lördag 28 februari 2015

Books I've read (December - part 2)

Both this and the last blog post treat books I read in December and over Christmas that all (loosely) concern current and past ideas/visions about the present of future information society.

I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book (further below).

Image: The Skylanders stickers are a gift from my son and not part of the book cover... 

************** The title of Rasmus Fleischer's book "Tapirskrift" (2013) is an anagram for "Piratskrift" [piracy writings]. Rasmus Fleischer was part of the think tank Piratbyrån ("The Pirate Bureau") when it started in 2003 with the goal of supporting the free sharing of information, culture, and intellectual property. He has since become a researcher and he presented his Swedish-language Ph.D. thesis, "The political economy of music: Legislation, sound media and the defence of live music, 1925–2000" in 2012 (English-language summary available here).

Tapirskrift is a collection of texts that have been published elsewhere - in newspapers, magazines and anthologies - between 2010 and 2013. About half of the book deals consists of texts that are related to the Internet and the other half treats other (sometimes related) topics. Even though there is a certain element of overlap and redundancy, Fleischer's thoughts and insights are really very interesting - it's a pity these texts aren't available in English. It might even be the case that my quotes from the book below constitute the best English-language introduction to his thoughts around. It's also a little ironic that despite his interesting thoughts, Fleischer's academic area does not have that much to do with the Internet - he is instead a historian specialising in contemporary history (which includes digitalisation though).

I took especially learned about two grand ideas from this book. The first deals with robot publishers and robot-generated books. They are basically spam, but for books. There is already a near-infinite number of books out there already that can make a profit for the publisher if they are printed even once. Collections of hopefully topically related texts from Wikipedia about, say, the second world war with an alluring name could be an example. No human is involved in the process of producing these books. Would you not be curious and order a book if it had your own name in the title? I only knew this phenomenon existed beforehand because I had read about it on Fleischer's blog, Copyriot, but I learned a lot more about the shady world of robot publishing through this book. It is easy to agree with Fleischer: we will probably have to learn to live with robot books and robot publishers in the same way we have had to learn to live with spam e-mail.

The second main idea I took away from the book is that the two ways we interface with the Internet these days are through the empty search field (Google, Spotify etc.) or through the never-eding flow (Facebook, Instagram). Google finds everything - if you can put it into worlds. Google finds needles in haystacks, but does Google (the empty search field) give you the context to understand an issue? Facebooks delivers a daily, never-ending flow of news and gossip to your doorstep, but it's hard to find your way back to a conversation you had on Facebook a month ago - to say nothing of a year ago. What then has the empty search field and the flow replaced? Fleischer argues that it is the archive that has been dethroned. The archive is the carefully curated topical material on one or a limited number of related subjects. We might talk about an actual physical archive (or a library), but it could equally well be a blog or a webpage that is maintained by an expert enthusiast or a community. A place you went to when you wanted to learn more about a specific topic and perhaps also hang around and discuss relevant issues with people who had similar interests. The archive was a public space that was open to everyone - a hangout on the Internet. Discussions have now instead become privatised and I have access only to the discussions my friends initiate (some might go viral but that's not the same thing). 

** Eric Schüldt and Jonas Andersson's "Framtiden" [The future] (2011) is a strange book. It's hard to even pat down the genre. It's partly a personal reflection (a very long essay) but perhaps more of a novel than anything else. I didn't know that when I started to read it and I'm not sure I think the combination is a very successful one. This doesn't feel like the place to discuss novels however so I will keep this short.

The authors both started out as techno-evangelists, but their opinions have then slowly shifted over time. When the book was written they had become sceptics and they chose to write a kind-of novel to express their misgivings about the digital developments that with live with. From the book cover:

"There was a time when you thought the computer could build a new and better world. It was called the digital revolution. There was talk of an entirely new way of communicating, a new way of thinking and a new way of being human. Everything would be better. Everything would be brighter. Millions of people marvelled at the huge capacity that the latest technological innovations had in store. Billions of microprocessors: one in each pocket, one in each hand, several in each car, several in every home. Millions of kilometers of cables: inside the houses, between the houses, inside the computers and under the oceans. You embraced the promise of the future because you thought you would find a new freedom. But what you built was your own prison."

**** David Holmgren is one of the authors of The original, 1970's book about Permaculture (together with Bill Mollison). In his 2009 book "Future scenarios How communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change" he discusses four different possible scenarios (futures) for humanity. The book is sleek (only a little more than 100 pages) and is very easy to read (lots of captions and photos). The origins of the book is the website futurescenarios.org and it is easy to imagine that the website would fit well together with a talk (or a workshop) that Holmgren might have given many times.

Holmgren starts by proposing four different possible energy scenarios: Techno-explosion, Techno-stability, Energy descent and Collapse. His conclusion is that the most likely of these scenarios is Energy descent. He then proceeds to generate four new futures that explore the results of the convergence of the two great crises of our time: climate change and peak oil. The four scenarios are "Brown tech", "Green tech", "Earth steward" and "Lifeboats". Here the question is more open as to which of these for will be the most likely scenario that we and our grandchildren will live through. From the back cover of the book:

"In Future Scenarios, permaculture co-originator and leading sustainability innovator David Holmgren shows us what the future might look like in the generations-long era of energy descent that faces us - and also tells us how to adapt to the cultural, political, agricultural, and economic implications of two forces that will shape the future: peak oil and climate change

Future Scenarios depicts four very different futures. Each is a permutation of mild or destructive climate change, combined with either slow or severe energy declines. Probable futures, explains Holmgren, range from the relatively benign Green Tech scenario to the near catastrophic Lifeboats scenario."

The book was ok. I thought I would like it more but it didn't have that much that was new to me.


----- On personalised news as a promise and a threat  -----

"Personalisation and surveillance are two sides of the same coin. The more our web behaviour can be mapped in detail, the greater the opportunities to serve us an automated selection that has been tailored to what we as individual consumers are expected to demand. We get personalized recommendations everywhere for music we should listen to, the books we should read and friends we should get to know. Much points at news being next in line to be personalized. This would mean that two persons visiting an online magazine will see different headlines on the front page. Two persons who click on the same headline may even be served articles with partly different content based om the mapping of previous preferences. The person who is used to reading long analyses on the web can get a more in-depth analysis, while someone else gets a shorter report that is spiced up with a lighthearted angle"
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.22

----- On The Flow as the dominant interface to social media  -----

"Until about 2007 it had become increasingly common for individuals to chose a number of blogs to follow through a RSS reader. Since then a completely different tendency has asserted itself: people do not follow particular blogs, but click on links to individual blog posts that show up in the Facebook or Twitter stream. ... this leads to a tendency and a way of reading that is more distracted, focused on the present and absent of historical dimensions. The conditions for open discussions are changed at the same time. Many of the discussions that previously were conducted in the open comment fields of blogs are now rather conducted in connection to a link being shared by a limited group of people on Facebook. ... The Flow is an interface that has been deliberately designed to turn our attention to an ever-elusive now. Volatility characterizes social media life. This morning's topic of conversation is passé already by the afternoon. In order to shine socially, an ability to follow several parallel conversations is required, but you can function perfectly fine without a memory. "
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.25-27

----- On storing all our stuff in the cloud vs decentralise solutions  -----

"All archives are based on some type of culling. Files shared in a file-sharing network remain available only as long as someone keeps them in his or her local archive ... but it may then be enough with a single enthusiast, anywhere on the planet. ... Cloud services are archives where the power to cull exists at a central point - often in the United States rather than in Sweden. The criteria for culling are usually fuzzy: texts, images or sounds can be removed for alleged copyright infringements, but also for political or moral reasons. The basic rule though is that everything is retained. But for how long? Some day a company can be bought which may mean that the contents of their cloud disappears or gets locked down. "
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.43

----- On the impermanence of our abundance  -----

"When we fill the hard drive with pictures of our kids, we only reluctantly think about the fact that these digital files will very likely be eliminated before that child has grown up. Although we initially make the effort of taking regular backups, the sheer amount of archived files eventually tends to become impossible to survey. To search for a picture from a certain situation becomes impossible, unless we first devote considerable time to provide each picture with a description - but how can we then get time to look at all the pictures?"
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.44

----- On the eternal struggle between good and spam  -----

""Spam" is an umbrella term for various types of unwanted information that is spread indiscriminately in digital channels. ... As the net unfolded, we got to know new types of spam. ... Everywhere on the web where there is an opening for anyone to publish,  there will sooner or later appear robots that clutter the space with hoards of dubious links ... Just as the threat from insurgents have shaped modern urban planning, and just as ways of building houses are inseparable from the risk for burglary, it is not possible to distinguish between the network's evolving architecture and the fight against spam."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.61-62

----- On robot publishers and collateral censorship  -----

"A robot book is a book published by a robot publisher. No single person has been involved in the decision to publish the individual title. Robot publishers ... publish a very large number of titles, of which most probably never sell a single copy. The business idea is thus based on the fact that it is virtually without costs for the producer to make a book title available for sale. Once the software is up and running and sales channel is established, it doesn't cost more to publish one thousand books than ten. The principle of "the long tail" is taken to to its logical end point by robotic publishers. (p.65) ...
The problem on the horizon can be described ... as an arms race between robots. To combat spam, it is often necessary to rely on the automatic spam filter. When robots are fighting robots, strange things can sometimes happen. There is even the risk that a combination of spam and spam filters can be used by actors who want to realize a certain kind of censorship." (p.72)
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.65-72

----- On the (lack of) security of cloud data and meta-data about our behaviors  -----

"A company that is short of money can get new a management that starts to do things that were previously considered unthinkable, like selling sensitive information right and left. Such things can possibly be prevented, to some extent, mainly from an American angle, through legislation and agreements. What is worse are companies on the skids that starts to neglect their data security, so that other actors stealthily can loot their data banks. To ensure reasonable data security through legislation is virtually impossible. Let's not forget that Google does not provide any guarantees against intrusion into their cloud services."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.84

----- On soft censorship  -----

"In regards to China, "the [great fire]wall" is a bad metaphor for the country's extensive censorship. Rather, we should think about the kind of personalized advertising that Google among others constantly expose us to - as net censorship can become equally personal. Whether a website is accessible may depend on a variety of weighted factors, such as which other pages you (and others with similar demographic profiles) have visited in the past week. It does not even need to involve a complete block. A truly sophisticated system could perhaps be satisfied with an unequal allocation of bandwidth. If a certain movie clip is particularly slow to load  the risk that it will spread virally will be reduced. Similar developments are fully imaginable even in the West.
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.97-99

----- On the never-ending flow of music from Spotify as mother's milk  -----

"About a hundred years ago Sigmund Freud described what he saw as the infant's oral phase. The biggest fear is that the flow will be interrupted, to end up being "offline". [Local telecom operator] Telia attests time and again that Spotify will flow to us everywhere and always. The similarity is striking with the oral existence that, according to Freud, is governed by the pleasure principle and has not yet developed an ego and instead understand oneself in terms of "I am what I am given." There is yet no desire to establish oneself by deselecting some flows in favour of others, and much less to express anything to the outside world other than the two emotions satisfaction and dissatisfaction."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.124

----- On abundance and selection in a digital world  -----

"Spotify appears as utopia as long as access remains the only thing we demand from the network. But in a state of abundance of digital information, the key is not access, but selection - and Spotify does offer much more than an empty search box and some paid advertising. We may also share playlists with our net acquaintances, but that is hardly a solution to the problem of selection bur rather returns us to the question of how we make a choice between hundreds of available contacts. We do not have time to listen through everyone's playlists, but neither do we have a chance to independently navigate the terrain of abundance. No network services in the world can solve the issue of selection for us - whether it's about choosing between music, movies, friends or opinions. Everything ultimately depends on how different kinds of archives and filters interact with each other so that both unexpected discoveries and shared experiences are made possible."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.124-125

----- Do we have a responsibility to watch ads on the Internet?  -----

"[The program] Mutify ... replaced the annoying advertisments in the free version of Spotify with silence ... Mutify differs little from Adblock, a very popular plugin for Firefox that hides the advertising banners on web pages. What happens if more people start using Adblock? A problematic consequence may be that obvious advertisement is replaced by hidden advertisement, nestled in the text. Or that online newspapers shift from being free and funded by advertising to being locked up behind payment walls. The question is whether such effects can be allotted to the individual network user's responsibility. It would ultimately imply a moral imperative that all advertising that meets us has to get our attention. Or should responsibility be placed on the programmers who developed Adblock?"
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.130-131

----- On the attention economy vs the long tail  -----

"when tax billions are ploughed into giant stadiums, they distort the competition in a way that ultimately leads to less cultural diversity. No similar investments are after all made in the cultural rooms of the long tail ... What would happen if the astronomical sums that are now put on giant arenas instead were put on a variety of small and medium-sized scenes? ... Securing cultural regrowth requires spaces where new cultural expressions can gather a small but devoted audience. But these do not provide the immediate dividends that politicians are keen to see during their term in power. One hundred small rooms look worse on a PowerPoint presentation than one gigantic construction that is built to impress."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.154

----- The days of low cost air flight are numbered  -----

"The era of low cost air flight is coming to an end. Since oil is a finite resource, we are inevitably approaching the day when oil-operated air transportation is no longer an option for ordinary people. Runways will slowly be covered by moss. The kind of mobility that, in the epoch between 1990-2010, characterised our way of living in more ways than we want to admit will collapse more quickly. Low cost air travel made not only beach holidays in Thailand possible, but also social forums in Porto Alegre and Istanbul, to which activists flew. During the era of low-cost airlines, scientists flew to academic conferences and artists flew to biennials. Also relatively unknown musicians could fly to another continent over the weekend just to play for a handful of fans at a club."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.169

----- Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of cheap air travel  -----

"The liberalism of the "airport society" both figuratively and literally belong up in the sky. That air travel depends on tax money does not worry them. Even the holy right to ownership has to stand back to the benefit of the dream of seamless mobility - which increasingly resembles a religion. Airflighthuggers are willing to bet everything to realise that dream: subsidies, fossil fuels and free fantasies. ... Believers in progress ... defend each person's absolute right to cheap flights. The climate is of course important ... but Swedish researchers are searching for "new environmentally friendly aviation fuels". Without having any idea of what sort of miracle fuel this could be, the airflighthuggers in advance assume that research will achieve the politically desired results. Such beliefs can only be called superstitious. Liberalism asserts itself ... as an openly anti-scientific ideology."
Fleischer, R. (2013). "Tapirskrift", p.175

----- The mobile phone as a talisman of the civilised  -----

"Old and new live side by side across the world. It is not only you who worship the mobile phone as a fetish. It is a symbol also in large parts of Africa and India; the mobile phone carries an enchanting force even in villages with no electricity or opportunities to recharge prepaid phone cards. Like the seafarers' medallions or the Christian cross in former times, the mobile phone is a talisman that shows that you are a part of the larger, common fraternity that has understood what it means to be civilised."
Schüldt & Andersson (2011). "Framtiden", p.35

----- On the uneven distribution of fiberoptic cables  -----

"[the cable] SAT-3 / WASC was the only fiber optic cable which connected West Africa with the rest of the world - a digital umbilical cord to an entire region. It was enough with a single mishap - an anchor pulling off the cable, a fish trawl, an earthquake, a malfunctioning switching station - to break the contact. This indeed happened in November 2007 and in July 2009, when several central African countries were entirely without an internet connection for up to one week. [...] Some countries had hundreds of lifelines, while others had only one. A multitude of fiber optic cables ran along the bottom of the Atlantic between North America and Europe.
Schüldt & Andersson (2011). "Framtiden", p.35

----- On four scenarios for the next energy transition  -----

"The evidence that global industrial civilization is in the early stage of an energy transition as fundamental as the one from renewable resources to fossil fuels is overwhelming. Using the ecological history of past civilizations as a base, I review the evidence about the future in terms of four possible long-term scenarios: techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy descent, and collapse."
Holmgren, D. (2009). "Future scenarios", p.3

----- On the next energy transition being one from more to less concentrated energy sources  -----

"the next energy transition will not follow the pattern of recent centuries to more concentrated and powerful sources. The likelihood that this transition will be to one of less energy is such anathema to the psychosocial foundation and power elites of modern societies that it is constantly misinterpreted, ignored, covered up, or derided. Instead we see geopolitical maneuvering around energy resources, including proxy and real wars to control dwindling reserves and policy gymnastics to somehow make reducing carbon emissions the new engine of economic growth."
Holmgren, D. (2009). "Future scenarios", p.12

----- Our focus on the short term is a sign of unsustainability  -----

"One of the characteristics of a robust, enduring, and mature civilization is the capacity to consider the longer term, aim for desirable but achievable future, but have fallback strategies and insurance policies to deal with surprise and uncertainty. ... Instead we see remarkably short-term behavior and a cavalier disregard of the fate of future generation. While this is often explained as "human nature" of fallible individuals, this explanation should not apply to institutions such as corporations, let alone governments. History and systems theory suggest that powerful and long-lived human institutions should embody longer-term cultural wisdom and capacity."
Holmgren, D. (2009). "Future scenarios", p.21

----- On our "normal" as a historical parenthesis (or an anomaly?)  -----

"Life in cities and suburbs surrounded by technology and sustained by reliable income and debt is "normal" for many people in affluent countries, even though these features only emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century. If future change were to seep away this way of life, many people would see this as "the end of civilzation" even if these changes were quite modest from a historical perspective. ... Perhaps this reflects the egocentric nature of modern mentaliity where we consider our own survival and well-being as being more important than was perhaps felt by past generations."
Holmgren, D. (2009). "Future scenarios", p.24-25

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