The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives vs. Designing Freedom

Sometimes what am I reading becomes more significant when I start reading the words in the context of another work. Today’s example is The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives by Miriam Posner in the March 12, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. It’s a good read but, personally, I think you need to read Posner’s longer article See No Evil first in order to best appreciate the magnitude of the impact that supply chain management software has had on our world.

A central challenge in supply-chain management is the vast distance—spatial, temporal, and informational—that separates the S.C.M. process from the real world of manufacturing and consumption. Among the distance-based problems planners worry about is the “bullwhip effect.” Suppose a store runs low on diapers. Observing this strong demand, a manager who normally needs fifty cases might put in an order for a hundred, just to be on the safe side. The diaper company, in turn, might order the production of two hundred cases, rather than a hundred, to insure that they have enough stock on hand. Just as a flick of the wrist creates waves which grow as they travel through a whip, so subtle signals sent by consumers can be amplified out of proportion as they travel through the supply chain. This inflation is dangerous for manufacturers—especially those that depend on the razor-thin inventory margins demanded by just-in-time planning—and yet it’s also hard to avoid, since the manufacturing process is so distributed in time and space, with many junctures at which forecasts might grow.

The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives, Miriam Posner, March 12, 2019, The New Yorker.

While I was reading, The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives, I was reading another Massey Lecture that proved to be strange and weird counterpoint: Designing Freedom by management cyberneticist Stafford Beer. I was reading the slim book because I have a personal mission to own and read all the Massey Lectures but it appears that his work is still is being discussed on twitter.

Despite the simple figures at the end of most of the chapters, Designing Freedom is not a simple read. I suspect one might to have read Beer’s other works in order to appreciate this distillation of his ideas. As a first introduction, I found it too easy to get lost in Beer’s vocabulary:

Let’s get down to work, and recall where we were. A social institution is not an entity, but a dynamic system. The measure we need to discuss it is the measure of variety. Variety is the number of possible states of the system, and that number grows daily, for every institution, because of an ever-increasing range of possibilities afforded by education, by technology , by communications, by prosperity, and by the way these possibilities interact to generate yet more variety. In order to regulate a system, we have to absorb its variety. If we fail in this, the system becomes unstable. Then, at the best,we cannot control it—as happened with the bobbing ball on our elaborated tennis trainer; at the worst, there is a catastrophic collapse—as happened with the wave. So next to something new. What is it that controls variety? The answer is dead simple: variety. Variety absorbs variety, and nothing else can.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 9

Beer does explain this concept using the example of a person looking to buy a pair of shoes in a department store.

But not for nothing is that store called departmental. There is a shoe salesman, and a cake salesman; that is what organizational structure is for—to carve up the total system variety into subsystems of more reasonably sized variety. The customer who is not clear what commodity, if any, will meet her need, represents variety that cannot be trapped by this departmental arrangement; her variety will be left over, not absorbed, if the store is not careful—and we can see how this means that the situation is out of control. But if the store is careful, it will have an information bureau—which exists precisely to absorb this excess variety.

Let us return to the shoe purchaser; we observe that she is becoming angry .This is because she cannot get any attention. The shoe salesman is dealing with someone else, and four more people are waiting. The other shoe salesmen are similarly occupied. Temporarily, at any rate, the situation is out of control, because at this moment the store has miscalculated the number of shoe salesmen needed to absorb the variety generated by the customer. Well, maybe you remember the concept we need to describe this affair, and its name. The name is relaxation time. Variety is cropping up faster in this system than the system can absorb it, and this is bad from the customer’s point of view. If it happens all the time, it will be bad from the store’s point of view as well: the customer will desert the store, looking for somewhere with a shorter relaxation time. So the temporary instability of service in the store will become permanent, and—at that very moment—incipiently catastrophic. The trouble with our societary institutions, of course, is that the citizen has no alternative but to use them. Only variety can absorb variety. It sounds ridiculous, but the perfect, undefeatable way to run this store is to attach a salesman to each customer on arrival. Then we could forget about those departments, where the shoesalesmen are run off their feet, while the girls in lingerie are manicuring their fingernails, and absorb the customers’ variety as we go along. For, you see, not only do we need variety to absorb variety, but we need exactly the same amount of variety to do it. We were speaking just now of the law of gravity in physics: it is perhaps the dominant law of the physical universe. What we have arrived at in the departmental store is the dominant law of societary systems, the Law of Requisite Variety—named Ashby’s Law after its discoverer.

The example is ridiculous, because we cannot afford to supply requisite variety by this obvious expedient. We cannot give every departmental store customer a salesman, because we cannot afford it; but you may already have noticed that in very superior (and therefore very expensive) special-purpose stores, such as those selling automobiles or hand-made suits, this is exactly what happens.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 9

The above example might be ridiculous but for myself, it was the moment of the most pronounced clarity in this book.

As Beer tackles the systems of bureaucracy, of liberty, of families, and of education with his cybernetic managerial approach, I found myself hoping that I following along and progressively losing confidence that I was. For example, I think I understand what Beer means here but there not enough in the text for me to be really sure:

So: I am hoping that we may approach the final lecture of this series in the following state of mind. The human being is limited by his finite brain from assimilating all possible information, and from recognizing all possible patterns of the world. He is limited by his own finite resources from doing whatever he likes, and by the finite resources of the planet from demanding an end-less growth in material prosperity, for all men. Indeed the pursuit of his own material prosperity, though possible, is not something that the affluent part of the world can any longer maintain as a good, unless it is explicitly willing to declare that it will be done at the expense of the less fortunate.

Then the concept of freedom is not meaningful for any person except within measurable variety constraints:and the extent to which we have lost freedom is due to loss of control over the variety attenuators—education, publishing—and to the centralization of power at the wrong levels of recursion. This freedom could be re-claimed, using the new scientific tools at our disposal, but only if new democratic machinery is established to replace existing bureaucracies. As long as these remain cybernetically organized so as to produce themselves, our societary institutions remain set on courses that lead to catastrophic instability.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 36

When I read Designing Freedom, I always felt very close to discovering something very profound about the current state of our organizations and governments. And while I feel I did gained some insight from this short book, I know there is much more work I would still need to do as a reader to make these connections meaningful to me.

But I do know this: there is some urgency to the matter of using better organizational software if we want to create a better world.

Because if you think that a university would never use software from SAP, you would be wrong.

Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology (Grad Class)

So the whole point of a library is to be a collection of objects that have no point whatsoever. This is why I think it’s really beyond capitalism; there’s no reason, there’s no utilitarian, self-interest, rational-choice reason to have that great big pile of stuff that nobody looks at. But that’s exactly why libraries are good—not because they contain a treasure trove of stuff you can see, but because they contain a treasure trove of stuff, period, that maybe nobody sees, for a million years.

Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology Grad Class by Timothy Morton via Robin Sloan, Week 5, some kind of shell of a crab

Belonging vs. Computation

One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time, is that occasionally a chapter that I have just finished from one book will somehow find resonance in another. Today I felt this, despite that James Bridle’s New Dark Age and Adrienne Clarkson’s Belonging are very different books.

From the blurb to New Dark Age:

As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. Underlying this trend is a single idea: the belief that our existence is understandable through computation, and more data is enough to help us build a better world.

Bridle’s chapter on Computation is exceptional. There is so much I would love to share but I will leave you this excerpt:

To take another example from aviation, consider the experience of being in an airport. An airport is a canonical example of what geographers call ‘code/space‘. Code/spaces describe the interweaving of computation with the built environment and daily experience to a very specific extent: rather than overlaying and augmenting them, computation becomes a crucial component of them, such that the environment and the experience of it actually ceases to function in the absence of code…

That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google sets out to index all human knowledge and becomes the source and the arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.

James Bridle, New Dark Age, p.37, 39.

Belonging, on the other hand, is a set of Massey Lectures from journalist and former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson that addresses the paradoxes of citizenship. In her first chapter she tells several stories that express how our identity and our sense of belonging are deeply dependent upon each other.

If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity. Under extreme circumstances, each and every one of us is capable of a mentality that brings about the abandonment of children, the lack of cultivation of human relationships, and the deliberate denial of love.

Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging, p. 3.

To bring these two ideas together: Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality, and if we let ourselves become conditioned to substitute our standing in social media with our sense of belonging in our social structures, neither will we.

in hindsight, only men could make teen sex comedies

[Roxane] Gay is fascinating on the “goodness” of girls – as a societal requirement, as an often impossible standard; on how often being good is a matter of being “one who knows how to play by the rules and cares to be seen to be playing by the rules”; who knows how to be liked… Above all, on goodness as vulnerability, not least because she knows, in the most visceral way possible, what that can mean. One day, when she was 12, a handsome classmate took her on a bike ride to an abandoned shack in the woods where a pack of other boys, fuelled by drink, were waiting. “There is a before and an after,” she writes, in Hunger. “In the after I was broken, shattered, and silent.”

Roxane Gay: ‘Public discourse rarely allows for nuance. And see where that’s gotten us’, The Guardian, 27 December 2018

GROSS: When you were 13 and you had friends who were girls, did you understand anxieties from a girl’s point of view? For example, something I think you handle really well in the film is how a 13-year-old girl might deal with it if a boy, you know, just a little bit older than her tries to come on to her and to push her sexually to a place that she’s not ready for. It’s so uncomfortable and awkward and embarrassing for a young, inexperienced girl to say no.

BURNHAM: Yeah. You know, honestly, I don’t think I knew that perspective when I was that age. And I think – I mean, I didn’t do anything equivalent to what that boy does in that scene, but, you know, part of the movie for me was trying to go back and investigate that time and realize that there was a whole other population of people experiencing maybe the exact same circumstances I was experiencing from a different perspective.

And even in film, you know, there’s this sort of teen sex comedy which is, you know – in hindsight, only men could make teen sex comedies just, you know, that teen sex would only be comedic. Of course that seems like it’s from a male perspective.

Director Bo Burnham On Growing Up With Anxiety — And An Audience, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2018

Obedience to the elders and the reproduction of their thought.

That led to the three books you mentioned plus another to come that are indeed a cycle about rewriting radical modernity. Not that this is the only alternate path through the archive, but it’s an attempt to suggest a different relation to the archive in general, to see it as a labyrinth rather than an apostolic succession; a kind of “no-dads” theory, but full of queer uncles and batty aunts…

I find it enervating when people simply try to squeeze the present into the old patterns set by Walter Benjamin or whomever, and add just a tiny bit of novelty to how we read such a canonic figure. Why not read other people, or read the present more in its own terms? Ironically, to best honor Marx or Benjamin one should not simply be their exegetes. So my job is to corrupt other people’s grad students. To be the odd uncle (or auntie) who whispers that one can dissent from the great academic patriarchy (and even its subsidiary matriarchy) where one only succeeds through obedience to the elders and the reproduction of their thought.

Alexander R. Galloway — An Interview with McKenzie Wark, b2o, April 7, 2017

Academia is about – especially if you are a woman – academia is about hierarchies. It is very much about knowing your place and kowtowing to the people above you and knowing when you are allowed to speak and not and who to cite and who not to, not for good political reasons but because of the politics of who you are aligning yourself with.

Hannah McGregor, “Episode 3.12 Not Nice, Not White, and Not a Lady with Tara Robertson“, Secret Feminist Agenda [around 26 minute mark]

To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Redefining Energy Security

To arrive to a more accurate definition of energy security requires the concept to be defined, not in terms of commodities like kilowatt-hours of electricity, but in terms of energy services, social practices, or basic needs. 1 People don’t need electricity in itself. What they need, is to store food, wash clothes, open and close doors, communicate with each other, move from one place to another, see in the dark, and so on. All these things can be achieved either with or without electricity, and in the first case, with more or less electricity.

Defined in this way, energy security is not just about securing the supply of electricity, but also about improving the resilience of the society, so that it becomes less dependent on a continuous supply of power. This includes the resilience of people (do they have the skills to do things without electricity?), the resilience of devices and technological systems (can they handle an intermittent power supply?), and the resilience of institutions (is it legal to operate a power grid that is not always on?). Depending on the resilience of the society, a disruption of the power supply may or may not lead to a disruption of energy services or social practices.

… To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security“. Kris De Decker. Low <– Tech Magazine.

From McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory

The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.

Theodor Adorno

At the base of contemporary cynicism is fact that men and women learn by experiencing rules rather than ‘facts’

Paolo Virno [[014]]

Ever get the feeling you are playing some vast and useless game to which you don’t know the goal, and can’t remember the rules? Ever get the fierce desire to quit, to resign, to forfeit, only to discover there’s no umpire, no referee, no regulator, to whom to announce your capitulation? Ever get the vague dread that while you have no choice but to play the game, you can’t win it, can’t even know the score, or who keeps it? Ever suspect that you don’t even know who your real opponent might be? Ever get mad over the obvious fact that the dice are loaded, the deck stacked, the table rigged, and the fix — in? Welcome to gamespace. It’s everywhere, this atopian arena, this speculation sport. No pain no gain. No guts no glory. Give it your best shot. There’s no second place. Winner take all. Here’s a heads up: In gamespace, even if you know the deal, are a player, have got game, you will notice, all the same, that the game has got you. Welcome to the thunderdome. Welcome to the terrordome. Welcome to the greatest game of all. Welcome to the playoffs, the big league, the masters, the only game in town. You are a gamer whether you like it or not, now that we all live in a gamespace that is everywhere and nowhere. As Microsoft says: Where do you want to go today? You can go anywhere you want in gamespace but never leave it.

001 – Mackenzie Wark

“Play” was once a great slogan of liberation. Richard Neville: “The new beautiful freaks will teach us all how to play again (and they’ll suffer society’s penalty).” Play was once the battering ram to break down the Chinese walls of alienated work, of divided labor. Only look at what has become of play. Play is no longer a counter to work. Play becomes work; work becomes play. Play outside of work found itself captured by the rise of the digital game, which responds to the boredome of the player with endless rounds of repetition, level after level of difference as more of the same. Play no longer functions as a foil to critical theory. The utopian dream of liberating play from the game, of a pure play beyond the game, merely opened the way for the extension of gamespace into every aspect of everyday life. While the counter-culture wanted worlds of play outside the game, the military entertainment complex countered in turn by expanding the game to the whole world, containing play forever within it.

016 – Mackenzie Wark

All games are digital. Without exception. They all come down to a strict decision: out or in, offside or onside, goal or no goal. Anything else is just ‘play’. Game studies scholar Jesper Juul: “The affinity between computers and games is one of the ironies of human history.” But not at all surprising. From the start, games were a proto-computer — machines assembled out of human motion, inanimate materials and the occasional dubious call by the referee — to make a decision, a yes or a no. Sisyphus — founder of the Ismithian games — is condemned to a useless labor which is at the same time useless play, in that it cannot bring about a decision. The rock he rolls never crosses a line. It rolls right past the notional top of the mountain, and overshoots the bottom of its own momentum. But in Katamari Damacy, things are different. Rather than the rolling of the ball being entirely useless, now it is entirely purposeful. Time, like space, no longer harbors indifference. Brenda Laurel:”…even the smallest fragments of your idle time have been colonized…”.

079 – Mackenzie Wark

But Carnegie’s values were not that of a librarian.

Free to All ultimately brings into focus a vision of loss. The act of reading—which for much of the nineteenth century enjoyed a tradition as a rich social activity—had given way, in just a few decades, to the Carnegie mold of machine-like order. Information transfer was now reduced to cold efficiencies, where the library and the librarian functioned only to get books into the hands of readers. Van Slyck concludes with a recognition of what we traded for Carnegie’s riches:

By defining library efficiency as the quick delivery of books into the hands of individual readers, the Carnegie program supported larger cultural trends that encouraged libraries to ignore the issue of how readers used the materials that they did borrow. In contrast to nineteenth-century social libraries which were established specifically to facilitate an active sharing of ideas, the efficiency-driven public library of the twentieth century defined reading as a solitary activity. In the process, the library lost its potential to serve as a site—literally and figuratively—for public discussion and debate. 5

With a self-important sense of purpose, Carnegie hoped to benefit the common good by shaping the public institution of the library in his own image. But Carnegie’s values were not that of a librarian.

from Scott W. H. Young’s Andrew Carnegie, Librarian

Searching for a shared ethics

Common humanity and universal responsibility link us. But much of the time we act as if this is not the case — we are in denial as individuals and societies. In the past, our denial harmed those whose plight we ignored. Today it harms everyone, which is why we, the deniers, can no longer afford it — if, indeed, we ever could.

Margaret Somerville, The Ethical Imagination, CBC Massey Lectures, 2006, p.1

Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries

In this scene [in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra], the ancient library becomes a sign of infinitely more than a collection, however large, of papyrus rolls. The destruction of the library of Alexandria — whoever was really responsible — becomes over-determined: it must vanish because the tensions it crystallized have never yet been resolved. It is evidence that time can never be reversed because the dead are divided by silence from the living, even as it transcends time in representing a form of dialogue between them. It takes on a quasi-metaphysical status. Just as the Sumerarians called libraries “the ordainers of the universe,” the Romans could even envisage the goddesses who determine human destiny, the Parcae or Fates, as librarians: in the fifth century A.D. the late pagan writer Martianus Capella described the Pacae as “librarians of the gods and the guardians of their archive, ” utpote librariae Superum archivumque custodes.”

The library as an idea does indeed unify opposites: like rhetoric, it has an immanent ethics, no immanent qualities of virtue or vice, but it is a tool that can both liberate and oppress. Bernard Shaw had of course not read Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), in which book collections or archives of any kind were subjected to their first major critique as institutions of power, and further reinforcing the exercise of that power. Shaw did not know that by the last twentieth century there would emerge a powerful feminist and postcolonial suspicion of the universal, monolithic repository of knowledge. he did not know that people would claim the impossibility in any ideologically conflicted world, let alone a truly democratic one, of a single institution accommodating the inevitably antithetical subjectivities of its inhabitants.  Nor had George Eliot read Foucault when in Middlemarch (1874) she made the library of the classic pendant Edward Casaubon stand for everything that prevented the flowering of real intellectual enquiry, let alone love, in the education-starved Dorothea’s soul.

When he claimed that Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world by founding its library in the early third century B.C. Ptolemy I Soter had certainly not read Foucault any more than Eliot or Shaw. Ancient creators of libraries were always either very powerful (like Ptolemy or Trajan) or very rich (like Pliny): for equally obvious reasons, they always presented the creation of a library, whether public or private, as a self-evidently good thing.

Edith Hall, Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries, The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Princeton University Press, 2015, p.17.