Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Future agency

Matt Webb has some interesting links on the agency of non-humans, which reminded me a lot similar questions around the “authorship” of Butterflies and Sand. But isn't there a fundamental difference between "deliberate randomness" and "automated smartness" (ie. AI)? Which does a monkey with your camera come under?

Will agency and notions of “ownership” need to translate into a more complex system of “partial causality” as we hand responsibilities over to other decision-making entities? What does that mean for the idea of “acts of God”? (If I take a lot of flights, should I pay more for insurance against extreme weather?)

Or will we see the refinement of the group as an entity in itself perhaps, a collective responsibility that somehow filters the notion of togetherness combined within such a group - a fragmented version of juridical persons that translates from company level down to a more local { hyperlocal? lower? } set of links.

What would the API look like for that? How would I interact with the rest of my group? How would that group interact with others?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Notes from Janus: Foresight 2015

2014 was exciting, often hard work, scattered, sometimes just plain depressing. I learnt a lot, and around that learning certain nuggets of direction formed.

2015 feels like it's going to be a long year. There's lots that could be done, but I don't want to risk burnout - quite the opposite. But "everything is interesting", as they say. Here's what I'd really love to delve into:


Last year I played with open notebooks and open working, alongside more structured, documented practices at work. I enjoyed it.

Openness is hard - not from the fear of opening up, but from the effort put into attracting attention to make it worthwhile. For instance, I love the opportunities to collaborate and swap ideas in a semi-backgrounded, ambient way - but that also takes effort to persuade others to get involved along the same lines.

I'd like to practice releasing things without worrying about that aspect, and then see where it takes me. I’d also love to get a proper attempt at Brighton and Hove Open Data running again. I keep swinging between dispassion and engorged enthusiasm with this one.

There's a lot of this around at the moment - or I'm paying more attention. Detachment from social media, from middle class aspirations (which becomes a consumer trend on its own right…), more awareness of mindfulness techniques. However there is something else. I think a lot of these still retain the want to be part of a “movement”, a social detachment, but social nonetheless. The grain of actively participating in shared experiences is too strong in modern life for us to forget about it.

So by detachment I mean something slightly different. It should/will be a personal process, that follows its own route. The best detachers are the ones you never hear about.

Watching a couple of 'Reviews of the Year' type things, I realised how many memes (I hesitate to say 'culture' here) passed me by. Songs, videos, TV, films, games - I dont miss them. There are plenty of other paths. Maybe that’s just how people used to live. These days, network externalities are a strong pull and getting away from them requires active effort - being excluded, for most, is no longer a default, no matter how many people still fret about digital divides and all the rest.

This year I will be working on avoiding things even more. Mute lists. Unsubscribe buttons. Uninstalling. Inbox zero. Staring into space. Staring into white noise. Sleep. Anything that lets the dreams come out.

Personal Infrastructure

This one’s a bit bigger. Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to work out what a decentralised technology stack looks like from a personal perspective - a page on Empty Technology covers it here. Technology is pretty exciting at the moment - VMs, things like vagrant (now Atlas) and automated deployment, personal clouds, etc - and I don’t feel like I understand it enough.

What I’d really like to do is have more small scripts and software helpers running in life’s background. Last year I set up a Dropbox monitoring tool to email family with changes to our shared photos. I’ve been playing with IFTTT again, and have just got another Raspberry Pi. Software and hardware stacks are getting cheap, and the idea of “software servants” to make life easier, smoother and more fun makes me excited.

But there are a lot of challenges - the learning curve, time to develop, maintenance, contingency, etc. We’ll see how far I get. Maybe documenting it openly is the first step?

Learn Chinese

I got given a copy of Chineasy for Christmas by my sister, and really should get back to picking up some Chinese again - I did a course some years ago, and am amused at how much (or how little) still sticks, gum-like, to the sides of my brain. I really should get back into it, but it would be good to have a plan.

That’s one giant aim for each season of the year, so I guess that’s probably enough. We’ll see how far I get, anyway.

Have these words made you think? Drop a comment on the post, via Twitter, or a good old-fashioned email.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Notes from Janus: Hindsight 2014

Looking back...

1. Bitcoin was a strange beast this year. We loosely and rapidly launched Bitcoin Brighton to act as a rallying point for local businesses interested in cryptocurrency. I gave a talk to local businesses. The meetup group had anywhere between 20 people and one person. Brighton gained 3 ATMs, and I got me mugshot in the Argus.

Lessons from Bitcoin:

- Attention (especially from the media) doesn't (in the best cases) define value
- Finding people who care enough to act and who are genuinely nice is the hardest thing in the world
- Don't trust meetup RSVPs, they're closer to an indication of intent
- Bitcoin is still interesting, just in a different way

2. Randomised haiku ebook Butterflies and Sand was laid to rest after 12 editions. I feel like I'm a lot more selective about what I say in my haiku after this year - and how it gets said.

Lessons from haiku:

- A good haiku is nothing short of world-changing
- Describing what I like in a haiku is hard
- Words are illusionary, but are ok at hinting at the moments that define us if used well

3. Work has been a large part of 2014, but I'm not in a state to put thoughts down on it yet. Sufficient to say, ramping up on coding practices, project management, running a team and also a company is an interesting experience.

Lessons from work:

- Make time to listen
- Know how to filter what you can hear
- Know when the right time to act is

4. Of the books I read, my favourite books of the year were one on hermits in China, and The Book of Tea. Both are setting out some directions for the next few years - one for another post.

5. A disfigured version of the papernet continued throughout the year. On one hand I sent or received at least half a dozen haiku by postcard, and on the other hand I moved away from posting longer letters via international post. Instead, I've been experimenting with on-phone scanners to send handwritten notes to Bookmore as PDFs or JPGs. Sometimes they get sent via email, sometimes by Dropbox, sometimes by Evernote. But it's fun playing with the delivery mechanism vs the content (unlike most comms services which define and tightly couple both). Sometimes you do just want things through the door.

Lessons from the papernet:

- Physical objects can and should become things of beauty when detached from the virtual world. Make your letters amazing.
- Pens have souls

6. I posted 27 photos on Flickr, of which 67% (18) were black and white.

7. The I Ching has become increasingly of interest and importance to me over the year. Like work above, this is also a complex topic and tricky to talk about, but it is great to have something that one can consider only as a "higher form of magic" become a thing of practically. It is depressing how little magic there is around these days. Some of the year’s readings are available as part of the Open Notebook project.

8. Talking of magic, our new son Rudi arrived. The lessons learned are too long to list,  and I wouldn't know where to start.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Living/Dead spaces and the distracted death

Fascinated by After, a video by Victoria Lucas showing Sheffield's Castle Market shopping centre, now waiting to be destroyed. (Via Some Thoughts on the Unbecoming of Places) The video is haunting, but gorgeous. Seems to despair, yet revolve with love. Is empty and silent, yet lets something else speak.

I've noticed that this emptiness and silence of space has a particular hold on me. "After" is, in one world, of exactly the same ilk as Titan City in Minecraft - a realm that is not quite sure if it is alive or dead. However, where Titan City was always built in order to be built - and to be populated is merely a bonus - Castle Market is on the way out, a place in the same state, but going in the other direction.

(In contrast to other forms of unpopulation, such as Candida Höfer's Architecture of Absence, which are simply in between people.)

Looking back, even a small photo/haiku project A World of Corners opened with an empty room, and seemed to mainly consist of rooves. Some of my favourite memories are of wandering round libraries after closing hours. Letting a space speak for itself - that's the challenge. People are so terribly noisy.

This moment between not-quite-populated/alive and not-quite-unpopulated/dead (and someone must be there to experience either) is perfectly underrated. We think of spaces as places for people to go, to gather, to function. Indeed, a "function room" can never simply be just a room ever again - it has been named, and designated its ultimate lot. It is only a space which is living up to its name at a moment in time, or failing. The humble "dining room" suffers the same fate. Don't even think about "living rooms".

We seem to struggle with silence and with emptiness these days. Empty rooms are filled with noise or pictures. Quiet can only be achieved through massive institutional influence - such as religion for cathedrals, culture for theatres, knowledge for libraries.

Contrast this to other, distant worlds which are less upset by minimal outlooks. (Kakuzo Okakura's Book of Tea is a good place to start.) To 'retreat' into silence is actually nothing of the sort. In reality, we use noise and distraction to force the mind into submission, to retreat back into its shell. We cannot allow ourselves to enjoy the space we're in - and by extension, we cannot enjoy the enjoyment either.

This is not a call for silence with one finger held to the lips, but a call for an appreciation of the environment - a humility that the world exists without humans, that it can exist, and moreso that it will continue to exist as such.

Might as well get comfortable.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The unreal space of censorship - Protocols vs Companies


I'm kind of fascinated by the technical approaches to community "censorship" - in quotes because the word has taken on too many connotations to use casually.

Twitter has just announced new tools to discourage harassment, obviously in light of GamerGate. In the announce, they say "We are nowhere near being done making changes in this area." Along with Facebook's constant revision of privacy tools and policy, it's clear that controls over communication are being fought out in the realm of service provision (rather than, say, being user-controlled). The masses of users are, in all cases, totally dependent on the people providing the service.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's just a fascinating thing given the history of this realm of control. It is fascinating having grown up with mailing lists and IRC as a collection of yardsticks, for instance.

In the "olden days" as my son would call them, you didn't have service providers. (Well, you had AOL. I'll come back to that.) You had protocols, and the protocols let anyone set up their own space. Sometimes there are spaces within spaces, such as IRC channels inside a particular IRC network. The protocols were vital - by being open standards, anyone can jump anywhere that uses them. Protocols encourage liquid connections. This is important.

Under normal protocol rules, the spaces that interactions happen in are real and not real; they can form and unform in a moment's notice. They are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere - easy to be established forever, and equally easy to be destroyed on a whim. Real ghosts.

Contrast that with Twitter. Twitter is a "thing" in itself. It is not a Twitter protocol. Twitter must survive because people need to make money from it. Twitter cannot be cloned nor destroyed. It must be preserved.


The cypherpunks mailing list was deliberately chaotic. Email is inherently non-authenticated, and the list added to this by attempting to preserve pseudonymity through a series of remailers that masked sending locations. Censorship - blocking - was purely the preserve of the receiver. If you didn't want to read missives from someone, it was your own filtering - usually a 'killfile' - that handled it.

It's possible to spend all day talking about killfiles, but the essential thing is that they were yours, no-one else's.

On IRC, things are different again. Anyone can set up a channel, or a chatroom. The "founder" of the channel has deity-like powers ("operator" access) over who can be or speak in the room, and can extend powers to others. From this simple set of rules, a system of reputation forms - those who gradually earn trust in the channel may eventually receive ops powers - or not, it depends on the way in which the channel was set up, and runs.

However, it is not the IRC protocol that sets those rules, or even the IRC network. It is the channel itself. If you don't like the rules, create your own goddamn channel.

I'm not saying any of these are good, or better. I'm just saying this is how things are in other places.


Twitter has a responsibility to its users that a protocol can never have - it is the provider, the police, and the politic. It defines how you interact as much as whether you can interact. It sets the terms. It determines the functions without a vote. How much does it define you?

Think back to AOL, which runs off the same lines, the same model as Twitter. It is the policed space that attracts a certain trust in its users. Without that trust, it is nothing more than a technical spec. Its business model is trust, and letting that slip results in debacles similar to Habbo Hotel in 2012. For a company, trust is everything.

But if that trust becomes the raison d'etre for a technical service, what does that mean for its users? Do they trust themselves any more? Are they disempowered? Or is the force wielded by the service they use something that they could never hope to impersonate anyway? What does it mean if they can't vote on the rules, or even work they way into the ranks, IRC-style?

You can blacklist but you can't whitelist. You can leave but that's it, you're out.

Either way, you're on your own.