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Re: <nettime> Live Your Models
Florian Cramer on Tue, 3 May 2016 05:50:47 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Live Your Models


   Brian,

   > That's where the ambiguities lie. On
   > my view, the radical experiments of the Sixties and Seventies were
   > not misguided, yet they were partially absorbed into the new hegemony
   > of neoliberalism. That's why you have to be careful what you wish
   > for. Today it's time for more rebellion, society has to change again.
   > This time, the absorption of radical experiments will be our direct
   > responsibility.

   �   What you write is not only true for the radical experiments of the 60s
   and 70s, but also for those of the 90s and 2000s of which this list has
   historically been a part - critically, but nevertheless. If we only
   take Free Software/Open Source, Wikipedia, crypto activism,
   peer-to-peer file sharing, hacker�media�activism at large, then they
   all were driven by the same odd coalitions of the social left and
   right-wing libertarianism (in the U.S.: Ayn Randianism) that also
   characterized 60s counterculture. In more recent projects, for example
   crypto currencies, Randianism even seems to have taken the upper hand,
   serving as trailblazers for panoptical society of control technologies
   (blockchain) that are quickly adopted by big enterprises. These odd
   coalitions even characterized the Occupy movement, at least as I
   witnessed it in its initial weeks in NYC.

   But here's an obvious question:

   > The double punch of automation and
   > global supply chains has decimated the industrial working classes
   > without in any way abolishing work, and computer algorithms combined
   > with speech-recognition technologies are doing the same for the
   > middle-class professions.

   This perspective seems to have its historical origins in Keynes' 1930
   essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" and its prediction
   of a 15-hour�work week thanks to automation; for the sake of
   completeness (for people reading this on Nettime), I'd also mention its
   influence on post-WWII Marxist sociologists like Henri Lefebvre,
   subsequently for the Parisian part of the Situationist International
   and its expection of a"leisure society". The thread was taken up by
   radical thinkers like Bob Black with his book "The Abolition of Work"
   in 1985, and now is on the table again with Graeber's and
   Srnicek/Williams' last books.

   > "Full automation" and "the end of work" are also naive ideas, both
   because capitalists have always used automation to�   > disempower the working classes,

   On top of that, they are naive because they are (a) one-sidedly Western
   and (b) overoptimistic regarding the actual possibilities oftechnology
   and constraints of natural resources. The jobs that were abolished
   through automation - computing and robotics - have been replaced by the
   large-scale sweatshop and slave labor in Asia (hardware manufacturing)
   and Africa (natural resource mining). Without this labor, computers
   wouldn't be affordable enough to be mass commodities, without this
   resource exploitation, such as mining of rare metals, much of the
   electronics wouldn't even work.

   Through the news (and propaganda), we only see the spectacular
   successes and progress of robotics and artificial intelligence. We do
   not see what they can't do, where they fail, where deployment is
   labor-intensive on a maintenance level and therefore not economical.
   (One example: Google is currently dumping its spectacular AI robotics
   division Boston Dynamics Inc. because it hasn't been able to develop
   marketable products, never mind the fact that the Boston Dynamics
   YouTube videos have become standard demos for the today's advancement
   of robotics.) Too few people question prophecies like the
   "Singularity", too few activists ever got their hands dirty with
   hardware and software development - and manufacturing - to really grasp
   their complications. There is hardly a system that is more dependent on
   efficiency-optimized global supply chains, high investments into
   manufacturing capacities, economics of scale and, well, the neoliberal
   economic system as computer electronics. So far, their mainstream story
   is that of Hegelian progress. We lack informed critical cultural
   analysis of how frail these systems are, how quick technologies
   collapse, along with their associated research and know-how, when only
   one of their critical components (suc as: mass market demand, or
   natural resource supply, or cheap manufacturing) is removed. (An
   example with which many media creators will be familiar is the collapse
   of Kodak and analog film.)

   On top of that, we have gone through a period of what I would call
   "naive automation" in the last three decades - where critical
   infrastructures are run on critically flawed systems. Not only is the
   hardware resourcing, manufacturing and supply frail, but so is software
   engineering. We already live in a nightmare of buggy and insecure
   systems running on accumulated code cruft that nobody can properly
   maintain: not just PC software and mobile operating systems, but more
   importantly, such infrastructural systems as banking (last week, SWIFT
   has been hacked, this week, it has been revealed that practically all
   ATMs are insecure), insurances, power grids (including nuclear power -
   with the Stuxnet case showing only the tip of the iceberg), flood
   prevention systems (I've heard scary details about the network
   infrastructure of the Dutch national flood protection system...). Linda
   Hilfling is writing her PhD research on the patchy maintenance of 1970s
   Cobol code used by practically all Western banks for their core systems
   through ten thousands of programmers in India working for companies
   specialized on these jobs. Hardly "the end of work".

   The naive belief is that these technologies are still immature, so
   problems will solve themselves over time thanks to technological
   progress. This, of course, the standard answer and the very business
   model of the IT industry. The solution for broken code always has been
   more code to fix and patch up older code. But simple logic tells that
   the more code there is, the more complex and hence unpredictable a
   system becomes. - Stanislaw Lem beautifully illustrated this in 'The
   Futurological Congress' where people use psycho drugs called Mascons to
   mask physical flaws yet their side effects require to use another layer
   of Mascons to mask those side-effects, and so on. This exactly is
   happening with software and automation today. An informed conclusion
   would be that you should never automate critical infrastructures
   because, to quote Wendy Chun, new media/computational systems are
   inherently "leaky". Critical thinkers in the hacker community, like Rop
   Gonggrijp, addressed this years ago when they campaigned against the
   use of voting computers.

   The more automation there will be, the more the attribute "smart" will
   get prefixed to yet another (social or technological) system, the
   greater this nightmare. Aside from that, the utopia of automation seems
   to be ignorant of the hardware and resource costs. There seems to be a
   naive Hegelian belief in Moore's Law - which recently ended, and never
   was a law in the first place - and technological progress as matters of
   self-evidence.

   Here exactly lies the problem that the mistakes of the 1960s and 1990s
   are repeated in the 2010s: namely, in an uncritical alliance of radical
   post-work theories/activism with people like Rifkin - whose "Zero
   Marginal Cost Society" is a techno-Hegelian scenario that willfully
   ignores social, ecological and technological realities, the machine
   rooms and fuel cells of so-called information society.

   You write:

   > This requires both a knowledge of machines and a refusal of
   domination, including the domination of humanity over�   > what are called "natural resources."

   The problem, of course,�being that increased automation does not spare
   natural resources, but means more use of them (energy, water, metals
   etc.). Which brings us back to Rifkin and his partial overlaps with
   Srnicek/Willliams:

   > What Rifkin sells, as a growth package for a future investment wave,
   is the model of a "Third Industrial Revolution" centered�   > on solar power and computerized micro-manufacturing. His first
   insight is that localized electric power generated by wind�   > mills and solar panels on everyone's property or rented roof is only
   practical when it is hooked up to a centrally�   > managed smart power grid that can channel the surplus wherever it is
   needed.

   And this vision completely ignores the environmental and labor
   affordances of manufacturing (and maintaining/replacing) solar panels
   that are plagued with the same issues as other electronics
   manufacturing - and have already turned into the same sweatshop labor.

   It also ignores the great risk of so-called smart grids because they
   create a mutual dependency between energy and the Internet. (In a
   so-called smart grid, there is no energy supply without an Internet
   connection, and there is no Internet connection without energy, to
   describe the issue on its most simple level. The German book 'Offline'
   by Thomas Grüter devotes a whole chapter to this issue/risk.) And even
   if we leave these issues aside assuming, as we did since the
   introduction of nuclear energy, that technological progress will
   somehow fix them, the estimated 10% of CO2 toll of solar energy vs.
   conventional (gas/coal) energy amounts to nothing if these wins are
   eaten up by the data centers and electronic devices needed for global
   automation.

   > More importantly, Rifkin's strategic aim in calling for an investment
   wave centered on solar power, micro-manufacturing and smart grids is to
   undo the hegemony of the giant corporations, particularly the oil
   companies which are directly responsible for climate change and which
   also constitute the civilian component of military imperialism.�
   But here, Srnicek/Williams and accelerationism at large take the
   opposite stance to Rifkin, in their critique of "Folk Politics" of
   decentralization and localization. For me, this the strongest part of
   their book. The flaw in Rifkin, the Maker movement, co-ops and similar
   post-1960s economic visions is that they mix up decentralization with
   environmentalism. The hard truth is that, for example, a modern big
   furniture factory is significantly more environmentally and
   resource-friendly than a FabLab; and of course, a modern data center
   centrally hosting several thousand or million websites is
   environmentally more friendly than thousand or million micro servers in
   individual homes. There are questions whether organic farming really
   makes a large-scale ecological difference to conventional farming;
   while it involves less environmental pollution, it also has lower yield
   and therefore requires larger surfaces to be turned into agricultural
   land.�
   Maybe a first step to cut the unholy alliances of the 60s and 90s is to
   radically question "Folk Politics".�
   Florian

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