve been too, well, disruptive. If you take this train of thought, then the reason why we didn’t get those jet packs is because we didn’t want them hard enough.

You could turn around, I suppose, and say that it didn’t matter whether anyone wanted that Usbornian jetpack future – there were, or are, structural problems in place that prevent us from achieving it. Or, that our reach exceeds our grasp, and that there are elements within our (western, for the most part) societies that prevented us from achieving that aim.

We could look backwards instead, and ask ourselves: what would we have needed to have done, to be living in an Usbornian future by now? What sort of capital expenditure would have been required? And why would we have wanted to create it? The utopian, Usbornian future as described in those childrens books was sustainable and yet still apparently relied upon capitalism. There were still jobs in that future world – despite presciently including a reference to 3D printing and what would later become stereolithography, a future timeline insisted that “handmade goods” would still remain popular.

Part of the answer to this feels obvious and trite: we don’t like change, and we prefer things stay the way they are. So it’s interesting to look at education, healthcare, cities and economies and still see them as overwhelmingly industrial, but with a layer of technology nibbling away at them from within and without. This feels like a sort of destructive atomisation and scanning: applying technology part by part, replicating the original: starting with a taxi system, computerising parts of it and then more and more until you get something that is kind of like the original but different, and whose effect is produced a wholly different way.

We didn’t like it when Thatcher closed the mines. We didn’t like it – well, some of us didn’t (and to be honest, I’m too young to remember, anyway, other than second-hand through a residual anti-Thatcher field that still permeates Britain to this day, despite the fact that I viscerally remember getting a new bike as a Christmas present thanks to newly privatised British Gas shares) – when the financial Big Bang[6] happened.

I’m going to remind you that I’m typing out of my ass here, but it’s this type of national wrenching that feels like it would have been *required* for us to now live in an Usbornian future. Or, rather, that’s to say: you don’t necessarily need to be Singapore or China to enact big sweeping changes that forever alter the trajectory of a country. You just need to be a chemist with a handbag and to think that you’re right and damn everyone else. But I digress.

Closing mines is one thing. Building infrastructure that results in change to bring about a vastly different quality of life for people that may well include *less work* inside an enmeshed capitalist system seems pretty difficult. I suppose you can look at things like “the welfare state” that for infrastructure nerds doesn’t feel like it counts as the invisible infrastructure you’re supposed to get excited about, but it turns out that the NHS is a pretty big deal and you could probably make an argument that its existence is strategic to the future of the United Kingdom (as well as a bit of a liability, I suppose).

But anyway: we were talking about how to enact an Usbornian future. The point was that we’re simultaneously surrounded by and inhabiting institutions that are set up to preserve themselves. (I’m really worried that at this point I’m sounding like late-night college philosophising, so really: I’m going to try and wrap this up and I hope that you forgive me). What’s interesting is that there has to be some sort of middle-ground between the capitalistic fuck-you-got-mine type of future as envisaged by what people are afraid of from the Valley and the Usbornian Utopia that, if you squint just right, it looks like Google are trying to bring about. Only, you know, in a monoculture and provided exclusively by your friendly Googly provider.

Imagining how you could’ve laid the framework for an Usbornian Britain with the benefit of hindsight sounds like a fun thought experiment. Close the mines, fine: but lay dark fiber everywhere. Open up the greenbelt. Close all the schools and open new ones. Because there were times for big change. Or, semi-facetiously, thinking of the next-next: don’t spend the money on prosecuting that war, but instead, build whatever comes after roads. Turn the BBC into a space agency. All that kind of stuff.

So, depressingly: the reason why we didn’t get the jetpacks is because we didn’t want them badly enough. It’s arguable that we still don’t want them badly enough right now.

They didn’t steal the future from us. It’s our own stupid fault.

[1] Usborne Book of the Future (it’s a PDF to a scanned copy, the original is out of print and to be honest, I think I have an Usborne family member’s email address lying around and I really should let them know a bunch of people would like a legitimate way to remember what they thought the future was going to be like and pay money for the privilege)
[2] Episode Ninety One: Disruption; Supply Chains; The Good Bit
[3] British Interplanetary Society: Kenneth William Gatland
[4] Twitter: David Jefferis
[5] Threads
[6] The Big Bang

2.0 Phase Change

We aren’t really in the information economy. We’re still in the final throes of the industrial age, still in the final throes of everyone getting up at the same time in the morning, putting on their clothes and going to work. Still working all of that out, and all of the information economy is noise around the edges, it’s the static in the field that’s just peeking through. The nine-to-five is still a thing, only it’s more than nine-to-five because Moore’s law meant that every eighteen months your employer could double the amount of email you receive in out-of-office hours. Whilst the non-networked computer meant that we could create more interoffice memos more efficiently, more quickly, now the networked computer means… that we still have the same hierarchy, that we still deal with information in the same way, that we still haven’t figured out new ways of doing things and that it’s still easier to live in a city than in not.

Look, I still haven’t done all the reading I need to do about cities. Some of you have already sent in good suggestions, and I probably need some more to feed this stupid brain. But: there’s a difference between saying that people don’t need management like those startups with those horrible and egregious violations of decency and general adult behaviour and laughing at it, and instead looking at most of the organisations that we have and asking, genuinely: has the way we deal with people changed appreciably in the last hundred years or so? People still have line managers. The clue is in the word: line! We have matrix management, I suppose, which is just another way to say that committees are awesome ways of solving problems, which isn’t strictly true.

So no: we’re still industrial. We still go out and farm in the morning, but we fiddle at the edges. We do it more efficiently and with more information, but people still have to be at the farm. The tractor drives itself with GPS, sure. But people still build ships and people still die building the anti-kaiju wall. Doctors and nurses still can’t figure out how to do shift changeovers without making mistakes. People are still saying: you know what, checklists are probably a good idea and might help us from accidentally killing people.

So don’t tell me we’re post-industrial yet. We’re hardly past the put post-its on the wall to figure out what the fuck it is that we want phase.

Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk on how schools are killing creativity[1] is over eight years old now. He’s been talking about that subject for much longer. And I remember, a long time ago, sitting in a talk at Channel 4 in London and hearing about how the education system – a Victorian innovation – still treated people the same way as it did over a hundred years ago, still preparing people for a present that hadn’t existed for over a hundred years. Just because of an accident of history where the industrial revolution happened at roughly the same time and place as formalised education.

So here’s the thing: we’re still industrial because everything is still a unit. Because we still think in SKUs and personal is still a weird thing. Because it’s easier to think about conforming and to set a specification and to stamp out as many things as possible that will fit to that specification. Because deliver once, test many is the model: and it’s not the delivery of education that’s in question, because it’s been *delivered*. If it hasn’t been taken in and understood, then it’s not a delivery problem, it’s a recipient problem. That, excuse me, sounds fucked up. And yet, my naive understanding of something like the Khan Academy is that, in essence, Sal Kahn just happens to be a good maths teacher who knows how to engage learners who are already somewhat self-directed, and the internet happens to be a better distribution platform to copy-and-paste a good teacher for subjects that don’t necessarily require a lot of interactivity. So better a Sal Khan than not a Sal Khan. But not the solution, not by a long shot.

Maybe this is what the information age was supposed to do. Maybe Negroponte, when he finally receives his PaperLater[2]-produced Daily Me[3], will say: the whole point of being post-industrial was to be able to treat people as people and to move away from the age of mass. Because – now I remember – this was the point: the assembly line and mass-production, broadcast and so on: the idea that we’re all the same and that we can all be dealt with the same way: *that* was the point of that era. Not the era in which IPv6, when it’s finally deployed, can give a unique address to every piece of dust on the planet.

No. We don’t have that yet. We’re still bucketed and not individuals.

[1] Sir Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill Creativity
[2] PaperLater
[3] The Daily Me

3.0 The Three Most Likely Theories That Explain The Dismantling Of Google’s Barge

Re the dismantling of one of Google’s barges[1, 2] and Tim Carmody pointing out that the dismantling of a barge is the end of a mystery[3], I present an unordered list of the three (it’s a prime number, so it’s fun) most likely theories that explain the dismantling of Google’s Barge:

* Once they’d mapped and stored the quantum state of the original barge, the physical instantiation was no-longer needed. It’s now an entry in Google Drive.

* Each component of the barge has been tagged with a unique RFID and Google are releasing the barge into the wild as an exercise in network security penetration.

* Google are trying to see if each individual piece of the barge can remember its bargeness, an experiment in fault-tolerant and self-healing in barge networks.

[1] San Jose Mercury News: Google Confirms Selling A Mystery Barge
[2] The Day The Barges Opened
[3] https://twitter.com/doingitwrong/status/496833883573612544

Signing off, in the anticipation of notes,