Author Archives: Nick

After math

Will Davies cuts through the prevailing emotionalism in dissecting the Brexit vote:

The Remain campaign continued to rely on forecasts, warnings and predictions, in the hope that eventually people would be dissuaded from ‘risking it’. But to those that have given up on the future already, this is all just more political rhetoric. In any case, the entire practice of modelling the future in terms of ‘risk’ has lost credibility, as evidenced by the now terminal decline of opinion polling as a tool for political control. …

In place of facts, we now live in a world of data. Instead of trusted measures and methodologies being used to produce numbers, a dizzying array of numbers is produced by default, to be mined, visualised, analysed and interpreted however we wish. If risk modelling (using notions of statistical normality) was the defining research technique of the 19th and 20th centuries, sentiment analysis is the defining one of the emerging digital era. We no longer have stable, ‘factual’ representations of the world, but unprecedented new capacities to sense and monitor what is bubbling up where, who’s feeling what, what’s the general vibe. …

As the 23rd June turned into 24th June, it became manifestly clear that prediction markets are little more than an aggregative representation of the same feelings and moods that one might otherwise detect via twitter. They’re not in the business of truth-telling, but of mood-tracking.

The global village of violence

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We assume that communication and harmony go hand in hand, like a pair of flower children on a garden path. If only we all could share our thoughts and feelings with everyone else all the time, we’d overcome our distrust and fear and live together peaceably. We’d see that we are all one. Facebook and other social media disabuse us of this notion. To be “all one” is to be dissolved — and for many people that is a threat that requires a reaction.

Eamonn Fitzgerald points to a recently uploaded video of a Canadian TV interview with Marshall McLuhan that aired in 1977. By the mid-seventies, a decade after his allotted minutes of fame, McLuhan had come to be dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo-spewing charlatan by the intelligentsia. What the intelligentsia found particularly irritating was that the mumbo jumbo McLuhan spewed fit no piety and often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.

Early on in the clip, the interviewer notes that McLuhan had long ago predicted that electronic communication systems would turn the world into a global village. Most of McLuhan’s early readers had taken this as a utopian prophecy. “But it seems,” the interviewer says, with surprise, “that this tribal world is not very friendly.” McLuhan responds:

The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There is no evidence of that in any situation that we have ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage and impatient with each other. [Man’s] tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people are not that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends:

Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers — these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

That’s simplistic — to a man with a media theory, everything looks like a media effect — but it’s not wrong.

People in all times have been this way. In our time, when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light. There is little time to get accustomed to anything.

With perfect communication comes perfect surveillance, McLuhan goes on to say, and that, too, tends to dissolve private identity:

We now have the means to keep everybody under surveillance. No matter what part of the world they are in, we can put them under surveillance. This has become one of the main occupations of mankind, just watching other people and keeping a record of their goings on. … Everybody has become porous. The light and the message go right through us.

At this moment, we are on the air. We do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on T.V., you don’t have a physical body — you’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. I think this has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their identity.

Anticipating Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, McLuhan also ties the dissolution of personal identity to culture’s turn toward nostalgia:

By the way, one of the big parts of the loss of identity is nostalgia. So there are revivals in every phase of life today. Revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything. We live by the revival. It tells us who we are or were.

Everyone needs to be someone, for better or worse.

The explainable

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Signature has an interview with Denis Boyles about his new book on the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Everything Explained That Is Explainable. The title of Boyles’s book was one of the marketing slogans used to sell the encyclopedia when it went on sale in 1910 and 1911. In the interview, Boyles talks about how the monumental reference work was very much a reflection of its time:

Signature: It was a period of great change. The 11th was essentially published in the heart of the Progressive Era.  How did that impact its success?

Boyles: That really is the subject of the 11th. When considered as a book, it’s something like forty million words, but the topic is a singular one: progress. It tells you all the different ways progress can be seen. And it was secular, overwhelmingly so. The 11th was all about what could be measured, what could be known.  And that made progress essentially the turf of technicians and scientists and technical and scientific advances became confused with progress. The latest idea was the best idea. Now, we’re far enough into this to realize that the “latest idea” is just another idea. It may be good, it may not. We’re more weary [sic] as a society, but largely still as secular.

I sense that that last bit, about how we’ve moved beyond the assumption that the latest idea is the best idea, may be wishful thinking on Boyles’s part, or at least a reflection of the fact that he lives in Europe. Here in the U.S. we seem more than ever convinced that progress is “essentially the turf of technicians and scientists.” We see the newness of an idea as the idea’s validation, novelty being contemporary American culture’s central criterion.

Boyles points out that the Britannica’s eleventh edition underpins Wikipedia, and in Wikipedia we see, more clearly than ever, the elevation of and emphasis on measurement as the standard of knowledge and knowability. Wikipedia is pretty good, and ambitiously thorough, on technical and scientific topics, but it’s scattershot, and often just flat-out bad, in its coverage of topics in the humanities. Wikipedia’s editors, as Edward Mendelson has recently suggested, are comfortable in documenting consensus but completely uncomfortable in exercising taste. The kind of informed subjective judgment that is essential to any perceptive discussion of art, literature, or even history is explicitly outlawed at Wikipedia. And Wikipedia, like the eleventh edition of the Britannica, is a reflection of its time. The boundary we draw around “the explainable” is tighter than ever.

“Technical and scientific advances became confused with progress,” says Boyles, and so it is today, a century later.

Technological unemployment, then and now

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In “Promise and Peril of Automation,” an article in the New York Times, David Morse writes:

The key area of social change stimulated by automation is employment. Everywhere one finds two things: a positive emphasis on opportunity and a keen sensitivity to change, often translated more concretely into fear.

The emphasis on opportunity is welcome and indicative of the climate in which automation will come to maturity. The sensitivity to change is equally significant. If fears about the future, especially job worries, are dismissed as “unreal” or “unimportant,” human resistance to change will be a major impediment to deriving full social benefit from automation.

What is the basis for these fears? Partly, a natural human uneasiness in the face of the unknown. Partly, the fact that few things are more serious to a worker than unemployment. Partly, too, the fear that automation undercuts the whole employment structure on which society as we know it is based. If, for example, automation cuts direct labor, often by 50 percent or more, and if this goes on from one industry to another, what happens? Even with shorter hours and new opportunities, will not a saturation point be reached, with old jobs disappearing faster than new ones are created, and unemployment on a wide scale raising its ugly head and creeping from one undertaking and industry to another?

Morse’s article was published on June 9, 1957.

Today, nearly sixty years later, the Times is running a new article on the specter of technological unemployment, by Eduardo Porter. He writes:

[Lawrence Summers] reminisced about his undergraduate days at M.I.T. in the 1970s, when the debate over the idea of technological unemployment pitted “smart people,” exemplified by the great economist Robert Solow, and “stupid people,” “exemplified by a bunch of sociologists.”

It was stupid to think technological progress would reduce employment. If technology increased productivity — allowing companies and their workers to make more stuff in less time — people would have more money to spend on more things that would have to be made, creating jobs for other people.

But at some point Mr. Summers experienced an epiphany. “It sort of occurred to me,” he said. “Suppose the stupid people were right. What would it look like?” And what it looked like fits pretty well with what the world looks like today.

The fears about automation’s job-killing potential that erupted in the 1950s didn’t pan out. That’s one reason why smart economists — no, it’s not an oxymoron — became so convinced that technological unemployment, as a broad rather than a local phenomenon, was mythical. But yesterday’s automation is not today’s automation. What if a new wave of computer-generated automation, rather than putting more money into the hands of masses of consumers, ended up concentrating that wealth, in the form of greater profits, into the hands of a rather small group of plutocrats who owned and controlled the means of automation? And what if automation’s reach extended so far into the human skill set that the range of jobs immune to automation was no longer sufficient to absorb displaced workers? There may not be a “lump of labor,” but we may discover that there is a “lump of skills.”

Henry Ford increased the hourly wage of workers beyond what was economically necessary because he knew that the workers would use the money to buy Ford cars. He saw that he had an interest in broadening prosperity. It seems telling that it has now become popular among the Silicon Valley elite to argue that the government should step in and start paying people a universal basic income. With a universal basic income, even the unemployed would still be able to afford their smartphone data plans.

Image: detail of “Friend or Foe?” by Leslie Illingworth.

The width of now

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“Human character changed on or about December 2010,” writes Edward Mendelson in “In the Depths of the Digital Age,” when “everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”

For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

The self exploded as the social world imploded. The fuse had been burning for a long time, of course.

Mendelson continues:

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen enunciates a law of human existence: “Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” The narrator explains: “’Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now. … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

The genius of Mondaugen’s Law is its understanding that the unmeasurable moral aspects of life are as subject to necessity as are the measurable physical ones . . . You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”

The term “personal density” brings me back, yet again, to an observation the playwright Richard Foreman made, just before the arrival of the smartphone: “I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.'”

The intensification of communication, and the attendant flow of information, aids in the development of personal density, of inner density, but only up to a point. Then the effect reverses. One is so overwhelmed by the necessity of communication — a necessity that may well be felt as a form of pleasure — that there is no longer any time for the synthesis or consolidation needed to build density. Little adheres, less coheres. Personal density at this point becomes inversely proportional to informational density. The only way to deal with the expansion of informational bandwidth is to constrict one’s temporal bandwidth — to narrow the “Now.” We are not unbounded; tradeoffs must be made.

Image: Andrew Gustar.

Just Google it

From Michael S. Evans’s review of Pedro Domingos’s  The Master Algorithm:

For those in power, machine learning offers all of the benefits of human knowledge without the attendant dangers of organized human resistance. The Master Algorithm describes a world in which individuals can be managed faster than they can respond. What does this future really look like? It looks like the world we already have, but without recourse.

Framed and shot

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“From the very beginning of her career,” writes Arthur Lubow, of Diane Arbus, “she was taking photographs to obtain a vital proof — a corroboration of her own existence. The pattern was set early. When she was 15, she described to a friend how she would undress at night in her lit bathroom and watch an old man across the courtyard watch her (until his wife complained). She not only wanted to see, she needed to be seen.”

The bathroom was a camera, in which the girl composed an image of herself, fixed in light, for the audience, the other, to see. But was it really a corroboration of her existence that she sought, or its annihilation? Existence is continuous, unrelenting. The fixed image, the discrete image, offers an escape from the flux. The camera never lies, but the truth it tells is not of this world.

A social medium is, in a sense, a camera, a room in which we compose ourselves for the other’s viewing. The stream may feel unrelenting as it pours through the phone, but it’s not continuous. It’s a series of fixed and discrete images, delivered visually or textually. It’s a film.

“She not only wanted to see, she needed to be seen.”

Social media, writes Rob Horning, can “facilitate an escapism through engagement.” He argues, drawing on Roy Baumeister’s 1988 Journal of Sex Research paper “Masochism as Escape from Self,” that social-media use can be considered a form of masochism. The self-construction that takes place on a network like Facebook or Snapchat is a mask for self-destruction. “It might seem weird to say that we express ourselves to escape ourselves. But self-expression can dissolve the self as well as build some enduring, legible version of a self.” And: “The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.”

Arbus understood the paradox of overexposure — how, when carried to an extreme, exposure begins to erase the self. In the confines of a camera, light dissolves individuality; it’s disfiguring.

Image: Kris Haamer.