De omnibus dubitandum
4 Apr 2013
Evgeny Morozov, the internet’s most renowned technology cynic, is not afraid to act as a polemical David to technology’s Goliaths. Not long after he thoroughly eviscerated the TED phenomenon he’s now set his sights on one of the internet’s biggest names: Tim O’Reilly.
In a lengthy article titled ‘The Meme Hustler’, Morozov takes O’Reilly to task for a range of buzzphrases and PR moves summarised as ‘meme-engineering‘. In doing so, he touches upon a number of highly intriguing ideas.
For example Morozov states that O’Reilly’s open source movement, having succeeded in supplanting Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ concept as the de facto model for open software development, has paved the way for the current trend of closed source & closed platform appification of the internet:
“Now that apps might be displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more – a contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented. Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.”
He also exposes the Web 2.0 concept invented by O’Reilly for the hollow hypephrase that it is, pointing out that the technological trends that are viewed as a core aspect of Everything 2.0 predate the phrase – and the web itself – by some considerable margin:
“O’Reilly himself pioneered this 2.0-ification of public discourse, aggressively reinterpreting trends that had been happening for decades through the prism of Internet history – a move that presented all those trends as just a logical consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution. Take O’Reilly’s musings on “Enterprise 2.0.” What is it, exactly? Well, it’s the same old enterprise – for all we know, it might be making widgets – but now it has learned something from Google and Amazon and found a way to harness “collective intelligence.” For O’Reilly, Walmart is a quintessential Enterprise 2.0 company simply because it tracks what its customers are buying in real time.
That this is a rather standard practice—known under the boring title of “just-in-time delivery” — predating both Google and Amazon didn’t register with O’Reilly. In a Web 2.0 world, all those older concepts didn’t matter or even exist; everything was driven by the forces of open source and the Internet.”
I admit that after a brief period of skepticism I too was taken by the Web 2.0 hype, but like many I’ve also stopped using the phrase as I’ve become aware of its lack of substance.
Even social media, seen as the defining aspect of Web 2.0, is not a novel idea and has existed in primordial form since before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eyes.
“For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments. As he put it, “When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function. When such a process is occurring, an appropriate word for it is pollution.” Some words—like “law”—are particularly susceptible to crazy talk, as they mean so many different things: from scientific “laws” to moral “laws” to “laws” of the market to administrative “laws,” the same word captures many different social relations. “Open,” “networks,” and “information” function much like “law” in our own Internet discourse today.”
I recommend you read Morozov’s 16,000 word piece – his no-punches-pulled criticisms are always worthwhile, even if you disagree – and if you feel thusly inclined you can continue with the abundant retorts being published online in defence of O’Reilly.
The man himself posted a brief, albeit polite, dismissal on his Google+ profile.
13 Mar 2013
So the human race has invented 3D printing.
This is possibly the greatest scientific advancement of the last few centuries, as it’ll allow us to create a genuine egalitarian post-scarcity society where the means of production are in the hands of us, the people, and we can quite literally build almost anything we’ll ever need.
And what do some people want to do with this astonishing, liberating, levelling-the-capitalist-playing-field invention?
They want to use it to make guns.
Seriously, I often wonder if the human species deserves to exist.
7 Aug 2012
I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.
But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.
TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.
In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:
“Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”
In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:
“When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”
I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.
It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.
It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:
“The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”
This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.
16 Apr 2012
The latest edition of Wired’s UK magazine features a short article about a high tech record player designed and built by a former NASA aerospace engineer who was involved in sending spacecraft to Mars.
The record player, shown below, is superior to standard record players because it “allows only one degree of freedom, around the vertical axis. A film of oil — rather than the usual spring – suspends the bearing, eliminating unwanted resonance and distortions, and the drive equalises noise from the motor in the same way that noise-cancelling headphones work.”
So, basically, it’s a maginally better turntable. It cost’s $150,000 plus shipping. Yes, that’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And at that price, the creator says, he does not expect to make a profit on these.
That, for me, encapsulated everything that is wrong with NASA: redesigning something to be only marginally better for an exponentially greater cost.
That makes me wonder if, by forcing NASA to use primarily existing technology and not re-invent the wheel at 10,000x the cost, we could build a moonbase for under $10 million. We probably could.
2 Sep 2011
There is a lot I want to say about the current situation involving Oscar Pistorius – the double amputee athlete who’s competing in the athletics world championship right now, alongside the world’s best fully able-bodied athletes – but it would turn in to a very long and rather confused garble as I’m not entirely sure yet myself where I stand on the issue.
So instead I’ll leave you with a selection of writings from people who spend a lot more time and effort thinking about these things.
Is Oscar Pistorius the first Posthuman? – Ishan Dasgupta:
“Whether one believes Pistorius should race with biologically intact men depends on how one feels about a variety of issues ranging from enhancement to the purpose of sport. Leaving this question aside I want to focus here on a broader question: Is Oscar Pistorius the first posthuman and what does this mean for the future of sport?”
“The reliably erudite Roger Black, our greatest 400m runner, was one of the first to speak out. No scientific consensus, he pointed out, had been reached on whether the blades provided Pistorius with a benefit and until that was clear we did not have the faintest idea whether he was “an amazing athlete or a very good athlete with an advantage”. Black also placed himself in the spikes of an athlete beaten – maybe even to a medal – by Pistorius. Would they think, perhaps even justifiably, that it was unfair?”
When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism – Discover Magazine:
“As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.”
8 Aug 2011
So Top Gear (a humorous entertainment show that some hapless morons confuse for a serious car programme) did a segment on electric cars, and a lot of people are very upset about it. (Exhibit A, exhibit B)
“Big, mean Top Gear,” they say, “they always pick on electric cars! The segment wasn’t fair! It made electric cars look bad!”
No, you whiney little twats, Top Gear didn’t make electric cars look bad. Electric cars do a spectacular job at sucking all on their own, they don’t need Top Gear’s infantile humour to make them look bad.
Because, right now, in the UK, electric cars only make sense if you live in a big city and have shitloads of money. Let me explain:
All these factors combined means that rich inner city toffs are the only sensible demographic for electric cars. And guess who’s doing the complaining about Top Gear’s ‘misleading’ electric car segment? Exactly.
The simple fact is that currently, as things stand, electric cars are not a valid alternative for cars with internal combustion engines. Electric cars only work in a limited amount of transport scenarios, and in nearly all of those public transport is probably a better option anyway (if only marginally cheaper).
The ‘controversial’ Top Gear segment in question contains no lies and no falsehoods. A few self-righteous environmental campaigners have taken it upon themselves to create a huge fuss about the whole thing (makes you wonder exactly who has an agenda here, doesn’t it?), but the facts cannot be changed.
On top of that, has anyone ever wondered where all that electricity powering those electric cars actually comes from?
So – instead of trying to re-invent motoring, create a whole new transport infrastructure to facilitate those grossly inadequate electrical machines, and generally keep on ruining the environment whilst generating all this electricity – why don’t we just skip the electric car phase all together and instead focus our energy (pun intended) on the thing that will really take transport in to the next century, something that doesn’t require us to radically change the way we approach transport, something that will literally never run out and will power humankind for all eternity?
25 May 2011
I’d been reading several intriguing reviews of a new BBC documentary series: All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Variously called ‘cerebral’, ‘bewildering’, and ‘intellectually challenging’, it seemed a very promising piece of television, so I caught it on BBC iPlayer to see it for myself.
I was disappointed. Instead of an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking documentary, the first episode of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a disjointed collection of vaguely related concepts and events, mixed up with cleverly edited visuals and sound effects in an attempt to paint a specific picture.
To be honest it looked like its creator, Adam Curtis, had a specific point to make, and instead of testing that point against reality he decided to cherry-pick from reality in order to make that point. It reeked a bit of a conspiracy theory, truth be told.
Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable with the economic aspects of the documentary, showing a small elite of financial power-brokers manipulating politics and the course of nations for their personal gain. That’s not a particularly new insight – anyone with common sense should know that.
But when he makes the leap to information technology, when he tries to lay the blame at the increased interconnectivity of the world via computers, that’s when his argumentation falls flat and the whole thing comes crumbling down like a house of cards. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to position computers as the culprit of all this evil – while in fact it’s just human greed.
The reviewers I mentioned earlier seemed to be overwhelmed by Curtis’s use of imagery and sound. But after you penetrate that façade, what remains is a fairly hollow intellectual argument. It has some merit, but it tries to make leaps and connections that are simply not there to make.
I suppose the attempt to include the certified nutcase Ayn Rand and her deranged philosophy in his argumentation doesn’t help his case. Nonetheless I’ll probably be watching the other episodes of this series, if only to see what other logic-defying leaps Curtis is willing to make.