Bardo Birdsong

George Saunders has written a great sentimental inhumanist novel. The book comes at you time-sorted and many-voiced, like the chat room history of channel #civilwargraveyard. In Lincoln in the Bardo, messages come in slices, and names come uncapitalized, like a child’s signature, or a Twitter handle. Even the blocks of interspersed historical (or pretend-historical) text that ground the story have the feel of a link followed, or a long block quote shared as a photo, as those on bookish corners of the platform might recognize.

Amy Ireland has the best description, from 2016, of the sliced up, liminal design affordances of the birdsite, and so this novel:

Twitter is excellent. The botlife runs wild and free, swerving into sheer paranoia-inducing bizarreness at times (Weird Sun Twitter) and there are writers doing really innovative work that engages directly with the unique formal possibilities of the medium (Uel Aramchek’s ‘This Could Be Your Past’ is one of my favourite recent examples). It’s the Arcadia of human/bot collaboration.

[…]

Only here we have a scroll updated to capitalise on the possibilities of hypertextuality: it is effectively nonlinear yet accommodates series of interlinked tweets, its citation system harbours abyssal potential for embedded referencing, its search function and the public nature of its contents make for a vast and bizarre dataset […], and it forces the honing of expression to a compact 140 characters Per unit of information. […]

During its first exciting moments, Twitter appears as an open horizon for the accumulation of all sorts of gratifying information, […] Nevertheless, the illusion of accumulation inevitably breaks down and it does so in perfect correspondence with the intensity of one’s Twitter habit. Accumulation cycles pathologically into dispersion, and before you recognise what is occurring, the mesmeric infinity of the digital scroll has entirely voided your capacity to focus or reflect. There is nowhere to go but further into the abyss.

If one could allot a genre to the platform as a whole, Twitter would be horror. The interface manifests visually and cognitively as a series of incisions. What begins as a benign mode of textual organisation quickly becomes applicable to human concentration. Its twentieth century prototype can perhaps be found in the mechanical writing/torture machine of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Both oversee the virulent machining of the human through text, and both tend towards a similar outcome in which the relentless numerical insistence of machinic agency ultimately succeeds in eradicating the latter.

Poetry is Cosmic WarAJ Carruthers interview with Amy Ireland

Klee - Die Zwitscher Maschine (Twittering Machine)

Klee – Die Zwitscher Maschine (Twittering Machine)

The bardo is an intermediate state between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, a purgatorial place where we are separated from ties to mortal lives. So the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is more literally translated Liberation Through Hearing In The Intermediate State. Saunders populates the bardo with ghosts, imprisoned within the frame of a Washington graveyard, lost in scripts of their former lives, niggling at their traumas without accepting the central fact that they are dead.

The story follows the ghost of the boy Willie Lincoln, and the imagined aftermath of his sad death of typhoid at eleven years old. Eleven years old, that transitional age; “A sunny child, dear & direct, abundantly open to the charms of the world.” The talking, however, is largely done by more experienced graveyard spirits. There are quite a number – slave women and plantation owners, soldiers and farmwives – but with three men foregrounded: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Now with ghosts, Buddhism, death, presidents, Christianity, the US civil war, and what not, there’s a vast swathe of cultural allusions you could be drawing from.But I found myself most reminded of Journey To The West 西游记.

Delving into spoilery detail, three imprisoned spirits become disciples to a younger mortal, after a bit of ear-boxing encouragement at the start. Following his teachings and example, they protect him on his long journey, saving him from many demons intent on eating his flesh. Though they possess great magical power, when they get really stuck they need to call on Guanyin 观音, the bodhisattva goddess of mercy, to tip the scales a bit in their favour, and in the end they are released to positions of worth and enlightenment.  In this mapping, Willie Lincoln is the monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (Tripitaka), another real historical figure. The three disciples represent different virtues and sins. The Reverend Everly Thomas is the devout and overserious Sandy 沙悟净. Roger Bevins III is Pigsy Eight-sins 猪八戒, consumed by earthly gluttony and lusts, immersed in senses, always growing new eyes, ears and noses. Hans Vollman is the Monkey King 孙悟空, with a more than usually explicitly phallic giant red staff. ((You can even link the names – Vollman – Full Man – 悟空 – 无空 / Without Space, though I’m not sure if anyone really puns in three languages outside Hong Kong.))

Which makes Abraham Lincoln Guanyin. The One Who Perceives The Sounds of The World. Lincoln, in this mythic shape, is too large to fit onstage for long. We see his shaking grief through the eyes of the spirits, and then he leaves. He is the only character who re-enters and re-exits the graveyard. The Goddess of Mercy. The Great Emancipator.

Of course Lincoln was not just the rail splitter and the breaker of slavechains. He’s also the Doctor Frankenstein of the American body politic, stitching the dismembered states together for reanimation. Both George Saunders and Amy Ireland talk of writing as sampling and reassembling snippets from overwhelming torrents of data. Saunders describes it as curation: “I’d be in my room for six or seven hours, cutting up bits of paper with quotes and arranging them on the floor”, he tells Zadie Smith. Ireland notes that “the diminishment of human authorship plunges the human reader into a problematics of scale. … In response, less linear and sedentary methods of reading start to take precedence – techniques akin to scanning, scrolling, and – for the unashamedly hyperstimulated – spritzing.” In assembling his novel, Saunders does this for us across the corpus of civil war history, Lincoln biography, Sino-Tibetan Buddhism and his own imagination. Yet it still shows the zigzag path across that vast field more honestly and artfully than most novels. The omniscient narrator is replaced with the hyperstimulated archaeologist of the past-saturated present, asynchronously replayed by the reader at a rate just slow enough to allow understanding.

Lincoln’s mutated industrial union doesn’t fit in the novel’s timeline. The reader and the characters are severed from it by a bullet and the matterlightblooming phenomenon of a bound book’s last page. The sensory systems of the brain cut down, sample, pre-processes, and outright alter everything we see and hear. Our machines and our spirits do the same. There’s too much data for human consciousness to comprehend. Wasn’t there always?

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Ethical Ambiguity With Pockets

I found myself contemplating the origin of a pair of shorts. They are comfortable, 100% cotton shorts in Uniqlo’s highly functional minimalist style, casual but neat. They extend to mid-thigh, have two side pockets, and are held up with a threaded cord. They are “branch bankers’ rig”, to borrow Les Murray’s description in The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever, sending signals of respectability without excessive formality in Australian and Singaporean society, and while Murray correctly notes they are “ideal for being served last in shops of the temperate zone”, I can confirm that on the equator they are perfectly adequate for being served Sunday brunch in a five star hotel on Orchard Rd, at least if worn with a collared shirt and a sufficient sense of entitlement. They were bought this year at the enormous Vivo City shopping mall in Singapore, and are purple, because I let my young daughter choose the colour.

Uniqlo, part of the corporate parent Fast Retailing, is known in the industry for maintaining high quality at a cheap price point. To achieve that, it carries a relatively small number of styles, but in dozens of colours. The dyeing process is tightly quality controlled and capital intensive. For example Uniqlo suppliers like Lu Thai Textile describe precise dyeing plant relying on specialized mechanical equipment for dipping and computer assisted design (CAD) for looms. Lu Thai is a vertically integrated company including cotton farms and spinning. Lu Thai’s website describes cotton farms in Akesu in Xinjiang province, so perhaps these shorts were made from cotton farmed in Xinjiang, and shipped elsewhere in China to be weaved and dyed. Lu Thai also has a presence in Shandong province, for example, which is more industrialised and with more middle class jobs. Shandong GDP per capita is US$13,262 vs US$8,755 in Xinjiang, and factory operator versus cotton farmer pay would typically reflect this difference.

Uniqlo also mentions China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh as significant production centres for the company. Uniqlo has an internal system of technical specialists parallel to its management structure, at the top of which are around twenty takumi, or fabric masters, situated in production centres; going by the annual report they are mostly Japanese. Stitching is typically a more labour intensive process than dyeing, and in the case of these shorts, relatively unsophisticated compared to a dress shirt. This makes it likely to be focused on cheaper labour sites, though the label for these shorts states they are MADE IN CHINA. As noted in the course, and shown in the movie China Blue, sewing machine operators in South and East Asia are most often women. Lu Thai Textiles, which also makes shirts, features a photo on its website of a large factory floor where the sewing machine operators are 80% female; this is part of the company’s public narrative for this work. Fast Retailing was the subject of the 2011 book The Glory and Disgrace of Uniqlo, accusing it of “harsh, slave-like conditions” at overseas factories. Uniqlo’s business strategy of a small number of styles allows them to make massive bulk purchases from suppliers, sometimes taking the entire stock. This drives down unit costs through economies of scale, but also through tremendous pricing power over small suppliers. As Uniqlo has been expanding rapidly, this puts pressure on the more vulnerable participants in its supply chain, people like Jasmine in China Blue.

Uniqlo 2010 2011 2012 2013
No violations 9 6 8 10
Minor violations 52 56 59 95
Major violations 50 63 51 45
Severe violations 19 19 34 19
Highly unethical, review of contract 2 0 7 1
Total 132 144 159 170

According to their own Corporate Social Responsibility reports, as Uniqlo supplier factories increased from 132 to 170 from Financial Year (FY) 2010-2013, severe ethics violations went through a spike of 21 to 41 in FY 2012, with 7 contracts reviewed in that year, and some contracts cut. For comparison, the one contract reviewed last year for Uniqlo is more typical. Two Chinese factory contracts were also cut for use of excessive, unpaid overtime and child labour – a fifteen year old working a job requiring a sixteen year old.

It is dismaying to learn that Uniqlo, until a few years ago, seems to have payed more attention to fabric quality than the health and safety of people that make their company successful. Fast Retailing only seemed to improve the working conditions supply chain under consumer scrutiny, the power of their global brand working against opacity. It is also interesting how speculative this process of investigation has to be. The tag on these shorts has a 45 character code on it, which in a firm with Fast Retailing’s robust quality culture, is almost certainly a unique identifier for tracking from early in the supply chain all the way through to retail stores. I wonder what it would mean to make that information public, or to use technology to connect specific participants in the supply chain in a social network built around a specific item. Would such a panopticon of shorts be an ignorable gimmick, a huge invasion of privacy, a way of re-establishing human connection over the top of abstracted capitalist commodity exchange, or a way for privileged rich people to harass their unwitting global servants online?

Twitter Abuse Solution Sketches

Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. – Clive James

So a particularly nasty bout of threatening, possibly illegal, abuse against Caroline Criado-Perez triggered a petition asking for a report abuse button. Brooke Magnanti counters with examples of how this, and a twitter boycott, may be unproductive; its insightful in itself, and as former Belle Du Jour she does have an interesting angle on pseudonymity and publishing.
So this is society’s pathology, mediated by technology, and because Twitter is pretty neat, mediated in real time and connecting strangers at massive scale. It’s Larry Niven’s Flash Crowd of course, taken to its fastest immaterial instantiation. There are slow hard things to change about human society to make it less awful. The petition is right, though, in that technology got us into this specific version of the problem and there are surely smarter technical things to limit it, but it’s worth noting that right now no-one actually knows what they are. So here’s a few design assumptions and speculations, in the hope it sparks ideas in others.

Parameters / Assumptions
Manual abuse reporting is a deliberate usability choice. It makes you think about the accusation of abuse, and will place a premium on a coherent case. Abuse reporting is judicial and needs due process. It’s probably also rational laziness by Twitter: at small scales this is the cheapest solution to implement.
Adding structure is adding due process, but it’s also institutionalising abuse. At uni, I broke my right arm in a soccer game. I had a lecturer in rationality at the time who noted that soccer had incorporated a whole system of breaking the rules into the game itself, with yellow / red cards. That then motivates the entire diving substructure (pretending to be injured or fouled to get advantage). As in soccer, so in Twitter: all systems will be gamed, especially judicial ones. This effect manifests right down to the amount of structure you put on the report abuse form. Each element narrows the likely scope of human judgement; an abuse form also describes the sort of thing that might be considered abuse.
Human review is needed – with tools that scale. I don’t know any Twitter employees, so this is speculation, but it sounds like it is just reading emails and kicking individuals at this point.
The criminal justice system is needed, and shouldn’t be outsourced to a corporation. This part will be slow. Write to your government, but also keep in mind a certain slowness is a side effect of due process.

Sketch
Use data visualization to analyse abuse events rapidly and at scale. Using new data views to augment human judgement is a digital humanities problem. Require one example tweet in form submission. The abuse support person needs to be able to rapidly see the extent and intensity of the abuse. To facilitate this, when they open an abuse ticket, they should be able to see the offending tweet, the conversation it happened in, and all of the user and reporters twitter network. This consists of followers, people followed, people replied to, people mentioned, people mentioning, people using the same hashtag. They can view much of this as a literal graph. All this can be pre-calculated and shown as soon as the ticket is open without any automated intervention in the tweets themselves. Show ngrams of word frequencies in reported tweets. In the recent example, they aren’t subtle. Allow filtering by time window.
Rank tickets in an automated way and relate to other abuse tickets. The time of the abuse team is limited, but the worst events are flash mobs. Make it easy to see when network-related abuse events are occurring by showing and linking abuse reports in the graph visualization above. Identify cliques implicated in abuse events, in the social and graph-theoretic senses. Probably once an abuse mechanism is established, there will be events where both sides are reporting abuse: make it easy to see that. And yes, show when identified users are involved – but don’t ditch pseudonymity as an account option.
Allow action on a subgraph, slowdowns and freezes. Up until now we have just described readonly tools. Through the same graphical view, identify subgraphs to be acted on. Allow operators to enforce slowdowns in tweeting – the tweet is still sent, but after a number of minutes or hours. The advantage of being able to set say one minute is it will be less obvious investigation is going on. A freeze is a halt on posting until further notice. The operator can choose to freeze or slowdown any dimension of the graph – eg a hashtag, or all people who posted on that tag, or all people in a clique replying to certain users with a certain word. This is similar to a stock exchange trading halt. This has to be a manual action because its based on human judgement and linguistic interpretation. Finally allow account deletion, but not as a mass action.
Capture and export all this data for use by a law enforcement agency you are willing to collaborate with.
Open the API and share at least some of the toolset source so people can get perspective on the shape of an attack when it happens. And of course, don’t do this at once – start with simple read only monitoring and iterate rapidly. Remember that the system will be gamed. Keep the poets out of gaol.

Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
[…]
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.

Making A Few Enemies

That idea of the state as a ship and its ruler as the helmsman or captain is a very old one in European culture. It is frequently used by Cicero, and indeed our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin for ‘helmsman’ – gubernator. Even more enticingly, the root of gubernator is the Greek kubernetes, which is also the origin of our word ‘cybernetics’; so the notions of ruling, steering and robotics all coincide in our language – and in this galleon.
[…]
Observers repeatedly stressed the precision, the orderliness, the grace of mechanisms like this one, which embodied the ideal of the early modern European state as it ought to have been and rarely was, with everything working together harmoniously under the control of one guiding idea and one beneficent sovereign. Its appeal went far beyond Europe: automata like our galleon were presented as gifts to the emperor of China and the Ottoman sultan and were greatly prized. What ruler, from Dresden to Kyoto, would not gaze in delight as figures moved to his command in strict and unswerving order? So unlike the messiness of the real world.
— Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects; corresponding entry at the BBC

Attractive as it is, it’s not really a great metaphor for a state, or even politics at all, is it? There’s no divergent interests, no arguing or lobbying, no betrayal, assassination and backstabbing, and as a result, no trust, no faith no opinion: just harmonious movement. And if it seems naive, now that we carry more sophisticated automata around in our pockets, I don’t think it’s any less seductive. This is essentially how Sid Meier’s Civilization and all its throwoffs work – you have absolute power to push the buttons and pull the levers of not just a state, but an entire Samuel Huntingdon-grade civilization.

The Crusader Kings series shows one way to turn that on its side, with the key mechanic beng to have the player control a dynasty, rather than a state. (Entertaining Rock, Paper, Shotgun review and interview.) The offices and trappings of the state are then resources to be fought over, prestige is a currency like money, and organizing weddings and sending gifts become important game tokens rather than flavour. This is not to discount the wealth of historical detail the makers then hang on that frame; the mechanic makes the game compelling, the detail is what makes it feel right. In a way, the makers have made all the state diplomacy an extension of domestic political squabbling, and that dissolving of the facade of corporate consensus seems bang on, especially for the European middle ages. Its easier to understand Richard the Lionheart if you see him as pursuing dynastic interests on both sides of the English channel than as chief executive of the Eternal Albion. (Echoes of Coase’s The Nature of the Firm here too: companies aren’t monolothic either.)

The original Crusader Kings was released the same year as Facebook launched, in 2004, and the chosen model for the dynastic game mechanic is a social network between thousands of European aristocrats. As much as possible, the developers use historical figures, and even link to their biography on wikipedia. The CKII user interface is definitely influenced by social networks as well, with it being simple to navigate between photos of related individuals. I almost wish they’d taken it further. A history of viewable actions by a character would look rather like the stream of activity on a facebook wall, after all.

Now we have orderly (and brittle) automata as routine tools in our lives, we use them to simulate the messiness of the Holy Roman Empire for kicks. So keeping in mind that The Social Graph Is Neither, a messy network of individuals and competing dynastic interests is a rather more satisfying model of a state to my twenty-first century sensibility. Rather than a ship, perhaps a fleet of nautical automata, all with different captains, would be more suitable: that’s what the Internet is, after all.