If code is law, then platform is politics, or: the map temporarily becomes the territory

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2011

Pretty simple story, really, and one that says as much about the stupidity of military thinking and the arbitrariness of the concept of national borders in a networked and mediated world than it does about the flaws of technology, but anyway: Nicaraguan military brass invades Costa Rican town and demands lowering of Costa Rican flag because Google Maps inaccurately showed said town as being part of Nicaraguan territory.

It’s a chuckle-worthy little tale on the surface, though there are undercurrents of subterfuge if you’re keen to look for such things – the official maps of both countries display the border correctly, for instance, so why was this guy basing border dispute actions on Google’s offering? A convenient excuse for a political feint, perhaps, or an opportunity to score some sort of bragging points at the officer’s bar? Or just good old fashioned SNAFU?

But the real issue here is that borders are consensual concepts; and when there’s a proliferation of places those concepts can be documented (and a widening of the number of people who might contribute to such), the consensus becomes fuzzier, until it dissolves to a point where it stops mattering to anyone who doesn’t have a serious vested interest in its precision. The people of that town probably identify as Nicaraguan because that’s what they’ve always been told they are, but ultimately the phrase “this town is Nicaraguan” doesn’t have much bearing on the people who live there beyond who they pay their taxes to and which soldiers walk down the high street; the amount of eggs laid by that town’s chickens this morning won’t change if that line on the map moves 3 klicks either way.

The Nicaraguan-ness of the town is of much greater concern to those whose business it is to define and protect (or possibly expand) the concept of Nicaragua. And there, in a microcosmic nutshell, is the main reason that those heavily invested in the concept of the nation-state – be it ideologically, economically or otherwise – are those who are most vocal about the perceived threat of open platforms where contribution to the consensus is not controlled by a strict hierarchy. They lament the loss of a canonical reality, because it is in that canonical reality that their power and privilege is enshrined.

I’m finding that issues of control and hierarchy have become a strong strange attractor for me over the last year, and there’s been an almost vertiginous sense of accretion in the last month or so, thanks in no small point to recent discussions of The Google Threat and similar matters. It interests we that me now talk about the companies we choose to use – and the degree of choice and influence we have over them – in the same language that we talk about politics… to the extent that I’m starting to think that these choices are the politics of a networked world. That explains both the growing disaffection with the “old” politics, and the gravitation toward networks as the place where sociological and geographical identity is enshrined and enacted.

These thoughts are as yet unrefined, but the pattern is becoming clearer, and so I’m staking out my pitch now; who knows, this could be the title of the non-fiction opus that makes me a weblebrity pundit, right? (OK, probably not, but hey, hedging my bets here.)

So: we know Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that “Code is Law”.

Well, here’s Raven’s Corollary: if Code is Law, then Platform is Politics.

You heard it here first. 😉


Location, location, location

Paul Raven @ 08-11-2010

Why would anyone in their right mind consider building a server farm in deepest darkest Siberia, or the middle of the Indian Ocean? Possibly because the intersection of geography and information flow means such locations would give you a slight yet crucial edge in the high-stakes imaginary-money game of high-frequency trading [via SlashDot]:

The insight of the MIT researchers, Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, is that some automated traders–or at the very least, their server farms–will be best positioned in-between certain exchanges. Since some trading strategies capitalize on price fluctuations between separate exchanges in different parts of the world, the optimally located server will receive information from those exchanges at precisely the same moment, gaining that millisecond advantage over the competitor. In some cases that pefect location is the midpoint between the two exchanges, but not always–it depends on whether the exchanges’ prices move at the same speed or not.

Wissner-Gross and Freer rounded up the locations and price-speeds on the 52 largest global exchanges, and plotted a map of the ideal locations for traders who would want to be perfectly positioned between any given pair. The map, which appears today in an article in the journal Physical Review E, dictates that some traders’ servers will be ideally positioned in central Africa, others in the remotest forests of Canada, others in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and still others in Siberia. This all assumes, of course, a proper infrastructure in place–in the short term, Freer tells Fast Company, it might make more sense to approximate these locations, rather than invest in installing a server farm underneath the ocean.

Brilliant… yet another way for compulsive gamblers to squeeze more profits out of the aether (not to mention shades of Ian McDonald’s Dervish House – which, if you haven’t read it yet, should be added to your stack of pending reads with immediate effect). But according to New Scientist, this might actually represent the last possible way to grasp advantage in the automated trading system:

“This shows that the technological arms race to extract every penny from high-frequency mechanical arbitrage will soon reach its ultimate limits,” says physicist and hedge-fund manager Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, based in Paris. “Maybe the buzz around high-frequency trading will then calm down.”

We can live in hope, I guess.


The end of geography

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

Dovetailing neatly with discussions of Wikileaks and Anonymous, here’s a piece at Prospect Magazine that reads the last rights rites for geography as the dominant shaper of human history [via BigThink]. The West won’t be the best forever, y’know:

The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.

Yet the west’s head start in agriculture some 12,000 years ago does not tell us everything we need to know. While geography does explain history’s shape, it does not do so in a straightforward way. Geography determines how societies develop; but, simultaneously, how societies develop determines what geography means.

[…]

As can see from the past, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means—and all the signs are that, in the 21st century, the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking, and the greatest challenges we face—nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water shortages—are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history, then, is that by the time the west is no longer the best, the question may have ceased to matter very much.

Amen. It’d be nice if we could get past our current stage of global socialisation, which might be best compared to a group of people sat in a leaking boat arguing over who should do the most bailing.


GoogleLitTrips: extending fiction into the factual web

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2010

The Luddite old guard love to batter on about how the internet devalues the reading of books, but I’ve always thought that the internet had huge potential for extending the appeal and educational power of fiction. Here’s a good example, going by the name of GoogleLitTrips [via MetaFilter], a project that uses custom layers in Google Earth to show students the routes and locations featured in various “road-trip” literary classics. (GLT’s developer has done a similar project based on historical journeys of exploration, too.)

It’s still pretty basic at this point, but it’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing could become incredibly deep, and perhaps end up becoming the standard extension of fiction into the multimedia sphere of the web. One could easily go beyond maps and into geotagged photography, both contemporary and historical, for instance, bringing locations and historical periods to life visually. (Would this lessen the imaginative input required from the reader, though?)

But let’s turn the idea up to eleven and apply it to science fiction for a moment. If you’re setting a book in the future, you can’t provide photographs of the settings… but you could create CGI composites (like the images produced by speculative architects), or build 3D environments using SketchUp or a metaverse platform like Second Life, which could then be populated with characters (pre-programmed, live-acted or both) for the reader to interact with, games for them to play, intrigues for them to get caught up in… something like what Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad project is aiming for, perhaps.

The possibilities are endless, and all I’ve done here are list a few simple ideas that could be done with existing technologies. The underlying point is that there’s no reason the internet has to be the end of written fiction; with imagination and effort, fiction could become the core hook of a form of entertainment more complete, complex and immersive than anything yet created.

Sounds like a fun challenge, no?


Dude, where’s my island?

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2010

Since around 2005, at least 24 small islands have effectively vanished from the Indonesian archipelago. While sea levels are rising quickly enough to make some islands vanish (and solving long-running turf disputes in the process), these particular islands are not victims of climate change, but of ‘sand pirates’ digging them up and shipping them away to be used as building aggregates on the mainland [via Technovelgy].

Given the vast amount of stuff we put into landfills around the world, maybe we could build some new islands from McMansion rubble and consumer electronics junk?


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