Long weekend in Lancashire, visiting family, exploring Lancaster (where I’ll be moving to in September!), and attending bits and pieces of the Full of Noises festival in Barrow-in-Furness.
Biased data sets in law enforcement.

“The problem is that crime statistics do not reflect the crimes actually occurring; rather, they provide a picture of the state’s response to crime.”

“The data on which we train technology ‘uncritically ingests yesterday’s mistakes’, as James Bridle puts it, encoding the barbarianism of the past into the future.”

(Future Histories)

In the frame of digital urban planning, I think this quote from Jane Jacobs (discovered via Future Histories) is very IndieWeb.

“What a wonderful challenge there is! Rarely has the citizen had such a chance to reshape the city, and to make it the kind of city that she likes and that others will too. If this means leaving room for the incongruous, or the vulgar or the strange, that is part of the challenge, not the problem. Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”

Says O’Shea:

“We need to protect space in our minds for the vulgar and the strange, for the unpredictable experiences of living free from the influence of commercialism. Like the flâneur or flâneuse, we should aim to cultivate curiosity through this liberated lens.”

Lizzie O’Shea is using urban planning as an analogy for thinking about how we could design our digital spaces. Riffing off Freud’s thoughts about the mind as a city, and Jane Jacob’s work on cities and planning.

I’m liking this, I was thinking about it recently, with an online presence being like a person’s home on the web. Taking it up a layer you think about digital urban planning, how these homes (and other things) fit together to make a city. I like it as a frame.  (Probably because I’ve been living in a big city the last 10 years.)

Good bit in Future Histories about the Marine Police Office, the oldest police force in England.  Set up in cahoots with the merchants, to enforce wage labour paid by time and stamp out the labourers taking stock from the employers.

“The origins and functions of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class.” — Alex Vitale

Watched All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis from Thought Maybe

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a series of films about how this culture itself has been colonised by the machines it has has built. The series explores and connects together some of the myriad ways in which the emergence of cybernetics—a mechanistic perspective of the natural world that particularly emerged in the 1970s along with emerging computer technologies—intersects with various historical events and visa-versa. The series variously details the interplay between the mechanistic perspective and the catastrophic consequences it has in the real world.

Watched the second part of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”.

Like part 1, it is very enjoyable. The themes are all up my alley, although I didn’t really seem to pick up on an overarching thread as much in this part. Struggling to piece it together into something coherent in my head. I guess it had less well-known characters to wrap a story around.

Let’s see – it was linking together ecosystems, cybernetics, counterculture communes, the Club of Rome’s take on tackling climate change, and some of the revolutions in the first decade of the 2000s where social media was kindling.

I think the main gist of the argument was against the ideas from systems theory and cybernetics that either nature or society have a tendency to self-regulate and self-stabilise. He seemed to be making the point that all attempts at a kind of social homeostasis are doomed to failure, because it’s based on flawed thinking, and that it doesn’t translate from machines to societies. I think he probably strawmans cybernetics a bit for his own ends there, but I suppose machine control makes for a good boogieman. He also seemed to be saying that hiearchy creeps in, however horizontal and interconnected you try to make your structure, so you shouldn’t bother trying a flat structure. Again, I don’t think total flatness is really how cybernetics presents systems theory though (although I don’t know a lot about cybernetics to be fair.)

I found it really interesting when talking about the Club of Rome and limits to growth. Apparently the idea of stopping growth and finding ‘a natural balance’ (in an attempt to curtail climate catastrophe) was protested at the time as being akin to Jan Smuts’ ‘holism’ – a disingenuous and racist way to maintain a currently unequal system. I guess the protestors weren’t championing growth, though – presumably they wanted a complete system change altogether.

The suggestion that the ideas of the balance of nature and ecosystems thinking is all bunk, is all new to me. That’s really interesting. I’ve fairly unthinkingly bought into a strain of thought that we are affecting an implicit natural balance, the narrative that we’re interfering with delicately balanced ecosystems, and that we need to not do that, in order to prevent the worst of climate breakdown. I’d never really thought of that as being concomitant with trying to preserve an unequal system.

I think he was making the point that nature doesn’t tend towards a stable equilibrium, so we shouldn’t lean on that idea for our social systems. I don’t think I’ve seen a modern environmental movement, at least the ones I’m interested in, suggest that we *don’t* need to radically change the system though. Maybe I need to read more into the Club of Rome and what it’s current descendents are.

So probably the common theme between the two episodes is that of being against blind faith in technology for societal ends. Part 1, he didn’t like the undue faith given to algorithms to support selfishness and neoliberal financial systems. Part 2, he doesn’t like how ideas from technology were used to support the idea that humans are relatively unimportant cogs in a larger system. (Part 3 gonna be some synthesis or middle ground? Is he going to suggest that society is dynamic, we shouldn’t cling to a transplanted notion of natural balance, that we need a radically new system to beat climate breakdown and inequality, and that technology should serve society, not the other way round? If so. I’m down with that.)

I can’t really figure out if he’s presenting history as technological determinism or social determinism. It seems a bit of both, e.g. Rand influences tech bros, tech bros build selfish tech, selfish tech drives selfish society. Or nature influences cyberneticians, who then translate the technology to the society.

Anyway, all fascinating stuff. I don’t think I would really call it a documentary, in the sense of historical record. It’s more of a visual essay, one man’s (elegantly crafted) opinion. Certainly getting me thinking about a few things, can’t ask for more than that.

Watched All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (part 1) by Adam Curtis
Watched the first part of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace documentary.

Very enjoyable. I have to say that a lot of times in Curtis’ documentaries I feel like if it was a Wikipedia article it would say ‘citation needed’. And I’m definitely picking up on certain Curtis tropes the more of his documentaries that I see. (“They thought it was doing XYZ…….. But it wasn’t.” Discordant music, long shot on someone’s face. Quick cut to silly music and image. etc etc)

All that said, it’s entertaining, and I’m sure there’s something of merit to all of his theses, and it definitely makes you think about the broad strokes of recent history and how they link together. And the soundtrack’s great.

So the theme in AWObMoLG pt.1 is individualism I guess, like Century of the Self. Main protagonists so far being Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the early Silicon Valley tech utopians. I guess the thread is that Randian heroic selfishness bleeds into both finance and tech, leading to an overconfidence in algorithms, to free marketeers in positions of power, and the belief that weird financial shit like risks and hedging is all good for the healthy pursuit of one’s money. It leads to the various market fuck-ups of the recent decades, along with state bailouts of banks, paid for by citizens around the world.

Bill Clinton makes a bit of a cameo, appearing generally useless, and responsible for letting the money changers into the temple.

I briefly ended up feeling.. sorry (..or perhaps pity) for Ayn Rand, which I certainly wasn’t expecting to happen. Not that she would want that, anyway.

The funniest/weirdest bit is Curtis heckling Barbara Branden with a shout of “That’s altruism!” when she reveals she let Rand have an affair with her husband (Mr. Self-Esteem Nathaniel Branden) because she felt sorry for Rand. And Barbara Branden gets defensive, but it seems more at the accusation of altruism than at the marital complexities. Odd stuff.

Reposted a post by Calum Ryan | calumryan.comCalum Ryan | calumryan.com

📢 Have a personal website to work on? / Want to start one? Then drop by at Homebrew Website Club London @ hub by Premier Inn London Covent Garden next week 📅 August 7th ⏰ from 19:00 https://indieweb.org/events/2019-08-07-homebrew-website-club#London / https://hwclondon.co.uk/meetups/20190807…

Just came across the poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan (via the Adam Curtis documentary of the same name.)

It’s kind of fascinating. I like it.  I know it came from a period whose technological utopianism certainly didn’t come to pass, and might have been a bit off-key in the first place, but its sweetly optimistic (…or bitingly critical, depending on what way you squint at it).

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

If it were written today it must surely be ironic. But I wonder if it was heartfelt back in the 60s? I find what it paints to be kind of a mixture of pleasantly bucolic and desireable, and weird and creepy all at once. Not sure if I want it or not. I like the idea of a cybernetic ecology, where we are free of our labours, and joined back to nature. Not entirely so keen on being watched over by machines of loving grace. (Though the benevolent AIs in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels could be good role models if we did want machines of loving grace…)

It’s interesting that the poem doesn’t really make a case for technology, other than the nod towards a kind of fully automated luxury communism at the end. It just sort of assumes that tech is the route to liberation – I guess that’s the flavour of the time. I’m not a primitivist, but I’m not sure that an IoT meadow will have all that much better benefit than the analogue equivalent.


We had a fun EvalApply session today, during which we decided to add to our homepage on evalapply.space a sentence about our interest in examining programming and technology in a wider societal context.  Early on we discussed that this was important to us all, and we often end up chatting about these topics when we meet – perhaps more so than SICP, so far!

We were pondering EvalApply as a name for the group for a short period – from an early email:

In addition, thinking about it further, it also has a double meaning to me that I really like.
Before we apply a function we must first evaluate its arguments.”
Taken metaphorically I feel that this captures [our] philosophical and political views towards technology in a broader sense.  We consider the social ramifications of technology before recommending its use.  We evaluate the arguments before applying its function.

Some things that I remember we chatted about today:

The important of constraints, or having a limited palette.  I can’t remember how it came up, but for me it recalled some of the ideas from old tracker music software and the demoscene, where using restricted hardware and software can be a useful creative constraint.

We talked about community moderation (further to a short note about it earlier this week), with Panda making a strong point that not everyone has the resources to extensively moderate a community.  It had come up for me recently in the context of the Fediverse, and the discussion over the defederation of the Gab instance, and the problems with freedom 0.  “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose” – this is not good if the purpose is, let’s say, neo-nazism.

Dan discussed the philosopher Simondon (an inspiration for Deleuze and Guattari, I understand), and the topic of alienation and technology.  Not just alienation as a result of losing autonomy in a capitalist system; but also alienation from technology – not knowing how things work or being able to tinker with them.  Emacs being a beautiful example of software you can see the innards of and tinker with, should you wish to.

Dan did a bit of SICP.

Dan and Panda chatted about another French philosopher, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, and the philosophy of autism.

I read a couple of paragraphs of SICP.

Dan described the difference between technics and technology, which is really interesting – a distinction between the machines themselves, and the analysis of them.


Eval’ing and apply’ing in the MayDay Rooms

I had not heard of this…

“The industry is also adopting various forms of biometric profiling, including using keystroke patterns.  How we type is marked by minute differences, which can create a biometric profile of individuals…” (from Future Histories)

I guess I’m lucky that for me it can be filed under ‘disturbing curiosity’ rather than ‘legitimate concern’.  But.  Honestly.  What a mess we’re in that this is actually a thing.

Really enjoying Lizzie O’Shea’s “Future Histories” so far. It’s really nicely written, and weaves together current social, political and economic technological quandaries with a reading of relevant ideas from history. I really like the historical perspective – it gives a nice handle with which to grapple with these problems.

Like a lot of books I’ve read lately though, so far it’s heavy on the diagnosis, and light on the actual treatment.  But I’m only at the beginning so I hope it will flesh out with some concrete action as I go along.

“We need social movements that collaborate—in workplaces, schools, community spaces and the streets—to demand that the development of technology be brought under more democratic forms of power rather than corporations or the state.”

True enough.  Although I am unaware of what form it would take. Who is in these social movements? To whom are the demands made? What are they exactly?

“As the planet slides further toward a potential future of catastrophic climate change, and as society glorifies billionaires while billions languish in poverty, digital technology could be a tool for arresting capitalism’s death drive and radically transforming the prospects of humanity. But this requires that we politically organize to demand something different.”

Totally agree with the sentiment. But who is we? What organizational form should we take? What is the demand we should be making?

Replied to a post by Ton Zijlstra

Anil Dash reflects on two decades of blogging.
Some quotes that resonate:
I also do still strongly believe that someone who really has a strong point of view, and substantive insights into their area of interest, can have huge impact just by consistently blogging about that topic. It’s not current…

Your blog is a motivation for me Ton, to try to blog regularly – to build of a body of work. I really like how you are able to reference back to previous thoughts on a topic to add context to a new post.

"Even if you don’t have ‘substantive insights’ in your areas of interest but still consistently blog, there will be impact."

This really resonates with me – I feel like the more I blog, the more my thoughts have substance.

Liked a post by Ton Zijlstra

Much easier than regulating to break up Facebook, just regulate to force them to make an API for us to get data in and out. We can break them up ourselves once we have that. (source)
Neil is right, an effective way to break-up big tech monopolies is requiring they have API‘s. (Much like key govern…

Been thinking lately that it could be a good municipal function to provide people with access to an ‘online home’, analogous to ensuring provision of physical homes.

In the same way it could be social, affordable, in a co-op, heck even (but hopefully not) private and rented. The municipality provides some infrastructure and codes/regulations to make sure there’s a home for everyone and that everyone can move freely if they want. But equally you can build your own home or move into an intentional community if you want and have the wherewithal to do so.

Not talking about a StateBook – if the state has any function in it, I think it should be regulating for open protocols and standards, or even just bare minimum access to data and data portability (newsocialist.org.uk/do-we-really-need-a-statebook/). I’m thinking more like Indienet – (indienet.info/) – the project in Ghent (coordinated by @aral@mastodon.ar.al) to provide each denizen with their own connected node in a wider p2p/federated network. I mean municipal more in the sense of libertarian municipalism, self-determination and federation of villages, towns, cities.

Obviously access to physical housing is a mess, at least where I’m currently living, so maybe not the best reference point. But I’m finding it an interesting framing. Every Facebook or Twitter profile is currently a home on the web, and it’s as if billions of people all have the same corrupt landlord.

This is kind of implicitly assuming that everyone *needs* a home on the web. That is certainly a debatable point. It is definitely becoming more of a part of the fabric of everyday life, and you could argue that it shouldn’t be.  I vacillate on this a bit but overall I tend to think that the benefits can outweigh the negatives, when it has a social motive and not a profit motive.

Much easier than regulating to break up Facebook, just regulate to force them to make an API for us to get data in and out. We can break them up ourselves once we have that.

They used to have one, and IndieWeb was doing pretty well with that until FB decided to turn it off. Now *that’s* monopolistic behaviour and anti-trust.