Once you are done with this you need to aquire a copy of Paulo Bacagalupi’s new novel The Water Knife and find yourself a place with a swimming pool full of crystal clear water and amper supplies of bottled spring water (you can of course read this book in any other setting, but it is much more enjoyable that way). If you want to maximize your reading pleasure/guilt even more you should also make sure that you have a bowl of pistachio nuts at hand.
So why the swimming pool and the bottled water? That is because The Water Knife is set in a dystopian near future where the lack of water has lead to ecological disaster, civil war like unrest and massive human suffering in American south west. States like Texas have become uninhabitable with their populations fleeing into neighbouring states which try to keep the refugees away while struggling to provide water for their own populations. Against this backdrop powerful water barons fight over water rights that grant them the rights to tap water from the Colorado river to provide water for giant, fully enclosed private real estate projects. The novel follows the story of an enforcer of one of these water barons (a so called ‘water knife’) as he becomes entangled in a mesh of conspiracy and mistrust in the dying city of phonic, Arizona.
For me The Water Knife excels both at creating a credible near term dystopia and as a thriller (i even liked the ending which is a rare thing with thrillers).
To increase your reading pleasure i would suggest that once you are about two thirds through the book (around chapter 39 or so) you take a break and listen to episode 640 of NPRs planet money podcast: The bottom of the well, in which the planet money team examines the economic effects of the current drought in California. As i listened to the podcast i was rather surprised to find out that some of the elements of Bacagalupi’s novel (public relief pumps, water consultants hawking state-of-the-art technology to reach deeper and deeper into dwindling aquifers) are already a reality in parts of California.
The planet money episode makes it painfully obvious how our economic system (a.k.a. capitalism) is set up to create the economic incentives to deplete scarce water resources in drought stricken areas for private gain (this is the moment where you want to reach for a hand full of pistachio nuts) and is possibly the most vivid explanation of the concept of the tragedy of the commons that i have come across to far.
Just finished reading ‘Red Plenty‘ by Francis Spufford which has replaced ‘Turing’s Cathedral‘ as my favourite book from this year. In fact the two books probably should be read together. Red Plenty picks up approximately where Turing’s Cathedral ends and offers a rather fascinating peek into how the invention of electronic computers interacted with the planned economy of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and his immediate successors.
Red plenty follows a community of scientists (economists, computer scientists, cycberneticans and biologists) who propose to reform planning of the soviet economy along the principles of linear programming. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to accelerate economic growth and to bring into being a state wherein there are sufficient amounts of commodities available for to satisfy the needs (and desires) of every citizen (a.k.a communism). This provides fascinating insights into the functioning of the planned economy and the soviet bureaucracy as well as the hopes and fears of those involved.
One of the reasons why this is such a good book is that it really forces you to acknowledge that there a legitimate reasons to question the capitalism and the market as the only viable and sane economic arrangement. While it is clear that the particular approach that is portrayed in Red Plenty has failed with disastrous consequences reading the book reinstalls the notion that another world should be possible.
As Jo Walton notes in his review Red Plenty is at its best where it describes specific problems that appear as a result of economic planning. One example is the following account about running an algorithm that optimises potato delivery to Moscow on an early Soviet mainframe computer. I particularly enjoyed reading this in the light of recent debates about algorithmic trading. Compared to the current practice of trading for the sake of trading this account of crude algorithmic non-market optimisation actually makes sense.
The BESM. A picture of what? Of potatoes. The electrons flowing through the vacuum tubes represent digits; and tonight the digits the BESM is processing represent potatoes. Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tubercles – but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organisations. The BESM is applying Leonid Vitalevich‘s mathematics to the task of optimising potato delivery for the Moscow Regional Planning Agency. Seventy-five thousand different variables are involved, subject to 563 different constrains: this problem is out of reach of fingers and slide rules. But thanks to computers, thanks to the BESMs inhuman patience at iterating approximate answers over and over again, it is a problem that can be solved.
The BESM is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country – only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error. In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing; and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons, rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough solution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver. You don’t, in fact, have to look as far away as the capitalist countries to find a market for purposes of comparison. There is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow: the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhoznik’s sell the produce from their private plots. Somehow, in the hardest times, there are always piles of green leeks here, and fat geese, and mushrooms smelling damply of the forest, and potatoes dug that morning; all so expensive you’d only shop here if money was no object, to stock up for a birthday or a wedding party. When the trade is briskest, the recording clerks sally out from the Ministry of Trade’s little booths and walk among the stalls, carefully writing down prices. But how slow it is! How slowly things move, as customers jostle in these triangles of waste ground next to the city’s bus stations and train stations, compared to the ten thousand operations per second of the BESM!
The markets clock speed is laughable. It computes at the rate of a babushka in a headscarf, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath. Its stock arrives one sack or basket at a time, clutched on a peasant lap. It calculates its prices on cardboard, with a stub of pencil. No wonder that Oskar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace a ‘primitive pre-electronic calculator’. In the age of the vacuum tube, its an anachronism, good only for adding a small extra source of high-priced supply to the system, for those moments when the modern channels of distribution can’t quite satisfy every consumer need. And now even that function is becoming obsolete. When Leonid Vitalevich’s program reorganises Moscow’s delivery system, the efficiency gains should fill the state shops with enough cheap potatoes for everyone. Now, as the seconds pass, the BESM is steadily shaving away the average potato delivery distance in the capital. At present, it seems, a spud must travel an average of 68.7 kilometres from cold-store to shop: but in the basement of the Institute of Precise Mechanics it is already clear that 61.3 kilometres is possible, 60.08 kilometres, 59.6 kilometres, and still the program is showing that the optimum has not yet been reached. The shorter the distance, the fresher the potato, the smaller the spoilage this is the best index of success the programmers can come up with, since price as such is not available to them as a quantity to be minimised. The state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years. 57.9 km, 56.88 km. This is very nearly a 20% improvement. Soon Moscow’s potato supply will be 20% better. 55.9 km, 54.6 km. Its a new world. (page 115f)
Also – and somewhat predictably – reading red plenty has added a new place i want to visit to my growing list of such places: the beach in Akademgorodok (at the bottom-left of this picture)
So i finally managed to start reading the ‘Future of Copyright‘ anthology that contains the winning essays from a contest organised by the Modern Poland Foundation. So far (i have not read them all) my favourite essay is ‘Give‘ by Togi, which i read as powerful argument that systemic change (and not just reform) is not only much needed but also possible. While his overall line of argument is pretty convincing (to me), i have a bit of trouble following one of his (her?) central arguments (Mike Linksvayer makes a very similar point in his review of the anthology):
At the point where government profit from copyright/IP is negated by the cost of its enforcement (both in monetary terms and in terms of public goodwill), free culture will be permitted.
While this would be the logical thing for governments to do, there is ample evidence that governments don’t work like this. This seems to be especially true in conflicts that are rhetorically packaged as ‘wars’. The ‘war on drugs’ is the best example of this (if this does not make sense to you listen to the last point bought forward in this episode of the planet money podcast), but it is also true for the ‘war on terror’. Given this i think it is rather naive to expect (as Togi does) governments to succumb to rational economic thinking when it comes to the war on piracy sharing.
…the modern state, through it’s officials, attempts with varying success to create a terrain and a population with precisely those standardized characteristics that will be easiest to monitor, count, asses, and manage. The utopian, immanent, and courteously frustrated goal of the modern state is to is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of it’s observations.
This observation, which is essential in understanding how governments work, is even more interesting when seen in the context of large non-state entities like facebook. It clearly illustrates why the recurring attempts to compare facebook to a nation state (most recently in this otherwise rather informative Verge article on facebook’s security).
Seen in the light of Scott’s observation facebook is a quantum leap ahead of the modern state: Facebook does not need simplified abstractions to make sense of the social reality of it’s members as it had direct and unmediated access to this social reality (if you want to understand how granular Facebook’s analytical grid is, this Planet Money episode is a good start).
In the end this is what makes Facebook dangerous: it may very well be that this direct access to the social reality of it’s members does not justify it’s inflated IPO price, but with increasing pressure to monetize the social reality of it’s members, Facebook will sooner or later realize that governments are probably willing to pay for access in order to once and for all achieve their utopian, immanent, and courteously frustrated goal of total information about their populations.
“The Jetlag Society is an unbound book on how technology influences time, space and our synchronization with the world. While bound books have weight, smell and are above all tangible, it’s digital form can be quick changing and endlessly linked to other relevant information. The Jetlag Society is a name, a feeling and an unbound book that makes the idea feel timeless, interconnected and constantly in motion” (from the Jetlag Society, In • Preface 00’00”)
The unbound book consists of the front and back covers of a book that have been individually silkscreened. the actual text is available at at read.thejetlagsociety.net for online consumption and as an .epub or .mobi download. To access the text you purchase the unbound book which comes with login credentials (in the form of a silkscreened captcha) that enables you to access the content at the website).
I actually quite like the concept of making you buy a physical fetish like object that enables you to consume the the actual text on an e-reader of your choice. It makes me feel much less guilty when purchasing an ebook, gives you all the satisfaction that well crafted objects give you and maintains one of the most important properties of physical books: that you can pull it out of your shelf and show it to people when you refer to something in it…
Two days ago i finished reading ‘De Schijn-élite van de Valse Munters‘ the much-hyped book by Martin Bosma who is credited with being the strategic brain behind the rise of the populist/islamophobic PVV that is enabling the current right wing minority government in the Netherlands.
I am not exactly sure why i started reading this book in the first place, but i guess it was because i wanted to get a better understanding some of the reasoning behind the (often extreme and seemingly irrational) politics of the PVV. I had also hoped that the book would contain some level of analysis of socio-economic issues that could contribute to my understanding the unprecedented electoral success of the PVV and learn from that. In short, i think that i had hoped that Bosma would turn out to be a really smart strategic thinker from whom i could learn a thing or two. unfortunately, the book has been a huge disappointment in all of these regards.
To be fair, i do not think that Bosma intended to analyze the current status of Dutch society or provide insights into his (or the PVV’s) strategic thinking. For him the books seems to serve one single purpose: to discredit his political opponents on the left.
In essence the entire book consists of an endless collage of quotes from various sources (his favorite sources are post WWII social democrats and fringe lunatics whom he refers to as ‘islam-experts’). From these quotes he tries to weave together a narrative that is supposed to show that following the 1960s Dutch society has been taken over by a far-left elite whose primary concern is to surrender the Netherlands to hordes of muslim immigrants who’s prime concern is to establish sharia law/a caliphate.
To ‘prove’ his theory he relies heavily on his impressive collection of quotes but presents almost no empirical evidence other than a number of references to surveys that have found that ‘the dutch people’ do not desire immigration or any other of the policies of the elites such as subsidies for the arts.
As a result, the biggest part of his book is devoted to a rather absurd attempt to frame the current elites as far-left extremists. This culminates in an entire chapter that is devoted to explaining that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a far-left extremist1. While Bosma’s almost physical rejection of what he identifies as far-left extremist politics is palpable, i am still a bit puzzled what he wants to prove here: defining his own political position primarily in opposition to (a grotesquely twisted description of) the positions of your opponents does not strike me as something you would do if you had a well developed understanding of your own position.
All of this does not make Bosma the most stupid member of parliament ever (dutch, google translation here), but after reading through his book i am relatively certain that i overestimated his intelligence and the analytic rigor quite a bit. Now this is almost certainly a good thing…
So imagine this scenario: you are on an isolated tropical island that does not have a bookstore, you are out of books, but you happen to have an electronic reading device with you that is wirelessly connected to the internet and that is tied to you credit card account (which is not maxed out). This should constitute one of the most ideal business cases for selling books to this particular individual, but for some reason the publishing industry does not seem to be willing to cater to this scenario.
Two months ago while on vacation i found myself in this very scenario (aggravated by the fact that i had left my copy of Salinger’s ‘the Catcher in the Rye‘ with 30 unread pages to go on the ferry boat that took us to the island). Unfortunately for me (and the rights-holders) you cannot buy an electronic copy of ‘the Catcher in the Rye’ from the international kindle store run by amazon. instead you can get about 13 different books that deal with the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in some form or another (reading helps, studies of the book etc) but the original text is notably absent from the international kindle bookstore. The most likely reason is that some publisher has decided that it is somehow not in his/her interest to to sell the book to people like me1.
So instead of reading the final chapters of ‘the Catcher in the Rye’ i was forced to read the the New York Times (which is available via the kindle no matter where you are) for 7 days and once we were back on an island with a second hand bookstore i purchased a 2nd hand copy of the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and finished the book. Of course all of the money i spend on that second hand copy (which was more than the price of the original paperback that i had left on the ferry) is going to the owner of the bookstore and none of it is is ending up in the pockets of the publishers or the author (who is dead so in this case the stupidity of the publishers does not harm the author).
Obviously there real danger to authors is not that people who are unable to obtain ebooks because of rights-issues will turn to second-hand bookstores. Instead it is more likely that they will turn to file-sharing networks and other sources for unauthorized copies instead. Already there are more unauthorized ebook editions than there are books on the international kindle book store and the only reason why this has not yet become a real problem is that only a few people own specialized reading devices. This of course will rapidly change over the next couple of years.
If the publishing industry does not get its act together and makes sure that we can purchase all books on whatever platform we like right after they have been published regardless where we happen to be, it will find itself in exactly the same position as the music industry is finding itself for the last 10 years. Of course they are free to do so should they really want to end up there, but since they have been warned it would be nice if they could refrain from the disgraceful whining that we have had to endure from the music industry for the past decade. The choice is theirs…
Ok, there is an even more likely explanation: the book is probably not available because the rights to do so rest with a bunch of different publishers for different territories and so there is no-one who can make it available an online bookstore that covers multiple territories. as far as i am concerned this still counts as being stupid. ↩︎
This is by far the most repulsive patent application i have ever seen. Apparentlyamazon.com has filed for a patent for showing contextual ads in the margins (also called white space for a good reason!) of e-books…
Yesterday evening i found an envelope copy of the book Digitofagia – net_cultura1.0 by Ricardo Rosas and Giseli Vasconcelos on the stairs to my apartment (thanks for the relay Geert!). This book has been in the making for more than 4 years and i had more or less accepted that i would never see it in print). The idea for this book cam up in the context of the Waag-Sarai Exchange platform in late 2004/early 2005. The book collects a number of articles and assays that discuss the – very lively – netculture/hactivism scene in Brazil at that time. It is the outcome of a number of discussions we had with people around the projects midiatactica and metareciclagem around that time.
Realizing this book was one of the more complicated things i have contributed to over time (transferring money to Brazil is a real nightmare) and when we were ready to go to print we learned that Ricardo who had spend an enormous amount of energy chasing authors and finding a publisher had passed away. The book was finally published late last year in Brazil (by Radical Livros) and although i cant read Portuguese i am happy that it is finally available:
Finally finished reading ‘Denken in een tijd van sociale hypochondrie‘ (‘thinking in times of social hypochondria’) by the Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel a couple of weeks ago. By the standards of Dutch sociologists, Schinkel is fairly young (31) and relatively famous (he was one of the 6 summer guests appearing on VPRO’s zomergasten in 2008 [torrent-file here]) which however does not mean that there are any english language references or translations of his work or available on the net (hence all the quotes in the remainder of this post, have been translated by myself and might contain translation mistakes).
The book is rather long and at many times hard to read as he cultivates a way of writing that is obsessed with tracing every single observation/thought/proposition back along the entire back-catalog of philosophers & sociologists. This of course is common among theoretical social science scholars (and probably the reason why most people don’t read these kind of books) but in his case it seems to serves a special purpose: Distancing himself from all pre-Schinkel sociology and declaring most of it worthless. According to Schinkel, Niklas Luhmann (who’s theoretic work already constituted a fairly radical departure from the works of many of his colleagues and predecessors) was the last of the line of ‘old Europeans’ all of whom worked based on a misleading concept of ‘society’. Schinkel, who borrows heavily from Luhmann’s work1, comes to the conclusion that even Luhmann was wrong where it comes to conceptualizing ‘society’ (Schinkel uses the term ‘society’ (‘maatschappij’/’samenleving’ in Dutch) exclusively in quotes) and that it rests on him to demonstrate that there is no empirical entity called society:
We therefore leave behind the fictional character of ‘society’ and exploit it. A ‘society’ is a creative fiction, a map that pretends to be a landscape. Or at least a map that pretends to be a map of a landscape – within the metaphysics of society thinking has never advanced further than this. It is the fiction of a ‘together’ and co-existence, and therefore we now refer to ‘society’ as a certain kind of confiction. We are talking about the fiction of a ‘con’, and ‘with’ or ‘together’ […] The observation ‘society’ is such a confiction. This term is a fictive representations (representation fictives) and has a fonction fabulatrice which we will call a fiction function in this context. ‘Society’ is just one example of such a confiction but conficties exist in all types and sizes and at different levels of aggregation. A ‘neighborhood’ is a confictie, as well as a ‘club’, a ‘nation’, a ‘people’. […] The ‘society’ is a fiction which must be believed in. (page 286 f.)
Throughout the book Schinkel continues this arrogant way of writing/reasoning but for me he manages to get away with it: The entire book seems to be torn between two main objectives: One the one hand he tries to develop his own sociological grand theory (including an appendix of 20 or so pages to explain the terminology that he introduced in order to do so) and on the other hand he delivers one of the most powerful analyses of contemporary Dutch ‘society’ that i have come across since i am in the Netherlands/stopped studying sociology (which – to those not familiar with my biography – is a direct casual relationship). For me, this second aspect of the book is much more interesting than the first (and makes it a must-read in the current political discourse in the Netherlands). His analysis is not limited to Dutch ‘society’ alone and he places the current Dutch obsession with [integration] (the term is used in brackets throughout the entire book) within a wider analysis of late/developped capitalist ‘societies’ at the beginning of the 21st century2:
The only remaining collective project after the demise of the credibility of the projects of the Enlightenment and Modernity is thus what we call Operation Obesity. This concerns a residual-organicistic discourse that conceptualizes ‘society’ in terms of growth. In this discourse, unguided but necessary growth has taken over the position of progress within the project of modernity. For society Operation Obesity results in all the accompanying feelings of guilt that are characteristic for overconsuming obese people: concern about weight, fitness and health, guilt with respect to those less fortunate and the environment. Where it comes to the politics of [integration] this manifests itself in adressing the problem of [integration] spcifically growth inhibitors are observed. “Integration policy revolves around the words ‘modern citizenship’ and ‘economic participation’. By this the government means that citizens feel involved with each other and with society.” In short ‘the society’ is largely defined in economic terms. […]. The words “goal of integration policy is a society in which everyone actively and fully contributes”, must therefore be taken literally: ‘Society’ is compromised by those who ‘work’ in economic terms. (page 379 f.)
In other words the process of [integration] that is primarily defined and debated in cultural terms is – above all – a mechanism that attempts to ensure the as total as possible inclusion of migrants into the economic system. He argues that migrants (and other outsiders) are not placed outside of ‘society’ but that they rather form the (economic) underside of the system that perceives them as outsiders. Schinkel is certainly not the first one to point out that the concept of [integration] implies that that migrants are somehow languishing in a place other than ‘society’ and he devotes much energy (and many pages) to illustrate the more or less obvious point that there is no place outside of society where those that are expected to [integrate] could be located (the moment they are identified as objects in need of [integration] they are already part of ‘society’). Consequently he concludes that the persistent demands to [integrate] are primarily aimed at reproducing the position of migrants as ‘outsiders’:
When it comes to [integration] of the n-th generation migrants the bar is raised so high, that the result is a permanent somewhat weak state of [integration]. This is illustrated by the themes that make up the curriculum of the current naturalization courses: A pre-modern conviviality sentiment (voormodern gezelligheidssentiment – ‘What do you when your neighbour has her birthday?’), a responsible eco-consumerism (‘to what category of waste do frying fats belong?’) – things characterizing the Dutch ‘Judaeo-Christian-Humanist culture’. This is also evident from the [integration]attempts from neighborhoods such as the ‘greeting zones’ and the ‘street contracts’ mentioned in the intermezzo that intend to promote a sentimental disciplined ‘street contact’. [Integration] is everything except in-corporation (the real and literal inclusion in the social body). […] [Integration] is thus also the symbol of the utopian ‘self’ observation that is based on a provincial petty-bourgeois community-rhetoric. In fact [Integration] reflects an observation that is contrary to the postmodern hyperindividual constantly looking for connection-opportunities, mobility, self-transformations and reinventions. […] That the ideals of naturalization and [integration] are so petty-bourgeois and confer so little integrity, has everything to do with their ridiculous nature in a time of ‘self’description crisis on a global scale. (page 390)
For Schinkel this ridiculous vision on [integration] is functional. The constant pressure on migrants to participate in the ‘host society’ needs to be read literally: They can only become part of the imagined ‘society’ if they contribute their labour to the economic project of perpetual growth without progress (‘Operation Obesity’). At another point in the book (and i think that was the example from the current Dutch debate around integration that for some reason most disgusted me) he quotes from a website providing information at migrants that are expected to [integrate] in Dutch ‘society’ through taking ‘citizenship’ courses:
See: www.hoemoetikinburgeren.nl [pk: the site is not active anymore and forwards to www.hetbeingtmettaal.nl. A pdf (see excerpt below) with the content of the site is still available here] On this site we find the following vision as a normative decoration: “During the naturalization course, I met a couple of nice people. I am still in contact with one girl. She is Vietnamese and she also works for Shell. We speak Dutch with each other.” Typical migrants trying to become citizens work at Shell, or: directly see ‘how we live together in the Netherlands’: preferably working for Shell. (page 394 footnote 63)
For example in this crucial passage on page 211: “Dat differentiatiedenken dat zich oriënteert aan hand van het systeem/omgeving-schema gaat precies aan die grenzen voorbij door een sociaal systeem (bijvoorbeeld een ‘maatschappij’) te conceptualisieren als iets dat alleen bestaat in een bepaalde verhouding tot een omgeving van dat systeem en dat bovendien mogelijkerwijs functionele relaties onderhoud met die omgeving. In geval van het onderscheid systeem/omgeving is de omgeving een ‘unmarked space’ die verder geen informatie biedt. Maar word de omgeving systeemintern gethematiseerd als bestaande uit andere systemen en gaat het om wat Luhmann ‘Systeem-zu-System’ relaties noemt dan is ook de ander kant van de vorm iets dat gemarkeerd kan worden. Kortom het onderscheid systeem/omgeving betrekt een systeem altijd noodzakelijkerwijs op iets buiten dat systeem en ondertekend daarmee dat systemen. hoewel ze autopoietisch en dus operatief gesloten zijn , nooit bestaan onafhankelijk van een systeemomgeving.” ↩︎
At another point in the book he makes a rather interesting observation about the process commonly called globalisation: “De Globalisering was bovendien het meest anti-filosofische dat het westerse denken had kunnen overkomen: en immanent geheel van niks anders dan banale connecties. Een geheel zonder buitenkant ook, met alleen maar nog interne omgevingen. een ruimte van eeuwige herhalingen van steeds iets anders: andere connecties. Een ruimte die niet te bezetten is, maar waarin ieder zich slechts kan redden door kwetsbaarmakende connecties aan te gaan. Het gaat hier om de teloorgang van van iedere historische taak en de implausibiliteit van iedere filosofische constructie , zoals bijvoorbeeld Sloterdijk die ondernomen heeft, om die te herstellen.” (page 386) ↩︎