Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Continue reading “More people than bots?”

Why NOT Uber?

What do people really want when they say they want Uber to come to their community?

Once they learn about all the scandals, lawsuits, riots and demonstrations, the many lists of reasons not to use Uber, most people come away with a nuanced opinion. But typically, at first blush, many people have a very positive reaction to Uber. Why?

One reason could be the marketing. Uber is a poster child for the “sharing economy” — a feel-good marketing term that is inaccurate and “needs to die.” In his excellent book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy author Tom Slee digs into the hopes and promises of the new rash of sharing economy companies, and shows how they fail to deliver and can actually damage our society.

A key objective of marketing is generating demand. Recently in Kelowna Uber Canada held two information sessions to “gauge interest”. Uber is really good at this. They turn their users into lobbyists, use social media effectively (see the recent province-wide #bc4uber hashtag campaign), and they get local governments to lobby on their behalf. As of last summer they had 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the US. Earlier this year our provincial political leaders jumped on the bandwagon and spent money on their own ad campaign for the sharing economy.

Uber is able to get many people on its side through marketing, but that cannot be the only reason people like (at least the idea) of Uber. There seems to be some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the state of transportation as it is today.1 Let us examine some of these arguments.

Often Uber proponents say 1) taxis are expensive and there is no competition; 2) that they can never get a taxi when they need one; and 3) the Uber experience is better.
Continue reading “Why NOT Uber?”

Sectioned — On tech coverage in local media

Our mayor ran on a platform including tech.

Our premier seems to have shifted her economic policy to tech.

Our downtown is physically changing thanks to tech.

Dozens of new tech companies start here each year. Dozens die, too.

We are told it is a $1 billion industry. (Tourism is $840M by comparison.)

There is a lot of activity, a lot of money, and a lot of influence involved.

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We have 321 tech companies here.

The above points indicate that local media in Kelowna should consider adding a dedicated tech section to their coverage. Currently, only KelownaNow has a tech section under Lifestyle, and a few months ago Kelowna Capital News ran a “Tech Talk” package.

Kelowna is starting to be considered a “tech” hub and the public deserves well-rounded, informative pieces which examine how technology impacts the local community. I am not talking about a “gadget review” section — that is better left to larger publications. What is more important to locals is investigating and explaining the social, political, and economic impacts of the local technology sector. Here are some examples of what I would like to see:
Continue reading “Sectioned — On tech coverage in local media”

Nice coverage of tech issues at the local level

Kelowna Capital News Tech Talk special

Kudos to Kelowna Capital News, one of our local newspapers, for running a special on technology last week. Tech is one of the dominant problems in the global zeitgeist, and it is not often that a local paper will put the resources into exploring such an issue in a local context. The Tech Talk package dubbed “Mainframe Communication” (!) is not super hard-hitting, which is understandable since it is geared toward a more general audience, but despite it’s name I think it shows an extraordinary level of awareness. I look forward to more coverage like this.

Included are articles on education, local politics, and employment with some pieces on the legal and social ramifications of unfettered tech. To read it online, check out this piece on Kelowna’s tech economy and see links to all the other articles in the package in the footer of that article.

A slim crisis — a review of Disruptive Power

cover of Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age by Taylor Owen

From the book:

Coupled with the power that is derived by the state’s increasing sophistication in this space — whether through automation, biometrics, or the new forms of social control and the violence they enable — there is reason to question the narrative of empowerment that has been explored throughout this book.

Emphasis added. This quote comes from page 184 (of 210). That is 88% of the way into the book. It reflects my frustration with this book, as I spent much of my time questioning the “narrative of empowerment.”

Owen does a good job giving an overview of the state of tech and the state. Each chapter tackles big issues in tech and the way we govern ourselves: “activists, humanitarians, journalists, … terrorists”. All the usual suspects make an appearance — Anonymous, Bitcoin, Ushahidi — and the tried and true analysts like Shirky, Benkler, and Castells are cited at length.

But there is a shocking lack of critique.

A simple example:

Anyone can now disseminate information on a new media infrastructure. Blogs, social networks, and the wider Internet all allow people to self-publish and have the capacity to reach most people around the globe.

This completely ignores the inherent power imbalances the incumbents have (ie. talent pools, media relationships, existing audiences etc). Joe Sixpack blogger != CNN. This kind of statement has been debunked time and again. Throughout Disruptive Power there are a number of these observations which are seated more in the cyberutopian wishful thinking of the 1990s, than the analyses bourne out in the past few years.

Throughout the book Owen derides hierarchy, lauding liquid democracy and the “flat” structure of Occupy Wall Street. This belies how fractured and terrible the decision-making was/is in OWS and the Pirate Party. Owen pits hierarchy against networked organizations — yet, hierarchy is simply a type of network architecture. The book is riddled with such simplifications, and it detracts from his overall argument.

Owen cites tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, so he is surely aware of the negative aspects of the tech-boosterism he seems engaged in. His Twitter activity is also evidence of this. So why is this book so one-sided? Later in the book Owen takes on a more critical tone, and these chapters are much more satisfying. It is almost like this book was written in the same order it is presented, and the longer he researched, the more nuanced his opinion became.

A more likely hypothesis is length: Disruptive Power is a mere 210 pages (plus endnotes), and gives a whirlwind tour of some very large trends. Books have been written on each of the chapter topics. Owen barely scratches the surface. I would have liked him to add another 120 or so pages and include a more rounded-out argument. Disruptive Power may be a good primer on these topics, but it is not a thorough critical analysis. Read it as the beginning of a journey into this topic, not to get caught up on the current state of affairs.

More than computers — A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015

For me, this year’s LinuxFest Northwest 2015 was learning more about the politics of the Free Software movement. This track featured some excellent and eminent speakers, and I enjoyed it very much. Here is a short recap of each session:

1.

Deb Nicholson, the Director of Community Outreach at the Open Invention Network gave an entertaining talk called Patents and Copyright and Trademarks: A Primer for Developers. Using plain language and funny pictures, she delineated trademarks (how it looks), copyright (the content), and patents (how it works) in a simple way. I enjoyed her examples of “trademark collision” and where things get fuzzy with regard to patenting software.

2.

screen cap of slide

Bradley Kuhn, former director of the Free Software Foundation brought the controversy in his talk Considering the Future of Copyleft: How Will The Next Generation Perceive GPL?. You can see a previous version of the talk on YouTube. Basically he advocated the enforcement of licenses, the abandonment of weak copyleft, and bringing the principles of copyleft to a new generation of coders. Javascript and Android are the new fronts for free software in this age, and the young devs coming up are used to wiring together frameworks and APIs without much knowledge or background about licensing. This is a long-term problem for the free software movement. As I summed up in my tweet from the event:

3.

Every year at LFNW there is an ACLU/EFF Panel Discussion. This year Seth Schoen from the EFF partnered with ACLU Washington state’s Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend. Seth was great as always, and I was really impressed with Jared. As usual the crowd got pretty riled up. The discussion included stingrays, the terrible DMCA exemptions process, and fighting 215. The EFF must make a chunk in donations on LFNW weekends, but I feel like we in the crowd want to do more, but can’t, and feel helpless.

4.

The final talk I took in was an intro to The Free Software Foundation Licensing & Compliance Lab; We Fight for the User by Donald Robertson who is a Copyright and Licensing Associate with the FSF. This was a more informational session, but I came away with a much better understanding of the FSF and its activities.

Other interactions

With 1800 attendees and a bunch of exhibitors, you can bet you are going to meet some interesting people at LFNW.

Late Saturday, on the way to our traditional drinking spot Uisce, we stopped by The Foundry, Bellingham’s Makerspace. They had a really nice setup with electronics, sewing, woodworking corners in addition to the “traditional” 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. Check out my album on Flickr to see their amazing PAPER 3D printer. This thing blew my mind. (They have better pics on their

(http://www.bellinghamfoundry.com/gallery/)). We capped off the visit by playing a 3D printed guitar and 3D scanning my head. Good times.

screen cap of Chad's 3d scanned head

On Sunday I wandered the exhibitor’s floor rather than going to sessions.

I spoke with the executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, and we had a good discussion about balancing fervor for technological solutionism and the realities of delivering aid through established frameworks. I am confident that GWOB isn’t simply about air-dropping mobile phones across the developing world and telling them to simply apt-get install democracy.

There was another deep discussion with Aaron Wolf from Snowdrift.coop, which is a platform for coordinating donations to F/OSS projects to make a bigger impact on development (those are my words). Rather than tons of disparate small donations going to disparate projects, getting everyone to put there money in the same place can push a project forward in a meaningful way. The vision of the project, and the idea to convince proprietary projects to go open once a sustainable ecosystem is developed is intriguing and worthy, even if extremely challenging. Check them out.

In conclusion

LFNW is about more than computers. There is a rich background of history and culture to the Free Software movement and the Free Culture movement. Learning about the ways these organizations fight for every user’s rights through legislative, legal and technical means is empowering. It is not all about the tech, but about the politics and social norms that underly every human endeavor. This recap should demonstrate that you do not have to be a Linux geek to enjoy LinuxFest. There are tons of learning and networking opportunities for developers and users of all kinds.

I did not touch a command line all weekend. Which suits me, since I only have a Mac and wouldn’t want to be scorned by all the true neckbeards there. 😉

The long and the short of mobile messaging incompatibility

15 years ago in Japan, I thought it was pretty cool that I could send short messages via text to my friends. That wasn’t a thing yet in North America. I was living in the future!

But it was complicated. There was “short mail” and “long mail.” Short mail could be sent at a steep discount to other mobiles on the same carrier. Long mail was for mobiles on other carriers. In other words, SMS was not cross-carrier at the time. Long mail was actually an email dedicated to your phone. In fact, typically it was just your phone number @carrier.co.jp. later you could customize it. Many people had a “PC mail” address separate from their “mobile mail,” some used their mobile mail for their primary email.

Thus, we were ever asking new contacts:

  1. What carrier are you on? (AUですか?J-Phone?やっぱりDocoMo…)
  2. What is your mobile mail address? (メールアドはなんですか?)
  3. And if they had a separate PC mail. (パソコンメールは?)

15 years later, in the present future where we all have smartphones, things are even more complex. There are a plethora of messaging platforms, and none of them universal. Messaging apps are very personal. Like Todo list apps, we each have particular workflows we want our apps to conform too. Though, more likely we are influenced by the network effect. Different regions and cultures tend to have a dominant platform, say WeChat in China or WhatsApp in India.

“If only there was one app that was universal” has been the lament of the consumer for the past few years (UPDATE: h/t to @chrisfosterelli). And even earlier, by the little history lesson I opened this post with.

Benedict Evans said in a recent podcast that the notifications panel is the actual unifying app for messaging. We just have to get used to having a dozen different messaging apps on our devices, and use Notifications as our universal interface. Kind of like using a mail client with all your different email accounts.

Ah, email. Email is another old scourge of messaging. The ultimate fallback that everyone is trying to kill. On mobile, more often than not, that role is played by SMS.

This chart from The Economist has been going around to show the imminent death of SMS.

Whatsapp overtakes worldwide SMS delivery and keeps rocketing up

But it also shows how much SMS is still used in the world. The forecast is still 20 billion per day. I still txt a number of people, friends and family, even with my $500 smartphone and $80 a month data plan. Most are on iPhone or Android. One is on Blackberry. None are on feature phones. OMG RIP TXT, WTF!?

Looking at this recent chart by Comscore will show you why iMessage isn’t viable:

In Canada, iPhone has 38% of the 81% of smartphones

Well, I say not viable, but the truth is iPhone users don’t care. They use the same app either way, and if you aren’t on an iPhone, then you deserve Green Bubble Disgust. The rest of us are relegated to SMS. iPhone users are like the drunk salaryman on the train who is stepping on your foot the whole time, and if you say something he glares at you like its your fault.

My wife is one of those drunken salarymen. She txts like crazy. We pay an extra $7 a month for an unlimited txting plan for her. Since she is txting in Japanese I know she is not messaging people on feature phones. OMG RIP TEXT, WTF!?

My officemates and I use Slack. My gaming group uses Hangouts. Everyone else uses SMS.

As one the more tech oriented in my family, I have the power to convince people to adopt a platform. But what am I going to push? The options out there are terrible. Take a look at a slide from a recent presentation where I measure apps on a scale of tinfoil hats:

On a scale of 1 to 5 tinfoil hats, EVERYTHING is terrible

As I’ve said before, any universal platform must be:

  • cross platform (Android, iOS, BB… WinPhone I guess…)
  • cross device (Mac, Windows, Linux)
  • have native clients (no browser plugins please!)
  • have end to end encryption

This is otherwise known as my Inverse Pentagram of IM. Since nobody is willing to make it, we might just have to summon it from an alternate dimension.

Chad expounding on The Inverse Pentagram of IM

So, the long and the short of it is: People will use what they are used to, and what everyone around them is using, even if the alternatives are better. Unfortunately, SMS still rules the roost in my region. We might have to wait until everyone dies and the new generation takes over the earth before we see a change in messaging platform. Either that or my dream platform is finally released and I can go on an IM adoption crusade. Until then, just as 15 years ago, send me a txt.

Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.
Continue reading “Technology is a symptom”

What is data doing to our species? — A review of Kitten Clone

My review in the Literary Review of Canada is finally released. It is behind a paywall now, but will open up in about a month or so. Or you could pick it up at your local magazine purveyor and support Canadian publishing!

The piece is mostly about “industrial innovation” and the wonderful (and forgotten?) legacy of Bell Labs. This is a common hobby horse of mine when debating innovation and startups (re: startups do not have a monopoly on innovation!). I hope you enjoy the review. In the meantime, I thought I would share some more thoughts on the visuals of this book, which I highlight in the review:

Writers in Residence partnered with Visual Editions to produce a book design that looks great and includes the unorthodox layout and typography that we have come to expect from Coupland’s books. Mere words are not enough for him. Like having a conversation with a high-spirited partner, Coupland uses visual clues to add emphasis to the content.

The book release was delayed for months and I can only imagine it had to do with the unorthodox layout and typography. Often when reading Coupland’s books, I use my smartphone camera to capture the unique layouts (I plan on putting together a few galleries in the future). Take the below page as an example: Coupland describes quantum computing in excruciating detail (qubits, integer factorization using Shor’s algorithm, the Church-Turing thesis, etc.). As the explanation descends into technical jargon, each line of the text becomes progressively smaller until it bleeds past the bottom margin of the page and to the edge of the page, continuing on into empty space beyond the authour’s (and presumably the reader’s) understanding. It is a cute trick.

Trailing off

In another example, he breaks line justification to emphasize the single word “bandwidth”. “Oh Douglas! I see what you did there! It is funny because the word is band ‘width’ and you make it cover the entire width of the page! You clever, cultural brain you!” I hope that doesn’t come off as too condescending… I like the idea of visual puns expressed in typography.

B-A-N-D-W-I-D-T-H