To decarbonize we must decomputerize

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

This is the central argument behind a superb piece by Ben Tarnoff, published last week in the Guardian, which bears the provocative title ‘To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution’. This article, which is well worth reading in full, makes the following claims:

  • As more areas of life come to rely on computation, AI and machine learning, the energy footprint of the cloud’s physical infrastructure is rapidly increasing, and is already vast.
  • Much of that energy comes from fossil fuels. It is unlikely that attempts to push for ‘green AI’ will provide anywhere near enough energy to meet demand, which is increasing exponentially.
  • Therefore, digitization is a disaster for the climate.
  • On a human level, although ‘digital enclosure’ is widely regarded as progress, in reality it provides a means for big tech to exert greater control over individuals and populations. (The word ‘Entanglement’ is not used, but this is a classic definition of the Entanglement.)
  • Although resistance is increasing, in order to make a difference we must do more than resist: we must offer a vision for the future we want.
  • Luddism allows us to approach technological developments with intention, considering them from a human-centric viewpoint.
  • ‘We should destroy machinery hurtful to the common good and build machinery helpful to it.’

There’s a whole load of common sense here – common sense that is missing from the mainstream tech debate, which holds the view that handing all human affairs over to computers is good, that if we suffer because of it we’re the problem, and that the new way is always best because look at this futuristic shiny thing! It’s high time that the antihuman ideas of Silicon Valley get consigned to the dustbin of history. I see signs for hope, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A few choice quotes:

we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

In the present tense … putting computers everywhere is bad for most people. It enables advertisers, employers and cops to exercise more control over us – in addition to helping heat the planet.

Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.

Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.

Read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/17/tech-climate-change-luddites-data

The blandness of LinkedIn

(Necessary context: I originally wanted to post this entire rant on LinkedIn as a text post, but the character count was much too high, so I’m posting it in full here instead. Maybe I should have optimised my content a bit more for the platform 😉)

I’m probably about to upset some of you.

I’ve noticed something about LinkedIn.

Everyone writes posts that looks like this.

Have you noticed it? Short, staccato paragraphs.

Presumably this is something to do with optimising content for engagement.

Or maybe it’s just because we all have such short attention spans these days.

Either way, I find it incredibly annoying. These posts all look like clones of each other, with a similar tone and often similar content. I have started to unfollow people who write like this. It’s turning me off LinkedIn faster than I’ve been turned off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (which, let me tell you, is saying something). LinkedIn already has enough annoyances and user-hostile features – why add to them?

The more we optimise ourselves and our content for the machine world, the more machine-like we become. I get it – it’s difficult to be human online, especially when we have brands to build. There’s intense pressure and everyone else seems to be optimising everything they do to serve the demands of volume, speed, and fake authenticity. But this is what the platform wants, and the platform doesn’t care about you – it cares only about devouring attention and turning it into value for advertisers. ‘Engagement’ is fundamentally adversarial because attention is a finite resource.

Please be considerate when you demand the attention of people who have chosen to read what you write. Please be a human being, not a content-optimising drone who only posts stuff that is calibrated to get the most views, likes and comments. When everyone adopts the same hacks to game whatever algorithm is currently deemed to be important for the success of our personal brands, everything looks the same. Individuality is erased in a drab sameness that makes me want to slam my head against the nearest brick wall. If I read another top-10 listicle with a big, Pinterest-friendly header graphic (at just the right image aspect ratio, of course) with text in a ‘quirky’ font I think I will throw my iMac out of the window. Everything on the web is either terrifying or bland these days with nothing in between.

So let’s try to retain what humanity and individuality we can while the machine world still allows it. I’m not saying we should all completely ignore evidence about what is worth doing and what isn’t, because time is precious. But remember that social networks don’t want us to behave like free-thinking individuals – they want us to behave like an anxious mob, constantly following trends because we fear being left behind. When everyone on LinkedIn starts writing stuff in the same way, adopting the same vaguely entrepreneurial, upbeat tone (with the odd bit of ‘today I had a bad day and I’m about to tell you about it’ thrown in to show how authentic we all are), perhaps saying something different – even if it might result in lower engagement, or perhaps precisely because it might result in lower engagement – is the most human response left to us.

Apple gets into the debt business

The same company that urges us to monitor our phone screen time, make healthier choices, and live better lives is now getting into the icky business of debt, incentivizing spending by giving users cashback on their purchases.

Vlad Savov, The Apple Card is Apple’s thinnest and lightest status symbol ever’

Full article here: https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/25/18281259/apple-card-credit-goldman-sachs-titanium-design-event-2019

Life Without the Tech Giants

Kashmir Hill is conducting a fascinating experiment: completely blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from her life, using a custom VPN. Turns out it’s a tricky process:

To keep my devices from talking to the big five’s servers, and vice versa, Dhruv built a virtual private network, or VPN, for me, through which I sent all my internet traffic. He then used the VPN to block my devices from being able to use the IP addresses owned by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and/or Apple, depending on the week.

On a normal day, as measured by the VPN, I tend to send two million data packets out onto the internet and more than half of them (60 percent) go to the tech giants. That meant that over half of my normal internet usage was going to grind to a halt—including virtually every way I communicate with my friends, family, and colleagues.

The first installment is about her attempt to block Amazon, which turned out to be impossible:

Ultimately, I learn that it’s simply not an option to block Amazon permanently. It’s technically impossible given the use of CDNs, and even if we could come up with a perfect block, it would wall me off from too many crucial services and key websites that I can’t function without for both personal and professional reasons.

This is a fascinating experiment that says something important about centralisation on the web. We like to think of the internet as this great big decentralised free-for-all, but it really isn’t – almost all power has fallen into the orbits of a few giant corporations. They hold more power over us as individuals than any pre-web organisations (or governments) ever have. Are we ok with that? I know I’m not.

I’ll be following the rest of Kashmir Hill’s experiment with interest.

All communication systems incorporate biases

An interesting essay from technology critic Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows:

In his books Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), the Canadian historian Harold Innis argued that all communication systems incorporate biases, which shape how people communicate and hence how they think. These biases can, in the long run, exert a profound influence over the organization of society and the course of history. “Bias,” it seems to me, is exactly the right word. The media we use to communicate push us to communicate in certain ways, reflecting, among other things, the workings of the underlying technologies and the financial and political interests of the businesses or governments that promulgate the technologies. (For a simple but important example, think of the way personal correspondence has been changed by the shift from letters delivered through the mail to emails delivered via the internet to messages delivered through smartphones.) A bias is an inclination. Its effects are not inevitable, but they can be strong. To temper them requires awareness and, yes, resistance.

Signal v Noise exits Medium

I was interested to read this morning that Signal v Noise, the blog run by the people behind Basecamp (an excellent collaboration platform that powers the work we do at Sidetracked magazine), has left Medium:

Beyond that, though, we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

I have pondered this question long and hard myself. I maintain an outpost on Medium called View from the Pinnacle, which I use to publish some of my best long-form articles. These are published on my main website first, of course. Anyone who relies 100 per cent on Medium is a fool, but I came round to the view that there was no harm in also posting my articles on this centralised publishing platform.

However, I’m reconsidering that stance. Centralisation is not a force for good on the web. It’s tempting to just publish somewhere that lets you get your writing out with a minimum of effort, but in doing so you relinquish all personal control over your work, and the internet gradually becomes a less open, less diverse, more commercialised place. The medium is part of the message, after all.

I think that individual blogs, personal newsletters, and RSS are long overdue for a renaissance. These are some of the best things that exist on the internet today. Let’s help them thrive. Let’s not pour more of our effort into centralised, monolithic content silos than we absolutely have to.

Update 2019-01-20

I deleted my Medium account. Decided to put my money where my mouth is.

How to avoid Brexit this week

If, like me, you find that thinking or reading about Brexit provokes your anxiety, there are some easy ways to improve your life by avoiding it entirely.

  1. Work from home. This way you can get away with talking to fewer people face to face.
  2. Don’t watch or read the news. It’s scary, anxiety-inducing nonsense anyway and you’ll never see anything that makes your life better. If something happens that you really need to know about, you’ll find out somehow.
  3. Quit Facebook. (Actually this should have been step 1.)
  4. If you’re on Twitter, install the Hide Twitter Guff extension. Since discovering this essential utility my Twitter experience has improved tenfold. It hides the terrifying ‘trends’ sidebar.
  5. Add ‘Brexit’ and all associated fake words (‘Brexiteer’, ‘Remoaner’, ‘Bremoaner’ etc.) to your list of mute filters.
  6. Enjoy a significantly improved, significantly less stressful life.