The State and its detractors – plutocrats, insurgents, and algorithms

Two important (IMHO) reads from the past week…

Evgeny Morozov, who tends to really grate on me with his overly-generalized, ad hominen attacks, reminds us of his brilliance in spite of himself in this Guardian article: The rise of data and the death of politics

Such [algorithmic] systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify [Tim] O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

Nils Gilman has honed his study of the ongoing deconstruction of the state by the engines of plutocracy and deviant globalization into a masterful treatise, The Twin Insurgency

During the 1990s, it became a fashionable form of irony to declare that, in the new post-Marxist era, the state (the dirigiste state, at least) was destined to wither away. In truth, something more subtle was going on: the double collapse of social modernist state’s capacity and legitimacy was giving birth not to the post-historical utopia of a universal consensus in favor of liberal democratic capitalism, but rather to a two-headed monster in the form of plutocratic secession and deviant globalization. Instead of projects of collective emancipation, what both plutocratic and criminal insurgents desire is for the social modernist state to remain intact except insofar as it impinges on them. Neither criminal nor plutocratic insurgents are revolutionaries in the classic modernist sense of political actors who seek to take over the state.

…What both insurgencies represent is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties. Rather than a single national space in which power is exercised and all residents enjoy rights in a consistent and homogeneous way, the cartography of the dual insurgency consists of diverse enclaves of heterogeneous political authority and of non-standardized social-service provisioning arrangements.

Returning to Morozov, again with the casual simplification and lazy stereotyping but, nevertheless, an important kernel:

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened.

The “what” is cybernetic, the “how” is human. Interests below and above the game will always circumvent the algorithmic measurement, control, and containment that the rest of us are corralled into.

Gilman concludes:

The ultimate losers in all of this, of course, are the middle classes—the people who “play by the rules” by going to school and getting traditional middle-class jobs whose chief virtue is stability. These sorts of people, who lack the ruthlessness to act as criminal insurgents or the resources to act as plutocratic insurgents, can only watch as institutions built over the course of the 20th century to ensure a high quality of life for a broad majority of citizens are progressively eroded.

In a sense, both speak to a progressive fragmentation of the social and economic order as the system becomes too complex and unwieldy to effectively manage. Morozov would likely see this as a failure of will, an abdication of agency. Gilman might regard it as both a cause and effect of the dismantling of statehood. Only algorithms can tangle such huge volumes of information spooling off the maelstrom. And only humans can ensure that our institutions survive and prosper enough to keep the common good at the center.

Algorithms are smart but they’re nowhere near intelligent

artificial intelligence
Image from iRobot.

Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database just like Google search. It doesn’t understand what it’s reading. In fact, “read” is the wrong word. It’s not reading anything because it’s not comprehending anything. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. In that sense, there’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous.

- A recent comment from Douglas Hofstadter regarding the current state of AI.

We don’t yet understand how brains work, so we can’t build one.

- Jaron Lanier

Of course, it may be that our anthropomorphic maps for sentience and intelligence will prevent us from spotting a different kind of networked machine intelligence…

Adaptive, composable pools of compute – Gigaom Structure

Gigaom Structure

[My top-level notes from the">Gigaom Structure conference...]

The big picture – affordable and easy
The Structure conference focused on the evolving territory of cloud infrastructure, highlighting some fundamental shifts in the industry. First, the enterprise has been challenged to overcome the cost, deployment, and management overhead of adoption. However, many emerging businesses are serving this need by making it easier to deploy and run these services. Now pretty much all enterprises understand the value of moving into either a private on-premise or public multi-tenant cloud (and there was much discussion about when to co-lo and when to go public). Adoption is further enabled by the price war between Amazon, Microsoft, and soon Google that has driven public cloud services to become more affordable.

… agile & elastic
The second big shift is in making networks more flexible, elastic, and agile. Services are now more easily deployed across abstraction layers like virtual machines, or modularized into containers. Both VMware and Docker had a strong presence at Structure and most talks had some refrain about the relative merits of one versus the other. Network hardware is softening or virtualizing altogether into SDN and NFV solutions. It’s much easier and cheaper to update software than it is to update hardware. In parallel, more machine intelligence is displacing both hardware and human IT resources, enabling efforts in self-optimizing networks (SON). All of this makes for networks that are sensing and responding to constantly changing conditions.

…composable pools of compute
Third, compute power has become a distributed commodity that is dis-aggregated, addressable, and composable from anywhere on the network. Hypervisors and containers become the means for addressing compute pools, with services stretched across these hardware-agnostic abstraction layers. Notably, there was much talk about how the Internet of Things will force a reconfiguration of networks as billions of devices come on line, some of which require very low latency for their control loops. Pushing compute out to the edges where it’s needed for industrial IoT will spare the core from being overburdened by compute requests.

The Big Picture is starting to show a world awash in pools of computation and heterogeneous networks that are becoming more intelligent and adaptive.

Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

unicornsIn my day job I help companies navigate the roiling seas of change kicked up by digital transformation. My team at Orange Silicon Valley has just released a large report looking at billion-dollar valuations in tech, the strategic opportunities in pursuing adjacencies as an adaptive posture, and a forecast of tech sectors and macro trends unfolding in the next 6 years or so. I was the lead researcher and writer on this one – I’m especially fond of the sector overviews and macro forecast.

Here’s the press release from my parent company, Orange.

A new report from Orange Silicon Valley called Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The New Billion Dollar Dynamics of the Digital Landscape shows that tech ‘Unicorns’ are becoming more than just billion-dollar start-up superstars or fodder for talk of bubbles. They are the new engines of disruption reshaping the competitive landscape.

And here’s the report – a map for business to navigate rapid change and align with the fundamentals: Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

Domo Arigato Restaurant Roboto – My travelogue

I think it was the disco panda, charging into a clutch of alien invaders, while riding an enormous shaggy cow. That’s when my brain melted like butter, no longer able to sustain the thermodynamic struggle against the frying pan. A frying pan dusted with rainbow LED’s, wearing bedazzled hot pants, and painted by a hundred neon lasers. Like a sun-blasted Japanese spaghetti western refracted through Tron and Blade Runner.

That’s not to undersell the scantily clad cavewomen, riding a giant spider, or the disco Cylon on roller-skates, or even the mermaid riding the great white shark eating an alien invader. Each in their own glorious way, and all together with so much more, rendered complete the steady, inescapable liquefaction of my mind tank. This is the neutron star of Japanisms buried below the light canyons of Shinjuku. This is Robot Restaurant.

Read the rest at Boing Boing.

Cybernetic jurisdictions and the Things of Internets

TV_EYE She got a TV eye on me…

Walled gardens are jurisdictions that exercise control over behaviors. Facebook determines what constitutes acceptable speech. Apple determines what applications are fit for public consumption. Google determines who has access to your data exhaust. When we each accept their TOS, we effectively opt-in to their legal system, yielding to further arbitrage whenever their lawyers or marketing teams or data scientists change the writ again. Most of us don’t even read the fine print. And yet, as long as we’re within the garden, we’re bound by the laws.

The Internet of Things is much more than just a buzzword and it’s instructive to consider what it means for these digital jurisdictions. The walled gardens are pushing into physicality, where they’ll likely further encircle us with their control structures [and I'm trying to use the term "control" in the cybernetic sense but it's hard not to see the political angle as well]. Platform owners will be able to govern not just in digital gardens but across the physical world. Wearables, embedded systems, and the emerging realm of machine perception/learning empower these gardens to grow across the landscape – watching, mediating, and correcting.

It’s not to say we’re headed for ruin (I’m too much of an optimist) but it raises important considerations when the devices we carry are registering us on innumerable invisible networks through which we pass, and those networks are analyzing us and provisioning our relationships to the digital and physical world and the many stakeholders focused on our behaviors. It’s not hard to imagine how geofencing becomes actual fencing, for example, revoking access based on whatever data transactions are happening between us and the many voices in the cloud. Soon enough, context and prediction will rise as the next wave of cybernetics, granting greater agency to the algorithms deputized on our behalf.

We typically want our applications to be smarter and to better assist us but these things take on very different characteristics when they begin to interpenetrate with the physical, beyond our direct reach. When they’re matched to machine vision and learning systems and robotics and actuators, and when they invite platform owners and stakeholders to encode laws and Terms of Service into the built environment, when they’re always-on in the background of our lives, watching – these are no longer applications that we invoke. They’re the fabric in which we live.

Of course, it will still be a battle of jurisdictions, of subsets and super-sets, of laws and contracts. And there will probably be algorithms whose sole task is to arbitrate between them all. But it’s an odd thought to imagine how the platform wars might engage with us and our market share when their gardens are growing in our cities.

The Business of Time

“There will be a different kind of bigness to deal with, a complexity that is dispersed geographically, temporally, and organizationally. This calls for an organizational model of loose affiliation rather than tight control, with the hierarchy determined not so much by rank as by time and size: the higher levels are those that are concerned with longer periods of time over greater parts of the organization.” – Kevin Kelly

What would it look like to design organizations more explicitly around time frames rather than traditional command hierarchies? In practice, this occurs but it’s often a consequence of necessity rather than a coordinated way of structuring operations. Milestones, release dates, quarterly earnings, etc drive operations across many scales of the organization and yet the functional groups that work to meet these milestones are often not deliberately arranged to function optimally at these time frames. Program management is often left trying to enforce the schedule across multiple stakeholders moving at different rates. The nuance is that by making time the explicit top-level organizer, all functional groups are then evaluated and organized around their respective clock rate rather than how they fit in the reporting structure. An added benefit is that mid- to long-term planning becomes more explicit at the executive tier when the c-suite is required to continuously think in terms of strategy, longevity, and vision.

When functional groups are distributed and loosely-coupled, and when more autonomy is pushed out across the organization, the C-suite has more space to think in broader time frames. It’s like a set of differential gears where the smallest are spinning fastest but are coupled all the way up to the largest and slowest.

A rough sketch of how to explicitly structure the business of time:
1. The role of leadership works through the longest horizon, aligning strategy with vision from 6 months to ten years.
2. Upper management orients across release cycles over months.
3. Execution layers work in rapid iteration cycles on the order of weeks.
4. Customer support, branding, and marketing have the shortest timeframe, embedded in hourly cycles.

Notably, mechanisms for learning and evaluation must be institutionalized across all these scales. It’s critical that the organization be engaged in continuous feedback from the environment. Digital infrastructures that readily support feedback systems, fluid communication, knowledge repositories, and identity platforms are critical to the modern organization. Furthermore, with hierarchy made less explicit, information is less likely to be distorted as it moves up the chain of command. The result is an organization with nimble execution, continuous learning and adaptation built into the structure, and a leadership focus oriented towards the larger cycles of time rather than being distracted by the churn of turbulence in the present.

Coherency in Contradiction

Coherency in Contradiction is the main research project I’ve been working on as a Research Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge as part of the 2013 Shift Index. It’s just been published at Deloitte University Press. The paper looks at a selection of seeming contradictions faced by people and organizations, and then re-frames them as mutual opportunities rather than mutually exclusive choices. The deeper agenda I have with this work is to push leaders to look past the binary, black & white world we are programmed to create and move to a more holistic, relativistic perspective. The second agenda is to educate people about complex adaptive systems in a way that’s meaningful to the average executive. These two agendas come together in one of the closing statements: “In a messy, complex world, it’s not just possible to walk within paradoxes—it’s necessary.”

This effort is not about yielding to the chaos and trusting that everything will work out. But in order to better anticipate and shape their direction, we should become more adept at understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that increasingly drive markets. More systematic use of complexity modeling tools and scenario planning will help reveal patterns and identify where new opportunities are likely to emerge. Instead of trying to suppress randomness, we should cultivate environments that increase the potential for serendipity so that we can build new ecosystems and discover new ideas and practices. In certain cases, we may even be able to shape how broad arenas evolve, materially altering the probability of certain outcomes, rather than simply waiting to react to events as they occur. Shaping, however, is very different from controlling and requires a deep understanding of the forces that drive the evolution of complex systems.

Ultimately, a leading response to growing complexity might be to abandon certain management techniques of the past. Through embracing the flow within complexity, it is possible to develop simple rules for greater performance, innovation, and—importantly—adaption and alignment with the defining structures of nature.

What I’ve Been Up To

Just an update on my recent work… My writings here have been sparse at best lately but it’s mainly because I’m doing so much research and consulting elsewhere. Some of it is now available online so here’s the overview:

My 6-month fellowship at the Deloitte Center for the Edge has been fantastic. It’s been a great opportunity to hone my research, dive into some meaty topics, and work to refine my communication skills so that I can make some pretty complex stuff meaningful to a broader audience. It’s also been a tremendous opportunity to work directly with John Hagel and John Seely Brown – two verifiable wizards, each in their own right.

The fellowship is wrapping up at the end of December so I’m starting to whip up my next gig. Give me a shout if you’ve got any interesting collaborations…
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Ourselves in the Othernets

So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine.

And many you couldn’t imagine.The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.

You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).

This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]

And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form. Continue reading

My new music: Godspeed by Harry Selassie

My new track – the first in an e.p. to be released over several weeks. Hip hop space dub.

Future Thinking – Co.Exist

I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.

An excerpt:

For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.

Cities of the Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, & 3D Printers

I have a new article up on Fast Company about programatic matter, synthetic biology, robotic swarming, and the future possibilities of architecture.

As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.



MySciFi: The Emissary of Nommo

Maintaining a watchmaker’s delicate precision Moseek fiddles with the joint under Nassam’s wing, humming to himself as he loosens it just enough to expose the port. He slips the tube in with a slight hermetic squeak and then initiates the feeder pump.

Nassam shivers and lets out a sort of gurgling squawk. The falcon is used to this but doesn’t particularly enjoy the process as the cold metallic carbonation of sange works its way through his vasculature. Exhaling a volume of musty smoke, Moseek puts down the old stained pipe, wipes his dark, wrinkled hands on a cloth, and rubs a bump behind his left ear to initiate the pairing sequence.

It’s easier with his eyes closed. The periphery narrows and sharpens into impossible detail, the colors shifted and slightly muted across a much wider visual spectrum showing him parts of the world occulted by typical human sight. Nassam shares odd bird thoughts with his friend, memories of flight and the desire to hunt, the pairing allowing them to join in this internal space, each self still individuated and yet overlapping in a cold, slightly-prosthetic intimacy.

After their brief inner greeting Moseek initiates the tuning kit. His view of Nassam’s optic feed blurs behind an array of alpha transparencies representing the sange interface. He moves through a set of viz showing various physical stats, runtime exceptions, and waypoint logs now streaming from the bird. Opening a new module, he uploads the package to its container. His humming returns, rising with intensity through the tonal melodies, something old and sad and vast. He binds the package, extracts its contents, and executes the program.

Nassam begins to shake erratically, loosening small feathers into the dimly lit air of the hut. With the sudden shifting of Moseek’s feet, puffs of dust stir in the narrow sunbeams cutting through cracks in the mud walls. The sweat beading his brow is running muddy and tan. Now panting uncontrollably, Nassam lets out a guttural squawk followed by a very unsettled droning. The bird of prey is scared and losing control. Moseek fights back his own autonomous response as his breath quickens and his hands begin to shake. His heart is pounding so loud it seems to boom in the space between them. Through the shared cascade of hormones and adrenaline he struggles to maintain the interface, rapidly adjusting parameters to combat Nassam’s stress while modifying the properties of the new program binding directly to the falcon’s nervous system. In the hut his hands wave in furious gestures grabbing at invisible objects. The humming breaks free of Moseek’s lips and rises into full-throated vocalization of the ancient songs passed to him by the ancestors, their movements and intonations now paired with macro functions driving the constructs. Like a conductor, he works the virtual interface running on Nassam’s wetware with deliberate passion and a divine providence born of faith and faith alone.

The great bird is still shaking but he’s finding a rhythm as the upgrade settles in and seeks homeostasis. The rush of user interface begins to subside showing only a few fundamental metrics. Their small mud hut resolves finely in Nassam’s optic channel as Moseek hums the bird’s name calmly and tenderly, placing his hand softly on the back of his wet, feathered neck.

For a moment of eternity they merge souls and fall into emptiness together through the shared un-space of self.
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Running With Machine Herds

Continuing its annual tradition of walking the lines between genuine social goodyness and highfalutin’ techno utopianism, the TED2013 conference kicked off this week in Los Angeles. Gathering together some of the brighter minds and more well-heeled benefactors, attendees come to tease apart the phase space of possibility and to take a closer look at how we consciously examine and intentionally evolve our world. Among the many threads and themes, one in particular tugs deeply at both aspirational humanism and existential terror.

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Quick Riffs on Autonomous Vehicles

This tweet got me riffing on potential outcomes & exploits available when autonomous vehicles become common:

I also “like” (or “find interesting”, in the Chinese proverbial sense) the idea of rogue agents seizing control over vehicular fleets to direct and coordinate their movements towards some sort of goal, e.g. assembling to bust a road barricade or defend a bank heist. Interesting times, indeed…

[Apologies/nods to Scott Smith.]


Virtual Hitmen Hired To Curb Son’s Gaming Addiction

From China, this article tickles my sic-fi bone in just the right way. It’s one of those news bits that seems enfolded out of the future just to remind us how odd and accelerated we are in the present. From Kotaku:

Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Mr. Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng… Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job.

The article itself is a bit bland but the concept is ultracool and ripe for embellishment. Son hires mercenary clan to defend himself against father’s hit men. Or, son hires hackers to destroy dad’s credit so dad turns to Lawnmower Men to wipe son’s digital identity. How about a new niche of virtual assassin’s paid to neutralize annoying troll’s, spammers, or distant relatives with bothersome religious/political agenda’s? Social media assassins that target Twitter & Facebook accounts for permanent deletion… How safe is the virtual self when we don’t have the hard-wired instinct to protect it in the way we do our own bodies?

Valve signals hardware is the future of distribution

Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director at PC gaming powerhouse Valve Software, recently spoke with Kotaku about the shifting landscape of games distribution and his company’s move into the living room.

Ten years ago Valve established Steam as a primary distribution channel for its titles and add-on content. Just this month they’ve released Big Picture, establishing a foothold in the living room by essentially porting the Valve experience to the TV. With a new controller and interface, user’s can play games, stream content, and access Steam through Big Picture’s front-end.

Speaking to Kotaku, Newell suggested that Valve and other competitors will release custom branded hardware solutions for the living room within the next year. User’s would be able to buy an official Valve gaming console (likely to be a lightweight PC or Linux device) and plug it into their TV. While this may seem surprising to many who have suggested that console gaming is in decline, Newell let slip the compelling hook for game’s developers.

“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment… If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”

As content has dematerialized and gotten loose and slippery, content houses have been trying to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle and retain control over their IP. Hardware offers such a controlled environment and, thanks in large part to Apple, hardware manufacturing is easier than it’s ever been. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, a few years down the road, Valve decides to lock down distribution completely by shunting all its users onto a low-priced piece of branded hardware. Plug it into your TV, launch Steam, and pull content direct from the Valve server farm.

Now imagine if they release Half Life 3 and you can only buy it through their hardware…

[Related: Hardware, the ugly stepchild of Venture Capital, is having a glamor moment]