Makers and breakers

Paul Raven @ 08-08-2011

Hmmm. Here’s a piece at Wired called “Big DIY: The Year the Maker Movement Broke”. Much as with the rockumentary whose title they’re alluding to, though, I suspect at least some folk are misinterpreting the use of the word “broke”.

The Sonic Youth tour diary movie – featuring much footage of Kurt Cobain at the beginning of his destructive relationship with success and fame – is titled “1991: The Year Punk Broke“, and people tend to read that as “the year punk broke through (to the mainstream)”. That’s a valid reading of the sentence and the phenomenon it describes, but there’s a double-coding here, too: in the process of breaking through to the mainstream, punk ceased to function in the way it had done before. The year punk broke; the year punk became broken.

Punk broke because it became a money game, just like stadium rock but with holey jumpers and done-by-your-mate haircuts; “punk” still exists, but when it’s a label that can be applied to glossy off-the-peg music-product that seeks to appeal to sentiment and nostalgia rather than inflame sensibilities (Sum41, Blink182, Good Charlotte… the list is, regrettably, almost endless), the original (and admittedly loose)conception of punk as a rebellion and/or counterculture is scarcely more than a convenient marketing fiction. This is what will befall the maker movement as the money-men move in.

(Of course, if you know the real history of 1976 London, McLaran and Westwood, SEX and the Pistols, you’ll be aware that punk was commerce right from the outset, despite its very deliberate design to offend and outrage. But this is relevant, too; punk’s commercial side was an attempt to build an economy within an economy, just like the maker movement.)

Right. So, the irony of Wired‘s piece, which seems to largely consist of folk gleefully reporting corporate and venture-capital interest in the so-called “Maker Movement” (which, like “punk”, is a convenient journalistic label for a lot of folk doing very different things for very different reasons, but which share the loose bond of not doing whatever they’re doing for a fat salary or shareholder remuneration) is that they’re reading “broke” as exclusively “broke through to the mainstream”, with no “ceased to function as it began”. Woo-hoo, it’s going mainstream, kids! We’ve taken the fight to The Man, and the man has woken up to what we’re saying! Right on!

Well, this is the point where I get to put on my jaded thirty-something’s hat and say that nothing good ever comes your scene going mainstream, unless you’re one of the very small percentage of scenesters who gets to catch the crest of the wave. When the money flows in, the ethos flows out; those with the least to lose always take the most risks, and when the money starts flowing to that chosen few, the result is flabby navel-gazing from them and not-entirely-unjustified (but very human) resentment from those who got left behind because they stuck to the code and didn’t sell out.

And from what I’ve observed of it, maker culture is very much like a punk version of geekdom (or a geek version of punkdom, mebbe); it’s defiantly low-budget, and cares nothing for what outsiders think of its activities or appearances. “Maker heroes” will change the public perception of makerdom, because with heroism comes money and media attention, and those milieus demand a different aesthetic entirely – one of polish and glamour and acceptability, even if not the high gloss of traditional corporate tech.

If there’s any lesson to be taken from punk, grunge, rave and any other subcultural scene that went mainstream, it’s this: the aesthetic is not just a veneer. If you start changing the box to make it more appealing to more people, then what’s inside the box will start to change as well, because otherwise you’ll start getting a lot of returns; simple market forces. (And totally inevitable, too, by the way; I’m not naive enough to postulate some hypothetical ur-punk left to continue in glorious unspoiled defiance forever and ever. Culture expands by subsuming its edges;the edges grow outward by defacing and recombining things abandoned in the centre. Any minute now, Pop Will Eat Itself at Rushkoff’s Ecstacy Club. Yeah, I’m so Nineties that I shit Global Hypercolour; deal with it.)

From the edge of the marquee, Bruce Sterling accuses the Wired scene of drinking their own kool-aid, and I think he’s got a point… though there’s a hint that Tim Carmody can see the dissonance in what he’s reporting and what he’s claiming it means. From the closing paragraphs:

“Americans are building things again,” reads a General Electric report. “From Makerbot to GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, an open source competition to find the best ideas in cleantech, opportunities abound today for anyone with the motivation and imagination to get their hands dirty and create things that can solve some of our biggest challenges.” It may be sweeping corporate PR, but it suggests some of the possibilities and stakes of what’s happening.

Adafruit’s Torrone predicts that any or all of the following may happen in the next year or so:

  • We’ll see more large companies embrace the maker movement, [through] acquisitions, sponsorships. More companies / tool makers [will] compete to get makers interested. (IBM really adopted open source; it will be a little like that.)
  • We will see a publicly held maker company.
  • We will see more VC money flow in to maker companies.
  • We will see political leaders visit places like tech shops or maker faires when they realize this movement is one our best hopes to fix the US economy and education system. (Will we see Obama at the next maker faire? We should. If not – whoever is running against him should [come].)

When I asked him whether this was a best-case or worst-case scenario, Torrone was coy: “This is the best case and worst case depending on how you look at it.” Either way, the future of the DIY maker movement is coming.

Torrone’s right; which answer applies to you depends on where the investment falls, and for most makers that’s gonna be “elsewhere”. PR, acquisitions, publicly-held companies, VC money, big politics… these things are what maker culture considers itself the antithesis to, that it was a rejection of or rebellion against. These things moving in will not result in the “mainstreaming of maker culture”; they will result in the maker-ing of mainstream culture, the tricky bits of the philosophy and lifestyle stripped away until whatever’s left can be marketed using the established channels. No more bespoke gizmos made by nimble-handed fiddlers with the time and motivation to scrounge around for parts; instead, off-the-shelf Arduino “solutions” with instruction sheets – no soldering iron required!

Makerdom’s entire philosophy is completely opposed to corporate business models, but that aesthetic is sexy in these straitened times of tough economics; it’s that aesthetic that the corporates want, because it might sell things to consumers who currently aren’t buying anything they don’t think they really need; the philosophy will be left on the boardroom floor to be swept up, thrown out and – eventually – recycled by another countercultural movement further down the timeline.

(This is not, by the way, an “all corporations are evil” rant; corporations are just corporations, and they have certain behaviour patterns that are an inevitable result of their evolving to fill a certain apex-predator position in our economic ecology. Corporations get big and immobile, and cease being able to innovate; when that happens, they start seducing and/or preying upon smaller more nimble economic entities. That’s just the way it works; it’s a morally neutral set-up. It’s also a mirror image of how “mainstream” culture relates to “alternative” culture. Yin and yang, kids; can’t separate ’em without destroying the circle.)

Of course, my assumptions here all hinge on cultural business-as-usual, or at least business-as-it’s-been-since-the-sixties, and there’s a definite feeling of economic and political fin de siecle around at the moment. Back to Sterling again:

… the status quo is getting so top-heavy and dysfunctional now, so obviously unjust and so riddled with mass unemployment that it’s possible to imagine some stricken region cracking up, abandoning IP, patents, safety regulations and economies of scale, and going into a full-scale Maker frenzy. Almost a wartime, victory-garden, scrap-metal economy. Could even be in the USA. Probably needs to be reframed from hobby activity to resilient civil-defense. Less of a stretch than that looks.

If I’ve read that right, he’s not buying the corporate makerdom future (nor am I – corporate makerdom is either an impossibility or an oxymoron, and the best you can hope for is [Arduino kits on Amazon/bondage trousers in Top Man], which is not the same thing), but he’s suggesting that the philosophy behind the movement could become a solution to a volatile future in a region that decided to shake off the legacies of corporatism and go all DIY, all the time.

This is not the first time Sterling has made a blithe throwaway comment on a news piece that completely encapsulates the idea I’ve been planning a novel around, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. At least it means I’m onto something, I guess… 🙂

The Golden Age of Introversion

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2011

Via Kottke, a piece at The Atlantic that offers up the internet as the best thing that ever happened to introverts:

For introverts like myself, it takes energy to engage with other people. Doing so requires thoughtfulness. It’s tiring. Expending energy, for us, isn’t energizing. Please note: we’re not talking about shyness, some character flaw. The problem isn’t with the introvert — it’s with the demands you make on the introvert. An introvert can’t force an extrovert to sit quietly in a room and read a book, but extroverts (and the stigmas they’ve inadvertently created) can impose social demands with ease…

Hmm. Speaking as an introvert, I can certainly see where the charmingly-named Mister Bump is going with this; asynchronous communications are vastly preferable to unexpected phonecalls (I could count the number of voice calls I’ve made or received from people outside my family in the last year on my fingers and still have some spare), and the ability to work effectively as part of a team without having to endure physical proximity – or the social-lubricant conversation that comes with it – is a great relief to me.

What I’m not so keen on is the air of oppressed superiority that exudes from Bump’s post as it continues; a smugness, a meek-are-inheriting-the-earthness. I also resent the portrayal of introverts as having to lie and deceive in order to avoid situations they find uncomfortable. Maybe in the world of business the face-to-face meeting is unavoidable, but what sort of idiotic statement is “[c]ars were invented, meaning you had no excuse for not traveling across town”? Did you need an excuse, other than “sorry, I’m doing something else then?” Why rely on this “illusion of busyness” that social media apparently allows you to construct so much more easily? Is American culture really so different to British that the notion of saying to someone “no, actually I just stayed at home and read books all weekend, it was lovely” is somehow a betrayal of your national values?

(If that really is the case, then stop the presses – I think I may have found one of the root causes of your current cultural malaise. This obsession with taking sides in a warring binary schism is clearly not limited to the political arena, and it’s going to tear your nation apart if you don’t let it go.)

As the old joke goes: there are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don’t. Introverts aren’t better than extroverts, or vice versa; we’re just wired differently. OK, sure, perhaps network culture has brought introverts opportunities for fulfilling work and social lives that had been erased by industrialisation and urbanisation; that’s surely a fine thing, especially if you’re an introvert.

But if you are an introvert, you might want to consider that perhaps framing your introversion as some sort of cultural face-off with the other half of the population may be a more dominant cause of your sense of put-upon-ness than the extroverts themselves.

Just sayin’.


Paul Raven @ 01-08-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, another piece of ammunition against the Rejectionistas who rely on the old “digital messaging is destroying language through compression and abbreviation and slang!” canard; turns out telegraph operators of the 1890s were rockin’ the txtspk to save on time and limited characterspace:

In their conversations telegraphers use a system of abbreviations which enables them to say considerably more in a certain period of time then they otherwise could. Their morning greeting to a friend in a distant city is usually “g. m.,” and the farewell for the evening, “g. n.,” the letters of course standing for good morning and good night. The salutation may be accompanied by an inquiry by one as to the health of the other, which would be expressed thus: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” or “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.”

By the time these courtesies have taken place some early messages have come from the receiving department or from some other wire, and the man before whom they are placed says to his friend many miles away: “Wl hrs a fu; Gol hang ts everlastin grind. I wish I ws rich.” And the other man says: “No rest fo t wickd, min pen,” the last two words indicating that he wants the sender to wait a minute while he adjusts and tests his pen. Presently he clicks out “g a,” meaning “go ahead,” and the day’s work has begun.

This just in: civilisation still standing after ~120 years of convenience-based linguistic innovation.

[ Well, OK, civilisation’s looking to be on rocky ground right now, but you can’t lay our economic problems at the feet of ppl usn abbrvs. y, u mad? ]

Got 99 metaproblems (but a lack of aspirational futurism ain’t one)

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Good grief, but the RSS mountain really piles up in 24 hours, doesn’t it?

Well, mine does, anyway… which means it’s probably high time I had a spring-clean in there to make it more manageable. As well as maybe, y’know, stopping the habit of adding more feeds to the damned aggregator all the time. There’s too much interesting stuff (or grim stuff, or grimly interesting stuff) going on in the world, y’see; the temptation to stay on top of it all and let it just flow through my head like some sort of Zeitgeist/sewer-outflow hybrid is horribly compelling. I am the gauzy mesh in your perpetual flow of present history, plucking out interesting lumps of… no, actually, let’s stop that metaphor right there.

Anyways, long story short: had a busy few days and have more busyness ahead, so minimal commentary from me today. Instead, an exhortation to go and read stuff written by other folk far smarter than I. We’ll start with the manageably short piece, which is another Karl Schroeder joint at Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) where he talks about the difference between foresight futurism and “predicting the future”, and a new aspirational direction for his near-future science fiction output that is reminiscent of Jetse de Vries’ Optimistic SF manifesto:

… I’m pretty tired of all those, “Dude, where’s my flying car!” digs. There’s always been a certain brand of futurist who’s obsessed with getting it right: with racking up successful predictions like some modern-day Nostradamus. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about; some futurists play the prediction game very well, but in the end it is a game, and closer to charlatanism than it is to science. There’s actually no method for seeing the future, and nobody’s predictions are more reliable than anybody else’s.

You know, I think we do know who he’s talking about…

And while we’re thinking about the future, it’s hard to avoid thinking about problems, for – as a species and a planet – we have rather a lot of them right now. So many, in fact, that you might even say that reality itself is a failed state:

So maybe what we have today are not problems, but meta-problems.

It is very useful to confirm our understanding with others, to meet with fellow humans – preferably face-to-face – strength flows from this.

However, disquiet remains – no pre-catastrophic change of course seems in any way likely. What we might call ‘Fabian’ environmentalism has failed.

Occasionally a scientist will be so overcome with horror that he will make a radical public pronouncement – like the drunken uncle at a wedding, he may well be saying what everyone knows to be true, pulling the skeletons out of the family closet for all to see, but, well, it just doesn’t do to say that sort of thing out loud at a formal function.

This is all a little bit strange.

We understand the problems. We also, pretty much, understand the solutions. But their real-world application is a whole unpickable, integrated clusterfuck.

I believe part of the meta-problem is this: people no longer inhabit a single reality.

Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue.

And we need to construct one. Go read the rest for the full lowdown. I’d love to be able to name the writer as something other than “Steelweaver”, but as he’s using a Tumblr with no About page or anything*, I am largely unable to do so. If you can fill in that datagap for me, please get in touch or leave a note in the comments.

[ * Note to writers of serious and/or interesting stuff on the intetubes: this is rather frustrating, and Tumblr really isn’t the best platform for this sort of stuff. Basically it’s the post-naivete ironic MySpace, optimised for collecting hipster aphorisms and reposting “art” shots that tend to contain boobs.

Just sayin’. ]

Uplift ethics and transhuman hubris

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2011

There’s a little splash of uplift-related news around the place, thanks to the topic-initiating power of a new documentary film which you may well have already seen mentioned elsewhere: Project Nim tells the story of Nim Cimpsky, the subject of an experiment intended to disprove Chomsky’s assertion that language is unique to human. Here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with the film’s director, James Marsh, at The Guardian:

“The nature-versus-nurture debate clearly was part of the intellectual climate of that time and remains an interesting question – how much we are born a certain way, as a species and as individuals. In Nim’s case, he has a chimpanzee’s nature and that nature is an incredibly forceful part of his life. What [the scientists] try to do is inhibit his nature and you see the results in the story.

“I was intrigued because I hadn’t seen that in a film before, the idea of telling an animal’s life from cradle to grave using the same techniques as you would use for a human biography.”

Marsh admits that conveying Nim’s experiences was tough. “The overlap between the species [human and chimpanzee] does involve emotions. But at the same time I was very wary of those from the get-go. I felt that Nim’s life had been blighted by people projecting on to him human qualities and trying to make him something that he wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky links to a piece about a report from the Academy of Medical Science that calls for new rules to govern research into “humanising animals”, though specifically a more invasive and biological fashion than Project Nim:

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.

“The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us,” he told a news briefing in London.

“These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now.”

Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the “Great Ape Test”. If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to “hold off”.

“If it’s heading in that direction, red lights start flashing,” said Prof Baldwin. “You really do not want to go down that road.”

Dvorsky, a dyed-in-the-wool transhumanist, disagrees:

I’m just as concerned as anyone about the potential for abuse, particularly when animals are used in scientific experiments. But setting that aside, and assuming that cognitive enhancement could be done safely on non-human primates, there’s no reason why we should fear this. In fact, I take virtually the opposite stance to this report. I feel that humanity is obligated to uplift non-human animals as we simultaneously work to uplift ourselves (i.e. transhumanism).

Reading this report, I can’t help but feel that human egocentricity is driving the discussion. I sincerely believe that animal welfare is not the real issue here, but rather, ensuring human dominance on the planet.

Here we run into another reason why I’m a fellow-traveller and chronicler of transhumanism and not a card-carrier, because Dvorsky’s logic seems completely inverted to me. Is it not far more human-egocentric to view ourselves as the evolutionary pinnacle that all animals would aspire to achieve, were they but able to aspire? To make that decision on their behalf, on the basis of our own inescapably human-centric system of value-judgements?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?

Because they are not us. We are related, certainly, this much is inescapable, but a chimpanzee is not a human being, and to insist that uplift is a moral duty is to enshrine the inferiority-to-us of the great apes, not to sanctify their uniqueness. This is the voice of assimilation, the voice of homogenisation, the voice of empire. It is the voice of colonialist arrogance, and a form of species fascism. If we have any moral duty toward our genetic cousins, it is to protect them from the ravages we have committed on the world they have always lived in balance with. Why raise them up to our hallowed state of consciousness if all they stand to inherit is a legacy of a broken planet and a political framework that legitimises the exploitation of those considered to carry a debt to society’s most powerful?

Because make no mistake, even were we able to endow chimpanzees with the same cognitive powers as ourselves, we would still find reasons not to enfranchise them fully. If you can look at the disparities in enfranchisement of different human races and classes and genders in this world that still persist to this day, despite the lip-service liberalism of the privileged Western world to the contrary, and not see that life for uplifted apes would be a condition of slavery to science for science’s own sake (at the very best): a lifetime of being a bug in a glass jar, a curiosity and a joke and an object of pity… well, you can evidently look at the world very differently to how I can. In my world, that’s high-order hubris.

Dvorsky has another post which discusses more recent attempts at “cultural uplift”, which seems to be a more modern and ethically grounded update of Project Nim; while certainly more palatable than more directly biological interventions in animal cognition, I still feel there’s an arrogant flaw in assuming that human culture is superior (and hence obligatory) to an animal’s naturally evolved culture. Am I engaging in a sort of Noble Savage argument here, claiming that ape inferiority should be preserved in order that I can continue feeling superior to it? I don’t believe I am. You can only throw the Noble Savagery claim at me if you claim that there is already no value-difference between human culture and ape culture, and that apes are deserving of the same rights as man… at which point you not only concede the point I’m trying to make, but you also concede that you have no moral or cultural high-ground from which to decide that ape culture is inferior.

Apes are special, because they are so similar to us in so many ways; on this I think we can all agree. But to uplift them would not be an act of protecting and awarding that specialness; it would be, consciously or otherwise, an act of erasure, an attempt to equalise the specialness differential and make them just the same as us.

And that is human egocentricity in action – the same egocentricity whose trackmarks can be seen on the skin of the planet that gave rise to it, and whose roots are in a deep-seated envy and resentment of the innocence that is the true core of the difference between us and the great apes. It is that innocence that uplifting would erase; do you think an ape that thought like a human wouldn’t resent our theft of that innocence? Or would you keep them ignorant of the state they existed in before uplift? Immediately, inevitably, you create the conditions whereby you are obliged to treat these newly-minted man-apes in a less free condition than the one you have claimed to raise them up to.

To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance.

Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.

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