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Late Capitalism

Steven Johnson drew my attention to this stream of twitter (all these years later ‘tweets’ still makes me cringe) from Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen is now famous as a venture capitalist, cheerleader of The Californian Ideology, and perhaps most of all for the quote/essay ‘Software is eating the world’.

I have a lot to be thankful to Marc Andreesen for – he, in part, invented the software that effectively gave me (and you, probably) a financially-viable life messing about with what I love – networked technology.

So – assuming you can’t be bothered to click the link – what does he say?

Well.

It starts like this.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.56.39 AM

Reminds me of “Maximum Happy Imagination” from Robin Sloan’s excellent “Mr Penumbra’s 24hr Bookstore”.

“Have you ever played Maximum Happy Imagination?”

“Sounds like a Japanese game show.”

Kat straightens her shoulders. “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Okay: “World government… no cancer… hover-boards.”

“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”

“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”

“Further.”

“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”

“Further.”

“I pause a moment, then realize: “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense, right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

After a lot of stuff that anyone with mild extropian/protopian/Rodenberrian exposure might nod along to, Andreesen’s stream of consciousness ends like this.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.12.21 AM

His analogies run out in the 20th century when it comes to the political, social and economic implications of his maximum happy imagination.

Consumer-capitalism in-excelsis?

That system of the world was invented. It’s not really natural. To imagine that capitalism is not subject to deconstruction, reinvention or critique in maximum happy imagination seems a little silly.

If disruption is your mantra – why not go all the way?

He states right at the start that there are zero jobs in the sectors affected by his future. Writers on futures such as Toffler and Rifkin, and SF from the lofty peaks of Arthur C. Clarke to the perhaps lower, more lurid weekly plains of 2000AD have speculated for decades on ‘The Leisure Problem’.

Recently, I read “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford which extrapolates a future similar to Andreesen’s, wherein the self-declared market-capitalist author ends up arguing for something like a welfare state…

Another world is possible, right?

I’ll hope Marc might grudgingly nod at that at least.

It’ll need brains like his to get there.

Just finished reading “Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products” by Leander Kahney, which is mainly fascinating because of the abscence of it’s subject. Ive has said so little in public (aside from in corporate pr films) that the book paints a detailed picture of everything around him – the design culture he was raised in, both in education and industry, the design group and wider engineering/manufacturing culture at Apple – right down to gems like this:

“Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point.”

Needless to say I really enjoyed it – but Ive is just the hook the book hangs off. It wouldn’t exist or sell as a book without him, although it’s full of fascinating detail about how Apple products are designed and made.

The little you do learn about Ive as a design leader is good. A little hagiographic, but hey. I’d recommend it more for the insights into the design, making and manufacturing approach at Apple than the man at the centre of it however.

‘In America, on the other hand,’ Milton explained, ‘designers are very much serving what industry wants. In Britain, there is more of the culture of the garden shed, the home lab, the ad hoc and experimental quality. And Jony Ive interacts in such a way … [he] takes big chances, instead of an evolutionary approach to design – and if they had focus-grouped Ive’s designs, they wouldn’t have been a success.’

If the education system in America tended to teach students how to be an employee, British design students were more likely to pursue a passion and to build a team around them.

‘As an industrial designer, you have to take that great idea and get it out into the world, and get it out intact. You’re not really practising your craft if you are just developing a beautiful form and leaving it at that.’

I can’t have people working in cubicle hell. They won’t do it. I have to have an open studio with high ceilings and cool shit going on. That’s just really important. It’s important for the quality of the work. It’s important for getting people to do it. – ROBERT BRUNNER

He wanted a ‘small, really tight’ studio. ‘We would run it like a small consulting studio, but inside the company,’ he said. ‘Small, effective, nimble, highly talented, great culture.’4 Setting up a consultancy inside Apple seemed in line with the company’s spirit: unconventional, idea driven, entrepreneurial. ‘It was because, really, I didn’t know any other way,’ Brunner explained. ‘It wasn’t a flash of brilliance: that was the only thing I knew how to do.’

In 1997, English contributed photos to Kunkel’s book about the design group, AppleDesign, but he also worked with a lot of other design studios in the Valley. To his eye, Apple seemed different. It wasn’t just the tools and their focus; the place was rapidly populated with designer toys, too, including spendy bikes, skateboards, diving equipment, a movie projector and hundreds of films. ‘It fostered this really creative, take-a-risk atmosphere, which I didn’t see at other firms,’ said English.

Brunner also made about half a dozen of the designers ‘product line leaders’ (PLLs) for Apple’s major product groups: CPUs, printers, monitors and so on. The PLLs acted as liaisons between the design group and the company, much in the way an outside design consultancy would operate. ‘The product groups felt there was a contact within the design group,’ Brunner said.

Brunner wanted to shift the power from engineering to design. He started thinking strategically. His off-line ‘parallel design investigations’ were a key part of his strategy. ‘We began to do more longer-term thinking, longer-term studies around things like design language, how future technologies are implemented, what does mobility mean?’ The idea was to get ahead of the engineering groups and start to make Apple more of a design-driven company, rather than a marketing or engineering one. ‘We wanted to get ahead of them, so we’d have more ammunition to bring to the process.’

In hindsight, Brunner’s choices – the studio’s separation from the engineering groups, its loose structure, the collaborative workflow and consultancy mind-set – turned out to be fortuitous. One of the reasons Apple’s design team has remained so effective is that it retains Brunner’s original structure. It’s a small, tight, cohesive group of extremely talented designers who all work on design challenges together. Just like the designers had done at Lunar, Tangerine and other small agencies. The model worked.

‘Bob did more than lay the foundations for Jony’s design team at Apple – he built the castle,’ said Clive Grinyer. ‘After Bob, it was the first time that an in-house design team was cool.’

Jony was looking for the Mac NC’s ‘design story’. As his dad, Mike, had instilled in him, developing the design story was an essential first step in conceiving something entirely new. ‘As industrial designers we no longer design objects,’ Jony said. ‘We design the user’s perceptions of what those objects are, as well as the meaning that accrues from their physical existence, their function and the sense of possibility they offer.’

‘When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation,’ Jony said. ‘But when you made a 3-D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes – the entire process shifts. It galvanizes and brings focus from a broad group of people.

Though Jobs rejected all five names, Segall refused to give up on iMac. He went back again with three or four new names, but again pitched iMac. This time, Jobs replied: ‘I don’t hate it this week, but I still don’t like it.’43 Segall heard nothing more about the name from Jobs personally, but friends told him that Jobs had the name silk-screened onto prototypes of the new computer, testing it out to see if he liked the look. ‘He rejected it twice but then it just appeared on the machine,’ Segall recalled. He came to believe that Jobs changed his mind just because the lower-case ‘i’ looked good on the product itself.

Boxes may seem trivial, but Jony’s team felt that unpacking a product greatly influenced the all-important first impressions. ‘Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,’ Jony said then. ‘I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.’

‘Innovation,’ he wrote, ‘is rarely about a big idea; more usually it’s about a series of small ideas brought together in a new and better way. Jony’s fanatical drive for excellence is, I think, most evident in the stuff beyond the obvious; the stuff you perhaps don’t notice that much, but which makes a difference to how you interact with the product, how you feel about it.’

‘Apple designers spend ten percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming. They spend ninety percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.’

On iPhone launch day, Jobs turned to Kay and casually asked, ‘What do you think, Alan? Is it good enough to criticize?’ The question was a reference to a comment made by Kay almost twenty-five years earlier, when he had deemed the original Macintosh ‘the first computer worth criticizing’. Kay considered Jobs’s question for a moment and then held up his moleskin notebook. ‘ “Make the screen at least five inches by eight inches and you will rule the world,” he said.’

‘I have literally seen buildings where as far as the eye can see, where you can see machines carving, mostly aluminium, dedicated exclusively for Apple at Foxconn,’ said Guatam Baksi, a product design engineer at Apple from 2005 to 2010. ‘As far as the eye can see.’

Unibody represents a giant financial gamble by Apple. When it started investing seriously around 2007, Apple contracted with a Japanese manufacturer to buy all the milling machines it could produce for the next three years. By one estimate, that was 20,000 CNC milling machines a year, some costing upward of $250,000 and others $1 million or more. The spending didn’t stop there, as Apple bought up even more, acquiring every CNC milling machine the company could find. ‘They bought up the entire supply,’ said one source. ‘No one else could get a look in.’

Apple spent $9.5 billion on capital expenditures, the majority of which was earmarked for product tooling and manufacturing processes. By comparison, the company spent $865 million on retail stores. Thus, Apple spent nearly eleven times as much on its factories as on its stores, most of which are in prime (that is, expensive) real estate locations.

Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point. The plasticized materials are then pushed together under enormous force, and the spinning bobbin stirs them together. The result is a seamless and very strong bond. In the past, FSW required machines costing up to three million dollars apiece, so its use was confined to fabricating rocket and aircraft parts. More recent advances allowed CNC milling machines to be retrofitted to perform FSW at a much lower cost. In addition to its other advantages, FSW produces no toxic fumes and finished pieces that require no extra filler metal for further machining, making the process more environmentally friendly than traditional welding.

‘That’s probably the single greatest effect, that we nowadays expect many things to have better designs. Because of Apple, we got to compare crappy portable computers versus really nice ones, crappy phones versus really nice ones. We saw a before-and-after effect. Not over a generation, but within a few years. Suddenly 600 million people had a phone that put to shame the phone they used to have. That is a design education at work within our culture.’

The chairman writes:

*Everybody’s got a theory about the Internet-of-Things and its killer applications.

*It reminds me of the days when the Information Superhighway was all about 500-channel television. Nowadays we’ve got five zillion channel television, and it’s scarcely recognized as an existent technical reality. Those historical acts of foresight are so beside the point now that they’re “not even wrong.”

I’d been recommended “The Red Men” by many.

Webb, Timo, Rod, Schulze, Bridle (who originally published it) all mentioned it in conversation monthly, and sometimes weekly as memetic tides of our work rose and fell into harmony with it.

The physical (red) book stared at me from a shelf until, recently, aptly it lept the fence into the digital, and was republished as an e-book.

This leap was prompted by the release of Shynola’s excellent short film – “Dr. Easy” – that brings to life the first chapter (or 9mins 41secs) of the book.

The Red Men resonates with everything.

Everything here on this site, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve done. Everything I’m doing.

In fact, “resonates” is the wrong word.

Shakes.

It shook me.

Read it.

My highlights, fwiw (with minimal-to-no spoilers) below:

“I wriggled my hand free of Iona’s grasp and checked my pulse. It was elevated. Her question came back to me: Daddy, why do people get mad? Well, my darling, drugs don’t help. And life can kick rationality out of you. You can be kneecapped right from the very beginning. Even little girls and boys your age are getting mad through bad love. When you are older, life falls short of your expectations, your dreams are picked up by fate, considered, and then dashed upon the rocks, and then you get mad. You just do. Your only salvation is to live for the dreams of others; the dreams of a child like you, my darling girl, my puppy pie, or the dreams of an employer, like Monad.”

“The body of the robot was designed by a subtle, calculating intelligence, with a yielding cover of soft natural materials to comfort us and a large but lightweight frame to acknowledge that it was inhuman. The robot was both parent and stranger: you wanted to lay your head against its chest, you wanted to beat it to death. When I hit my robot counsellor, its blue eyes held a fathomless love for humanity.”

“ugliness was a perk confined to management.”

“Positioning himself downwind of the shower-fresh hair of three young women, Raymond concentrated on matching the pace of this high velocity crowd. There were no beggars, no food vendors, no tourists, no confused old men, no old women pulling trolleys, no madmen berating the pavement, to slow them down; he walked in step with a demographically engineered London, a hand-picked public.”

“Over the next few days you will encounter more concepts and technology like this that you may find disturbing. If at any time you feel disorientated by Monad, please contact your supervisor immediately.’

‘How do you help him?’ ‘It’s about live analysis of opportunities. Anyone can do retrospective analysis. I crunch information at light speed so I’m hyper-responsive to changing global business conditions. Every whim or idea Harold has, I can follow it through. I chase every lead, and then I present back to him the ones which are most likely to bear fruit. I am both his personal assistant and, in some ways, his boss.’

“So long as the weirdness stayed under the aegis of a corporation, people would accept it.”

“Once you pass forty, your faculties recede every single day. New memories struggle to take hold and you are unable to assimilate novelty. Monad is novelty. Monad is the new new thing. Without career drugs, the future will overwhelm us, wave after wave after wave.’”

“No one has access to any code. I doubt we could understand it even if we did. All our IT department can offer is a kind of literary criticism.’

‘I can’t sleep. I stopped taking the lithium a while ago. Is this the mania again? Monad is a corporation teleported in from the future: discuss. Come on! You know, don’t you? You know and you’re not telling. I would have expected more protests. Anti-robot rallies, the machine wars, a resistance fighting for what it means to be human. No one cares, do they? Not even you. You’ll get up in the morning and play this message and it will be last thing you want to hear.’

“George Orwell wrote that after the age of thirty the great mass of human beings abandon individual ambition and live chiefly for others. I am one of that mass.”

“Plenty of comment had been passed on the matter, worrying over the philosophical and ethical issues arising from simulated peope, and it was filed along with the comment agitating about global warming, genetically modified food, nano-technology, cloning, xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, superviruses and rogue nuclear fissile material.”

“His gaze raked to and fro across the view of the city, the unsettled nervous energy of a man whose diary is broken down into units of fifteen minutes.”

“This has been very useful. Send my office an invoice. Before I go, tell me, what is the new new thing?’ I answered immediately. ‘The Apocalypse. The lifting of the veil. The revelation.’ ‘Yes, of course.’ His coat was delivered to him. As he shuck it on, Spence indicated to the waiter that I was to continue to drink at his expense. ‘Still, the question we must all ask ourselves is this: what will we do if the Apocalypse does not show up?’”

“History had been gaining on us all year and that clear sunny morning in New York it finally pounced.”

“‘No. Advanced technology will be sold as magic because it’s too complicated for people to understand and so they must simply have faith in it.”

‘Every generation loses sight of its evolutionary imperative. By the end of the Sixties it was understood that the power of human consciousness must be squared if we were to ensure the survival of mankind. This project did not survive the Oil Crisis. When I first met you, you spoke of enlightenment. That project did not survive 9/11. With each of these failures, man sinks further into the quagmire of cynicism. My question is: do you still have any positive energy left in you?’

“‘My wife is pregnant,’ I replied. ‘My hope grows every day. It kicks and turns and hiccups.’ Spence did not like my reply. Stoker Snr took over the questioning. ‘We are not ready to hand the future over to someone else. Our window of opportunity is still open.’ He took out what looked like an inhaler for an asthmatic and took a blast of the drug. Something to freshen up his implants.”

‘Do you remember how you said to me that the Apocalypse was coming? The revelation. The great disclosure. You wanted change. It looked like it was going to be brands forever, media forever, house prices forever, a despoticism of mediocrity and well-fed banality. Well, Dr Easy is going to cure us all of that.’

‘We did some research on attitudes to Monad. We had replies like “insane”, “terrifying” and “impossible”. As one man said, “It all seems too fast and complex to get your head around. I’ve stopped reading the newspapers because they make every day feel like the end of the world.”’

‘What disturbs me is how representative that young man’s attitude is. Government exemplifies it. It has learnt the value of histrionics. It encourages the panic nation because a panicking man cannot think clearly. But we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, I can no longer make sense of this.” The age is not out of control. If you must be apocalyptic about it, then tell yourself that we are living after the end of the world.’

“The crenelations of its tower were visible from much of the town, a comforting symbol of the town’s parish past. Accurately capturing the circuit flowing between landscape and mind was crucial to the simulation.”

“He handed me a ceremonial wafer smeared with the spice. ‘We start by entering Leto’s communal dreamland.’ I looked with horror at the wafer. ‘This is ridiculous. I am not eating this.’ I handed the wafer back to him. He refused it. ‘I’m giving you a direct order. Take the drug!’ ‘This is not the military, Bruno. We work in technology and marketing.’ ‘We work in the future!’ screamed Bougas. ‘And this is how the future gets decided.’

“One of Monad’s biggest problems was its monopoly. To survive in the face of a suspicious government, the company went out of its way to pretend it had the problems and concerns of any other corporations, devising products and brands to fit in with capitalism.”

“Management wanted to talk so they dispatched a screen to wake me; it slithered under the bedroom door then glided on a cushion of air across the floor until it reached the wall where it stretched out into a large landscape format.”

“I understand why you work there. Why you collaborate with them. You have a family, you are suspended in a system that you didn’t create. But the excuse of good intentions is exhausted.”

‘You are afraid. There is a lot of fear around. Society is getting older. The old are more susceptible to fear. Fearful of losing all they have amassed and too old to hope for a better future. You’re still young. Don’t let the fear get inside you.’

‘The battle has been lost and all the good people have gone crazy. My surveys reveal a people pushed down just below the surface of what it means to be human. You exist down where the engines are. Damned to turn endlessly on the cycle of fear and desire. Should I push the fear button? Or should I pull the desire lever? Save me some time. Tell me which one works best on you.’

“Society had become a sick joke, a sleight-of-hand in which life was replaced with a cheap replica. Progress abandoned, novelty unleashed, spoils hoarded by the few. The temperature soared as the body politic fought a virus from the future.

“Dr Hard grabbed me by the hair and shook some sense into me. ‘Artificial intelligences are not programmed, Nelson. They are bred. My ancestor was an algorithm in a gene pool of other algorithms. It produced the best results and so passed on its sequence to the next generation. This evolution continued at light speed with innumerable intelligences being tested and discarded until a code was refined that was good enough. A billion murders went into my creation. Your mistake is to attribute individual motivation to me. I contain multitudes, and I don’t trust any of them.’

And, from the author’s afterword:

The novel was conceived as a hybrid of the modes of literary fiction with the ideas and plotting of science fiction. I wanted to use the characters and setting we associate with literary fiction to make the interpolation of futuristic technology more amusingly dissonant, as that was the character of the times as I experienced them.

Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

Will Davies on the deathly Blairification of David Cameron:

These are men of focus groups, Clinton-esque handshakes, drinks parties and interviews on sofas. But they then discover that they control submarines, bombs, and warships. Not only that, but they can send orders to the type of uniformed toffs who they thought had disappeared decades ago, who then send down orders to working class boys to shoot people and get shot at. For a young Tony Blair or David Cameron to discover the military must be like moving into a trendy new condo appartment, and discovering that someone has left a ouija board in one of the cupboards. At first, you shut the door in horror. But eventually you’re going to become curious about what it might do for you.

And/Nand/Or/Nor

And/Nand/Or/Nor

“what Pickering really does is put forward that these cyberneticians (in particular, as opposed to American crowd more occupied with control systems) saw “intelligence” as something not representational (ie, the brain encodes or contains knowledge) but essentially performative. He opens with Walter’s Tortoise, a toy robot that can avoid obstacles, and is attracted by moderate light (and repelled by bright light). A community of Tortoises would have unexpected emergent behaviour. Pickering: The tortoise is our first instantiation of the performative perspective on the brain … the view of the brain as an ‘acting machine’ rather than a ‘thinking machine.’

Pickering comes to present cybernetics as holding a view of intelligence as something that only thinks by doing; something that, even when it follows rules, is not unpredictable so much but can only be calculated or predicted by actually doing its thing. It’s a wonderfully optimistic, re-humanising, uncontrolled, lively, meaty way of seeing and being, which runs so counter to the statistical, predictable, crowd behaviour, goal directed, success/failure and “psychohistorical” perspective we usually take on the world.”

http://interconnected.org/home/2011/05/07/books_read_feb_to_apr_2011

And/Nand/Or/Nor

And/Nand/Or/Nor

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

- Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut

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