June 29, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 29th 2020

  • The Sweetgreen-ification of Society. "We are losing the spaces we share across socioeconomic strata. Slowly, but surely, we are building the means for an everyday urbanite to exist solely in their physical and digital class lanes. It used to be the rich, and then everyone else. Now in every realm of daily consumer life, we are able to efficiently separate ourselves into a publicly visible delineation of who belongs where." This is one of the things I miss from Turin. There was more diversity of age groups and social classes living in the city centre (where I did), and good food at all levels of fanciness of restaurant and trattorie.
  • Research In The Wild. An important challenge for our times, and part of why I want more people to understand the realities of tech, and more of them to be in all roles across society. "Suppose Cambridge is going to have regulations about what science of DNA-level technology can be done. Who’s going to make the decisions? You’re not going to let the scientists make the decisions, even though they said, “You can trust us, after all we’re.. .” So you say okay, well, we have to let the public make the decision. So we have to form an outside group. Who are you going to put on the committee? Are you going to walk down to the central square and point at people at random and say, “You’re on the committee”? You can’t do that because people have to be highly educated in this material before they can make decisions. So therefore you take academics or biologists, but they already have a vested interest. And this is a long-standing legal problem in the United States or anywhere. When you want to have a regulation of something, who do you make the regulators? You have to make the regulators people who understand the technology. Who are the people who understand che technology? People who already have a vested interest in it."
  • David Olusoga talk at The Bluecoat. Recorded two years ago, an excellent jaunt through how global so many of the "quintessentially British" things we hold dear really are, and how much we omit from our history. He makes an interesting point during the Q&A that history is somewhere that the British go for comfort. I think there's a lot of truth in that.
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June 28, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Sustainable Movement by Richard Z Hooker

The Sustainable Movement: The Defining Movement of the 21st Century by Richard Z Hooker was a good read, making me re-examine how I'm trying to help us tackle the climate emergency, and giving me lots of pause for thought about the collectives and impact of the Bauhaus and Ulm design schools, and drawing parallels with DoES Liverpool (despite it not being full of designers, nor a school...)

The book was a Kickstarter project, so I'm not sure how you'd get a copy, but if anyone wants to borrow mine give me a shout. Here are my notes/highlighted sections from it...

Page 42

Gropius made it central to the overall objective of the [Bauhaus] school to promote the talents of everyone who studied there. Collective work was to be celebrated over individual personalities, and the desire to share extended outwards to an embrace of the wider community.

Page 78

The year before the school officially opened, Max Bill was already beginning to imagine a future where a designer from the Ulm school would affect the public at two levels:

1. As a responsible citizen
2. As the designer of products that were better and cheaper than all the others and thus help raise the standard of living for broad levels of the population and create a culture for our technological era.

For Bill these principles applied to every area of consumer goods production, and all forms of design - from housing to modern transport. This was a rejection of a designer's tendency to retreat into dreams and fantasies, and instead, as the art historian Hatje Cantz explains, a concerted effort to devote a designer's energy 'quite pragmatically to the everyday world and its needs.'

Page 107

So the big capitalism truck continues to career down the road, increasingly out of control. There's now fewer people in the front trying to steer it, and more in the back trying desperately to unload whatever remains of its precious cargo. Meanwhile, with the route still set to the pursuit of infinite growth, the juggernaut just keeps on going, swerving dangerously towards an increasingly perilous cliff-edge of climate (and social) breakdown.

Page 130

Experimental thought spaces aren't useful just to the arts - the writer John Higgs points out that 'mathematicians during the 18th century played around with imaginary numbers for the fun of it and found them to be surprisingly useful. Over time their properties became understood and they became an important tool for engineers. Our understanding of phenomena such as radio waves or electricity is reliant on them.' So, as he goes on to suggest: 'Artists couldn't create without magical thinking, just as engineers couldn't work without rational materialism.'

Page 177

Danny Hills, an inventor, scientist, author and engineer explains: 'Technology is the name we give to something when it doesn't work properly yet.' The use of this label is then more than a little worrying considering a recurring belief throughout human history has been that 'technology will save us.' Silicon Valley has most recently tried respinning this flawed but still popular myth, and a financial climate led largely by speculation allows this fiction to flourish. Meanwhile, back down here in reality, technology will never 'save us', but the ideas and actions born from it one day just might.

Page 206

3. Professionals appear to 'DENY' or ignore 'The Negative', particularly about themselves of their projects.
4. Professionals appear to create and positively reinforce facades and perceptions until these facades and perceptions are 'perceived' to be fact (media do this all the time).
7. 'NORMAL' today appears to be 'professional values' rather than say 'Spiritual Values' or a reverence for life.

Page 223

Carne Ross, a diplomat with an interest in complexity theories, likes to say: 'We think we need to be big to be powerful, when in fact we can be small.' This can include the scale and reach of our own actions as well.

Page 237

'Now this thing about ecosystems' [Brian Eno] explains, 'is that it's impossible to tell what the important parts are. It's not a hierarchy, you know. We're used to thinking of things that are arranged in levels like that, with the important things at the top and the less important things at the bottom. Ecosystems aren't like that. They're richly interconnected and they're co-dependent in many, many ways.'

Page 238

To adapt and 'repurpose' an old Bill Moggridge quote: 'If there's a simple, easy design principle that binds everything together, it's probably about starting with the people and nature, and ending with the people and nature.'

Page 264

Through any transitional period bursting with new technology, the methods by which artists continue to contribute to culture, involves them continuing to also verse themselves in the use of all the new tools at their disposal.

Page 284

Parent trees protect their youngsters in the forest around them by shielding them from the worst of the wind and the rain. Despite the overwhelming evidence today that suggests capitalism isn't in such good shape. For the time being at least, a young movement embracing a more sustainable future, can help itself by growing close enough to its parents to still benefit from the shelter provided. Securing longevity may begin with accepting a few short-term contradictions.

Page 293

Dieter Rams, the modern product designer's spiritual guru, declared in 2009 a poignantly simple ambition: 'The future of design is in enabling us to survive on this planet. This is no exaggeration.'

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June 22, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 22nd 2020

  • Anti-Monopoly Thinking. Good thinking about breaking up the big tech companies, from Tim Bray (who's worked at a few of them).
  • Democracy as a Platform: Learning from Taiwan. Alistair Parvin asks why "we have tended to frame digital technology and the Web as an exclusively private sector phenomenon". I think the default assumption that we should build everything to scale is another aspect of tech that we should be scrutinising too.
  • You have reached the next level. "This is big-time news, and I think probably the biggest and most important part of the book. Why? Because if Uber is doing it, then all the other comapnies are likely doing it too.

    And what this means is that, not only are our private communications not safe from the CIA, NSA, and advertisers, they’re also not safe from companies coming in to impersonate people we trust, if those people are tied to sketchy companies.

    Ok, granted, all of this this is a little tinfoil-hat-y, even for me. But if Uber did it, where else is it happening [...]?"
  • Russ in Cheshire's the [half] week in Tory for this week. These Twitter threads (it's a regular, sadly, series) are well written, and good summaries of just how much shit this Government is doing. A couple of them jumped out in particular this time: "9. Meanwhile, the Housing Minister admitted he knew he was breaking the law when he saved a billionaire Tory donor dodge £50m tax, - half the cost of feeding 1.3m children" and 13. In March, student nurses nearing the end of training were asked to forego exams and volunteer to fight Covid19 on the front line; 14. This week their contracts were dropped, so from July they have no work, no pay and no qualification; 15. And their July wage won’t be paid". I appreciate these collections of the deplorable actions of the Tories, but also feel that this bringing them to light isn't enough. Harking back to this other Twitter thread from another recent "Interesting Things..." post. How do we find the pressure points to hold these politicians to account? Do we need to help and encourage our journalists? Do we ask the many more backbench and junior Tory MPs why they're happy to enable this behaviour? Do we take to the streets? Build a queue of issues and a solidarity movement where we keep the focus on the first one till it's resolved and only then move onto the next outrage? Something else? What else?
  • Datasette: A Developer, a Shower and a Data-Inspired Moment. "Willison maintains 73 open source projects, and he says the only way you can maintain 73 projects is if you treat every single one of them as if you’re not a core maintainer. Each must have a ReadMe and tests and detailed issue threads discussing what he was working on." This is a big part of my habits too.

Netflix have put a bunch of their documentaries on YouTube for free, including this beautifully shot worrying look at how small changes in global temperatures are disrupting our ocean ecosystems

The cameras they use in this are awesome assemblages of 3D printing, Arduino and Raspberry Pi too.

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Most of Us Want a More Progressive Country, Why Can't We Have It?

A few days ago I tweeted a link to the terrible list of Government behaviour and actions of just a few days of their administration.

I was appealing for even just a fairer Tory Government, because (a) the bar is set so low, I have lived through better Tory Governments myself, and (b) I'm more interested (as ever) in working out how we can all move forwards together, and lots more people voted Tory at the last election.

My mate Ross (amicably) disagreed, but I've always assumed that the alternative would be revolution, and that's not going to be a good thing to live through.

Then yesterday I came across a couple of old blog posts: What's Going On?, from 2013, and Bewildered, from 2016. Both happen to talk about how as a country we'll "muddle through". In 2013 I was "sure" that we would, by 2016 I wasn't so sure:

"I had hoped that we'd muddle through in that seemingly very British way where we don't seem to veer too extremely in any direction, but I'm scared that that won't be the case."

This morning I read Why does England vote Tory? by Adam Ramsay, and now I don't think I want us to "muddle through".

I don't want a bloody revolution either, but thousands of us are already dying every week thanks to the actions (or inaction) of the upper-classes in power, and the dead are far more likely to be Black, minority ethnic, and the working class.

As Ramsay says, "There is no non-controversial way to do this.". We need to work through the controversy and our discomfort with it.

Ramsay's earlier post Churchill must fall is also an interesting read. He points out the racist atrocities that Churchill perpetrated, partly during his leadership in the Second World War. It was also Churchill who sent a warship from the Royal Navy to sit in the Mersey, ready for use on his own people, in the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike.

I don't think a Culture War is useful, as that's just a class war between the middle- and the working-class, which serves the upper-class very well. The far right is seen by liberals as a white, working-class problem from outside the cities. I don't think that's true, there are racists all across Britain, in all classes.

We need solidarity between the Black community, the working-class, and the middle-class as we understand our differences and work towards our common aims.

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June 21, 2020

Land Reform and the NW Mutual Bank?

Alastair Parvin has written an excellent piece, A New Land Contract, arguing that land reform is a key issue for building a better Britain. I think he's right.

The proposals at the end are interesting reading too, although I'm not sure that local authorities are the best guardians for the land, given the way that central Government is forcing councils across the country to sell off their land holdings in order to make up the shortfall in funding.

Maybe we can build some new communal institutions or patterns instead?

Is a step along the road encouraging more Community Land Trusts? Homebaked CLT is the obvious urban example. Talking to them about whether we should look for something similar for DoES Liverpool is one of my background, long-term planning exploration, intentions.

Similarly is that a way for the artists to club together to increase the amount of studio space in the city? Joining forces to all pay into a co-operative that slowly buys up more and more space to rent out cheaply, with the surplus used to expand a communal land bank.

Maybe the new North West Mutual bank collaboration between Wirral, Preston and Liverpool councils could provide more favourable mortgage rates to such initiatives.

And if CLTs aren't quite the right legal vehicle, maybe the Mutual could help develop and then finance it...

ADDED NOTE: The other, related, item would be to help communities to buy any Assets of Community Value, particularly if coupled with the building of tools to encourage more Assets of Community Value to be registered before they're under threat.

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June 15, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

At only 81 pages, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher is a short read, but packed with lots of food for thought.

As ever, here are the sections I highlighted while reading it, to give you a flavour of it...

Page 1

For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic.

Page 7

[Fredric Jameson] argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.

Page 9

Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled 'alternative' or 'independent' cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. 'Alternative' and 'independent' don't designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.

Page 14

[...] since the form of [Corporate anti-capitalism's] activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn't expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005's Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? [...] one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father.

Page 16

Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Maybe that's what we're seeing now with its failure to cope with the needs for basic necessities on the shop shelves, or PPE for healthcare professionals.

Page 19

[...] we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The 'mental health plague' in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Page 28

In any case resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around. Capital thought very carefully about how to break labor; yet there has still not yet been enough thought about what tactics will work against capital in conditions of post-Fordism, and what new language can be innovated to deal with those conditions. It is important to contest capitalism's appropriation of 'the new', but to reclaim the 'new' can't be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves — we've done that rather too well, and 'successful adaptation' is the strategy of managerialism par excellence.

Page 42

What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.

Page 49

The frustration of dealing with bureaucrats often arises because they themselves can make no decisions; rather, they are permitted only to refer to decisions that have always-already been made (by the big Other). Kafka was the greatest writer on bureaucracy because he saw that this structure of disavowal was inherent to bureaucracy. The quest to reach the ultimate authority who will finally resolve K's official status can never end, because the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other's intentions. And these acts of interpretation, these deferrals of responsibility, are all that the big Other is.

Page 63

As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. What exemplifies the failure of the neoliberal world to live up to its own PR better than the call center? Even so, the universality of bad experiences with call centers does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient, as if the problems with call centers weren't the systemic consequences of a logic of Capital which means organizations are so fixated on making profits that they can't actually sell you anything.

Page 69

At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse — it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic — is not only a dissimulation; it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals — but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor.

Page 79

As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital's globalism with its own, authentic, universality.


the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism). This is a struggle that can be won — but only if a new political subject coalesces; it is an open question as to whether the old structures (such as the trade unions) will be capable of nurturing that subjectivity, or whether it will entail the formation of wholly new political organizations.

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June 08, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 8th 2020

  • 'All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace': Care and the Cybernetic University. On AI and automation and machine learning, ostensibly in education, but applicable everywhere. It's long been easy to make a good living in tech helping to further the "inevitable" drive for "efficiency" for those with power. It's only been inevitable because we have enabled it, and the current pandemic has shown efficiency to be the false god it always was. Many of us got into technology because of the power that it gave us, we need to share that with the less powerful, not pile more of it onto the plates of the already powerful in the hope that we'll catch the crumbs.

Nineteen years ago next month, there was rioting outside (what's now) my front door as the over-zealous policing of the black community in Toxteth reached breaking point. This is a really interesting collection of interviews with some of those involved...

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June 01, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 1st 2020

  • Solving the “The Miracle Sudoku”. As Kottke quotes: "You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.". It's true. I was not expecting to watch 25 minutes of someone solving a Sudoku, but I did, and it was great!
  • #DemandANewNormal. A campaign to find hopes and answers to how we build a better life after the Before.
  • Coronagrifting: A Design Phenomenon. Not just a problem during the Pandemic, but the triumph of glossy renders of may-or-may-not-be-actually-possible-to-make-but-who-cares over the harder to build, possibly compromised because it has to obey the laws of physics of real things. Falls squarely into what my mate Jo calls PRollocks
  • It’s Time to Build for Good. "Building means founding new companies and forging new industry, but it also means building state capacity and creating functional mediating institutions for labor. Reconstructing the better part of an industrial society will take decades; and with our present white-collar workforce left utterly directionless, inflated by elite overproduction, and medicated at world-historic levels, sending a million students to Harvard will not, as Andreessen suggests, help spur technological progress. Rather, it is the regeneration of practically grounded trade schools and state-backed coordination that is needed to retrain a productive workforce." In the UK (and I expect also the US, but my research was here) we have more industry than we think, but not as much as we need.
  • Facebook reportedly ignored its own research showing algorithms divided users. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” one slide from the presentation read. The group found that if this core element of its recommendation engine were left unchecked, it would continue to serve Facebook users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” A separate internal report, crafted in 2016, said 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them. Apparently although we couldn't trust them to do the right thing back in 2016, we can definitely trust them now they've been found out...
  • Ask Why: Sara Little Turnbull. Interesting bio on Sarah Little Turnbull, who was behind the design of the now-much-known N95 face masks.
  • You're seeing all the necessary tools, for us to shrug off this crisis, go unused while people argue over who should get the credit and profit. Even worse, you're seeing vital help withheld because recipients might not, "deserve it...". Short, depressing but excellent Facebook post about America's response to the crisis. It mostly applies to the UK too. Sigh.
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