But just as our complaints have their plus ça change quality, so do their corollaries. We end up finding ways to make the sea of information seem less sea-like. We find ways, essentially, to fool ourselves into a sense of sense-making. As controversial as Shelley’s ideas about poetry may have been at the time, they speak also to an enduring assumption: that the workings of human creativity — the clarity of curation, the filter of poetic understanding — are what will finally save us from ourselves. Whether we are buoyed by the floods of information or drowned by them will depend on our ability to make wisdom out of knowledge, and knowledge out of data. For humans of the 21st century as much as the 16th, our intelligence is contingent on our ability — just as Shelley said — “to imagine that which we know.”
“We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.”—
Rafael Fajardo to Mr. Higgins: I think that your word choice is potentially confusing and would like to offer the following… Systems thinking in the traditions of Donella Meadows, Horst Rittel, and Norbert Weiner — and I would add Lars Qvortrup and Eric Zimmerman — is complexity thinking. We do seem to need a term or phrase, though, to provide the contast you are intending…
“We have to know the facts, not only because they are facts, but because there’s a value in knowing that we can’t stereotype evil. Terrible doings are not confined to certain types of people or people who look a certain way. As much as it’s painful, we have to look at the faces of the people who do horrific things to teach ourselves a lesson. And if we don’t know his name, his history, what he came from, why, what do we learn about stopping this from happening again”—
“Revolts catalysed by Twitter and Facebook, alongside the offline networking of all those put into contact with, and forced ever closer to slavery by, financialised systems are the positive feedback loops beginning to resonate after years of controlled deregulations and informatisation. The accelerating repetition of ineffective financial moves generates an ever greater financial contradiction which is transposed across the social scale from banks to states to populations. As subsidies are withdrawn and barriers to capital dismantled, this contradiction is translated into food and fuel price inflation, in turn triggering riots and a proletarian music of revolt ripping through once stable states. With the socialist - and now fundamentalist - control circuitry torn out or severely compromised by financialised capital itself, perhaps an unregulatable feedback will ensue.”—Short Circuits: Finance, Feedback & Culture
A growing number of complexity theorists are beginning to recognise this problem. The growing consensus is that bizarre and unpredictable behaviour often emerges in systems made up of “networks of networks”.
An obvious example is the flash crashes that now plague many financial markets in which prices plummet dramatically for no apparent reason. Understanding how and why this happens is the focus of much research.
Given that cloud is clearly becoming a network of networks that is rapidly growing in complexity, it’s not hard to imagine that the computing equivalent of flash crashes are not just likely but inevitable.
Tenner’s response to a report on the computer error that lead to the abbreviated, yet pronounced Fireworks display:
I have read and re-read the statement and am as perplexed as the Times reporter. But that’s part of the point. In the age of apps, it’s easy to forget how many of our systems depend on complex code that may be difficult to understand even for information technology professionals with other specialties. This software is sometimes custom-developed and sometimes sold in small quantities. And these systems increasingly interact with each other to create the “seamless” Web.
I like to think about Alexis Madrigal’s article The Programmable Self: Where Self-Improvement Meets Cybernetics where he talks about the quantification of the self via increasing app usage. We are relying on applications to “improve us” to create better, more perfect selves. These applications, of course, are designed in isolation to overcome specific problems not necessarily with consideration for the ecosystem of applications in general. I think it’s interesting to think of humans as “Networks of Networks”. How do the apps we use interact with other and what unforeseen consequences will it have as we try to “perfect” ourselves via technology? What kind of “Meltdowns” of the individual will it lead to once we have resigned the entirety of who we are to data?
An unprecedented coordination of class decomposition and social non-reproduction has made systemic risk, in every sense, far greater than it has been for decades, greater than in the entire history of capitalism, perhaps. If the spiral of feedback leading from financial bubble to insurrectionary wave that now seems possible is fulfilled, then we may yet have to revise our opinion of the long era of financialisation. It will have been more than just a fiction of wealth - the imposition of the value form as a volatile but empty claim to value creation. In a final spiral of cyber-capitalist feedback, finance may prove to have been the amplifier par excellence of the noise that abolishes the capitalist signal, that is of the signal which is value - the one, supremely abstract, supremely material thing it always must communicate, send and receive. An exponential positive feedback in class struggle should not be assumed, however, any more than the teleological projections of cybernetics (e.g. inevitable planetary death by overpopulation, etc.). But one would have to be more myopic than a risk analyst, or middle-eastern CIA operative, to miss the current potential for the destructive cycle of financial feedback to invert into an unprecedented global cycle of struggles against capital per se.
The article perfectly contextualizes issues of cybernetics, positive/negative feedback, informatisation, quantification, commodification of the self, risk, etc within the context of capitalism and finance.
Personally I find it to be the best, albeit incidental, argument for what’s wrong with the New Aesthetic ideology. But also what that ideology or belief ultimately leads to in terms of a too-well defined system of value crashing from a positive feedback loop wherein no new value you is created.
We may disagree that the information society has brought about a new form of value creation in which information is wealth. Nevertheless the rise of the information society certainly coincides with the installation everywhere of feedback loops which monitor and regulate consumption, production and distribution. Capital strains to reduce its overheads by outsourcing labour to consumers - witness the rise of social networking - and subjects all social processes to measurement and quantification.
This cultural preoccupation with success as a reflection of worthiness means that decision-making is particularly stressful for us. "Anything about a decision that … [is] less than perfect is a rebuke to the decision maker," says Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Westerners seem particularly sensitive to decision-related regret, as Schwartz notes. He describes a study that he co-authored, currently being reviewed for publication, that used questionnaires to gauge how subjects from the U.S., Europe, and China thought about decision-making. The Chinese "have much less of their core selves on the line with each decision they make," Schwartz says. "For Chinese (and other Asians), sense of self and self-worth are not tied up so much with notions of individual autonomy and choice. So a bad pair of jeans is just a bad pair of jeans. In the U.S., it’s a bad pair of jeans AND a statement about you. Think how much weightier your decisions are if every one you make tells the world something about who you are.”
Our decision-making anxiety is exacerbated by our tendency to imbue all sorts of decisions with vital importance. For a recent study, Stanford psychology professor Hazel Markus and her colleagues asked Indian and American participants to report how many choices they’d made while doing a series of small tasks. “Though everybody made the same series of decisions” — choosing a desk to sit at, choosing a pad to use, choosing whether or not to eat free candy, and so on — “Americans thought that they’d made twice as many choices as the Indians, 20 compared to 10,” Markus says.
Having to make too many decisions on a regular basis can stress us out, as can the wild abundance of options we have to choose from. “Too much choice can paralyze people and make them anxious,” says Markus. “It used to be good enough to send your kid to preschool or to college. Now you have to choose the perfect one — and then the perfect teacher and extra-curriculars — or you are a failure as a chooser, as a mother, as an American.”
What we live in is whatever you would call a society that rewards gaming the system. A meritocracy of people who have figured out the right decisions to make to achieve the most success. You don’t need to be particularly intelligent to do this, just have a knowledge of what decisions are the right ones.
There are those who have been able to make the right decisions and those who are ridden with anxiety trying to figure out what those decisions are.
“The pattern was repeated in the explosion of commercial and artistic innovation that emerged in the densely settled hill town of Northern Italy, the birthplace of the European Renaissance. Once again, the rise of urban networks triggers a dramatic increase in the flow of good ideas. It is not a coincidence that North Italy was the most urbanized region in all of Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But, in a crucial sense, the pattern of Renaissance innovation differs from that of the first cities: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order. If dispersed tribes of hunter-gatherers are the cultural equivalent of a chaotic, gaseous state, a culture where the information is largely passed down by monastic scribes stands at the opposite extreme. A cloister is solid. By breaking up those information bonds and allowing the ideas to circulate more freely through a wide connected population, the great Italian innovators brought new life to the European mind.”—
- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From.
To repeat: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order.
What will emerge from the excessive orderliness of social networking and identity quantification?
When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.
… some of our most serendipitous spaces are under threat from the internet. Wander into a bookshop in search of something to read: the book jackets shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands. You may not find the book you wanted, but you will walk out with three you didn’t.
… serendipity, on the other hand, is, as Zuckerman says, “necessarily inefficient”. It is a fragile quality, vulnerable to our desire for convenience and speed. It also requires a kind of planned vagueness. Digital systems don’t do vagueness very well, and our patience
with it seems to be fading.
Bullshit. Our patience with serendipity is not fading, our patience with planned, quantified, overly designed systems that stifle luck, chance, randomness, risk, mistake, glitch, generativity is fading.
We are becoming exhausted with the programmed self.
Haven’t read the article quoted above yet, but the quote itself ruffled my feathers.
On June 16, urbanist and part-time terror suspect Liam Young brought together an ensemble of thinkers, writers and artists to forge the collaborative blueprint for a future city. Arc’s editor Simon Ings went along to rub shoulders with, among others, Warren Ellis, Rachel Armstrong and Bruce…