Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Once and Future Internet

Thought experiment: what if a text-based internet, plus some low grade pictures was sustainable but the video-based internet wasn't? What if the future of the internet looked like its past?

Low-tech Magazine did a piece on how they had changed their content so it would be run on a totally off-grid solar-powered server at their office in Barcelona.  They began by discussing the state of the internet:
. . . content is becoming increasingly resource-intensive. This has a lot to do with the growing importance of video, but a similar trend can be observed among websites. The size of the average web page (defined as the average page size of the 500,000 most popular domains) increased from 0.45 megabytes (MB) in 2010 to 1.7 megabytes in June 2018. For mobile websites, the average “page weight” rose tenfold from 0.15 MB in 2011 to 1.6 MB in 2018. Using different measurement methods, other sources report average page sizes of up to 2.9 MB in 2018.
Also they link to this piece which provides more context, and develops the theme that due to bad programming, computers hardware has to race as fast as it can just to stay in place.

If we would remove video, tracking and surveillance crud, and intelligently compress our images, the internet could be maintained at a small fraction of its current energy and resource use.  But this is a great example of wandism versus probablism.  If we could wave a wand one time and make a bunch of web-sites in this manner, the internet would be more resilient.  The question is whether we can get there from here.  We are culturally conditioned to hate the idea of "going back," almost for any reason.  I would say that people will clamor for video as long as possible, even if that crowds out investing in an internet that could work long-term.

And if I am going to raise questions about the internet's long-term viability, it seems that I might as well question whether printed books are sustainable.  Well, can the world sustain printed books for ten billion people?  Can it do so for three centuries, four centuries . . . a hundred centuries?

 I'm okay with asking these questions, because I don't just blindly believe the neat narratives of the cult of progress (see John Michael Greer's one, two punch on the subject). I question the inevitability of progress that is just onward and upward to the stars, especially when I am told I best believe in it as the only justification for our existence and our problems. 

There are those who believe that
The only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age, and we are going to be there again someday, the only questions are: what’s going to be left of the world when we get there? Will humans even exist? When will this happen? 
I'm not so sure.  Knowledge has a remarkable capacity to build on itself and grow, as long as ideas are spread and not just hoarded and hidden away.  What I do know, and yet somehow many people can't know is that what is unsustainable will not last.  So either we will one day find ways that can last, or we will bungle it and be worse off than what would have been theoretically sustainable.

I'm rooting for the internet, but my heart would be broken in a world without books.  I love the old internet, and its spirit lives on in my The Best of the Free Internet document.  Hyperlinks, and easy copying and pasting are fantastic technologies.  The two important questions are: 1) Can those technologies add more value than they cost? 2) Can we organize systems that keep that value going?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Rhetoric Workshop: Abolish Jobs, Not Work

I like Bob Black's essay The Abolition of Work so much that every time I  mention it, or even think about it, I feel a strong desire to re-read it in its entirety. It and David Graeber's essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs provide the quickest education I know of in real liberty instead of making government a singular scapegoat for a life wasted and otherwise poorly lived.

With that said, for a long time something has felt off to me about Black's essay.  I have reflected on the matter for years, and have come to the conclusion that the concern is that I don't use the word "work" in the way Black does, which is after all, a rather large issue with the essay, considering the title itself.

I think the difference in meaning comes from the domains in which Black and I do our thinking and thus our writing.  Black is talking in the domain of political philosophy, whereas I am concerned about living a good, private life. In doing so, I think a lot about art, and find the process of creation to be one of the most important answers to questions of meaning and fulfillment.   Black's use of "work" is semantically close to "worker" and the phrase "worker's of the world unite."  My use of "work" is closer to "work of art," and the phrase "the collected works of Shakespeare."

When I have leisure time, as well as, crucially, a minimum effective dose of real human contact, I feel driven to create.  And though I have found that there is a time and place aimless creation, such as making a painting by just slopping color, what I really want is something that forces judgement, refinement, and, yes, some effort.  I have to agree with Aaron Swartz when he wrote:
Hard work isn’t supposed to be pleasant, we’re told. But in fact it’s probably the most enjoyable thing I do. Not only does a tough problem completely absorb you while you’re trying to solve it, but afterwards you feel wonderful having accomplished something so serious.
I don't think this kind of work has to be assigned by someone else, and in my experience it usually isn't.  After all, the authoritarian mindset will push a leader to find some way to break the flow or otherwise hamper the task, but the fact remains that I really love to work and I even work hard to find ways to find meaningful work. 

If his essay is anything to go on, Black would probably counter that I am describing a love for a particular kind of play.  Perhaps, and I wouldn't quibble too much for someone who wanted to maintain that position, but I think that "work" is the best word for what I often want to do because the labor and effort I put in shows up on some level and adds immensely to the charm of a piece.

Thus, I propose that instead of talking about abolishing work, we can use the word "job."  Instead of thinking bad things about, and occasionally writing pieces criticizing the work system, I conceptualize it as the job system.  This also tracks closely with how the ideology in question functions; if you do a lot of hard work on your own, but it isn't for a business, it usually doesn't count in other peoples' minds.  "What do you do?" is a question to figure out your job, and thus figure out your role and what status should go with that in the questioner's eyes.  Almost no one wants to hear what you are working on, especially now that so few people do any work of real value.

What do I do?  I report to bullshit for billable hours.  I try to live below the means of those credits from billable hours and invest the proceeds, hoping to give my life more slack so those I can take care of those I am responsible for while still being a righteous dude.

Oh, what do I do for purpose?  I think, I read, and I create art, trying to work at it as hard as I can considering all the bullshit I have to deal with.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book-Reading Strategy

This piece is about a strategy for reading books, with a good starter definition of "book" being a treatment of a subject that goes over 100 pages.  If you want a discussion of shorter works, perhaps see my comments on the Searcher's Internet or The Best of Free Internet.

Part 1 Read what I am supposed to have read.

I at first considered putting supposed in quotes (like this: "supposed") but I think we have more of a common understanding what that means than you'd think from our default relativism and rush-from-judgment ways.  I think there it would be relatively easy to construct an algorithm for a person feels they should have read if you followed someone around and listened to all of their conversations. The combination of data from a cell phone and Alexa would work nicely for many so-cool cutting-edge modern Americans.  I don't mean to state I know how to do the job of the masters of our tiny universe, and almost certainly this will never be what they use their surveillance for, but I imagine the algorithm would either be based on how many times a book or author was mentioned, or perhaps we would need a weighting based on who mentioned the book, opinion leaders being something else I feel it would be easy enough to model.  Either way, once the data was established, I think an X percent could be established for how likely we are to state we  wish we had read it a book.

I try to read all of those books that form that set for me.  Since I was in elementary school I have been able to adopt the tactic of getting through difficult, not super fun books by reading at 10 pages a day until they are done.  I don't know why reading needs to be more difficult than this.

Part 2.  Read what what "no one" has read.

This time I am using quote marks, because obviously it can't literary be true that no one has read these books.  If nothing else, the author had to read it. But really, I just mean read things no one else in my social circle has read.

One benefit of reading what no reads is that I have things to bring up in conversation, different stories, statistics, and anecdotes than anyone else.  I remember one time I had read a book from over a hundred years ago about mechanical and electrical tinkering.  That evening at a meal with my wife's family I mentioned how funny I thought it was that the took for granted the uses of asbestos.  The adults had a laugh and my nephew and the girl he was with did that slight little freeze up thing when you have no idea what someone is talking about.  I made light of this, and we all had another little laugh.  I may not be world-class weird, but I sure am weird to a small group of people whom I care about.

Another great thing about reading these kinds of obscure books is that it allows me to get practice seeing completely with my own eyes.  Since the coming of the printing press, one of the most important arguments for reading has been its ability to transport the reader to other places, thus freeing them from the  parochial and mundane.  However, when you move past books people should have read to the books people claim to have read (note: experience has taught me to not believe most people when they say they have), you run into the baggage of interpretations and expectations (even if they are lying about having read the work in question).  When you read a book no one else knows anything about, you have no choice but to think for yourself.

Ideally, that skill would transfer to other domains, but that a rare thing indeed.  However, if nothing else, all this book reading takes you away from advertisements, (lazy) fools, and narcissists.  To make a turn on a point Camus made about wealth, the time spent reading can only earn you a reprieve.  But a reprieve is always worth taking.