Sinister Normative Compulsions

Michael Eby’s piece in New Left Review on Agile software development is interesting, and a little frustrating. I think it’s generally quite useful to get a left-wing, Marx-y class analysis on the structural of the software workplace. Eby argues Agile is a renegotiation within capitalism that by itself doesn’t challenge, and may indeed clarify, the executive power of the capitalist or manager, in the form of the Product Owner. This certainly seems true – it’s right there in the name.

I like the piece a bit more in concept than execution, though. There’s a few too many mistakes in the detail, getting the timeline of methods wrong, treating Scrum as separate to Agile when it’s the most popular method, talking about story points, and not lining up the jargon quite right in various ways. If I had to guess, I’d venture its a generalization from discussion with a few developers rather than a more careful reading of the key books and the c2 wiki. The full pedantic catalogue I will leave to the hacker news comments, while noting that process is more complicated to analyze than it looks, because software processes in practice rarely strictly follow a book. This is a point driven home by Alistair Cockburn’s description of developers always wanting to add stuff they don’t do to their description of their process – in Agile Software Devlopment, as it happens.


Despite mixing up some of the details, Eby still has some sharp moments where he spots things you would never see in the usual software literature. Agile absolutely does have mechanisms of management discipline for workers, for instance:

It is clear that Agile dissolves many of the more visible features of hierarchical managerial control. But it does so only to recontain them in subtle and nuanced ways. For one, the self-organizing strategies of teams allow for certain workplace disciplinary mechanisms to take the form of normative compulsions rather than explicit instructions. 

The example that follows this quote isn’t great (again those details). I’d say instead that the most important disciplinary measure is frequent planning discussion and delivery – iterations and standups. It’s both a bug and a feature. Because they are the leverage points in this structure, iterations and standups are also where Dark Agile happens, if it happens.


But it’s still better. 


Agile work is more satisfying because a software worker has more control over the detail of what they produce. The owners and managers of the firm get more software delivery, through a change to internal communication and decision structures. To the degree society as a whole is helped by the software, it gets those helpful things sooner. It is too easy to forget how spectacularly wasteful waterfall development was. Enormous specification documents that were irrelevant by the time any code was cut. Months of kabuki theatre adversarial ping pong between development and testing teams. Years spent coding features and products never used. All of this was completely known and routine. Flows of waste and stupidity are hardly alien to software today, but at least in Agile a third of your projects aren’t thrown into the sea.


Agile techniques are more effective at delivering software, precisely by taking more technical decisions out of a bureaucratic org chart. Methodologies like Large Scale Scrum even emphasize that it is not a manager’s job to parcel out work, but to remove friction from the flow of money and production. This is surely fruit hanging low and ripe for a socialist critic to take.

Eby goes on to state:

[A] silent bargain between capital and wage-labour has occurred, with capital steadily shedding impediments to accumulation, and wage-earners forfeiting hard-won security in exchange for putative freedom.

This isn’t a terrible description of the new status quo, but again, the historical sequence seems off. The scythes of neoliberal deregulation had already been slicing into corporate and union bureaucracies alike all through the eighties and nineties. Downsizing, private equity buyouts and rightshoring were already well-rehearsed corporate practice before the Agile manifesto was signed in 2001. Agile has now shown itself so successful that it is propagated by management as corporate process. But you could also see it as skilled labour reacting to a disrupted expectation of long-term employment by taking control of low-level details of production, selling the change using increased labour productivity, and succeeding despite a lack of formal legal support. The lack of any explicit political theory (most of signatories of the manifesto are far from leftists) was probably helpful as well, in slipping under the radar, and avoiding the bureaucratic modes of 20th century unionism.

Various leftist thinkers, such as Phillips and Rozworski, have recently been pointing out that Amazon has so much size, computational power and control over its logistics that it is effectively a planned economy. This is true up to a point, but Jeff Bezos also popularized the “two pizza team” guidelines for agile team size. Internally Amazon has strong central control, platform planning, and for skilled software workers, devolved control of details to empowered teams that perform a high degree of horizontal co-ordination. And they build a lot of things. More Marx-inflected analysis of why that succeeds, while high modernist and Soviet central planning failed, would be welcome.

References

Cockburn – Agile Software Development

Phillips and Rozworski – The People’s Republic of Walmart

Does Anne of Green Gables Dream of Electric Sheep?

Caroline M Yoachim – A Rabbit Egg For Flora 

Adam Berman – Egg Tooth

Philip K Dick – The Preserving Machine

In an early Philip K Dick fairy-tale, an eccentric scientist invents a machine for turning musical pieces into animals. It works quite well, at least when the animals are kept inside, as pets. The animals can be easily converted back into recognizable entries of the classical canon. Yet the point of the project is preservation for the ages, across scores of generations, and when released into the nearby forest, the animals change. Some are eaten. Some turn wild. When the pipe-organ-like machine is used to convert them back, the result is strange, disturbing, sounds, barely classifiable as music at all.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora, by Caroline Yoachim, feels like it is set in one of these PKD worlds, while telling a story that the great man seemingly never could. In The Preserving Machine, for example, the vivid clunking fact of the machine breaks down for the characters, while reality of the world grows for the reader. Character reality frays and reader reality intensifies. Rabbit Egg is not about fraying, but repair. A single parent and her daughter play a game, discovering artificial eggs. It’s Pokémon, but for nanotechnological wonders which restore ecosystems.

“What do you think it will be?”

“Bobcat!”

I laugh. “I don’t think our local ecosystem can support a predator that big.”

“Deer!”

“Lobster!”

The dark-haired boy snorts. “The sea-life expansion got pushed back three months because ocean acidity is still too high.”

Behind the children’s game, this is a world of catastrophic loss. It is perhaps decades or centuries in the future: probably billions of people died as supporting natural systems collapsed around them, before everything finally bottomed out. It is perhaps a few decades on from the dayglo dystopia of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where, unlike Blade Runner, Deckard had an obsessive hobby of trying to find pet animals, and where even dogs and cats are so rare they are fabulously expensive. Rabbit Egg, daringly, takes this place as the setting for a charming childhood romance. It’s in a solarpunk collection, and this is the solarpunk gambit, really: envisioning repair instead of doom. Eventually, in Androids, Deckard finds a frog, which he doesn’t recognize is actually a mechanical simulacra. He is always a childlike assassin. You can imagine him enjoying searching for eggs.

Egg Tooth, by Adam Berman, is an uneasy, meticulously crafted, story that doesn’t show its cards early. It could be set in a more orderly, Australian, corner of that same collapsing world, albeit without any androids. If the voice of Rabbit Egg is Anne of Green Gables, the voice of Egg Tooth is clearly Kafka. This is not the cartoon avatar of bureaucratic frustration found in popular culture. (Is it a red tape? Is it a show trial? No – it’s Kafkaman!) This is the baffled observer-protagonist of The Castle or the A Country Doctor, intensely moved, evicted from his own head.

Between the apartments were skyscrapers in varying styles and states of decay. Whereas the oldest buildings tended to be the most complete, more recent projects appeared unfinished, with large black tarps covering jagged upper floors. The older buildings paid their penance in other ways, being covered in higher concentrations of graffiti and torn nylon banner advertisements. 

I am cagey about sharing the details of Egg Tooth, lest I inadvertently pick apart its fine weave. There are plenty of stories about the future being horrible, and they generally don’t interest me. What makes Egg Tooth compelling, and a little sickening, is the implication that among the collapse, this society is a relative success: a place of orderly utilitarian kindness among more general chaos, with famine and death just off-screen.

Both of these stories appear in collections of solarpunk science fiction, though Egg Tooth is by far the glummest boat in the sunny tech nouveau solarpunk regatta. Despite the revolutionary names of solarpunk, or even Extinction Rebellion, green politics is often forced to be conservative, or even reactionary – stop doing this, stop killing that, restore what was good and beautiful and pure. Flora wants rabbits back; in Egg Tooth the platypus may just be saved. Indeed, we need to stop and restore! But this is also why, politically, it’s so easy to slip from green to ecoreactionary; to the idealization of past social and technical forms. (And from there, ecofash is but a short goosestep away.)

Solarpunk is a countermovement of repair. It does not idealize feudal peasant tech and social mores, but puts the technology of the sun in its name. If we need romanticism, well, this is a far better romance. I hope Flora gets her rabbit egg, given she lives in North America, where it is not a pest. But the clever nanites that build the rabbits are also little conservatives, rebuilding what once was. Though both of the stories I’ve talked about here are great, and take risks in their own ways, most solarpunk plays it safe. Solarpunk is usually solarcozy. Quite a lot of it is secretly Egg Tooth wearing sunglasses – the literature of the precautionary principle and managed decline.

Most solarpunk I’ve seen – and much of these two collections – is good at the local, the relational, and the romantic – the Mrs Brown stories of the Turkey City Lexicon. This is a strength where science fiction traditionally had a weakness. It is good to have stories like this. The two stories I’ve named don’t span all of the weird creatures of the subgenre. But I wonder, based on what we’ve seen so far, whether this cozy vision can encompass the radically changed, and the truly planetary.

There are two and a half stories I imagine could only be written if solarpunk writers stopped playing it safe. The half is Fully Automated Planetary Solarpunk, a setting with Green Stack crisis management and universal basic services, which writers like Kim Stanley Robinson have at least had a crack at. The second is a Neo-Edwardian High Tory Solarpunk, with Art Nouveau aesthetics, solar industrialists, plucky aristocratic Indian adventuresses, and imperial confidence in multi-generational stewardship. I have to admit I name this one partly for the joy of the cognitive-political dissonance it implies in a community which can be painfully earnest at times. But beyond that, stories which deal with the age of Dadabhai Naoroji and the first National Parks also ask what it means to wield and abuse power across global networks, to preserve ecosystems, and to valorize traditional and indigenous continuity. The third, often quite incompatibly with the other two, would be a xenofeminist solarpunk, a solarpunk of unprecedented scale, cunning, and vision, a tech-subverting, wilderness-unleashing liberatory force, that like punk, would celebrate the strange, wild things that hatch from future eggs.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora by Caroline M Yoachim is published in Multispecies Cities. Egg Tooth by Adam Berman is published in And Lately, The Sun.

The Raven and The Owl

One of the oldest English translations of the Jia Yi 贾谊 poem 鵩鸟赋 (On The Owl) makes a curious connection to the Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, written two thousand years later. William Alexander Parsons Martin even went so far as to name the poem A Chinese Raven, which does seem a little unfair to Jia Yi: really Poe’s poem should be called An American Bird of Fate. (The translation can be found on p32 of this free book.)

The Raven has a famously haunting quality, in part due to its distinctive trochaic octameter (DUM da, DUM da, eight times in a line). It is a meter which is rare in English, but isn’t hard to fit ordinary English language into. I find that after reading The Raven, or sometimes even thinking about it, my own words start to fall into the same pattern, in a kind of poetic Tetris Effect. The same effect is presumably related to the many parodies and reworkings of the poem, as well as the many accusations of plagiarism it suffered in its heyday.

Original Tetris-less raven photo: Anita Gould

There is some similarity to the two stories. In a translator’s note, Martin, who was a 19th century missionary in China, explains the parallels of the evil bird harassing the depressed scholar, and why he found writing his translation in the style of Poe irresistible. He doesn’t mention the form of the original, which after a prose introduction, is mostly in alternating lines of five and four syllables. Poe himself claimed his poem was in a mix of catalectic and acatalectic meters. Given it is easy for an English speaker to read a five syllable line as two and a half feet, I wonder if that pattern helped put the idea in his head too.

I do like connections like this. Once taken by the conceit, Martin did take more than a few translation liberties. He moved April to November so he could rhyme with remember, for one thing. Rather more brutally, he decided to truncate the historical references that decorate the end of the poem, a bit like a carpenter who declares the corpse fit the coffin perfectly once the feet were cut off. On the other hand, he did explain what he was doing. It’s not a translation: it’s a Victorian cross-cultural remix.

Carbon Refactoring

The logic of carbon pricing is explained by economists as pricing in an externality. The problems of climate change in this view is one of deep insincerity – a computational civilization continually lying to itself about the ecological substrate at its foundational layer. We have been professionally fooling ourselves for decades. Networks of sensors are in place to measure the state of the system but adjustments only weakly feed back. Carbon pricing has sputtered along without entrenching a self-reinforcing process, while container-based political systems, stuck in Westphalian tile-borders, flap unsteadily through variations of supporting legal regimes. This is exacerbated by what Bratton terms the capitalist pricing problem: the tendency for markets to mistake short term liquidity signals for long term plans, or as Keynes put it, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”.

Carbon debt is technical debt. Technical debt is a term coined by Ward Cunningham and widely used and recognizable in software development. It represents the difficulty of working with the accumulated design limitations of a highly mutable system, including bugs, but also many partial and mutually irreconcilable models of the world in code. Working on a legacy system, one ridden with technical debt, is to face a human created artifact which evades human comprehension, let alone control. Carbon is a technical debt megastructure.

Addressing problems of technical debt involves redesign. An important set of software redesign techniques, those changing the design without change of function, are termed “refactoring”. Michael Feathers describes refactoring legacy code as establishing a design seam, and tests, then changing the system on one side of the seam without changing the behaviour. Each layer of a stack establishes such a seam, and they are omnipresent in software, at all scales. The point of refactoring is not to freeze the function of the system, but to improve the design in small steps to a point where functional improvements are safe, or perhaps just possible at all. Climate change, the long financial crisis begun in 2008, and technical debt are all crises of addressability: of being unable to trace causal relations through a massive codified system.

The story of renewable energy so far has been that of constantly working against the established infrastructure of the industrialized world: every improvement seems to require some other piece to be ripped out. Power stations have been the clearest and most successful point of intervention because the variation of power station inputs facing the need for power distribution creates design pressure for standard interface points at seams. For instance, power plug and voltage standards decouple network endpoints from each other. Though price points of solar vs coal tipped a year or two ago, that this happened despite the cancer-belching external costs being barely priced-in shows the immaturity of the system.

Bratton notes that Bitcoin inadvertently created a more direct link between exchange currency and carbon through the CPU- and hence energy-intensive process of proof-of-work mining. Other designers and startups are since sketching how similar Earth-to-User links could become more established parts of the Stack. Proof-of-stake coins like (some) Ethereum cut the energy usage by cutting the Earth-to-User link. More speculatively, Edward Dodge has proposed using the blockchain as a distributed ledger of carbon account, with mining based on a ton of sequestered CO2. Altcoin CarbonCoin (now seemingly deceased) replaced distributed mining of difficult to calculate numbers with mining by an environmental trust that uses six orders of magnitude less energy and puts profits into carbon mitigation.

A possible system linking these starts with carbon consumption endpoints. Forests and oceans are major carbon sinks, and prospecting rights could be claimed for blockchain coin mining, with satellite photography and other sensors providing the requisite proof of carbon. The mining claim is more important to the network than the legal title to the land, because double-claiming the carbon sink would make the carbon accounting invalid. For natural assets, the mining device need not be in the same location as the trees, though a maturing platform demanding more precision might call for devices on the ground, linking the Wood Wide Web to the internet and the blockchain.  This could be an Internet of Things (IOT) device that mints coins. A larger network of miners might demand a stricter proof of carbon, to retain the advantages of decentralized mining, including the incentives to participate. A previous post covered a design sketch for such a system.

Proof of carbon definitions can be captured as public software contracts, using Ethereum or a similar platform. A related idea is proof of location. The system is not totally trustless – it depends on independently observable weather data, and this might include state bureaus of meteorology for reference temperatures. (Neither is Bitcoin trustless for that matter – there is trust in the development team maintaining the protocol and in the open source process they run.) This also gives locals to the forest or ocean concerned a co-location advantage similar to that of high frequency trading systems to stock exchanges. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are not found in rich world finance capitals: this would give a small home town advantage to those local to say the Congolian rainforest, somewhat mitigating the colonial character of much international finance. (Introducing internet and trading connectivity to forests, who the most radical botanists are now arguing have cognitive processes, suggests future design mutations where animals or forests are also present as users of social and financial networks, perhaps in a mutually incomprehensible way.)

Other such designs are possible, including more centralized ones: the main feature is establishing a direct carbon-tracking data structure touching Earth layer carbon sequestration, Earth layer carbon emission and User-layer action (in the jargon of Bratton’s The Stack).

Refuge Stack

The Stack is a computational planet-system terraforming itself. Managing it is absurd, and changing it happens everyday. Humans working to deflect the system away from climate change processes that would kill them isn’t hubris so much as self-defense. Energy and commodity networks have always accumulated social power. Now it is here, computational society has obligation spam and sincerity leveraging algorithms organized in networks, and power also accumulates around them. To computationally address one from the other is an act of geopoetical network realism. If it results in gangs of telemarketing red guard killer whales demanding carbon coin reparations, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Proof of Carbon

Bitcoin inadvertently created a more direct link between exchange currency and carbon, through the CPU- and hence energy-intensive process of proof-of-work mining. Can we make a better link?

Edward Dodge has proposed using the blockchain as a distributed ledger of carbon account, with mining based on a ton of sequestered CO2. Let’s follow that suggestion but make each coin represent a kilogram of carbon.

Altcoin CarbonCoin replaces distributed mining of difficult to calculate numbers with mining by an environmental trust that uses six orders of magnitude less energy and puts profits into carbon mitigation. It relies on trusting that single third party organization, though. We want to have more decentralized platform management, as in many cryptocoins, while establishing this same carbon link.

There are a couple of other projects like Dovu or Treecoin which focus on particular types of carbon sequestration, but this sketch takes a different tack.

A Design Sketch

I wrote this design sketch a few years ago and then put it in a box called THINGS TO THINK ABOUT – URGENT. I’m not launching a billion dollar crypto play using it right now, so I figured I may as well share it here. I think we should have more public design sketches in software.

Basic Protocol and Squatting

We can push these initiating ideas a bit harder. As noted, forests and oceans are major carbon sinks. Prospecting rights could be claimed for mining, with proof of work replaced with an empirical proof of carbon. For each carbon sequestering device or location, you can associate a different allowed carbon coin mining rate. A corresponding proof of carbon could require 1) making the claim first 2) providing time and location specific weather information.

For secondary tropical rainforest, Bonner et al estimate 7.5-15 tons per hectare per year (via). That’s a pretty wide band, but let’s run with the lower figure for now and make that a claim worth 7500 coins per year. That’s 20.53 coins a day, which we’re going to round down to 20 for whole coin mining. We’ll also halve it, to 10, for reasons explained later.

For other types of carbon sinks, different rates would apply, but the protocol is the same.

Once a day, a miner can claim the right to mine the claim for that day. It has to provide

  1. The location in latitude and longitude.
  2. Proof the location is still a tropical rainforest through a public satellite photograph. Initially this could be from Google Earth.
  3. The temperature and humidity at 10 am that day in that timezone, at the nearest location providing a trusted source for that information. Initially these would be bureaus of meteorology and similar institutional sources. 

Otherwise the process is the same as claiming a bitcoin – it is advertised to the network and validated by other miners.

A miner has to obtain a mining license. This can be bought for 1 coin from any miner that has minted a coin in the last month within 5km of the desired location. If there are no miners for the last month in that area, it is free, and can be self-certified. This is to discourage mining spam. Given the computational costs are much lower than bitcoin mining, there would be a possibility to create a miner for every hectare on earth, and spam a coin attempt at every possible temperature and humidity for a given day. The license mitigates this, and cost might vary over time to manage it.

A miner using the basic squatter protocol doesn’t need to demonstrate any legal connection to the land or ocean involved. It’s a mathematical mapping only, as with the large numbers in bitcoin. The carbon coin mining claim is more important to the network than the legal title to the land, because double-claiming the carbon sink would make the carbon accounting invalid. For natural assets, the computer where the mining software runs need not be in the same location as the trees, though a maturing platform demanding more precision might call for devices on the ground, linking the Wood Wide Web to the internet and the blockchain. These specifically designed sensors can also have more openly validatable code, connecting as part of the Internet of Things (IOT).

Proof of carbon definitions for a type of sequestration can be captured as public software contracts, using Ethereum or a similar platform. They would need to be more dynamic than the bitcoin protocol because valid earth data sources would vary over time. 

The local weather data requirement gives people local to the forest or ocean concerned a small co-location advantage similar to that of high frequency trading systems to stock exchanges. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are not found in rich world finance capitals: this would give a small home town edge to those local to say the Amazon or Daintree rainforests, and encourage more diverse locations and owners for miners.

Legal Title Protocol

The basic squatter protocol described above allows fast-moving mining organizations to get going with very low upfront costs and similar bootstrap dynamics to bitcoin. 

There are advantages in linking legal title to the land to mining rights in the network, though. Miners have a financial stake in the carbon sequestering income of the land they claim – if trees are cleared, proof of carbon is lost. Owners of land have much more direct control over what’s growing there. Mining rights would even be an incentive to reforest cleared land.

Legal systems are complicated systems varying widely by location. There are problems of language and legal expertise. Legal title is often hard to validate in software, and even where such interfaces exist, title searches have significant charges, which could easily multiply with independent validation by network participants. Imposing these as barriers to entry for all mining would make participation uneconomic until the coin value was relatively high.

The solution in this protocol is to treat the two types of miners as complementary and have both. 

With both proof of title and proof of carbon, a miner can mine a second coin for each corresponding kilogram of CO2 sequestered by the underlying hectare of land. This gives no squatting protocol rights. The first coin is still determined by speed.

Title rights would often be shared, and any proof that does not rely on a central trusted source seems implicitly tied to proof of identity by an authority, and impossible to be anonymous, if published on a publicly verifiable blockchain, or through intermediaries such as banks or governments. Techniques for doing this in general, and the codification of proof regimes for each jurisdiction, will grow over time, and aren’t detailed here.

Deflation, Re-emission and Redistribution

Atmospheric carbon isn’t sequestered forever. Trees are cut down or eventually die. Ocean sinks and old coal mines leak. Tundra melts in the summer.

The simplest way to reflect this in a carbon coin is to make the coins expire. Those mined from a given type of carbon sink have an expiry date based on the ecological infrastructure that minted it. For secondary tropical rainforest, we use the example mean lifespan of 60 years.

The second way a coin can expire is if the sequestration source that backed it is destroyed, eg, the corresponding hectare of forest is cut down. This intensifies the economic incentive to preserve carbon sinks, as not just future revenue but existing wealth can be destroyed.

When this happens, it has the monetary effect of deflation. A fixed amount of commodity-like currency corresponding to the actual carbon stock is desirable in this case, as it would make market actors responsive to the actual carbon limits of the ecological layer of the economy.

We suggest the market would respond to expiry dates in a similar way it responds to expiry of options contracts or dividend rights, by value declining to zero near the end of their lifespan. Since it’s not desirable to have cash expire in your wallet, or to lose significant chunks of wealth because coins happened to come from the same source hectare, it would also create a demand for portfolios of coins balanced across many sequestration sources. Algorithmic balancing wallets seem a reasonable solution to this problem. This would also keep coins in greater circulation and discourage hoarding, which is more of a feature than a bug.

Linking Emissions

At this point you already have a commodity-based exchange currency platform equivalent to Bitcoin, including distributed mining. All of the usual financial and software infrastructures can be built on top of it. The main missing feature is money supply management available in central banking. That is deliberately designed out of Bitcoin too, out of libertarian grumpiness with the state. For carbon cryptocurrency it would be omitted for a more sincere representation of the foundational geophysics the whole planetary stack runs on.

That the coin is based on carbon allows extensions which reinforce carbon homeostasis. Carbon-emitting endpoints such as power stations, petrol service stations or factories could have corresponding IOT devices requiring spending carbon-backed coins to operate, basically acting as IOT smart meters connecting to a carbon exchange. Governing such a mechanism, and avoiding tampering to evade it, would likely involve both taxation enforcement and digital rights management, whether implemented by state or corporation. Because carbon emission would result in a transaction on a public blockchain, it would also be publicly auditable, depending on how much detail the emitting device is configured, or mandated, to disclose. This latter consumption piece isn’t necessary for the currency to work, but it does look like a good feature.