Worlds of wordcraft


I enjoyed James Gleick’s review of Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime today, particularly the ending:

Poetry and logic live in different places, after all. Poetry has patience. It reaches into a dark vastness. But computer code has powers too. “It acts and interacts with itself, with the world,” Chandra says. And it changes us along the way. “We already filter experience through software — Facebook and Google offer us views of the world that we can manipulate, but which also, in turn, manipulate us. The embodied language of websites, apps and networks writes itself into us.”

Must one learn computer programming, then, to qualify as literate? Of course not. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of code, though. One of these days code will be aware of us.

If Gleick means conscious awareness, then I can’t say I share his confidence. There’s still a hell of a lot of undiscovered country between here and there. (If he means unconscious awareness, that’s a done deal.) Anyway, Chandra’s book sounds excellent.

Image: William Blake.

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The unboxing ceremony has begun.


The photo doesn’t do justice to the remarkable texture of the book jacket. Even if you’re not planning to buy The Glass Cage, you’re going to want to make a stop at your local bookstore just to touch the cover. Bring some band-aids.


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Et in arcadia ego

Here’s a new Microsoft ad for your contemplation:

Microsoft Mail - Trusted device


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The other dude in the car


In “How Uber Explains Our Economic Moment,” MIT’s Andrew McAfee describes a short trip he recently arranged with the big ride-sharing company:

My driver said he’d been with Uber ever since he’d graduated from his master’s program in IT project management last year. This profession was, according to him, going through hard times. In the wake of the great recession steady jobs had been replaced by short-term contracts, and there weren’t even a lot of these to be had. As a result he was now competing against much more experienced people for each new gig that came up, and he hadn’t had a lot of success since graduating.

So to cover his monthly fixed costs of student loan payments (on more than $100k in debt), rent, and health care he was driving for Uber. A lot. He estimated that he spent more than 60 hours a week behind the wheel. This allowed him to pay his bills, but not to build up any real savings.

McAfee emphasizes the bright side of this poignant tale:

To which I say good for him, and for Uber. This is a guy who could be sitting around waiting for the dream job he’d gone to school for, collecting unemployment, defaulting on his loans, and/or dropping out of the labor force for good. Instead, he was working hard at a job that was available.

That’s true, and worth noting, though I would guess the driver is paying a high opportunity cost in spending so much time driving a gypsy cab in order to make his school loan payments. It seems like a tough squeeze, and as McAfee goes on to point out, the ongoing automation of sophisticated jobs, including much of the traditional work done by IT departments, doesn’t exactly brighten the guy’s career prospects.

It’s worth remembering, too, that one of Silicon Valley’s dreams is to use self-driving cars to replace the nation’s taxi fleets. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has made it clear that that’s his company’s plan, as The Verge recently reported:

Kalanick was visibly excited at the prospect of developing a fleet of driverless vehicles . . . “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.” Asked about what he would tell the Uber drivers who will some day [get] replaced, Kalanick said that day was still a long way off. But it’s also inevitable, he said. “I’d say ‘Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn’t always great.’ We all have to find ways to change with the world.”

I suppose when Uber deploys its autonomous cabs, McAfee’s driver will be grateful to have been freed up to find other fulfilling work in the sharing economy—walking people’s dogs, maybe. You have to change with the world.

“Sharing” is a nice word, but, as Kalanick’s remarks reveal, there’s a deep current of cynicism running just under the surface of the sharing economy. The companies that operate the clearinghouses, and skim the lion’s share of the profits from the aggregate transactions, present a very different face to the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms than they do to their investors and entrepreneurial peers. It seems revealing that Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community at room-sharing company Airbnb as well as chairman of Peers, a lobbying outfit for sharing companies launched last year, wrote a book titled The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. He argued that cults provide excellent models for marketers looking to establish a deep bond of loyalty with customers:

Cults will flatter you. They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else; the members will get to know you deep down, and they will love you for what they find. And you will love them.

This is the marketing strategy that underpins the sharing economy, as Mike Bulajewski explains in a thoroughgoing critique of the practice at his Mr. Teacup blog:

What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of “sharing” are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest. Instead, we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love. It’s what enables TaskRabbit to claim that hiring a stranger to do your laundry, perhaps for less than minimum wage, is really about “neighbors helping neighbors,” as they put it. The company’s mission is to “revolutionize the way people work — by redefining what it means to be neighborly.” … The marketing of almost every startup in this space is saturated with this mood.

But, as Bulajewski goes on to point out, the neighborly sharers are, to the companies running the clearinghouses, contract laborers. They represent a vast and ready pool of workers, like McAfee’s struggling driver, who don’t qualify for the extensive and expensive benefits and protections provided by law to regular employees:

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have created businesses that provide contract labor not covered by the federal regulations that employers find so burdensome. As Uber general manager Ilya Abyzov put it, “A driver contracting with Uber is not a bona fide employee.” … What would happen if the dreams of the investors and executives at these startups came true, and large parts of the economy became dominated by their business models? Employers that hire full- or part-time workers today—paying them minimum wage, overtime and unemployment, disability and social security taxes, and unable to discriminate against them—would switch to a cheaper, less regulated and more vulnerable workforce to do those same jobs. Having lowered their labor costs, they’re able to offer lower prices to consumers, forcing their slower competitors who rely on regular wage labor to adopt the same practices or go out of business. … The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least.

And, as Uber’s Kalanick made clear, if an even cheaper labor model comes along—robots, say—the contract workers will get the boot, without “any real savings” to fall back on. The other dude in the car is dispensable. The spirit of neighborliness goes only so far.


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A storm in Second Life

2ndlifesmallRemember Second Life? It’s still around, apparently. Ten years ago, it was the thing, the ultimate reality disrupter. We were all going to shed our skins, turn into glamorous, or at least skanky, avatars, and flit about Second Life’s transplendent virtual reality. Liberated from our workaday lives, we would fulfill our destiny as . . . merchants and consumers. 

“In one important way, this virtual stuff isn’t imaginary at all,” reported Business Week in a 2006 cover story. “Second Life residents [can] retain full ownership of their virtual creations. The inception of property rights in the virtual world made for a thriving market economy. … In January inside Second Life alone, people spent nearly $5 million in some 4.2 million transactions buying or selling clothes, buildings, and the like. That can add up to serious change.”

But then, in November of 2006, the CopyBot invaded Second Life, and suddenly virtual reality found itself embroiled in a very down-to-earth controversy about copyright and piracy. The incident seemed to reveal something of ontological importance about us and the worlds we create. At the very least, it was funny. I reported on the CopyBot attack in two posts: “Knockoffs Roil Second Life” and “The Dingo Stole My Avatar.” I reprint the posts here.

November 15, 2006:

The commercialization of Second Life has hit a speed bump. A new software program, called CopyBot, allows residents of the virtual world to make exact copies of other residents’ creations. The knockoffs threaten the livelihoods of the many entrepreneurs, as well as big companies, that have set up shop selling clothes, trinkets, and other goods in the popular fairy land. As an irate Caliandras Pendragon writes at Second Life Insider, “Those people who are living the dream that is promoted in every article, of earning a RL [real life] income from SL creations, are now living a nightmare in which their source of income may soon be worthless. That’s not to speak of big commercial companies who have paid anything up to 1,000,000 dollars to have their product reproduced in loving detail, who will discover that every Tom, Dick or Harriet may rip off their creation for nothing – and then sell it as their own … If someone wanted to destroy the economy of SL I don’t think they could have found a better way.”

The furor took an ugly turn late last night when, according to the Second Life Herald, a “seething mob” surrounded a CopyBot operation run by Second Life resident GeForce Go. The mob shouted that Go was “ruining their Second Life.” Fearing for her safety, Go closed down her shop and sold her land. In a subsequent “tumultous meeting with dozens of angry and fearful residents all talking at once,” Second Life official Robin Linden “sought to allay fears of any further concern about mass copyright violations.”

Now officially banned by Linden Lab, the company that operates Second Life, CopyBot was, according to reporter Adam Reuters of Reuters’ Second Life bureau, “originally created by libsecondlife, a Linden Lab-supported open source project to reverse engineer the Second Life software … Amid increasing criticism, the group moved to pull the CopyBot source code, but on Monday evening CopyBot was put up for sale on the online marketplace SLExchange, raising the prospect that it could become widespread.” The resident who is selling the bot, Prim Revolution, demonstrated the machine’s ability by making a precise clone of Adam Reuters himself. Revolution defended the use of CopyBot, saying, “I think the idea of clones and bots is very cool, and I’ll be adding more new features for things like automated go-go dancers at clubs.”

Second Life watcher Kevin Lim, of the University of Buffalo’s School of Informatics, compares CopyBot to the revolutionary Replicator in Star Trek, which “can create any inanimate matter, as long as the desired molecular structure is on file, but it cannot create antimatter, dilithium, or a living organism of any kind.” Lim notes that “after such a machine was invented, currency as we knew it ceased to function. Since everyone had the capability to create (replicate) anything they desire, capitalism as we knew it died, and the new dawn of perfect Marxian philosophy was adopted by the Federation.”

The CopyBot controversy seems to herald a deeper crisis in Second Life, a struggle over the identity, the very essence, of the virtual land. Will it remain a freewheeling utopian community operating by its own rules, or will it follow the pattern of the web itself and become an essentially commercial operation, a virtual shopping mall filled with advertisements and staged PR events? Is CopyBot a ripoff machine that threatens to destroy Second Life, or is it a sharing machine that would save the community’s soul?

November 16, 2006:

An uneasy calm hangs over Second Life this morning after two days of protests over the appearance of the CopyBot replicator. Yesterday, as many as 600 shopkeepers closed their stores in protest, demanding that the online world’s owner, Linden Lab, take action to protect the integrity of their virtual property. The striking merchants, according to Information Week, waved signs scrawled with slogans like “Stop Buying. Stop Selling. Start Protesting” and “Linden Lab once again did hurt our world.”

Meanwhile, outside agitator Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, raised the specter of an outright revolution in which residents would seize control of Second Life from Linden Lab. “Second Life’s management is doing an exemplary job of coping with this,” wrote Doctorow, “but benevolent dictatorships aren’t the same thing as democracies. If a game is going to declare that its players are citizens who own property, can the company go on ‘owning’ the game?”

Raph Koster, too, sees the CopyBot dispute as signaling a larger struggle: “what’s happening is a small-scale social crisis that brings into sharp relief the split between the hacker-ethic-libertarian-info-must-be-free ethos that underpins much of the technology of virtual worlds, and the rampant commercialism that has actually enabled its embodiment. What we have here is a case of bone fighting blood.” He concludes, darkly:

As long as Second Life creators are relying on creating content like textures and models … they will continue to face the same dilemmas as any other content industry. They will be copied. They will be ripped off. They will find their market prices falling. They will agitate for DRM. They will form lobbies with the analogue to a government, and argue that they are in fact the primary cultural contributors in the system. They will, in the end, come to embody everything about the broader, commercial Web that they fled to Second Life in order to escape.

But the arrival in Second Life of the CopyBot replicator hasn’t just produced a commercial and a political crisis. It’s brought an existential crisis as well. Because CopyBot can clone entire avatars as well as their possessions, people fear losing their virtual selves. Their sense of what I’ve termed “avatar anxiety” is deepening. Writes resident Harle Armistice in a comment on the official Second Life blog:

I’m sorry, but this isn’t just about sales … I have a unique av that I made for myself. It’s me, it’s my work, it’s part of my persona. I’ve been wearing it for ages and I will be wearing it likely until the day SL either goes down or I can’t log in anymore. Or I would be, under normal circumstances … I am terrified to wear my own content because there’s a script out there that any random user can run to steal my stuff if I do.

Business Week is reporting that “savvy CEOs” are beginning to “hang out in Second Life,” “orienting themselves around what could emerge as the corporate environment of the future.” IBM chief Sam Palmisano, for instance, proudly declares, “I have my own avatar.” In fact, the magazine notes, Palmisano has two Second Life avatars, “a casual Sam and a buttoned-down one.”

What’s going to happen, one wonders, when a CopyBot-armed anarchist comes up to one of the “real” fake Sams and replicates him? It may be a dream of CEOs to be able to clone themselves for posterity, but would they be happy about being cloned by someone else, someone who might then inhabit their virtual identity and use it to spread mischief and confusion? I can’t imagine a captain of industry being sanguine about seeing a copy of himself flying through the air wearing only a g-string or emerging from a virtual sex shop bearing a mammoth Steely Dan. I would recommend that, until the situation becomes clearer, any CEO entering Second Life bring along bodyguard avatars to fend off any possible replicator attack. No company wants to find itself saying, “An imposter avatar did hurt our world.”

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tweets penyeach


“Here is our poetry,” proclaimed Ezra Pound in 1910, “for we have pulled down the stars to our will.”

He was talking about lightbulbs.

Poor poetry. It can’t just be the highest form of speech. It has to trail clouds of metaphorical gas.

And so Virginia Heffernan, in a “3 min” at Medium, declares tweets to be poems and heralds a new “Age of Poetry”:

Asking what’s to become of poetry in the age of Twitter is like asking what’s to become of music in the age of guitars. It thrives. It more than thrives; it grows metastatically, invasively, inoperably. Poetry on the Internet has shot far past relevancy through indispensability and finally to vaporization. Poetry is the air we damn breathe.

My, that’s chewy prose. It’s like eating a raw lamb shank.

I’m as fond of the tweetform as the next aphorist manqué, but do we really have to drag poetry into it? Let tweets be tweets. Whatever the air we damn breathe, poetry it’s damn not.

Image of Boston’s Tom Scholz in the age of guitars: Wikipedia.


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The Glass Cage: sneak peek

From page twenty, the last page of the first signature of the printed book:


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